Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Soteriology of the Gospel of John

A major theme of John’s Gospel is that Jesus has come into the world from God. He is “the one who came from heaven” (3.13, 31); He has been sent by God the Father (many references!!); He is the light who “has come into the world” (3.19, 12.46), “the bread come down from heaven” (6.32-33, 38, 41-42, 50-51, 58), “the Messiah, the Son of God, who was to come into the world” (11.27) and many similar descriptions besides. Jesus’ origin is a significant point of discussion and dispute throughout the gospel. The Jews debate where he is from during the Feast of Tabernacles (7.27-29, 41-43, 52). It forms part of the dispute between Jesus and the Jews in chapter 8 (e.g. 8.14), and between the Pharisees and the blind man healed by Jesus (9.16, 29-33). Even Pilate asks, “where do you come from?” (19.9)

As the Gospel develops, it becomes increasingly clear that Jesus has not only come into the world from God, but he is also leaving the world and returning to God. (e.g. 13.1) Hinted at during the early parts of John (e.g. 6.62, 7.33-34, 12.35-36), His leaving becomes the backdrop to the urgent discussions during the meal on the night of his betrayal. (chs 13-17)
Jesus is the one who has come from heaven, sent by the Father into the world, to subsequently leave the world and return to the Father. The theme is so pervasive that there is no room to go through all the instances of its occurrence, but the questions that logically flows from it lead us easily into our discussion of soteriology. For what purpose did the Father send the Son into the world? Why did he come, and then leave?
Already in the Prologue, we are alerted to the fact that all is not well with Jesus’ coming into the world, and therefore that all is not well with the world. The world was made through Him but “the world did not recognise him” (1.10); “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive Him.” (1.11) The world is, in fact, in darkness (cf. 1.5), a darkness that hates the coming of light into the world, because of its evil (3.19-20; 8.12, 12.35-36, 46). The world stands in danger of judgment (3.18), slaves to sin (8.34; cf. 9.41 etc.) and held captive by the devil (8.44, cf 12.31).[1]
The world is in need of salvation. And so, clearly and wonderfully, the message of John’s gospel is that Jesus has indeed come to save the world!
“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (3.17)
“For I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world.” (12.47)

“We know that this man really is the Saviour of the world.” (4.42) (the testimony of the Samaritans)
If the Father sent the Son into the world to save it, we need to ask two further questions: (1) how, precisely, is this salvation achieved? and (2) to what, or for what, is the world saved?

Jesus came to reveal the Father (e.g. 14.9-11), but salvation is not merely revelation – a new knowledge or enlightenment.[2] John’s Gospel inexorably heads towards a climax in which salvation is definitively accomplished. That defining moment – Jesus’ ‘time’ (2.4; 7.8; 7.30 – is his death and resurrection. Several times, from 5.16 onwards, the Jews attempt to seize Jesus in order to kill him, but they are unable to because “his hour had not yet come.” But it is all heading towards his death.

As the third Passover of John’s Gospel draws nearer, the tension mounts until, having been prepared for His burial by Mary’s anointing Him with oil and having entered into Jerusalem as the king on the donkey[3], the arrival of some Greeks seeking to meet Him moves Jesus to declare that “the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (12.23) and “now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out.” (12.31) Now is the time for Jesus to die (12.24, 33) and this is the reason why Jesus came (12.27).
What is the significance of Jesus’ death? The clues are scattered throughout the gospel: He is the Lamb of God (i.e. the sacrificial, passover lamb) who takes away the sin of the world. (1.29) He must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him. (3.14-15) His flesh is the bread given for the life of the world. (6.51) He is the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep (10.11, 17-18). He is the one man who will die for the Jewish nation – “and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one.” (11.50-52) He is to be lifted up from the earth, in order to draw all people to himself. (12.32-33)

Jesus’ death achieves salvation; perhaps the first epistle of John best expresses the significance of this truth:
He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. (2.2)
This is how we know what love is: Jesus laid down his life for us (3.16)
This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. (4.10)[4]

