The Good Life

The Good Life. We all want it. But what is it?

This was the great question of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.

For them the answer was an examined life that led to a life of virtue.

Not bad.

For the modern western world the Good Life has little to with virtue. We live in age of ethical poverty.

Materialism having won the battle for the heart and soul of the post-Enlightenment West, the Good Life now has to do with achievement and acquisition. Position and property. Social status and being able to buy lots of stuff. Climbing the latter of success and finding a Best Buy at the top. The American Dream gone to seed.

For many of us the Good Life is simply the life we imagine we would like to live.

But the unspoken assumption is that we know by ourselves what is good.

And that leads us back to a snake and a tree and original sin.

What do you need God for? You know what’s good and bad. Hisssssssss.

Let me describe the Good Life in a different way: The live we were meant to live.

I BELIEVE life has a meaning.

I BELIEVE life was meant to be good.

But meaning and goodness are not found by our own unaided thinking.

(Don’t listen to that talking snake curled around the tree…all he does is lie.)

The Good Life.

What is it?

Plato and the boys gave it their best shot. They came close but couldn’t close the deal.

It takes revelatory intervention to get at the meaning of life and what the good really is.

Bring on the Hebrew prophets. Those poets of divine revelation.

He has told you O human what is good
And what YHWH requires of you:
To do justice
To love mercy
To walk humbly
With your God
-Micah 6:8

This is the Good Life which God calls us to through the Prophets and makes possible through Messiah:

* A life of doing justice: Working with God to make right a world gone wrong.

* A life of loving mercy: Loving to extend the kindness and mercy of God we’ve found in the gospel of Christ.

* A life of walking humbly: The radical counter-culture life that flies in the face of Babylon’s corrupt values.

But this the big question: What is salvation for?

Not what is it, but what is it for? What is the BIG PICTURE?

Salvation is for the restoration of all creation to God’s original goodness.

I’ll stand by that. (With the Prophets and Apostles backing me up.)

It’s not about getting on a church bus for an evacuation of what God has given up on.

A thousand times NO!!

Salvation is about recovering our identity (Imago Dei) and our vocation (Missio Dei) through what Christ has accomplished in his death, burial and resurrection.

In Christ we can once again bear the image of God and exercise wise and just dominion in his good creation.

Salvation begins with pardon and new life, but leads to the good work we’re called to: Doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God in Christ.

Salvation is not an end in itself. We have something to do.

“For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus so that we can do the good works which he planned for us long ago.” -Ephesians 2:10

Q. What is salvation for?

A. Salvation is for the restoration of all creation to God’s original goodness.

Q. How is to be accomplished?

A. By doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God in Christ. Or to say it another way: By doing good works, proclaiming God’s mercy in the gospel, and making disciples of the nations as we humbly follow Jesus.

This is the Good Life.

I’ll stake my life on it.

I am staking my life on it.

Here I stand; I can do no other. God help me.

That was a good place to end this little thought exercise.

But no.

I have another thought I want to briefly explore.

James famously warns that if we separate faith from works we end up with a dead religion and a meaningless faith. Yet in recent history we’ve experienced a tragic separation of personal faith and social justice. It came about during the turn of the century “Modernist Controversy” when the Protestant church experienced a divorce. Mainline Protestants and Evangelicals divorced over the role of Scripture. The Evangelicals were right about Scripture, but agreed to “terms of divorce” they should never have agreed to. In these “terms of divorce” Evangelicals got personal salvation and Mainline Protestants got social justice. But you cannot separate the proclamation of personal salvation (evangelism) and the doing of justice (good works) and be true to the pattern given to us by the prophets and apostles and, most of all, by Jesus himself. Thankfully, there is new momentum within certain aspects of the Evangelical church to reclaim social justice as an essential, non-negotiable part of our mission. After all, Jesus didn’t say we should let our light so shine before men that when they see our gospel tracts, bumper stickers and Christian t-shirts they would glorify God. Rather Jesus said we should let our light so shine before men that when they see our good works they would glorify God. (Matthew 5:14-16)

It’s not a matter of choosing personal evangelism or social justice. The scriptures call us to both. And one without the other misses the point and muddies the water.

The Good Life we are called to is to be involved in doing justice through good works and extending mercy through the gospel and walking humbly with God in Christ.

This is the Good Life.



The best part of this post will be this postscript. I have been reading Christopher Wright’s The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative. It is such an important book! I want to share with you about 2,400 gleaned words from chapters 8 and 9 which I read today. I promise it will be the best 2,400 words you’ve read in a long time. Read it slow and let it sink in. It’s what I would like to say if I were as brilliant and perceptive as Christopher J.W. Wright.

From Chapter 8
God’s Model for Redemption: The Exodus

A simplistic spiritualized interpretation of the exodus seems to me to presuppose a quite remarkable change in the character and concerns of God. This spiritualizing way of interpreting the Bible requires us to imagine that for generation after generation, century after century, the God of the Bible was passionately concerned about social issues — political arrogance and abuse, economic exploitation, judicial corruption, the suffering of the poor and oppressed, the evils of brutality and bloodshed. So passionate, indeed, that the laws he gave and the prophets he sent give more space to these matters than any other issue except idolatry, while the psalmists cry out in protest to the God they know cares deeply about such things.

