The classic question of Christian Evangelism goes something like this – If you die tonight will you go to heaven or hell? But is that all there is? Are we saved and redeemed in Christ to only wait it out until we die or Christ returns? The proposal of this sidebar of The Basics – A Readable Review of Essential Christian Faith is that God’s redemptive purpose is deeper and wider than we often imagine.
It is important to understand that this proposal is not downplaying eternity with Christ. That is huge within the Bible’s declaration of salvation. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.” (John 3:16–17, NASB95) But we can focus so much on eternity that we miss God’s redemptive purpose for the here and now.
In Matthew 25:31-46 Jesus describes the final judgment. And to be honest, it is at odds with the Evangelical understanding. Its final declaration stands in tension with other verses such as John 3:16 and Romans 10:9 – “that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved;” (Romans 10:9, NASB95)
The passage in Matthew concludes, “Then they themselves also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?’ Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:44–46, NASB95) This passage makes it seem that eternity is dependent on feeding the hungry, providing for the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, and comforting those in prison.
By holding both truths in tension, we arrive at a fuller picture of God’s redemptive purpose. So, let’s be clear. No, we are not saved by works. It is 100% by the grace of God. But! There is an expectation that the inward change will provoke outward compassion and sacrifice. Conversion is not the end game, it is the gate, the entrance to a new life which begins that very moment. As James put it, “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.” (James 2:26, NASB95)
Christ redemptive work is ongoing, and we are invited to join Him in it. Yes, we proclaim the Good News of God’s grace through the cross of Jesus Christ. But we also give of ourselves to meet the needs of others around us. We seek ways to promote and encourage God’s concerns for the least, the strangers, the poor, and the outcast of our world. Sometimes meeting their needs, at other times tearing down the systems that keep them there. To paraphrase John 3:17 – God doesn’t send us into the world to judge it but that it may be saved through Him.
To many in the Evangelical community, the expected results of taking that first step of salvation are increased piety and purity. The striving for as close to a sin free life as possible. That desire is a good thing, as we grow in our love for God our desire towards prayerful obedience should also increase. But the piety Jesus calls us to is more than just growing away from sin. In the Matthew text, the judgment isn’t about how free from sin they lived their lives but what they did or did not do for others. Perhaps our current definition of piety is all wrong. James wrote, “Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (James 1:27, NASB95) Call this a crossed-shaped piety.
Cross-Shaped piety has both the vertical love of God and the horizontal love for all in our world. It is through that cross-shaped life that we express our redemption in Christ and join Christ’s ongoing Kingdom work of redeeming the world. Of beating back the enemies of sin and separation. Carrying His desire to heal the wounds of sin, expressing His graceful forgiveness, speaking to broken and oppressive systems, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, praying for the sick, bringing hope to the hopeless, connection to the lonely, freedom to those trapped in sin, redemption to those who haven’t heard or experienced His grace.
There are many kinds of hunger, many thirsts, many ways someone is a stranger, multiple kinds of nakedness and sicknesses, along with many kinds of prisons. The free gift of God’s redemptive grace is more than just eternal life. God’s Kingdom is now. He has shaped each one of us in so many different and unique ways to be the conduit of His grace and redemption through a cross-shaped life. Neither the ministry of the Gospel or the ministry to the least is to be discounted or ignored. We need both to fully live out the cross-shaped redemption we have received in Christ.