Because it is an atoning sacrifice that deals with sin, Jesus’ death brings life. The goal of salvation, or what we are saved into or for is life or eternal life. John’s gospel, like a coral reef or estuary, is teeming with life! In Him (the Word) was life (1.4). Whoever believes in Him has eternal life (3.15, 16, 36). Whoever drinks the water offered by Jesus “will become a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (4.13). The Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it (5.21). He is the bread of heaven that gives life to the world. (6.33) He has come that his sheep may have life, and have it to the full. (10.10) He is the resurrection and the life: anyone who believes in Him will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in him will never die. (11.25-26) And these represent only a selection of relevant texts.

In Jesus is life; He is life, and he offers life to whoever will believe in him. The offer of life is possible because Jesus lay down his life and took it up again. But what is this eternal life that is offered? On the one hand it is the hope of resurrection (e.g. 5.28-29; 6.39-40 etc.). It is, moreover, an ongoing-forever life (e.g. 5.51). It is a qualitatively different life - full life (10.10). It is life that, while with the fuller realisation to come, is entered into now (e.g. 5.24) Finally, “this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” (17.3) Knowing God – in the language of 1 John, “fellowship with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ” (1 John 1.3) – is ultimately what we are saved for, although not in a an individual beatific vision kind of way, since fellowship with (and love for) each other is included within that fellowship with God, both in John 17 and throughout 1 John.
To sum up, the Father sent the Son into the world to save the world. That salvation was accomplished through the death and resurrection of Jesus with the result that whoever believes in Him receives eternal life. That is the soteriology of John’s gospel. To conclude, I wish to offer a couple of reflections.
1. Jesus’ coming precipitates a crisis for the world – and therefore for each one of us. The world was already in darkness, humanity was already enslaved in sin and captive to the devil. But now, with the entrance of the Creator onto the world he has created, the issues are intensifed, the terms of debate subtly altered. Now that he has come, it is with Christ we must reckon. This is shown e.g. in 3.18 where condemnation is issued “because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” This should remind us of the vital importance (and glory) of Christ’s coming and give us confidence to keep on preaching Him first and foremost.
2. In examining the soteriology of (mainly) the gospel of John, I have tried to avoid moving too quickly to reading John merely with soteriological questions in view. i.e. I didn’t want to simply structure this paper, say, as (1) what is the problem, according to John? (2) what is the solution? (3) what is the result (or goal) of salvation? I thought it would be more helpful to try to wrestle with some of the themes that shape John itself, and from them draw out the soteriology. Hence me starting with discussing Jesus coming into, and going out of, the world. Whether this approach has worked or not I don’t know, but I certainly found the predominance of that particular theme very striking, and it was helpful for me to then follow through with the soteriological questions from that framework.
3. This study has also reaffirmed for me the centrality of the atoning sacrifice of Jesus’ death. According to Marshall, “there have been repeated attempts to deny the central and sacrificial character of the death of Jesus in this Gospel” but, as Marshall goes on to say, “they can be confidently rejected.”[5] Jesus’s “hour”, the defining moment of his mission, is his death and the clues are sufficient throughout the gospel, and made even clearer in the statements in 1 John quoted above. If Jesus had not died for our sins, there would be no salvation.
this was an assignment I wrote for NTI

Carson, D.A. (1991) The Gospel According to John (Leicester: IVP)
Kruse, C.G. (2000) The Letters of John (Leicester: Apollos)
Marshall, I.H. (2004) New Testament Theology: Many Witnesses, One Gospel (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP)

[1] We could add here, the link between sin and the devil in 1 John 3.8-10: “the one who does what is sinful is of the devil” while “the reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.”
[2] cf. Marshall p.512-3, Carson p.94
[3] in contrast to the previous passover when the crowd tried to make Jesus king by force, not understanding that his kingship was to be exercised by giving his life for the world (ch. 6)
[4] According to Kruse (pp.35, 174-178) the references to blood in 1 John 5.6-7 also refer to the atoning sacrifice of Jesus’ death.
[5] Marshall p.519, fn 40

Monday, March 17, 2008

Book Review - Going the Distance by Peter Brain

Peter Brain (2004) Going the Distance (Matthias Media)

An enormously helpful book: the focus is on pastors, but it would also be very helpful for church members to understand better the pressures that pastors face and so be equipped to support them better.