Somewhere, however, between Malachi and Matthew, all that changed. Such matters no longer claim God’s attention or spark his anger. Or if they do, it is no longer our business. The root cause of all such things is spiritual sin, and that is now all that God is interested in, and that is all that the cross dealt with. The alleged God of the New Testament is almost unrecognizable as the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel. This alleged God has shed all the passionate priorities of the Mosaic law and has jettisoned all the burdens for justice that he laid on his prophets at such cost to them. The implications for mission are equally dramatic. For if the pressing problems of human society are no longer of concern to God, they have no place in Christian mission — or at most a decidedly secondary one. God’s mission is getting souls to heaven, not addressing society on earth. Ours should follow suit. There may be an element of caricature in the way I have sketched this view, but it is not unrepresentative of a certain brand of popular mission rhetoric.

It will be clear that I find such a view of God and of mission to be unbiblical and frankly unbelievable, if one takes the whole Bible as the trustworthy revelation of the identity, character and mission of the living God.

To think that spiritual evangelism is all there is to mission, is to leave people vulnerable in other ways that are also mirrored in Israel. “Spiritual evangelism” means that the gospel is presented only as a means of having your own sins forgiven and having assurance of a future with God in heaven — without either the moral challenge of walking with personal integrity in the world of social, economic and political society around us, or the missional challenge of being actively concerned for issues of justice and compassion for others. The result is a kind privatized pietism, or one that is cosily shared with like-minded believers but has little cutting edge or prophetic relevance in relation to wider society. One can then be a Christian on the way to heaven, and even make a virtue out of paying little attention to the physical, material, familial, societal, and international needs and crises that abound on every side. These latter things can then be all too easily relegated to such a nonpriority status that they drop below the radar of mission recognition altogether.

Israel fell victim to this temptation too. The prophets saw a people whose appetite for worship was insatiable but whose daily lives were a denial of all the moral standards of the God they claimed to worship. There was plenty of charismatic fervor (Amos 5:21-24), plenty of atonement theology in the blood of multiple sacrifices (Is 1:10-12), plenty of assurance of salvation in the recitation of sound-bite claims for the temple (Jer 7: 4-11), plenty of religious observance at great festivals and conventions (Is 1:13-15). But beneath their noses and under their feet, the poor were uncared for at best and trampled on at worst. Spiritual religion flourished amidst social rottenness. And God hated it. God longed for somebody to shut down the whole charade (Mal 1:10), and finally he wiped it out of his sight.

Mission that claims the high spiritual ground of preaching only a gospel of personal forgiveness and salvation without the radical challenge of the full biblical demands of God’s justice and compassion, without a hunger and thirst for justice, may well expose those who respond to its partial truths to the same dangerous verdict. The epistle of James seems to say as much to those in his own day who had managed to drive an unbiblical wedge between faith and works, the spiritual and the material. If faith without works is dead, mission without social compassion and justice is biblically deficient.

From Chapter 9
God’s Model for Restoration: Jubilee

A cross-centered theology of mission. So the cross was the unavoidable cost of God’s mission. But it is equally true and biblical to say that the cross is the unavoidable center of our mission. All Christian mission flows from the cross — as its source, its power, and as that which defines its scope.

Why is the cross just as important across the whole field of mission? Because in all forms of Christian mission in the name of Christ we are confronting the powers of evil and the kingdom of Satan — with all their dismal effects on human life and the wider creation. If we are to proclaim and demonstrate the reality of the reign of God in Christ — that is, if we are to proclaim that Jesus is king, in a world that still like to chant “we have no king but Caesar” and his many successors, including mammon — then we will be in direct conflict with the usurped reign of the evil one, in all its legion manifestations. The deadly reality of this battle against the powers of evil is the unanimous testimony of those who struggle for justice, for the needs of the poor and oppressed, the sick and the ignorant, and even those who seek to care for and protect God’s creation against exploiters and polluters, just as much as it is the experience of those (frequently the same people) who struggle evangelistically to bring people to faith in Christ as Savior and Lord and plant churches. In all such work we confront the reality of sin and Satan. In all such work we are challenging the darkness of the world with the light and good news of Jesus Christ and the reign of God through him. By what authority can we do so? With what power are we competent to engage the powers of evil? On what basis dare we challenge the chains of Satan, in word and deed, in people’s spiritual, moral, physical and social lives? Only through the cross.

* Only in the cross is there forgiveness, justification and cleansing for guilty sinners.

* Only in the cross stands the defeat of evil powers.

* Only in the cross is there release from the fear of death and its ultimate destruction altogether.

* Only in the cross are even the most intractable of enemies reconciled.

* Only in the cross will we finally witness the healing of all creation.

