The essence of the Christian religion consists in this, that the creation of the Father, devastated by sin, is restored in the death of the Son of God, and re-created by the Holy Spirit into a kingdom of God.
Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, I, 112
Growing up, I had a difficult time piecing together what the process of salvation looked like. I largely saw it in terms of sin and redemption. I knew that I had sinned against God and needed Jesus for my salvation from the penalty of sin. He needed to be both my Lord and Savior. As time went on I maintained this understanding of the gospel but I found it hard to understand how the gospel related to my works or my everyday activities. I wondered how the gospel related to the physical world and not just my own immaterial soul and individual experience.
As I began to study the Bible and learned more about how it fit together, I realized that the Bible was one unified whole structured by one continuous narrative. As such, I knew I could not forget what I read on the previous page. The first page of the Bible presents the creation as the instrument of God’s glory and the anchor of divine intention. God’s goal for creation was for it to flourish and increase in glory as man spread Eden to the rest of the world so that when creation flourished under God’s reign, His glorious Kingdom would be most evidently seen.
Today, many people emphasize one part of the story of Scripture to the neglect of other equally important parts. Some emphasize the entrance of sin into the world to the neglect of creation. This tends to produce a glass-half-empty view of creation by seeing it as existing and as shining a brief light before God destroys it because it is seen as inherently sinful. The outcome of such a view is a separatistic and pietistic approach to life where personal holiness and separation from the world is seen as God’s greatest end for mankind. On the other hand, many put the emphasis on redemption to the neglect of creation. This view of the world tends to make a separation between things that are spiritual versus things that are earthly. Evangelism and going to church are the only legitimate expressions of the Christian faith with other aspects of life being seen as necessary but ultimately futile endeavors. Ironically, in trying to separate the spiritual from the earthly, people with this viewpoint tend to adopt views of work, leisure, family, entertainment etc. that resemble the surrounding culture because in their minds Christianity doesn’t have anything to say about “earthly” activities. As a result, the only teaching they receive on these subjects is a secular mindset while the sacred part of their mind is proclaiming “none of this matters to God, just go to church, don’t cuss, and witness to your co-workers.”
Yet, the creation story is not forgotten with the entrance of sin and rebellion in the world. It is maintained as the anchor of God’s mission and intent the moment God pronounced in Genesis 3:15 that God would crush the head of the serpent by a righteous seed. The works of evil that distort God’s creation would be defeated and God’s intention for his creation would be restored by a Messiah and his people. Once you get to the end of the Bible you find that the end parallels the beginning in that the Bible ends with a New Creation and Jesus as that righteous seed and star of David amidst his people.
As Christians, we find ourselves in the tension of Christ having accomplished this salvation in his first coming and the completion of that salvation at his return. This tension causes us to ask many questions about how we are supposed to live. Are we to separate ourselves from the world until Jesus returns? Are we to only focus on “saving souls”? These questions can be answered by answering the question: what is Jesus doing right now?
The Book of Acts opens with Jesus commanding his disciples to go and witness to the salvation he had just accomplished after the Spirit is poured out. Then he ascends in a cloud up to heaven at the right hand of God, the place of ultimate power. Then forty days later he pours out the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, marking the last days as prophesied by the prophet Joel. What does all of this mean? I think the best paradigm for understanding salvation as a whole and especially salvation in these last days under the Messianic reign of Christ is seeing it as the restoration of creation.
Titus 3:4-8 is an example of a New Testament passage that sees our salvation as the restoration of creation by drawing parallels to the original creation story in Genesis 1. It says:
“ But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. 8 The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works.”
If we look at the creation story in Genesis chapter 1 and compare it to Titus 3:4-8, there are some obvious parallels in both the wording and the order of events. Genesis 1:1 says “in the beginning God”. Here we have the divine appearance of God the Creator whose character is assumed behind the works of creation. In Titus 3:4 the character of God is assumed behind the works of salvation. It says, the “goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared”.
Then Genesis 1:1 also says, “in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” God is the author of the heavens and the earth, they are the result of his works and not ours. They operate according to His prerogative, not ours. Likewise, in Titus 3:5 it says “[God] saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness.” God is also the author of our salvation and we are not. It was brought about by his works and not ours.