The thesis of Going the Distance is that for effective long-term ministry, Christian ministers need to look after themselves. The implementation of good principles of self-care are crucial for the pastor to avoid burning-out in the face of the multitudinous and intense pressures of what Christian psychologist Dr Arch Hart describes as “a unique vocation and if undertaken seriously the most dangerous occupation around.” (quoted by Brain, p.12) This self-care needs to be intentional on the part of pastors, and should not be seen as in conflict with the call of Christ to self-denial, for the pastor’s efforts at looking after himself will both set an example to others and sustain his ministry in the long-term.

Areas covered in Going the Distance include burnout, stress, depression, anger, the pastor’s family, sexual temptation and friendship. Each issue is discussed with a view to understanding the dangers involved and suggesting principles & strategies in developing a healthy approach in each area. There are also significant chapters addressing church members, church leaders and denominational leaders as to how they can contribute to the health of their pastor’s ministry. The penultimate chapter emphasises the vital role that the doctrine of justification by faith plays in establishing the pastor’s identity and protecting him from many dangers.

Evaluation – what I found helpful
In chapter one, the author argues carefully and, I think, persuasively for the importance of self-care in Christian ministry. He writes from the perspective that pastors, because of their commitment to the Lord and the work He has called them to, are in general going to tend to overwork rather than laziness. But the choice, echoing a comment from Christmas Evans, is not between burning out and rusting out in the service of the Lord. Particularly helpful are his comments on self-care and self-denial. He refers to Dr Hart’s careful distinction where the “call to self-denial refers to our ‘motivational self’, whereas self-care deals with our ‘structural self’” (p.22) and concludes that “devoted service and obedience not only will flow out of a base of thoughtful self-care, but will be fuelled by it.” (p.23) – as long as self-care does not become an excuse for selfishness or cowardice.

The detailed discussion of the range of issues that pose dangers to the pastor is very helpful; here I will mention one or two areas by way of illustration.

Stress and demands are neither unavoidable nor necessarily problems in themselves – for they are the job! However, it is important to have a good attitude towards them to avoid the potentially destructive effects that can come from them. Pastoral ministry is by nature never-ending, the fruit is by default intangible & unmeasureable and there is always more to do. Demands can come from all kinds of directions and if not managed well, unhealthy stress can seriously distort the pastor’s work. In dealing with the demands of ministry, the author suggests (1) that pastors need to define and articulate their priorities carefully and clearly. What areas of ministry should the pastor be concentrating on? If those priorities can be worked through with others (e.g. church leaders) then all the better. (2) When other demands come along that do not fit into those priorities the pastor has the freedom to say ‘no’ and the opportunity to explain what those priorities are. (3) Indeed, when a pastor says ‘no’ to some demand, that ‘no’ gives value to his ‘yeses’. A pastor who is unable to say ‘no’ is in trouble.

Another area where Going the Distance offers very helpful advice is in that of relationships, particularly family and friendship, although I will only comment on the latter here. It is great, argues the author, when the pastor’s greatest support & companionship comes from his wife, but it would be unhealthy if this were the only significant deep relationship he had. A few deep friendships, whether with people in the congregation or from elsewhere, take a lot of time and effort to build, but are enormously beneficial because of the support and accountability they provide. Gordon MacDonald suggests a number of different kinds of friends that a pastor needs[1]:

(1) the sponsor – someone who will mentor, see the potential of, encourage and advise

(2) the affirmer – someone who encourages, shows appreciation, affirms the pastor in his ministry

(3) the rebuker – someone who will tell the truth, especially when it hurts

(4) the intercessor – someone who will pray for us

(5) the partner – someone to work alongside or share & sharpen

(6) the pastor – “the tender person, the person who comes alongside in the moment of exhaustion” (quoted by Brain, p.152).

