Whatever confusion there may be among Christians about redemption today, it must be small compared to that which accompanied the birth of the Christian movement in the first century…Yet we can be sure of the upshot: the disciples’ recognition that Jesus’ story that had engaged them was not ended by his death. For him and for them, there was a new beginning. Strangely but surely a new era had begun.
James McClendon (Doctrine, 106)
The first Christians were convinced that they were witnesses to the greatest event in the history of the world: after the shameful death of their leader, Jesus, God raised him from the dead. Something powerfully new began on that first Easter Sunday, and the disciples were participating in a ‘new era’ of Spirit-filled communities that eventually sprouted up all over the Mediterranean. These Christians had a gigantic challenge on their hands: how would they communicate, define and express this amazing experience? What did this ‘new in Christ’ really mean for the world, for all those who were being invited to partake in this experience?
It has been common for the many varieties of Christianity to use the word ‘salvation’ to describe the significance of Jesus’ death on the cross. Taking it a step further, it has also become common to describe an ‘order of salvation’: first, ‘called’ then ‘justified’ then ‘born anew’ then ‘sanctified’ then… [or for some, first evangelism then discipleship]. However, these words and many, many more that the New Testament writers used were, in fact, synonyms for ‘the new in Christ.’ These writers borrowed language from different aspects of their cultures [both Jewish and Hellenistic] to attempt to describe the indescribable! These are all different windows into the same reality, even ‘salvation’ being just one of the many images to represent the new era in Christ.
Our challenge to know the reality of Jesus’ death and resurrection in deeper ways is enhanced when we dialogue with other brands of Christianity, different from our own, as we continue to communicate, define and express what the ‘new in Christ’ means for us today. McClendon has arranged the many different terms that describe ‘the new in Christ’ under three headings: Protestant, Catholic and ‘baptist.’ These ‘clusters’ aren’t meant to stereotype or to divide, but instead to hear these emphases more clearly so that we can know Jesus more dearly.
Protestant: Establishing ‘Right Relations’ between God and Each Other
Faith [faithfulness or trust]
Justice [justification or justify or righteousness]
Children of God
Brothers and Sisters of Jesus
Friendship with God
Catholic: The Presence of Christ
In Christ [Christ in us all]
Sanctify [Sanctification or Holy Ones or Saints]
baptist: The Way of Obedient Discipleship and Suffering
The Way [or journey or walk]
Entering the ‘rule of God’
Liberation [or redemption or release]
Passage from death to life
This list is a brief, over-simplified survey of the New Testament language used to describe the ‘new in Christ.’ A huge project could be undertaken by taking the original Greek and studying the origin of each word, how the culture of 1st century Palestine would understand each word and how these would apply to ‘the new in Christ.’ However, it is enough here to start to comprehend the project that these first Christians undertook to try to make sense out of what happened in the event of Jesus the Messiah. The overexposure of simple sayings like ‘Jesus saves’ or ‘I’m saved by the blood’ or ‘Jesus died for my sins’ has made the ‘new in Christ’ appear self-evident and easy-to-understand. As the New Testament clearly shows, this event was [and continues to be] much deeper than we could ever fathom. The key is to resist monopolizing or over-stating different images of ‘the new in Christ,’ but instead to open our minds and hearts to ALL of the images in order to more fully grasp this reality.
With that said, the strength of the ‘baptist’ cluster is that it emphasizes following Jesus. The ‘new in Christ’ is, first and foremost, a call to respond to the risen and present Jesus into the faithful lifestyle of communities who follow his way. Important concepts like ‘eternal life’ and ‘forgiveness of sins’ are by-products of radical discipleship in communities that embrace the messianic lifestyle. In God’s relationship with Israel in the Old Testament Scriptures, ‘the way’ was a path to whole-heartedly following God [Jeremiah 32:39; Micah 4:2; Psalm 1], represented quite powerfully by Joshua’s ‘choose this day whom you will serve’ [Joshua 24:13-27] call for Israel to renew their vow to follow God.
Christian conduct did not follow as a consequence of salvation: it was itself salvation. [Doctrine, 118]
1. What images of ‘the new in Christ’ have been emphasized in your faith journey with Jesus? What does Jesus death and resurrection mean for you?
2. Is there an image [or images] in one of the clusters that you would want to understand more deeply? Explain.
3. Do you feel comfortable about the possibility of explaining the ‘new in Christ’ in many different ways to people who do not know the way of Christ? Explain.
For Further Reading:
Doctrine, McClendon [chapter 3]
Recovering the Scandal of the Cross by Joel Green and Mark Baker
Paul: In Fresh Perspective by N.T. Wright
Most Christians need to rethink what it really means to cross over from the old to the ‘new in Christ.’ I’m reminded of the t-shirt I saw in Berkeley a few years back that read, ‘Jesus, save us from your followers.’ Maybe this is the first thing Christians need to consider. How is that we have counterfeited what ‘the new in Christ’ means (by our words and our lifestyles)? The way we communicate, define and express this reality is of utmost importance. As McClendon points out, Frederich Nietsche was presented with a very different form of the gospel story throughout his life and it resulted in a serious repulsion to anything Christian (and who could blame him?).
Throughout Southern Californian Evangelicalism, the penal-substitutionary atonement theory (or ‘forensic justification’ model) has dominated thinking (and talking) about the ‘new in Christ.’ This perspective makes Christians utterly obsessed with the mission to save friends, family and everyone else from eternal damnation because of their sin-stained souls. This emphasis has pushed many Christians toward bizarre ‘techniques’ and ‘strategies’ for evangelism and also pulled them away from a focus on the radical ‘way’ of life that Jesus handed down to his followers: enemy love, forgiveness and humble service.