As my understanding of the height, depth, and breadth of the redemptive work of Christ grows, the implications of the event continually amaze me. There is no doubt that it is the central event in both Scripture and all of history. The Apostle Paul declares that Christ came at the pinnacle of history, which he calls the fullness of time: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law” (Galatians 4:4-5). The coming of Christ and his subsequent redeeming death on the cross is the point on which all of history turns. It is the lens through which we are to understand everything in our world.
Expanding our Categories
When I first became a Christian I was so incredibly thankful that the God of the universe would condescend to save me. I remember being struck by the word condescension when I first heard it associated with God, and I’ve since been fascinated by the ways that He continues to expand my understanding of the meaning of words, His work in this world, and His love. He called me out of darkness and redeemed me from the pit of hell. I find this uniquely and mysteriously personal.
As I’ve grown in my faith I still cherish this message. But I’ve also come to understand that God’s work is about more than me or even all human souls. I began to unpack this years ago when I struggled to understand the last phrase in the book of Jonah. As I keep tugging on this loose string, I realize that there is more. This was the verse that first caught my attention:
And the LORD said, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” (Jonah 4:10-11)
It appears simple enough. One of the most famous stories in the bible and probably the most evangelical book in the Old Testament highlights God’s pity for a people that do not know Him. Nevertheless, I could not get past the last four words, “and also much cattle.” Why is God concerned with the cattle? Do they go to heaven? To compound my confusion, earlier in Jonah the king of Nineveh has the people force their animals to fast as he seeks God’s grace. What role do these non-human souls play in God’s redemptive narrative? I believe that there is more here than support for ecologically conscious Christianity.
There is no doubt in my mind that human beings are the focal point of Christ’s redemptive work; after all God did not create cows in His own image, nor did He choose to become a cow. He came to take on the flesh of a human being. He came born of a woman to redeem those under the law. Thus, if we think of God’s redemptive work as a target, the redemption of His people must be the bullseye, but the redemptive work extends beyond the bullseye to all aspects of the cosmos.
We can only have this cosmic view of redemption if our understanding of sin also cosmic. As Plantinga reminds, “At their best, Reformed Christians take a very big view of redemption because they take a very big view of fallenness.”1 In the fall we see the disruption and perversion of four primary relationships: our relationship with God, self, others, and creation. As we come to understand the brokenness of the fall is not merely our relationship to God, then we will see the work of redemption is not only able to fill that hole in our hearts, but to heal our psyche, restore order to the galaxies, and redeem everything in between.
It is our desire that this issue of Cultivate sparks your imagination as you think about the extent of the redemptive purposes of God. We have pulled together a series of readings that will help you contemplate His redemptive work and explore how you can observe, reflect, and participate in it in the larger world.
Whenever Paul speaks the work of Christ, he cannot help but talk about both His birth and sacrificial death. Notice how he highlights this dichotomy in Galatians 4:4-5 (above) and again in Philippians 2:5-8:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Thus, both the incarnation and the atoning death must be held together in a discussion of redemption.
Just as the Apostle Paul cannot separate the birth of Christ from His redemptive death, we must look at Christ’s incarnation as central to His redemptive work as His death and resurrection. In short, there is an indissoluble link between the incarnation and the atoning death on the cross.
Saint Athanasius of Alexandria argued that the incarnation was a result of His love for us: “For we were the purpose of his embodiment, and for our salvation he so loved human beings as to come to be and appear in a human body.”2 It was truly an amazing moment in human history that merits all of the pomp of a modern Christmas celebration.
Nevertheless, as we engage in the spectacle that Christmas has become, the first accounts of the incarnation as recorded in Matthew and Luke’s gospels help us see what sort of response this occasion merits. From Mary’s prayer to the wise men’s travels, and Simeon’s delight to Herod’s fear, we begin to comprehend the significance of this event.
John Piper opens our imagination to the cost paid by a simple inn keeper who housed Christ that first Christmas morn. We often pass over these minor details in scripture and don’t let them seep into our affections, but there is a lot to learn about what it means to love God and our neighbor as we think about what it might have cost him to offer the stable to Mary and Joseph.
We cannot focus on the incarnation of our Lord for very long without soon shifting our gaze to His sacrificial death. While Matthew and Luke open with the details surrounding Christ’s birth, John cannot wait to get to the main point. After a short theological discourse about the incarnation, John the Baptist comes on the scene and declares: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).