Finally, let me mention the extremely helpful chapter entitled “a word for local church members”. Church members often do not understand what it is like to be a pastor nor how best to relate to and support him. Reading this chapter would surely be very helpful for many, as it has been for me. A particularly helpful section discusses attitudes to change. Churches can often be resistant to change, but often because of unhealthy attitudes. The author also emphasises the importance of thoughtfulness; when was the last time you deliberately thought about how you can bless and support your pastor and took the initiative to carry it out?

The author says nothing about illness. My experience is that I can handle being ill badly, particularly when I have a forthcoming responsibility (e.g. leading a Bible study) and I am relatively ill. Firstly, I do not know whether I will be better by the time of the Bible study. Secondly, I can make myself worse by worrying; should I cancel? should I wait and see if I improve? Sometimes I have gone ahead and done it (and set myself back healthwise). At other times I have cancelled (and sometimes felt bad about it).

I buy the author’s thesis about self-care, but do worry that I tend more to laziness and fear, and so need to beware of using the principle of self-care as a cover for selfishness. It is possible to go far in advocating self-care – although I certainly do not think the author is going too far. These words from the Together for the Gospel blog provide an appropriate conclusion:

At one point the conversation turned to our busy schedules. One person exhorted another about the importance of rest. It was then that John Piper quietly commented "I find productivity restful for my soul."
"Restful for my soul."
Bodily rest is important. Rest for the soul is even more important.[2]

[1] clearly, there is much overlap between these categories and I think they are to be taken as suggestive not definitive

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Spanish evangelicals and the General Election on 9 March

There are general elections in Spain this sunday, March 9th 2008. 4 years ago, the Madrid train bombings, occurring just 3 days before, was influential in a surprise victory for the Socialist Party (PSOE) over the conservative Partido Popular (PP). This year, Zapatero's Socialists are ahead in the opinion polls. Immigration, a relatively recent phenomenon in Spain, but one which presents significant challenges, is a big issue on the agenda, as is the economy.

The Spanish evangelical news website, protestante digital (page in English) has several items discussing the forthcoming elections from a christian point of view. The website has been running a on-line opinion poll, which gives some rough indication of likely evangelical voting tendencies. Of 597 votes (to date), 42% have indicated they will vote for the conservative PP, 25% for the socialist PSOE and 17% for other parties (including various regional nationalist parties).

As the article (in Spanish) analysing the results of this modest opinion poll notes, voting options for evangelicals are far from straightforward. The PP is in favour of strong links between the state and the Catholic Church, a position which makes evangelicals nervous given the long history of the suppression of religious minorities, including Protestants, throughout Spanish history. On the other hand the socialists have been pursuing quite an aggressive programme of liberalisation, often overtly antireligious, that has included the legalisation of homosexual marriages and adoptions, and the liberalisation of abortion. According to this article, across Europe evangelicals tend to be progressive in relation to questions of social justice and conservative on ethical issues:

If this is so for evangelicals in Spain, many will be unsure how to vote on sunday. Before marking their voting slip, every christian voter will have to decide, among other things, which of these two axes they should give more importance to: the biblical concern for equality and social justice or biblical values in relation to moral questions. Going for one or the other will have a big say in whether the vote will head left or right.

A booklet has been produced by the Independent Civic Observatory linked, I believe, to the Spanish Evangelical Alliance called Voting Wisely, advising Christians how to approach the issue of voting in the election. For a summary (in English) about the booklet go here

Let us pray for Spanish Christians as they vote, for Evangelical groups as they seek to have an influence for Christ on the political process & Spanish society in general, and for the increasing impact of the gospel in Spain whatever the outcome of this sunday's elections.

P.S. See also the links on the bbc website and here & wikipedia about the forthcoming elections