I have been a Christian for about 30 years. In that time my theology has changed a lot. When I was 17 I used to believe that working to alleviate poverty was a good idea but it wasn’t anywhere near as important as getting people saved. After all, eternity is what really matters.
I don’t believe that anymore. Well, I do, but in a different way. I still think eternity is what really matters, but I now believe it has already started with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and that we have the privilege of working with God to bring eternity, or God’s reign, on earth as it is in heaven.
In the church I grew up in, being Christian was all about your own personal relationship with God and leading others to Christ. The kingdom of heaven meant “heaven when you die” and being born again was the sign of whether or not you were really saved.
Certain behaviours also determined whether or not you were “in.” I even remember once being utterly disillusioned after seeing a photo of my hero, Martin Luther King, with a cigarette in his hand. Maybe he wasn’t a Christian after all!
As I read more of Dr King and was influenced by others like Australian preacher John Smith, I came to see Jesus’ love for the outcast and the poor.
In recent years, NT Wright has been another major influence on me. And this is where I want to discuss the main point of this article. I had a read of Wright’s John for Everyone recently, specifically his analysis of John 3:1-13, which is the passage where Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born again.
As I read this passage and Wright’s explanation of it, the truth of what the Good News really is dawned on me again. Our need to be born again is not to ensure we will get into heaven when we die. Jesus didn’t come down from heaven to show us how we can go back there with him. The Good News that Jesus taught and embodied is that, ultimately, heaven is coming here, and that has already started in his life, death and resurrection. Jesus coming down from heaven was the beginning of the renewal of all things.
Don’t get me wrong. I firmly believe in the need to be born again. After all, Jesus did say it, so we can’t just dismiss it. But we need to understand what Jesus really meant, and in what context he was saying it when he had his famous conversation with Nicodemus.
The whole context of Scripture is that it is a story. Yes, it is the story of God’s salvation plan; but more than that, it is God’s redemption plan for not just humanity, but for the whole of the created order. Jesus said “Behold I make all things new.” (Rev 21:5, emphasis mine). And so it is in that sense that when Jesus talks about the need to be born again, he is talking about our need to be born of the Spirit of God to be able to do the works of God. This is what transformation is all about.
As well as all this, Wright makes the wonderful point about how Jesus is the ladder between us and God, about how he bridges the gap for us. In my early years as a Christian I learned about the four spiritual laws. The first law is that God loves us unconditionally. Then we were shown how, because we were sinners (Romans 3:23 – all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God) and can therefore not save ourselves (read: get into heaven by our own efforts), Jesus died for our sins in our place so that we can now be saved (read: we can now get to heaven because of what Jesus has done). The cross was used as an illustration of the bridge between us and God.
But listen to what Wright says about this, about the biblical reason that Jesus is the ladder between us and God:
“he [Jesus] is now the ladder which joins the two dimensions of God’s world, the heavenly and the earthly. If we want to understand not only the heavenly world, but the way in which God is now joining heaven and earth together, we must listen to him, and walk with him on the road he is now to take.”
This is the reason that Jesus is the ladder between us and God. As Wright says elsewhere in John for Everyone, it’s like Jesus is saying, “if you follow me you will see what is like when heaven and earth are open to each other.”
Jesus did indeed die for our sins, but not so we could get a ticket to a disembodied heaven in the sky. It was so we could indeed be saved, but saved in the sense of being part of the new order of things with him, right here on a renewed earth which has been joined with heaven.
Because of this, our hearts are being transformed, we are no longer condemned, and we are free to live for and with Jesus and his followers to help make the whole created order right again. This includes our whole inner being, society, the environment, our finances, our economics, our legal system, everything. As my friend Eden Parris sings, Jesus has come “to banish the night and to make all things right, to colour the earth with his song.”
The Gospel is bigger than we ever thought. Jesus always has something new to show us. It is anything but a dull, boring life. The life of following Jesus is the life of the ages; it is what eternal life really is.