“Wrong-Way” Riegels and a “Wrong-Way” Church
I think the church in our place and time is near the end of a Roy Riegels-like wrong way run that has very nearly scored for the other team. Someone needs to chase it down from behind like Benny Lom did Riegels. They need to scream at the church that it is going the
-wrong way: looking at heaven rather than earth;
oriented to the
-wrong time – the future rather than present;
focusing on the
-wrong thing - forgiveness rather than new creation.
There’s nothing wrong per se with heaven, the future, and forgiveness. In fact, they’re essential. It’s that they’re misunderstood, out-of-balance, not rightly related to each other. Heaven is not a place that is not-earth. Heaven is that dimension, God’s dimension of creation, originally created in unity with earth (Gen.1:1) so that God and humanity might live together in love and fellowship. Sin obscured or blocked our awareness of this heaven though it, and God, is still present and engaged with earth. To seek a heaven that in not-earth, rather than seeking it “on earth” as Jesus’ prayed (Mt.6:10), is to be going the wrong way!
A correlative error is to be longing for a future time in that not-earth heaven such that the present is evacuated of meaning and significance, just a “waiting game” till we die or Christ returns and we receive our reward. In the Bible, however, God’s people are a “back from the future” people. In Christ we have already received our reward – eternal life (the “life of the age to come”) and God calls us to begin living that “future” life even here and now amid this not-yet-fully-redeemed creation. Thus our daily lives and relationships here and now are invested with future, eternal significance. We are to bring God’s future to bear on the present in redemptive ways. Thus, to long for that future as a distant reality that effaces the significance of life in the present rather than being the vanguard of the future invading our present lives with the life of God’s future, is to be oriented to the wrong time!
Finally, to embrace forgiveness as “the” gracious gift God offers us in Christ is shortsighted and mistakes the means for the end. “The” great and gracious gift God offers us in both creation and redemption is himself, living in unimpeded fellowship with us on his creation forever. Sin has broken this fellowship and must be dealt with by forgiveness but only in order to restore us to God’s original purpose for us (which he has never ceased to pursue). We are not fundamentally sinners, that is what we have become. We are fundamentally those called and imaged by God to be his royal representatives reflecting his will and way throughout creation as we protect it and nurture it to its full flourishing. Forgiveness reclaims us from what we have become so God might restore us to who we truly are in and through Jesus Messiah. The Bible calls this “new creation” (2 Cor.5:17). This restoration, or new creation, is the God’s end for us; forgiveness is the means by which he gets us there. To focus solely on forgiveness is to treat ourselves and others primarily as the sinners we have become rather than the images of God we are created to be, limiting our vision and capacity for living out or faith in its full potentiality. Thus, to focus on forgiveness as “the” gift God offers us, rather than the means to the end of restoration to our primal dignity and vocation achieved in Christ (new creation), is to focus on the wrong thing!
Our usual practice of conceiving and voicing the gospel as God’s gift of forgiveness to sinners so they may be assured of a future eternal life with God in a not-earth heaven (often thought of as an immaterial, “spiritual,” not-earthy existence) is equivalent, I think, to Roy Riegels’ infamous wrong way run with a fumble in that 1929 Rose Bowl. The question is, are there any Benny Lom’s chasing it down before it scores for the other team!