[Note: The material in this installment is adapted from my forthcoming book, The Theology & Practice of Mission (B&H, Fall 2011).]
The Bible’s third plot movement occurs immediately after the Fall. God gives not only a promise of death (Gen 2:17), but also a promise of life (Gen 3:15). He immediately declares that one day the offspring of the woman would destroy the serpent. Paul recognizes this promise as a prophecy of Jesus Christ (Gal 3:16), God’s Son who is “born of a woman” (Gal 4:4). This declaration, therefore, is God’s promise to send the Messiah to whom the entirety of Scripture ultimately testifies as it declares how God, in spite of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, would fulfill his promise to send this Savior.
God affirms that by the Savior’s stripes man is healed, and upon the Savior’s shoulders the sin of the world was borne (Is 52:13-53:12). Further, the redemption he provides reaches into every square inch of God’s creation, including the non-human aspects of creation. This redemption of the created order is made clear in major Christological and soteriological passages such as Colossians 1:13-23 and Ephesians 1:1-14. In the Colossians text, we are told that Christ the creator of all things is also Christ the reconciler of all things; God will “by [Christ] reconcile all things to Himself, by Him” (Col 1:20). In the Ephesians passage, we are told that we have redemption through Christ’s blood, and that further, “in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth-in Him” (Eph 1:10). We know that Christ has not yet reconciled all things to himself because creation still groans in bondage (Rom 8:20-22).
For this reason, Scripture points us forward to a new heavens and earth in which God’s kingdom will be realized. At the beginning of the Scriptures, we learn that God created the heavens and the earth (Gen 1:1) while at the end we see him giving us a “new heavens and a new earth” (Isa 65:17; Rev 21:1). At the beginning we are told of a garden, but in the end we are told of a beautiful city that is cultural through and through, replete with precious metals and jewels and the treasures of the nations. Christ’s redemptive work extends through God’s people to God’s cosmos, so that in the end “creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom 8:21). This world will be one “in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet 3:13), thus fulfilling God’s good purposes for his world.
Therefore, the final two plot movements tell the story of God redeeming both his image bearers and his creation. Two cultural implications are important to notice. First, the doctrines of redemption and restoration are confluent with the doctrine of creation in affirming the goodness of God’s creation. God values his creation and in the end times he will not reject it. Instead he will restore it, renewing the heavens and earth so that they give him glory. Further, he promises to give us glorified bodies in that day (1 Cor 15:20-28, 50-58). While God could have promised man an eternity floating around in a bodiless state, in some sort of ethereal wonderland, instead he promises to give man a resurrected bodily existence in a restored universe that shines with the glory of God himself (Rev 21:1-4, 9-11). This promise is yet more reason to view God’s creation as good, and our faithful cultural interaction with it as something that pleases God.
Second, the doctrine of restoration is confluent with the doctrine of creation in its affirmation of the value of faithful culture work. Because God (in the beginning) values his good creation and commands man to produce culture, and because he promises (in the end) to give us a glorious creation replete with its own culture, we ought to live culturally in a manner consistent with God’s designs. “The difference between the Christian hope of resurrection and a mythological hope,” writes Bonhoeffer, “is that the Christian hope sends a man back to his life on earth in a wholly new way.”* This new way includes glorifying God from within our cultural contexts, providing a sign of the already-and-not-yet kingdom, of what the world will be like one day when all of creation and culture praises him. As we interact within various dimensions of culture-the arts, the sciences, education, public square, etc.-we are called to do so by bringing the gospel to bear upon those dimensions.
In our evangelism and church planting, we must recognize that the gospel is always proclaimed, the church is always planted, and the Christian life is always lived within a cultural context (through human language, oratory, music, categories of thought, etc.). Instead of chafing against this reality, we may delight in our charge to make the gospel at home in those cultures, and to allow the gospel to critique them and bring them under the scrutiny of God’s revelation. “We await the return of Jesus Christ,” writes D. A. Carson, “the arrival of the new heaven and the new earth, the dawning of the resurrection, the glory of perfection, the beauty of holiness. Until that day, we are a people in tension. On the one hand, we belong to the broader culture in which we find ourselves; on the other, we belong to the culture of the consummated kingdom of God, which has dawned upon us.”** God restores his creation instead of trashing it and expects us to minister within our cultural context rather than attempting to extract ourselves from it.
*Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers, 336-7.
**D. A. Carson, Christ & Culture Revisited, 64.