Next, Genesis 1:2-3 states how God created the heavens and the earth. “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. And God said[…]”. The matter of creation is in a formless and void state and God by his word speaks and his Holy Spirit carries out this word in the six days of creation with man and woman as the crown of his creation. God finishes his creation and calls it “very good” (1:31). In John chapter 1:1, Jesus is the Word sent by the Father. He is the Word of God that pronounced all things he had created “very good”. He is goodness itself and the epitome of everything the Father loves and rejoices in as He is perfectly one with the Father in His essence and has enjoyed fellowship with Him throughout all eternity as a distinct Person. Jesus was sent to carry out the Father’s will of salvation by restoring the creation that he loved in his death. He absorbed in himself the wrath of God and the dark and chaotic reality of sin and death caused by us so that creation could be “very good” once again in the consummation instead of being destroyed. The Holy Spirit carries out this restoration accomplished by Jesus in his resurrection by raising him to life eternal. Jesus is the first fruit of the New Creation (1 Cor. 15:20) while also being its divine Redeemer. He was raised to immortality as the first sign of the “very good” and incorruptible creation to come while in his ascension he reigns as the divine Restorer of all things through the Holy Spirit.
The resurrection remains for us a paradigm of salvation. Jesus had the same body before and after his resurrection yet in his death he died in weakness but in his resurrection, he was restored to immortality by the Holy Spirit. Likewise, the creation has been subjected to weakness and death yet God is restoring it to immortality by his Holy Spirit in these last days through the gospel. We taste this reality now yet one day we will experience it in full at the resurrection.
Paul picks up on this historical reality and says that the power of the renewing reign of Christ has come into our lives in Titus 3:5-7. The Father through Christ, in his reign of restoration, has applied and is carrying out this restoration by the Holy Spirit. God by his mercy poured out the Holy Spirit in regeneration (re-birth/recreation) upon us through Christ and pronounces us “very good” by grace through faith in the person and work of Christ proclaimed in the gospel. In God’s eyes, even though we are sinners and were His enemies, we are treated as if we have always been “very good” and pleasing in God’s sight because we are clothed in Christ’s righteousness and incorruptible character. This is the justification Paul is talking about in Titus 3:8.
But, in the creation story, God doesn’t simply speak his word and not have it come into being. The Holy Spirit obeys the Word and accompanies the Word in carrying out the creational command that results in life. The same is true of what the Holy Spirit does in salvation which is shown in Paul’s use of the phrase “regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” in Titus 3:5. The word “regeneration” is where we get the term “born-again”. Put in creational terms, it means re-creation or going back to the way things are supposed to be and function in God’s creation. This power of renewal works through the ordinary means of repentance and faith as we daily turn from sin in faith to Christ in works of righteousness. So, the Father sent the Son (the Word made flesh) to accomplish salvation and the Son sends the Spirit to carry out this accomplished salvation individually in our own lives, corporately in the church, and one day cosmically in the regeneration of the whole universe. We are not only declared “very good” once and for all in our justification in Christ, we actually become good by the progressive regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit welling up to eternal life in glory. The evidence of having received eternal life is the fruit of a new character shown through our good works that are in keeping with the building up of the creation that we as human beings were meant to carry out toward our neighbor and the earth itself in love for God (Titus 3:8).
With this comparison, it’s obvious that creation is not abolished by sin or redemption it’s actually restored and made new. As sons of God in Jesus Christ, we are the first signs of this restoration and we are also the divine instruments of restoration in every aspect of our lives. God has ordained in his law and his creational ordinances how he wants all things to operate. It is our mission to set the brokenness of the creation back in place according to God’s prerogatives. This includes people, in evangelism and discipleship, nature in preservation and care, and broken human institutions by reform.
This view, of salvation as restoration, might be foreign to many because it isn’t taught in many Protestant traditions and because it requires certain underlying assumptions when we read the Bible. We would have to assume that the Bible is one continuous narrative that views the physical creation as good yet devastated by sin but as being restored and re-created by God instead of seeing the Bible as a story of God throwing away His creation and restarting like a frustrated artist. If we were to see the world through the lenses of restoration, everything we do would matter because all of the creation is important to God. When a person or another aspect of creation is redeemed from sin it should be celebrated as an evidence of God’s grace of restoration in the gospel. Our ultimate hope is the return of Christ when He finishes His work of restoration by releasing all of the creation from the bondage of sin and death while refining our works done in his name.