I am currently reading through N.T. Wright's "Surprised by Hope." For many American evangelicals, things won't get better until Christ comes back, and things will get worse until He comes back, and Christians will be snatched away before things get really bad. Wright takes issue with this position. Of course, my challenge in deciphering Wright is that he is writing as an Anglican and assuming fairly liberal tendencies on the part of his audience. For a born and bred "literal fundamentalist" as myself, much of his argumentation defends what I am willing to take for granted, and much of what he takes for granted I wish he had more completely defended.
Let me put forth the question to you, dear reader. What is the purpose of being a Christian on this earth?
1. Maybe to not go to hell when you die? Insufficient--perfect love casts out fear. A Christian who is so because he fears hell isn't experiencing the perfect love of Christ.
2. Maybe to win other converts? Insufficient--this begs the question. That this is an extraordinarily circular way to live as a Christian seems to escape many evangelicals who confuse the issue with the intent to save people from hell, which gets us back to the previous point.
3. Maybe to be holy? Insufficient--this doesn't address what we ought to do, only what we ought to be.
4. Maybe to commune with God? Insufficient--that is better done in His presence.
5. Maybe to help make this world a better place? Insufficient--unbelievers do that already.
Now this is a large problem as it leaves me with no reason to be a Christian. I am reading Wright's book and he seems to be advocating number 5, and number 2 on the basis of number 5. In other words, by making the world a better place, we give the Christian a work to do, and provide a reason for evangelism outside of itself.
This stuck in my craw for quite awhile as I pondered that what Wright is suggesting for Christians is already being done well by many unbelievers. If anything, this is an indication of the pointlessness of Christianity.
Then I realized the answer. The problem of evil has become our answer. Wright actually talks about that in his book, how that secular evolutionary optimism might claim "progress" but no real permanent achievement, especially against the evil heart of man. He brings to bear all the atrocities of the 20th century to illustrate this point.
In a nutshell, secular evolutionary optimism, since it has no answer for man's wickedness other than to deny it, can never hope to transform man or this earth. It's successes are short lived. Its confidence in human goodness is its downfall.
This is precisely where the Wright's prescription differs from the old "social gospel." Christian activity in this world, while it ought to improve conditions in this world outside of the church and the gospel, also recognizes the need for personal transformation through Jesus Christ. While recognizing the need to do good and improve conditions on earth, the failure of man is a failure of the heart, and is no surprise to the Christian. Outside of individual conversion, we recognize no permanent improvement, no permanent victory, until the return of Christ. The church can't conquer the earth, that's Christ's job--but it can be salt and light.
Salt and light--I am amazed that Wright did not cover that passage, because it fits perfectly with the topic at hand. The passage is Mat 5:13-16 (NLT):
"You are the salt of the earth. But what good is salt if it has lost its flavor? Can you make it useful again? It will be thrown out and trampled underfoot as worthless. You are the light of the world-like a city on a mountain, glowing in the night for all to see. Don't hide your light under a basket! Instead, put it on a stand and let it shine for all. In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father."
We are salt--we make this world better; we are light--we shine forth the glorious truth of the gospel of Christ. Think about salt for a minute. Does salt stand on its own? Is the purpose of salt to contrast with the flavor of the food it is used with, or to enhance it? Well obviously, the answer is that salt is intended to enhance the flavor, not contradict it. If I wanted to contradict the flavor of a steak I would sprinkle sugar on it! No, I use salt, because of what it does FOR that steak.
Going further, salt is not intended to change the nature of the food it is used on. It is intended to make that nature better. Salt is, simply speaking, an improvement scheme.
Today's hunker-down-and-wait-for-the-rapture Christians are not salt. They have no problem shining the spotlight of the gospel and Scripture on a wayward world. But when it comes to being SALT they make the Scripture of none effect by turning the command to be salt into a call to contrast with the world, a call to conspicuous holiness. Such an interpretation would make sense if Christ had used, say, ashes, or ground-up beetles--but not a seasoning such as salt.
While the good works we are to do for this world might be replicated by non-believers, we as Christians understand why our work as salt never ends. The unbeliever's work is tied to no coming reign of Christ. It will perish without ever having offered the true answer to the evil that caused the problem that non-Christian workers are trying to fix. The Christian's work will not last either; however, the true gospel light spread abroad through active, concerned believers will give that work a chance of lasting longer, it will save many who recognize its transforming power, and when all else fails it will reassure that Christ is returning to permanently end all suffering and pain.
The final lesson we learn from the passage in Mat 5 is that sharing the gospel light is to happen in the context of being salt. How different is that from the door-knocking I was instructed to do growing up! Actually, to these door knockers, they consider saltiness to be conspicuous holiness, so their evangelism is, to them, in the context of being salt, especially when they are dressed up in business casual attire or better, and toting their Bibles. But as we have seen, this is a perversion of what Jesus taught.
The challenge for us today is to stop letting the flawed "social gospel" keep us from understanding that our Christian service is to primarily include improving the world around us. With a firm grasp on the necessity of Christ's personal return for a permanent solution, we know our work is not in vain as we shine the light to those we serve in this capacity. Christ raised the dead, healed the sick, fed the hungry, castigated the Pharisees--and took the opportunity afforded by this social activity to share the gospel.
The following verses take on much greater meaning:
"He will place the sheep at his right hand and the goats at his left. Then the King will say to those on the right, `Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.'"
These things were the basis for judgement!:
"Then they will reply, `Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you?' And he will answer, `I assure you, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.' And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous will go into eternal life."
Now I want to say a little bit about Baptist Rescue Missions. I have only been to one, in downtown LA, but I have reports that others are like what I am about to describe. I bring this up because such ministries are prime examples of how not to be salt. Homeless men are promised food and perhaps a shower and a room. But first--they are forced to sit through a toe-stomping, fiery evangelistic chapel service. If they do not stay for the whole thing they are not given any assistance. And the preaching I witnessed, primarily blamed and put down the homeless for their condition. Folks, this type of ministry is not what I am talking about when I say we need to be salt. Such a ministry is no more than a manipulative evangelistic tool. So many of the hard-right, ultra-literal fundamentalist churches I was brought up in refuse to do social work unless they can cram the gospel down the throats of the unfortunate. If you are going to be salt, be salt. Don't hide the light of the gospel, but for goodness sake this doesn't mean pinning them down and shining it directly in their eyes. People must come to Jesus of their own accord. If you mean to help, then help without strings attached.