As I’ve been thinking through this approach to hermeneutics, it’s occurred to me that there’s an obvious objection: where in this Story is salvation? Where is forgiveness of sin? Where is heaven?
You see, in the religion I was brought up in, the entire focus of the Bible was salvation. It was all about convicting people of sin, urging them to repent, and getting them saved. Once they were saved, they were assured of heaven if they could live up to God’s will, being mainly concerned with personal morality and patterns of worship and church organization.
Later on, I learn that God’s will for us was that we should receive grace, so that salvation comes to us as a free gift, and we respond to this free gift through obedience.
But the Story tells us that God wants us to enjoy covenant community today and to invite others into this community. Where’s salvation?
Well, Jesus didn’t die to create a social club. He died to create a different society in which people live with one another in radically different ways. Salvation is what happens when we are added to this community. You see, God wants us in community not only with each other, but with God — forever. Therefore, when we become part of God’s covenant community, we are saved — we are given eternal life, but it’s eternal life to live in a fully realized, fully consummated community that we begin to live in while here in this life.
The church — God’s Kingdom — is an imperfect, partial realization of the Kingdom, of the restored Eden, in which we’ll live in perfect intimacy and love with the Trinity and with each other. The church is heaven breaking into this world.
God knows that so long as we’re in our imperfect bodies, in a fallen world, we’ll not fully be back in Eden. Our marriages won’t be perfect, nor will our congregations. This is just a foretaste, the first fruits of a harvest yet to come. To fully enjoy God and each other, we have to have our bodies and this world remade by God into something much, much better.
Notice that the scriptures often speak of the church as the “bride” of Christ, but never as the wife of Christ — not until the End of time in Rev 21:9. We’re engaged but not yet married. We are joined but not yet united. We are in covenant but a covenant not yet consummated. We await the coming of our groom, knowing that our home is being prepared for us, where we’ll enjoy something even better than being engaged.
Salvation, therefore, is the goal of it all, but not mere salvation from hell. Rather, it’s more a salvation from brokeness, separation, and Otherness. Hell, therefore, is the opposite of salvation — hell is separation. Indeed, some the darkest passages in scripture speak of separation, and some of the most hopeful speak of the end of separation —
(Mat 13:49-50) This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous 50 and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
(Mat 19:6) “So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.”
(Mat 25:32) All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
(Rom 8:35) Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?
(Rom 8:38-39) For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
(Gal 2:12) Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group.
(Eph 4:17-19) So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. 18 They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. 19 Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more.
You see, the gospel teaches us to not be separate from our spouses, from fellow Christians, or from God. Rather, salvation is the end of separation.
Therefore, the ultimate punishment is to be separated from God —
(2 Th 1:8-9) He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power
The goal of it all is for us to be with God — or more precisely for God to be with us.
(Mat 1:23) “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” — which means, “God with us.”
When we assemble as a church, Jesus is with us. The Spirit dwells within us. We have a taste of God with us already. When the End comes, we’ll have a deeper, better, richer, consummated unity with God beyond even our imaginings. And this is the point of the Story.
One last point. This also tells us why sin is sin. You see, sin is what separates us from our spouses, from our fellow Christians, and from our God. This is why so much of the New Testament’s teachings are about how to get along with each other! We need it.
Read Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 13, not as law but instructions on how to be united with fellow believers in God’s Kingdom. God is telling us how to enjoy a bit of Eden today. Countless passages that we’ve tended to dismiss as ethical but not theological are re-vamped as the very core of theology.
(Rom 12:9-21) Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves. 11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13 Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. 14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
(1 Cor 13:4-8) Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 8 Love never fails. …
Or as Paul says plainly in Romans 14 —
(Rom 14:17-19) For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, 18 because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by men. 19 Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.
Notice Paul’s point: we live this way not only because it pleases God, but also because it’s approved by men — it’s how we get along as a community in covenant with God.
And so, we’re on a mission from God, and it’s a great mission. We are work to become people who live together as God, Jesus, and the Spirit live together in heaven — in harmony and love. We are to take a step toward Eden together.
And we’re to tell others about it. How could we not?
And because we’ve received God’s grace and compassion, we are to be people of grace and compassion, caring for one another and all whom we encounter, becoming servants of those in need, just as Jesus was. Living this way will make us better as a people, help us get along, and make us more attractive to a hurting, broken world. It’ll change us and encourage others to be changed as well.
And as we serve, we’ll hold out the word of truth, sharing the good news … because it really is good news.