6 life-giving truths from the New Testament
The New Testament writers never imagined a passive faith that could be sundered from a life of discipleship.
1. The kingdom of God is central to Jesus’ ministry.
The synoptic Gospels make it immediately apparent that the kingdom of God is central to Jesus’ teaching. When Jesus referred to God’s kingdom, he had in mind God’s saving power, the fulfillment of his saving promises.
The kingdom can be explained in terms of the “already – not yet.” The kingdom was inaugurated in Jesus’ ministry but not yet consummated. It had arrived, but the full salvation and judgment promised had not yet come to pass.
The kingdom is a future reality, an end-time kingdom wherein God will fulfill his saving promises. This is made evident from the Lord’s Prayer, in which believers are to pray, “Your kingdom come” (Luke 11:2). Jesus also speaks to the disciples of the day when he will come “in his kingdom” (cf. Luke 23:51), which clearly refers to the future fulfillment of the kingdom promise. There is a sense, of course, in which God always and invariably rules as king over all. When Jesus spoke of the future coming of the kingdom, he was not referring to God’s sovereign reign over all of history, for God has always ruled over all that occurs. The coming of the kingdom that Jesus proclaimed designated something new, a time when God’s enemies would be demonstrably defeated and the righteous would be visibly blessed.
The kingdom is also a present reality. The kingdom is present in Jesus’ ministry in that the saving promises of the kingdom (i.e., the saving rule of God) had dawned with his coming. In other words, the Old Testament promises of a new covenant and a new creation and a new exodus were beginning to be fulfilled in the ministry of Jesus. Jesus understood the presence of the kingdom as evidenced in his exorcisms, his miraculous signs and preaching (Luke 4:16–30), and his person (Luke 17:20–21).
Perhaps the most remarkable feature in Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom is the role that he envisions for himself. The kingdom has come in his person. He is the king and judge, deciding both who enters the kingdom and who is excluded from it (Matthew 25:31–46). The Father will deny access to the kingdom to those who deny Jesus before others, whereas those who confess Jesus will be inducted into God’s presence. Jesus saw his return as the event that commences the eschatological kingdom.
2. John loves “life.”
One of the primary themes in John’s Gospel is life. The synoptic Gospels emphasize the fulfillment of God’s promises by speaking of the kingdom of God, but in John the focus is not on God’s kingdom but on eternal life. The two notions are remarkably similar. John particularly emphasizes that this life is available now for those who believe in Jesus, while conversely those who do not put their trust in Jesus stand under God’s judgment even now.
Life in John is not an abstract entity but rather is rooted in John’s Jewish worldview. Life belongs to the age to come, which is inaugurated by the resurrection. What is remarkable in reading John is his emphasis on the gift of life now. He does not focus on the future age when the resurrection will occur. He fixes his gaze on what believers in Christ possess even now through faith in Jesus as the Christ. The gift of life in the present age is available only because Jesus is the resurrection and the life (John 11:25).
John anchors the believer’s enjoyment of life to the resurrection of Jesus Christ in history. The life of the age to come has dawned because Jesus of Nazareth has risen from the dead. In the resurrection of Jesus, the coming age has invaded the present age. Life has penetrated where only death reigned. Light has dawned where darkness shrouded all. Truth has arrived to conquer falsehood. John impresses upon the reader the presence of life now because the resurrection of Jesus in history shines in the darkness (John 1:5), demonstrating his victory over the ruler of the world (John 12:31) and over the power of death.
3. Believers are “in Christ.”
Jesus Christ is so pervasive in Paul’s letters that it is difficult to know where to begin. One of the most significant elements in Paul’s Christology is his teaching about being “in Christ.” Union with Christ, or participation with Christ, is surely one of the fundamental themes of his theology. Believers who were in the old Adam and the old age are now members of the new age inaugurated in Christ, and they are in Christ rather than in Adam.
Because believers are in Christ, they:
- Are a new creation (2 Cor 5:17, cf. Eph 2:10).
- Are sons of God (Gal 3:26).
- Enjoy the blessing of Abraham (Gal 3:14).
- Possess God’s covenantal promises.
- Need not fear condemnation (Rom 8:1).
- Are sanctified (1 Cor 1:2).
- Enjoy the righteousness of God (2 Cor 5:21; cf. Phil 3:9).
- Have been freed from the power of sin and death (Rom 8:2; Gal 2:4).
- Possess every gift (1 Cor 1:4).
- Are complete in Christ (Col 2:10).
- Are one in Christ with other believers (Gal 3:28; cf. Eph 2:14–16).
