I’m long past due in explaining how all Wright’s New Perspective thinking matters to a typical Church of Christ. I apologize for that — but there’s no good place in Romans to stop. I mean, the Churches desperately need the lesson of Rom 5 we just covered, but they just as desperately need to hear from Paul’s chapter 8. And chapters 12-15. I mean, it’s almost as though Romans was written as a corrective to the 20th Century Churches of Christ.
I say “20th Century Churches of Christ” because during most of the 19th Century, the Churches had a much healthier theology and practice — and things are trending toward the better now in the 21st Century. The Churches with the biggest doctrinal problems are those who insist on clinging to the teachings of the 20th Century Churches.
So what does the New Perspective change? Why does it matter?
- Perhaps the clearest lesson from a New Perspective (NP) viewpoint is how extremely important the early church considered actual, fully realized Christian unity. Perhaps the most prominent theme in the Pauline epistles is the necessity for Jews and Gentiles in the same city or town to be a single congregation under a single leadership, held together by love — despite disagreements, despite cultural, ethnic, and racial differences, despite the fact that unity would sometimes require the subordination of freedom in Christ, despite doctrinal disagreements, despite centuries of prior discrimination and oppression. A common faith in Jesus as Messiah and Lord and a common love founded on the example of Jesus is enough — and if we insist on separating despite sharing faith and love, we are the ones in error.
- Romans and Galatians, especially, properly understood are pleas for Jews and Gentiles to unite as a single congregation under a common leadership structure even though both groups struggled to get along. The idea that they might meet separately under separate elders, despite living in the same city never occurred to Paul. They are brothers in Christ, reconciled to God and so to each other. Separation is not just sin; it’s unthinkable. Unimaginable. (And the same holds true today for our sinful insistence on having black and white Churches of Christ in the same town. And for our having multiple congregations that differ only slightly in doctrine. “One church” means one congregation in one community.)
- Therefore, the Church of Christ notion that we should separate to be “sound,” “faithful,” and to not “condone” the sin of others is utterly contrary to Pauline thinking (and the thinking of Jesus — who washed the feet of Judas Iscariot). In fact, it’s exactly backwards. If God accepts someone because of his or her faith in Jesus, so must we.
- Faith in Jesus as Messiah and Lord is sufficient to save. We’ll be talking about baptism shortly — but you can’t read Rom 1 – 5 and miss this point. Everyone with faith in Jesus as Messiah and Lord will be saved. This is not to be confused with the Baptist practice of the Sinner’s Prayer and belief in pre-immersion salvation. Romans 6 reveals that Paul considered baptism to be the moment when certain things happen. Baptism is not just a symbol, not just obedience to an arbitrary ordinance or command. And yet the fact remains that everyone with faith in Jesus will be saved. (DO NOT fill the comments with anti-Baptist position arguments. No one here is arguing for the Baptist position, and so please don’t waste your time. I’ll delete every one of them. Every reader is very familiar with this material already.)
- I’ll deal more particularly with baptism when we get to chapter 6 (and I still won’t allow anti-Baptist position comments. You are welcome to disagree with anything I argue — but I have never advocated for the Baptist position. I also think the Church of Christ position is wrong. There are other possibilities.)
- When we consider faith in Jesus insufficient to save, we destroy the gospel. Therefore, while I disagree with those who insist on a cappella worship, I happily consider them my beloved brothers and sisters — until they damn others for disagreeing. When they make such matters salvation issues, they make faith in Jesus insufficient and so turn their noses up at God’s covenant promise to count faith as righteousness. And that requires finding another covenant to be saved under — and there is no other. (Gal 5:1-6 is very clear on this point.)
- When we begin to understand covenant theology — the importance of God’s covenant with Abraham especially — the NT makes better sense. We gain a new perspective on “faith” and on baptism. And we start to see better how the NT and the OT fit together.
