Monday, September 14, 2009

The Church as a Means of Appropriating Salvation

In his work Sin and Salvation, Newbigin lays out a rather typical evangelical understanding of man's need for atonement and the satisfactory propitiation of Christ. However, once he moves on to "how salvation becomes ours," the bishop's reasoning takes a surprising turn. In his biography on Newbigin, Geoffrey Wainwright takes note of this: "Instead of beginning with the inward spiritual act of faith, he reverses the order and starts with the outward and visible fact of the church. Two reasons are given for the switch..." He then goes on to quote Newbigin directly:

"Firstly, it is the order which the reader of the NT finds himself following: the Acts of the Apostles come before the Epistles--the fact of the Church before the clue to its inner life. Secondly, it is the order which the non-Christian has to follow when he comes to Christ. What he sees is a visible congregation in his village. It is that congregation which holds out to him the offer of salvation. Only when he has come within its fellowship does he (usually) come to any deep understanding of its inner source."

This, I believe, has deep implications for the way Christians seek to evangelize their neighbors. All Christians should seek to tell their friends and family about Christ; it is, after all, a matter of love and death and life. Newbigin's observation should guide Christians in this pursuit: only in the context of the life of the Church will anyone know Jesus truly and in a compelling way. We cannot expect our friends to have a true introduction to Jesus Christ without first being introduced to his Church. No doubt, this poses a host of problems, because, as everyone knows, the Church does not often reflect the goodness of her Savior. But, if Newbigin is right, it seems that this difficult way is the way God has chosen to work. Belonging in the fullest sense may not precede believing, but some sort of inclusion and contact must come before any sort of faith can grow.

This is an old lesson, and Bishop Newbigin is echoing the words of one of his predecessors: "He cannot have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother." Of course, nothing true is ever new.

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