The kingdom of God has come upon us, Jesus said. The justice of God is revealed in the gospel, Paul said. Whoever is in Christ, there is new creation. Isaiah's visions of lions and lambs and a peaceable kingdom are visions about the effect of the Messiah's first advent.

If all that is past, if God’s justice has been established in the world, and if the Spirit has been unleashed, why is the world still so terribly full of continuous violence, cruelty, hatred? On the other hand, it seems that modern societies are quite capable of functioning smoothly without a second thought to Jesus and the Spirit.

In the end, are we Christians, as many moderns have suggested, trading in delusions?

Christians confess that the Savior of the world has appeared and that He has brought salvation. Jesus died and rose again to manifest the justice of God. He unleashed the Spirit of the living God in the world.

Yet the world is manifestly unsaved. I need hardly catalog the ways in which this is true – the wars that desolate large sections of the globe and of humanity, the indifference to suffering that manifests itself in daily interactions and in large institutions, the greed and acquisitiveness that wreaks havoc on the creation and on other human beings. Grand atrocities dominate the news; petty cruelties infect every life. I do not minimize it. It is an unavoidable question for Christian theology, though we often try to avoid it.

Christians have developed many strategies to parry the challenge, but some are tactics of avoidance. Some have modified the global claims of the New Testament and confined salvation to a personal, inner sphere. The kingdom has come but the “kingdom of God is within you.” Jesus is king, but He is king of an invisible, Spiritual realm.

Some project Jesus’ victory to an eschatological future: Jesus died and rose again to secure a future salvation, but for the time being we can expect more of the grim same, more mayhem and damage, century after century, until Jesus comes again to clean it all out. A moderate solution is to take the position that the salvation that Jesus achieved is already operative but not yet fulfilled. Jesus’ kingdom did come, and is coming, but it will not come in full reality until the end of all things.

That last point is correct, but too often functions as an escape. "Don't immanentize the eschaton" becomes a reason to accommodate, lazily, to the status quo.

The Spirit has been given and the life of the Spirit has become a reality within a human race, within a church, that still lives in the flesh. Spirit in flesh is an ambiguous state. We live en sarki, but live within flesh by faith in the Son of God (Galatians 2:20). We are still mortal, even as we live by the Spirit of life. Precisely because the Spirit has been poured out, there is now a war of Spirit against flesh, and flesh against Spirit. The culture of flesh – fear, violence, boastfulness and bravado – that still exists, and even for those who live by the Spirit, the life of the flesh remains a tempting possibility. Each individual Christian is a battlefield in the Spirit’s war against flesh, and a site for flesh’s resistance to Spirit, and each baptized person is enlisted into the Spirit’s regiments.

This warfare will not, Christians believe, end in a stalemate. Flesh is weak; the Spirit is power, the energy of God and therefore the Energy that energizes all life. Flesh cannot win this battle, and cultures of flesh must give way to the Spirit’s advance. What Jesus brings by His justifying death and resurrection is not a new human possibility, but a new actuality, human beings keeping Torah’s aims as they follow Jesus and walk by the Spirit. God promised Abraham that he would justify the Gentiles, that he would destroy their fleshliness and raise them up to a new life of justice, and he will accomplish that.

But that brings us back to the original question: Where is the promised justice?

Part of the answer is historical. It is easy for Christians to wring their hands over our failures of community, mission, faithfulness. The slow progress of the gospel seems an indictment.[1] Yet progress there has been, and in all sorts of ways. The argument of the preceding chapters might almost be taken for an ex eventu account of the atonement, for what we expect the atonement to achieve is exactly what the church has achieved through the centuries. The church has been the incubator for new forms of human community, charity, welfare, and polity that honor individual worth and express the “one-and-many” character of social bodies far more than the hierarchical orders of antiquity. The gospel has infused new values into society – a certain kind of equality, liberty, respect for life, care for the weak, justice for all, charity to the hungry, homeless, and poor. For the first time in history, humility became a badge of honor. Christians have combatted slavery, taken steps to limit or even eliminate the scourges of war, elevated the status of women. What would you expect from a civilization growing from the community of Jesus? Something like what we find in the history of Christian civilization.[2]

Yet we cannot avoid asking, What, if any, responsibility the church has to accept for continuing injustice, violence, and oppression? To what extent have we failed to preach and live the gospel of God’s justice in Christ? To what extent has our preaching and practice conformed more to flesh than to Spirit?

