We are continue to reflect on Michael J. Gorman’s The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant: A (Not So) New Model of the Atonement.
Transformation — another missing element
Gorman cites several New Testament texts that speak of our salvation in terms of the death and resurrection of Jesus, such as the baptismal discussion in Romans 6. He concludes,
In texts such as these, we see that the ultimate purpose of Jesus’ death was to create a transformed people, a (new) people living out a (new) covenant relationship with God together. Moreover, this people will not simply believe in the atonement and the one who died, they will eat and drink it, they will be baptized into it/ him, they will be drawn to him and into it.
That is, they will so identify with the crucified savior that words like “embrace” and “participation,” more than “belief” or even “acceptance,” best describe the proper response to this death. (Even the words “belief” and “believe” take on this more robust sense of complete identification.)
But most models of the atonement stop short of this goal, focusing on absolutely necessary but nonetheless penultimate [next-to-last] issues, such as forgiveness of sins or liberation from evil powers.
To put it even more starkly, some discussions of the atonement may be compared to arguments over which type of delivery is best in dealing with a difficult birth situation— forceps, venthouse (suction ), C-section , or whatever — when the point is that each of them effects the birth of a child, each solving the problem from a slightly different angle. But it is the result (a healthy child) that is most important, and it is the child, not the delivery process, that ultimately defines the word “birth.”
(Kindle Locations 152-162) (paragraphing added).
It’s great to be forgiven. It’s great to enjoy liberation from the powers that oppose God. But where does personal transformation fit into atonement? Where is there room for the Spirit’s work in making us become like Jesus? Why does atonement theory only brings us to break the surface of the baptismal waters when there is so much more to Christianity than “getting saved”?
[PS — Gorman’s thoughts will lead to a deeper understanding of baptism and communion, which is one reason I’ve interrupted the series on 1 Corinthians to cover this book. Communion and baptism are about to show up in Paul’s arguments, and we need to cover Gorman’s ideas in preparation.]
Faith in how we’re saved
Atonement theology is obviously an important question among the Churches of Christ. I mean, if the preacher doesn’t preach on the Five Step Plan of Salvation at least monthly, his soundness will be in doubt. It’s as though we are saved by faith in how we’re saved.
Thus, Gorman says,
I contend throughout the book that in the New Testament the death of Jesus is not only the source, but also the shape, of salvation. It therefore also determines the shape of the community—the community of the new covenant—that benefits from and participates in Jesus’ saving death.
(Kindle Locations 178-180).
Hence, atonement theories should also tell us the shape of our salvation and church. And most theories do not.
Faith, hope, and love
Gorman further explains,
What I will argue is that, throughout the New Testament, faith, as a practice, is about faithfulness even to the point of suffering and death; love, as a practice, has a distinctive, Christlike shape of siding with the weak and eschewing domination in favor of service; and hope, as a practice, means living peaceably (which includes nonviolently) and making peace. Thus the summary triad “faithfulness, love, and peace” is appropriate.
(Kindle Locations 185-189).
That is, our familiar faith, hope, and love should be understood to mean faithfulness, peace, and love. This is how we individually and as community must live.
The most unfamiliar of these teachings is his equating of “hope” with working toward peace. “Hope” is not just the confident expectation of the new heavens and earth — an afterlife with Jesus forever. It’s also God’s mission, in which we participate, the bringing of shalom — peace — to God’s world. “Blessed is the peacemaker.” That’s us.
The greatest form of hope in the Bible is for a new creation in which violence, suffering, tears, and death will be no more. We see this expressed in such lovely, inspiring texts as Isa 65: 17– 25 and Rev 21: 1— 22: 5. Those who have this hope for a new creation and, more to the point, those who believe that this new creation has already been inaugurated by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, will begin to practice its vision in the present. Accordingly, the practice of hope is the practice of peace.
(Kindle Locations 191-195).
Both Gorman and N. T. Wright (among many others) teach “inaugurated eschatology.” “Eschatology” is the Second Coming, the new heavens and earth, gehenna — the end of the age. “Inaugurated” means that it’s already begun. The church and our salvation and the Spirit are all foretastes of what is to come. The peace we are promised in the afterlife is not fully available today, but we can and should be striving toward it.
Therefore, our congregations should be previews of heaven. Really. No … seriously. I mean it.
And that means we just have to stop being selfish, arrogant power-trippers. We have to build, with the help of God, peace within our churches. Not merely the absence of conflict but right relationships with each other (as well as God, of course). The Sermon on the Mount and Romans 12 are pretty good templates for how to do this.
Hence, our preaching must be much less about how we’ve already been saved and much more about how the future that God is creating for us impacts how we live today.
There is no room for legalism in a church filled with the shalom of God. There is no room for anything but submission, service, and sacrifice. And when we get this and begin to live this, the conflict will be much more easily resolved because they will no longer be about who gets his way but how we best let God have his way.
Suddenly, then, the study of Revelation (and the prophets on which Revelation stands) becomes relevant. It’s not about some future war in which Christians strap on machine guns and blow away the enemies of God. It’s about living today as though Jesus had already returned, as though our congregations were already heaven, with God come down from heaven to live among us and to dispel the darkness with the light of his presence.
I mean, if through the eyes of faith we could see God with us — Immanuel! — we’d behave differently. And we’d discover that, today, the leaves on the tree of life are carried to the nations by God’s children.
(Rev 22:1-2 ESV) Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.