The Salvation of the World: On Holiness and Mission

Out at the prison we spent an evening talking about the book of Romans and I shared some of the ideas from the new perspectives on Paul.

One of the insights we spent a lot of time on is how a covenantal imagination helps connect holiness to mission.

In the popular Christian imagination the issue Paul is dealing with in Romans is how to get to heaven. And we get to heaven by grace through faith.

However, according to the new perspectives the issue pressing upon Paul isn't how we can get to heaven, the issue is how the Gentiles get access to the covenantal promises made to Abraham. And the Gentiles get access to Abraham, according to Paul, not through "works of the law" but through faith in Jesus.

So far, so good. But the issue I raised with the men in the prison study was this: We, as Gentiles, get access to the promise made to Abraham, but so what? What was that promise and why is it good news?

After the flood, the promise God made to Abraham was God's plan to deal with sin, death, and evil in the world. Through the children of Abraham God would bless all the nations. The children of Abraham would demonstrate what the kingdom of God would look like in the world. Israel would be a moral demonstration. A kingdom of priests. And seeing this, the prophets declared, the nations would stream to Zion to worship God.

In short, the promise made to Abraham is how God is fighting evil in the world.

To be sure, eschatological promises have been made to the covenantal family of God. There is a hope for a heavenly reward. But the covenant is primarily a mission, God's work in restoring and saving the world. God fights evil through the covenantal fidelity of his family. This is how holiness--living as a kingdom of priests in the midst of the world--is connected to mission.

If salvation just means "going to heaven" then we miss this connection. Once we are "saved by faith" and get a ticket to heaven we don't really know what holiness is for. Traditional readings of Romans lose the telos of holiness. However, once we come to understand that faith gets us access to the covenant, and that the covenant exists to combat evil in the world, then suddenly we see the purpose of holiness, the goal of living in the world as a priest.

Holiness is, quite simply, the salvation of the world.

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