Jesus transfigured human nature by dying to flesh and rising in the Spirit, and by sharing that Spirit of resurrection with human beings. At the same time, the gospel inaugurates a new ritual practice. In place the old system of holy/profane, clean/unclean, sacrifice, temple, and priest, Jesus introduced the single cleansing bath of baptism that admits the Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female to a united Eucharistic community. As Augustine said, Jesus inaugurated a semiotic regime with simpler, clearer, more powerful rites. Those who are united to Jesus re-enter Eden, and are permitted to eat and drink in the presence of God, without veils or barriers. Those who are baptized overcome the divisions of Babel. The church is the body of Christ animated by the Spirit, the social body that takes this form – a community operating by a different social physics, gathered around Word and Sacrament. That is the social form of salvation.

Paul considers this new set of practices critical to maintaining the life of the Spirit. Any reversion to old patterns of life, every reversion to a social world where the distinction of circumcision/uncircumcision matters is a reversion to flesh, and it can only produce the works of the flesh. This is an apostasy, and Paul sees this apostasy from Christ, and from the Christian era, as a real possibility. It is an actuality for the Galatians, who began by the Spirit but then attempted to reach perfection and maturity by flesh. Foolish Galatians: They attempted to reach adulthood by playing with the childhood toys of Torah.[3] They must be bewitched.

Galatian apostasy is a persistent a danger and a temptation for the church. So long as the church remains in the flesh, reversion to patterns of life that mesh with flesh remains a possibility. Galatianism means the reintroduction of the structures and habits of old order in the church, old covenant forms of sacred space, priesthood, purity, and sacrifice. When Christians re-establish zones of sacred space and exclude “profane” others from it; when Christians reintroduce purity regulations and use them to keep some from participation in the sacraments; when priesthood turns from a hierarchy of gift to a hierarchy of holiness; when the worship of the church begins to embody again the separations of the old order; when the church is divided by blood and flesh, when ethnic loyalties trump the sacramental oath of baptism – then the church has become a Galatian church. In a Galatian church, flesh will flourish, and do all its destructive work.

And that simple summary should be indication enough that the church is not only potentially but actually infected by Galatianism. In many respects, the church remains in her infancy as she remains tied to old institutions and patterns. And that is part of the reason (not the whole reason) why the church has not been either the just society or the instrument for spreading the justice of God that it is called to be. If the church is going to embody and proclaim God’s justice, she has to outgrow, repent of, the vestiges of the old world that promote fleshly rivalries, strife, and envy.

Galatians gives us the right mix of patience and persistence: Patience because we know the Spirit will triumph in His time; we have all the time we need, which is all the time the Spirit wants; persistence because we see the continuing strength of flesh, in ourselves, in our churches, in our world. Galatians leaves us with restless hope, restless until the end we know is coming does in fact come.

Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis.

[1] P.T. Forsyth had a point when he emphasized that the slowness of the Christian mission is in a sense inherent in the Christian message. We tell people they are self-willed rebels who are helpless to save ourselves. That is not a message anyone is going to accept readily, and it is a message, as Forsyth stresses, that has to create its own recipients (The Work of Christ [Independent Press, 1938], p. 21). Yet this too can become an excuse, and it leaves one wondering if the gospel has always been preached in a way that expresses Jesus’ assurance: “With men, this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.” Have we hedged our bets against failure with a gospel that stresses human inability more than the Spirit’s power?

[2] In the last generation, this argument was pursued in the many books of Christopher Dawson. More recent versions of the same theme can be found in Robert Louis Wilken, The First Thousand Year: A Global History of Christianity (New Haven: Yale, 2013), and in the various books of Rodney Stark, especially The Rise of Christianity (San Francisco, Harper, 1997); Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2007); The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World Largest Religion (San  Francisco: HarperOne, 2012); The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (New York: Random House, 2006); For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts and the End of Slavery (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004).

[3] Historically, this form of apostasy has been described as “Judaizing.” I think that an unfortunate usage, partly because it does not match Paul’s usage of ioudaizein, which he uses only once and specifically to describe the imposition of Jewish patterns of life on Gentiles. The term is unfortunate too because the historical figures who use the term often join it to vicious anti-Jewish rhetoric and theology. In what follows, I adopt the term “Galatianism” to describe the more general heresy of abandoning the Christian era, and use forms of the word “Judaize” only when talking about or quoting writers who themselves use the term.

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