Reflections on Creation, Redemption, and the Christian Life

Recently I have been thinking a lot about what it means to live the Christian life. Read the two biblical statements below and ask yourself how they might lead to two completely different visions:

There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? — Ecclesiastes 2:24-25

If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. — Luke 9:23-24

The first one sounds a bit like carpe diem, but the second sounds more like monastic asceticism. I think both interpretations are wrong.

This is another tension in the Christian faith, one that rests on the distinction between creation and redemption, between nature and grace. The doctrine of creation reminds us that everything God made is good and should be enjoyed. Good company, food, entertainment, art, the beauty of this world–we should savor them all. And yet, the Bible also warns of the danger of exchanging the Creator for the creature (Rom 1:18-23). Idolatry is not necessarily a preference for something inherently evil (in fact, since God created all things, nothing is inherently evil). Idolatry is, instead, a lack of proportion. A tree is a marvelous thing. It provides delight to the eyes, gives shade from the hot sun, absorbs carbon dioxide and expels oxygen, in some cases provides fruit or nuts for people and animals to eat, and on top of it all can be chopped down for its wood, which has thousands of uses. And yet, the ancient Israelites found it so easy to pervert trees by carving them into gods. Idolatry is just that: a perversion of something good, the unwarranted elevation of a created thing to the status of divinity. Pure carpe diem philosophy turns God’s good creation into an idol, because it rests all hopes not on God as revealed to us in Christ, but on God’s gifts to us in creation. The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away, and it is our obligation to love and worship him in the midst of both (Job 2:20-21).

The doctrine of redemption reminds us that we live in a fallen world that can only be renewed in Christ. Whereas the cultural mandate of Genesis 1:28 commands us to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth and subdue it, the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20 directs us to make disciples of all nations. I consider the latter to be a subset of the former, but in this present evil age (Gal. 4:4), evangelism is the leading edge of redeeming human culture. It is not the only aspect, but it is the most prominent. This is why losing our lives is necessary. Theologies that fail to reckon with the dark reality of sin and the lost condition of mankind (those that lean more heavily toward the pole of creation rather than redemption) will soft-pedal the church’s mission to make disciples of all nations. Inclusivism (the idea that sincere adherents to other religions, and perhaps even atheists and agnostics, may be saved by Christ without knowing him) is already the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. It has also been growing in popularity among Protestants as well, and it appears that emerging church leaders like Brian McLaren are keen on promoting it (see chapter 17 of A Generous Orthodoxy). All theologies that overlook the radical nature of sin will fail to uphold the antithetical nature of the gospel. In so doing, they will lead not to bold witness but to cultural accomodation. They will produce Christians who want to save their lives rather than lose them for Christ.

And yet, a perverted form of devotion to God could lead to another kind of idolatry:

If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations–“Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)–according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. — Colossians 2:20-23

Asceticism is not a Christian virtue. When I was in the youth group at my home church, I tended to operate with something of a Neo-Platonic view of spirituality: only “spiritual” activities like prayer, Bible study, and witnessing were of real value to God. I have since learned how antithetical Christianity was in its early years to the Greek philosophies common at the time, many of which denied the value of the body or of physical things. In Athens Paul proclaimed the bodily resurrection of Christ, and it was at that point that his audience balked. And if Christ has redeemed us–body and all–then bodily pleasures like food, drink, exercise, and lovemaking cannot be worthless to God.

Still, there is one biblical text that deserves to be heard in this discussion:

If in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. — 1 Corinthians 15:19

Paul’s subject here is the resurrection of the dead. He is taking to task some who had claimed that there was no such thing. Were that the case, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, all hope is lost. It means that this life is all we have. Why, then, does Paul write “we are of all people most to be pitied” in that scenario? It is because Paul’s life would have been wasted if there is no eternal hope beyond it. Later he writes,

Why am I in danger every hour? I protest, brothers, by my pride in you, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die every day! What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” — 1 Corinthians 15:30-32

Paul was not one who seized the day, if seizing the day means having as much fun as possible or doing the most daring or exciting thing you can think of doing. But he did seize the day in terms of giving himself completely in service to Christ, in spite of what it cost him. He could have had a wife and family. He was on track to becoming a highly respected and learned rabbi. So many nights he spent in strange lands or behind prison bars could have been spent enjoying meals with friends. Of course, Paul had many close friends who were members of his churches and who labored in ministry with him, and he knew how to enjoy their company. But the call of God often cut short their time together and sent him off to other tasks, the last one being the task of losing his head for bearing testimony to the Messiah. And yet, excepting that of Jesus himself, was ever a life lived any more to the fullest?

Of course, Paul was in a unique situation with a unique calling. He was an apostle and foundational member of the church. He was called by God to plant churches, which is certainly not for all of us. But I do think we can learn from his example. He was no ascetic, but he was not afraid to lose temporal pleasures for the sake of eternal gain. Ultimately, it was God who decided how much enjoyment Paul would get out of this world and how much pain would cause him to long for the next life. Paul’s responsibility was to submit to the divine purpose, whatever it involved. And I think that is where creation and redemption intersect for us as well. Wherever God places you, and whatever he calls you to do, do it with joy (Read 1 Corinthians 7 for an expansion on that sentence). In many cases that joy will derive in part from the blessings of creation. At other times, joy will look exclusively to the hope of eternity. At all times, it will be sustained by faith in Christ, who is both Creator and Redeemer of this world.

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One Response to “Reflections on Creation, Redemption, and the Christian Life”

  1. Ali Says:

    Yes, it can be difficult to bring the two together – redemption and creation. Another verse to throw in the pot is 1 Timothy 4:4-5.

    4 For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, 5 because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.
    The New International Version, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House) 1984.

    I guess my perspective is that becoming a follower of Christ causes us to look at the world through Christ. Therefore, everything we do should involve Christ (but not necessarily be “spiritual”) and with that perspective we can enjoy, avoid and place in the right priority created things.

    The now defunct antithesis website had an article on “worldly Christians” commenting that Protestants affirmed the goodness of the everyday enjoyment of creation, whereas the Catholic church had been operating with a Platonic mindset, similar to what you described in yourself in younger days. I trust God will help us to get the right balance.

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