This sacrificial death is central to the Christian message, and Francis Schaeffer has done more to help me understand the significance of Christ’s death and its implications for our lives than anyone. He showed me that Christ speaks of a clear order of events after Peter’s confession about the Christ:
And he strictly charged and commanded them to tell this to no one, saying, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” (Luke 9:21-22)
The order is simple: rejected, slain, raised. This is what it means for Jesus to be the Christ. Remarkably, Christ follows it with a statement for all Christians:
And he said to all, “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 9:21-24)
The order is the same and the implication is clear, if we want to follow Christ and bear His name then the framework for our lives will lead us to be rejected (denying self), slain (bearing the cross), and raised (following Jesus).
Our Ministry of Redemption
As we reflect on the fact that all of humanity is made in the image of God, brokenness exists in four primary relationships (man with God, man with self, man with others, and man with creation) as a result of the fall, and the model of Christ’s redemptive work lies in His incarnation and priestly death, we are able to begin to think about how we might participate in His redemptive purposes.
I remember first reading Putting Amazing Back into Grace during my freshman year of college. I was blown away by the clarity of Horton’s argument and richness of grace that is freely offered in the gospels. His discussion of the priesthood of all believers has stuck with me for many years:
In the medieval church, the Sacrament of Holy Orders entered those who were really “sold out” for the Lord into “full-time Christian ministry.” Christians were separated into “secular” and, “religious” callings, as though those who decided to work for the church or Christian ministries were somehow more spiritual than those who engaged in “worldly” vocations. Luther recorded, “Whoever looked at a monk fairly drooled in devotion and had to be ashamed of his secular station in life.” To be sure, not all, believers are ministers; God has called some to hold offices in his church. However, those who are not are no less committed to God in their secular vocations.
Against this “sacrament,” the Reformers launched their biblical notion known to us as “the priesthood of all believers.” This doctrine insists that the milkmaid has as God-honoring a calling and contributes as much as any priest, though in a different way. One need not be a monk (i.e., an employee of a Christian organization). Christians ought to be involved with the world, as salt and light. “For the right faith,” urged Luther, “does not make people give up their calling and begin a ‘spiritual’ one, like the monks do. They imagined that they were not truly Christian unless they appeared different outwardly from other people.” Each Christian, whatever his or her calling, serves God, and that person’s calling—whether making shoes, practicing law, dressing wounds, caring for children, or plowing the fields—is a ministry to the community on God's behalf. What a revolutionary idea! It can be again. If even a pagan ruler can be described as ministering on God’s behalf (Rom. 13:4), surely believers can see their secular work as fulfilling an important task in God's world.3
In a sense we all, as creatures made in the image of God, have an incarnational role to play regardless of our vocation. Not only are our individual labors priestly, but we should apply the redemptive framework to all aspects of our lives. Redemption is not merely about punching our ticket to heaven, it is about how we live now. If Christ called us to love and modeled that love by dying, then we should be willing and ready to also die in all things. As we participate in this death and resurrection, we participate in Christ’s redemptive work as His priests.
Finding Redemption in Unlkely Places
James K. A. Smith reminds us that these redemptive works are not confined to the efforts of Christians but can be found all over the world. It only makes sense that all humans who bear the divine image reflect His redemptive nature:
Thanks be to God, such redeeming, health-giving, cultural labour is not the special province of Christians. While the church is that people who have been regenerated and empowered by the Spirit to do the good work of culture-making, foretastes of the coming kingdom are not confined to the church. The Spirit is profligate in spreading seeds of hope. So we gobble up foretastes of the kingdom wherever we can find them. The creating, redeeming God of Scripture takes delight in Jewish literature that taps the deep recesses of language's potential, in Muslim commerce that runs with the grain of the universe, and in the well-ordered marriages of agnostics and atheists. We, too, can follow God's lead and celebrate the same.4
Smith reminds us that Christians should have a very big view of redemption. It is our hope that that this issue of Cultivate expands your understanding of the redeeming work of Christ and your participation in it.
Cornelius Plantinga Jr., Engaging God’s World: A Christian Vision of Faith, Learning, and Living, 2002, p. 95. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids.
Saint Athanasius, On the Incarnation, "Incarnation of the Word and his Manifestation to us through the Body.” 2011. St Vladimir's Seminary Press, Popular Patristics Series No. 44.
Michael Horton, Putting Amazing Back into Grace, 1991, p. 208. Baker, Ada.
James K. A. Smith, Redemption, 2010, in Comment, a publication of CARDUS: www.cardus.ca.