A Very Big View of Redemption

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

When we talk about redemption, a lot of the time we focus entirely on what we are redeemed from, which is sin and death. If this is our main emphasis, then our focus is often on not sinning and we may even tend to think that anything that isn’t a sin is an open playing field.

However, we should also give attention to what we have been redeemed for.  But that involves taking an expansive view of redemption. Our view of redemption should stretch as far as the curse is found, which is to all of creation. That means that redemption and New Creation do not just cover our moral lives, as if the goal of Christianity were simply not sinning; rather, New Creation needs to be allowed to stretch into all the little nooks and crannies of existence, to change literally everything.

Abraham Kuyper appreciated this. In his Stone Lectures, Kuyper pointed to the example of John Calvin whose expansive view of redemption led him to introduce hygienic measures in Geneva during the plague.

During the plague, which in the 16th century tormented Geneva, Calvin acted better and more wisely [than Cardinal Borromeo], for he not only cared incessantly for the spiritual needs of the sick, but at the same time introduced hitherto unsurpassed hygienic measures whereby the ravages of the plague were arrested.

Calvin knew nothing of the spurious distinction between the sacred and the secular, nor did he erroneously imagine that any area that isn’t a sin is automatically an open playing field. Commenting on this in his book Engaging God’s World, Cornelius Plantinga wrote as follows:

At their best, Reformed Christians take a very big view of redemption because they take a very big view of fallenness. If all has been created good and all has been corrupted, then all must be redeemed. God isn’t content to save souls; God wants to save bodies too. God isn’t content to save human beings in their individual activities; God wants to save social systems and economic structures too. If the management/labor structure contains built-in antagonism, then it needs to be redeemed. If the health care delivery system reaches only the well-to-do-, then it needs to be reformed. The same goes for hostile relationships of race, gender, or class. The same goes for proud and scornful attitudes among heterosexuals towards homosexuals. Landlord and tenant, student and teacher, husband and wife—these and countless other roles and relationships may develop warped expectations and unfair practices. The same goes for certain forms of popular entertainment, with their tendency to violate taboos in order to gain an edge, draw a crowd, and make a buck.

Everything corrupt needs to be redeemed, and that includes the whole natural world, which both sings and groans. The whole natural world, in all its glory and pain, needs the redemption that will bring shalom. The world isn’t divided into a sacred realm and a secular realm, with redemptive activity confined to the sacred zone. The whole world belongs to God, the whole world has fallen, and so the whole world needs to be redeemed—every last person, place organization, and program; all “rocks and trees and skies and seas”; in fact, “every square inch,” as Abraham Kuyper said.

If redemption is really this big, then we should seek to find ways to bring redemption to bear on every area of life: art, economics, education, architecture, music, and even food. Thus, Plantinga continues:

“But God’s creation extends beyond the biophysical sphere to include a vast array of cultural possibilities that God folded into human nature. Thus, in the ‘cultural mandate’ of Genesis 1:28, God charges humankind to be ‘fruitful and multiply,’ to ‘fill the earth and subdue it.’ According to a widespread interpretation of this mandate (or is it a blessing?), God’s good creation includes not only earth and its creatures, but also an array of cultural gifts, such as marriage, family, art, language, commerce, and (even in an ideal world) government. The fall into sin has corrupted these gifts but hasn’t unlicensed them. The same goes for the cultural initiatives we discover in Genesis 4, that is, urban development, ten-making, musicianship, and metal-working. All of these unfold the built-in potential of God’s creation. All reflect the ingenuity of God’s human creatures – itself a superb example of likeness to God.”