My expectation is that most would answer in the affirmative. And that is all well and good as far as it goes. But I am quite certain that if we posed a few follow-up questions, we would expose some real differences among us. What do we mean by “the world?” What do we mean by “salvation?”
As the various gods of our age accelerate in their collision course with the Triune God and his Church, these differences become especially important in how we fight the good fight of faith. For brevity’s sake, let’s group these differences into three general ways of answering the questions above.
The first group would define the world in the narrow sense of all people everywhere who are in need of a Savior. The world extends only to the hearts and minds of individuals. And salvation refers to the need of these individuals to hear and respond to the gospel with repentance and faith. Most conservative evangelicals would fall into this group.
The second groups would define the world more broadly as this planet and all the various forms of life that exist on it. And salvation would include efforts such as preserving its physical environment, improving living conditions, fighting for social justice, working to maintain peaceful co-existence between people groups, animal rights, and so on. This would be the position of most main-line denominations along with environmentalists and social activists.
I would argue that we need to define “the world” more broadly than the first group and define “salvation” more deeply than the second group. Everyone agrees that we, as Christians, have a fight on our hands. But because we differ on what we are fighting for, we also differ on when and how we should fight.
Is our fight merely for the souls of individuals existing within a world that is quickly fading away? Is our job simply to remain faithful to preaching the Gospel against the swelling tides of darkness until Christ comes to rescue us from the onslaught? If we are called to survive on earth until we are rescued to heaven, then our fight will be limited in focus. We will fight to speak the Truth, we will fight to be bold against opposition, we will be Christ’s witnesses “in Jerusalem, Judea, in all of Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) And I wholeheartedly affirm the goodness and duty of all these things! However, with such a narrow view we will have a tendency to avoid getting caught up in things that are temporary and earthly. Every pursuit will be measured by its potential for gospel proclamation. Does it evangelize the lost? Much of what is labeled “Christian” is driven by this approach. Look at most Christian ministry, Christian music, Christian art, Christian entertainment, Christian education, and Christian business.
On the other hand, is our fight merely to improve the way of life for people on this earth and to preserve the earth itself from man’s destructive nature? Is our job to create a heaven on earth for future generations to enjoy? If we are called to create a more highly evolved, enlightened humanity living in harmony with nature, then our fight will be impotent and tragic. The idea that certain governments, or educational pursuits, or technological innovations, or evolved social behaviors could ever produce anything close to utopia is naive and ignorant at best and wickedly arrogant at worst. Every attempt at some version of this utopian society has resulted in tremendous bloodshed. From gulags to concentration camps to abortion clinics, there is always a high price to pay. It’s a big social ponzi scheme that benefits a few and rips off the many.
Over the years, I have come to embrace the third option. It goes by the theological term, post-millennialism. I believe that in a very real sense, the world has already been saved. I believe that the Great Commission is great because of Jesus’ preface that “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to [Him].” I believe that the Father has fulfilled His promise to the Son recorded in Psalm 2: “Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.” The course of world history is most assuredly moving toward perfect peace and joy and love. And it will only be accomplished as the gospel is proclaimed and lived out by God’s people. Like all other attempts at utopia, the new creation also came at a high and bloody price. However, this kingdom was established with the glorious blood of the eternal God. And it was purchased as an inheritance for all who trust Him as savior and serve Him as King. I believe that as those people, we, the Church, are called to bring to fruition as His body what has already been accomplished through His body.
Jesus is not a king over a scattered group of individuals in the world. Jesus is the King of kings. His kingdom is preeminent and is the one unshakable kingdom that will one day fill the earth. The goal is not soul survival in a hostile culture. The goal is reclaiming and reoccupying ground that was once lost and is now our inheritance again through Christ.
God is establishing His kingdom on earth through His Church. This does not mean that we, in our own strength and wisdom, will bring about this heavenly kingdom. What it does mean is that this kingdom is an unstoppable force that will continue to spread and mature and bear fruit until the King comes in all His unveiled splendor and power.
Saving the world means restoring everything, by the grace and power of God, to its proper place and purpose. It will not go quietly. It will not go without a fight. Neither did I; neither did you. The conflicts will come in forms small and great- from the meaning of a single word like marriage (or an even smaller word if you remember the story of Athanasius) to the mass slaughter of infants in the womb and Christians on the beach. It is a fight that is first fought each Lord’s Day as we renew covenant with our God. It is a fight that is not limited to the hearts and minds of men, nor does it place any confidence in the goodness and greatness of man. It is not the desperate fight of a cornered animal, but the slow, patient, methodical fight of a good boxer who knows his opponent is totally outmatched and the victory is already his.
We cannot live out a sitcom Christianity. Everything is not getting suddenly wrapped up all neat and tidy after 30 minutes. We are in a truly great novel. It takes time. God is a patient author. We need to play our parts with the whole story in view. It is a rich and complex narrative. The details matter. Seemingly insignificant events from chapter three suddenly make a huge difference in chapter ninety-six.
We need to learn how to fight over the details while, at the same time, not losing the beauty of the whole story. While we push back the darkness we should also be singing, dancing, starting schools, writing good stories of our own, building beautiful buildings, growing gardens, growing families, investing in grandchildren. In fact, these are some of the most important weapons with which we fight. Darkness flees simply by the light being the light- “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God!” (2 Cor.4:4)