- Suddenly, those lessons we had as kids about the Assyrian conquest of the Northern Kingdom and the Babylonian Captivity matter to our reading of the NT. The Torah becomes worth our time to study. Deuteronomy becomes essential reading because so much of the Gospels and Acts are about how the blessings and curses of Deuteronomy play out in history. We find that the NT is very much about reversing the curse of Gen 3, and so Genesis becomes a very important study, not just the Creation accounts but also the accounts of Abraham. These are no longer mere stories with a moral; they are the foundation of our experience of Jesus and God and the Spirit. Leviticus helps us understand the sacrifice of Jesus. Exodus is the template on which Rom 8 is built. Numbers is filled with stories of God’s care for his people as they travel to the Promised Land as he leads them — and so is foundational for the lessons of 1 Cor 10 and our understanding of Jesus as YHWH.
- It’s more than a little surprising to find Paul speaking of Jesus as YHWH of the OT when so many see Jesus as too nice and gentle to be associated with the LORD of the Torah. We are forced to reconsider our understanding of God’s character and the personality of Jesus. We have to get beyond the easy cliche.
- In fact, one important lesson is that the stories in the OT are much more about God than the humans who also inhabit them. That is, the real lesson of the Abraham narratives is not that Abraham was a great man but God is a great God. We are called to be like God, not like Abraham, and so we should read these accounts from the perspective of “What does this say about the character of God — and how can we be more like God?”
- In the New Perspective, most of the old Calvin vs. Arminius debating points simply disappear. Read in their historical context, the seemingly Calvinistic passages speak instead of God’s eternal plan for Israel and the eventual inclusion of faithful Gentiles into Israel. This is much of what “predestination” and “foreknowledge” are about — God’s unfolding plan to include the Gentiles in the Kingdom. (This is really Rom 9-11 and Eph 1 material.)
- In the New Perspective, the Kingdom is not just the church nor is it anything good done in Jesus’ name. Rather, it’s the church being the church God called it to be. The New Perspective is very congregationally centered. There’s a strong streak of what we might call “social gospel,” but it’s always a Kingdom thing and therefore a church thing. It gives us no permission to go it alone separate from the covenant community — far from it.
- The New Perspective thus insists that we clean up our house so the Kingdom looks like the Kingdom. No longer is the goal merely to get people to heaven when they die. Rather, the goal is for the entire world to become the Kingdom — accomplished by humanity choosing to follow Jesus as King and Messiah in a common covenant community.
- The goal, therefore, is not to impose Kingdom values on the lost world through the secular nation-state authorities — the legislature, the courts, the executive leadership. The goal is for everyone to bow in voluntary submission to Jesus out of love for God and a desire to be changed into the image of God seen in Jesus.
- But there are political overtones. Our King, Savior, and Lord is Jesus, not Trump or Clinton or Obama or Bush. Our hope for the future is found in Jesus, not the next election. Our citizenship is in heaven.
- Our hope is the New Heavens and New Earth — the present Creation restored and transformed — made new! — as an inheritance.
- Therefore, the saved should be concerned about God’s charge that we care for his Creation. We may be living here a very long time. We need to take care of the place. We don’t have to join the Sierra Club or otherwise agree with the secular environmental movement. But we do have to care.
- Wright does not advocate for Conditionalism, but Edward Fudge’s teaching on the afterlife fits the New Perspective perfectly. In fact, I don’t know how to teach one without teaching the other.
- While I reject the Available Light theory, I do believe that punishment in the afterlife will be limited to those who’ve had a chance to hear the gospel. Those who’ve never had a chance to have faith in Jesus will not be in the New Heavens and New Earth. Only those with faith in Jesus will be saved. And so those who’ve never had a chance at faith will simply die and remain dead.
- Hence, preaching the gospel not only produces salvation for those who believe, it produces perfect justice for those who reject the message. This is a holy and good thing, just as it’s holy and good when criminals are put in jail. (If we don’t see punishment as a good thing, then we have a problem with our image of God, imagining him to be unfair and untrustworthy — which reveals a lack of faith. Wouldn’t you rather live in a world where bad people fear the wrath of God?)
- A point we’ve not gotten to yet is the idea of Christian vocation or mission. To have faith in Jesus means more than mere easy-believism. It’s a commitment to follow Jesus and so to join him in his Kingdom mission. It’s about more than digging wells and painting houses because the goal is to persuade the world to voluntarily submit to Jesus. Then again, we’re called to love our neighbors, and like God who gives rain to the just and unjust, we don’t do good as a means of buying conversions. We serve out of love — but true love also desperately wants those we serve to come to serve Jesus, too — without coercion.