The fact is that sin and evil constitute bad news in every area of life on this planet. The redemptive work of God through the cross of Christ is good news for every area of life on earth that has been touched by sin, which means every area of life. Bluntly, we need a holistic gospel because the world is in a holistic mess. And by God’s incredible grace we have a gospel big enough to redeem all that sin and evil has touched. And every dimension of that good news is good news utterly and only because of the blood of Christ on the cross.

Ultimately all that will be there in the new, redeemed creation will be there because of the cross. And conversely all that will not be there (suffering, tears, sin, Satan, sickness, oppression, corruption, decay and death) will not be there because they will have been defeated and destroyed by the cross. That is the length, breadth, height and depth of God’s idea of redemption. It is exceedingly good news. It is the font of all our mission.

So it is my passionate conviction that holistic mission must have a holistic theology of the cross. That includes the conviction that the cross must be as central to our social engagement as it is to our evangelism. There is no other power, no other resource, no other name through which we can offer the whole Gospel to the whole person and the whole world than Jesus Christ crucified and risen.

Where do we start? The language of the “priority of evangelism” implies that the only proper starting point must always be evangelistic proclamation. Priority means it is the most important, most urgent, thing to be done first, and everything else must take second, third or fourth place. But the difficulty with this is that (1) it is not always possible or desirable in the immediate situation, and (2) it does not even reflect the actual practice of Jesus.

Rather almost any starting point can be appropriate, depending possibly on what is the most pressing or obvious need. We can enter the circle of missional response at any point on the circle of human need. But ultimately we must not rest content until we have included within our own missional response the wholeness of God’s missional response to the human predicament—and that of course includes the good news of Christ, the cross and resurrection, the forgiveness of sin, the gift of eternal life that is offered to men and women through our witness to the gospel and the hope of God’s new creation. That is why I speak of ultimacy rather than primacy. Mission may not always begin with evangelism. But mission that does not ultimately include declaring the Word and the name of Christ, the call to repentance, and faith and obedience has not completed its task. It is defective mission, not holistic mission.

However, there are other instances where rapid conversion of whole communities to a pietistic gospel that sings the songs of Zion to come but demands no radical concern for the social, political, ethnic, and cultural implications of the whole biblical faith here and now has led to massive and embarrassing dissonance between statistics and reality. Some of the states in northeast India, such a as Nagaland, are held up as outstanding examples of the success of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century evangelism. Whole tribes were converted. The state is recorded to be around 90 percent Christian. Yet it has now become one of the most corrupt states in the Indian Union and is riddled with problems of gambling and drugs among the younger generation. Naga students at the Union Biblical Seminary, where I taught in the 1980s, would tell me this as proof of the fact that merely successful evangelism does not always result in lasting social transformation. Others will point with desperate and baffled sadness at the tragic irony of Rwanda — one of the most Christianized nations on earth and birthplace of the East African Revival. And yet whatever form of Christian piety was taken to be the fruit of evangelism there could not stand against the tide of intertribal hatred and violence that engulfed the region in 1994. The blood of tribalism, it was said, was thicker than the water of baptism. Again, successful evangelism, flourishing revivalist spirituality and a majority Christian population did not result in a society where God’s biblical values of equality, justice, love and nonviolence had taken root and flourished likewise.

I write as a son of Northern Ireland. That has to be one of the most “evangelized” small patches on the globe. As I grew up, almost anybody I met could have told me the gospel and “how to get saved.” Street corner evangelism was a common feature of the urban scene. I took part in it myself on occasions. Yet in my Protestant evangelical culture, the zeal for evangelism was equal only to the suspicion of any form of Christian social concern or conscience about issues of justice. That was the domain of liberals and ecumenicals, and a betrayal of the “pure” gospel. The result was that the de facto politics of Protestantism was actually subsumed under the gospel in such a way that all the political prejudice, partisan patriotism and tribal hatred was sanctified rather than prophetically challenged (except by a very brave few who often paid a heavy price). So the proportionately high number of the evangelizers and the evangelized (in comparison with any other part of the United Kingdom) certainly did not produce a society transformed by the values of the kingdom of God. On the contrary, it was (and sadly still is) possible to hear all the language of evangelistic zeal and all the language of hatred, bigotry, and violence coming from the same mouths. As James would say, “this should not be” (Jas 3:10). But it is. And it is one reason why I beg to dissent from the notion that evangelism by itself will result in social change, unless Christians are also taught the radical demands of discipleship to the Prince of peace, are seeking first the kingdom of God and his justice, and understand the wholeness of what the Bible so emphatically shows to be God’s mission for his people.

The question is, Is the church as a whole reflecting the wholeness of God’s redemption? Is the church (thinking here of the local church as the organism effectively and strategically placed for God’s mission in any given community) aware of all that God’s mission summons them to participate in? Is the church, through the combined engagement of all its members, applying the redemptive power of the cross of Christ to all the effects of sin and evil in the surrounding lives, society and environment?

The ringing slogan of the Lausanne movement is: “The whole church taking the whole gospel to the whole world.” Holistic mission cannot be the responsibility of any one individual. But it is certainly the responsibility of the whole church.