The notion of union with Christ points to a high Christology, for every spiritual blessing belongs to believers because of their participation in Christ.
4. The Son ushers in the age of the Spirit.
A remarkable feature of the New Testament witness is the role of the Spirit in God’s saving work in Christ. The Spirit is the eschatological sign that the new age has arrived, that the new creation has become a reality. The saving work of God in Christ is implemented through the work of the Spirit. The great saving events that commenced with the coming of Jesus Christ signaled that the age of the Spirit had arrived. Indeed, the blessing that God has promised to the whole world has arrived with the gift of the Spirit.
The giving of the Holy Spirit is tied to the ministry, death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus Christ. New Testament writers do not conceive of a ministry of the Spirit apart from the work of Jesus Christ as the crucified and risen one.
The Spirit strengthens believers so that they live lives that are pleasing to God. This too signals the arrival of the new age, for the law was unable to transform human beings, but the Spirit energizes human beings to obey God. The Spirit’s work in granting life is linked to the assurance granted to believers by the same Spirit, for those who have experienced God’s love are assured by the witness of the Spirit in their hearts.
5. Faith and obedience cannot be separated.
The variety of situations addressed in the New Testament and the diverse purpose of the writings mean that various themes are emphasized. In some instances, faith is trumpeted as the only means by which the blessing of eternal life is received, whereas in other cases the necessity of obedience and discipleship takes center stage. Yet there is a fundamental unity of approach throughout the New Testament.
Faith is fundamental and primary for a right relation with God or for receiving eternal life. Human beings cannot obtain an eternal reward on the basis of their works, for human sin intervenes and rules out works as the pathway for blessing.
- Receives from God the salvation accomplished through Jesus Christ.
- Looks away from itself and gives glory to God as the one who delivers human beings from sin and death.
- Casts its hope upon Jesus Christ as the crucified and risen Lord.
- Finds its roots in the cross of Jesus Christ.
- Looks outward to what God has done in Christ instead of gazing inward upon the ability of the human subject.
The faith that saves, however, is not an abstraction, and it cannot be separated from (though it can be distinguished from) repentance and the transformation of one’s life. The New Testament writers never imagined a passive faith that could be sundered from a life of discipleship. Paul himself, the champion of faith, insists that true faith manifests itself in love, that only persevering faith is saving faith. Those who do not do good works will not inherit God’s kingdom.
Believers confirm their calling and election by their good works, or, as James says, the faith that saves must be accompanied by good works. The priority of faith in the New Testament rules out legalism, but it also eliminates antinomianism. Those who have truly come to know Jesus Christ keep his commandments and show by their love for fellow believers that they are truly born again. Only those who enter through the narrow gate of obedience will be saved.
The remarkable emphasis on the need for a transformed life does not cancel out the priority of faith. Instead, it helps readers discern the authenticity of faith so that genuine faith can be distinguished from mere notional faith — faith that resides in the intellect but has not penetrated the heart and life. All good works flow from faith and thus do not become an occasion for human boasting. The changed lives of believers simply reveal the object of their trust.
6. The law is fulfilled.
The role of the Old Testament law in the New Testament is one of the most complicated and controversial issues in New Testament theology. The fulfillment of God’s promises in Christ did not merely lead New Testament believers to ratify and maintain everything contained in the Old Testament law. We see in the New Testament both continuity and discontinuity with the Old Testament law. There is continuity in that the coming of Christ brings to fruition the Old Testament promises of salvation and the righteousness demanded by God; there is discontinuity in that the covenant under which the Jewish believers lived is no longer in force, and believers are not members of ethnic Israel.
The New Testament writings consistently teach that the Mosaic covenant is no longer in force for believers, and they don’t bind their churches with practices that distinguished Jews from Gentiles, such as circumcision, Sabbath, or purity laws. Another regular feature is that the law is fulfilled in Jesus Christ and points toward his death and resurrection. The New Testament writers do not merely argue that the Mosaic covenant is set aside in Jesus Christ; they also teach that the law finds its terminus and goal in him, so that he fulfills what is adumbrated in the Old Testament law. Even though the phrase “law of Christ” is found only in Paul, it seems that such a phrase sums up nicely the New Testament witness regarding the law. The Old Testament law is reinterpreted in light of the Christ event. The central norm of the law is love, and Jesus Christ’s giving of himself on the cross is paradigmatic of the love expected of disciples.
The Old Testament law must be interpreted in terms of salvation history, and the law is realized only through the saving work of Christ and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.
(Excerpt from New Testament Theology by Thomas Schreiner, copyright © 2008. Used by permission of Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group.)