Talking Points: An Interview with Dr. Michael Wittmer

By Darrell Yoder on September 8, 2015

On Oct. 7, pastors and ministry leaders will gather at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary for a Talking Points conference on new creation theology. The theme "Thy Kingdom Come" is taken from the Lord's Prayer and highlights the earthiness of the Christian Hope.

Over the next month, on the Talking Points blog, we want to provide a few sneak peaks and advance tastes of what is in store for you at the conference. For today, I asked Dr. Michael Wittmer to tell us more about the topic and put words to why pastors and ministry leaders should consider joining us.

DY: What is the theme "Thy Kingdom Come" all about?

MW: This line from the Lord's Prayer emphasizes our need to integrate heaven and earth, redemption and creation and our Christian lives with our human lives. Many people feel the tension between earthly pleasure and heavenly purpose and often wonder, "Can I serve Jesus and still enjoy my life?"

This conference will enable pastors and ministry leaders to help people put their Bibles and their lives together. There are inevitable tensions in the Christian life. For example, the supernatural trumps the natural and redemption matters more than creation. Jesus asked, "What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?" (Matthew 16:26). What is more important than not going to hell?) However, we must privilege redemption without demeaning creation. We must emphasize the urgency of the gospel without denigrating social justice, privilege the call to ministry without disparaging ordinary callings and stress the glories of heaven without dismissing our enjoyment of earth. We must do this, not only for the sake of earth, but for heaven too. Redemption may be more than creation, but it is not less. Without a good creation, we could not have an incarnation or resurrection. Without a good creation, the gospel doesn't get off the ground.

"Thy Kingdom Come" integrates the tensions we feel into a unified life and ministry. Following Jesus should make us and our churches more human rather than less. For the sake of this life, and the next one too.

DY: What is the difference between "heaven" (as we usually imagine it) and "new creation"?

MW: Praise God that Christians go to heaven when we die. Who can imagine the glory of being in the presence of God? (And it sure beats going to the other place.) But as glorious as heaven is, it is not our final destination. There is one thing better than being a disembodied soul in heaven with Jesus, and that is to be a whole person with Jesus on earth, where we were always meant to live.

The Christian hope is not that our souls go to heaven when we die. The Christian hope is for the return of Christ and the resurrection of our bodies. Scripture teaches that going to heaven is the first leg of a journey that is round trip. When Jesus returns he will bring the souls of his followers with him. He will resurrect their bodies and put them back together, and they will live forever with him here—on this restored earth. This biblical truth compels us to shout the closing prayer of Scripture, "Come quickly, Lord Jesus."

DY: Why should pastors and ministry leaders be thinking about this topic? What difference does it make for life and ministry today?

MW: We must call people to discipleship without loading them with false guilt. Popular calls for radical lifestyles make many good points, but they unintentionally erect a new legalism that exhausts anyone who tries to follow them. How large of a house can I have? How nice of a car can I drive? Am I allowed to vacation in Traverse City, or must I go to Flint? It's difficult to justify any earthly pleasure if the only thing that matters is heavenly purpose.

Ironically, our exclusively spiritual focus also detracts from the Lordship of Christ. Our people know that Jesus cares about Bible reading, prayer, evangelism and coming to church, but they aren't as convinced that he's also concerned about the mundane aspects of life, such as how they eat, work and take care of their bodies and homes. We need to explain to God's children why everything they do matters to God, and how living with joy and excellence is the best advertisement for the gospel.

Too many Christians live with one foot in the world and the other in the church, and they don't know how to bring them together. So they live split, compartmentalized lives that shortchange both. If our mission is to make disciples, we must show people how to follow Jesus in every area of life. We must show them how to bring heavenly purpose and earthly pleasure together into one unified, flourishing life.

DY: What can attendees expect at the Thy Kingdom Come Talking Points conference?

MW: They will learn how to invite people into a whole-life discipleship that tends both creation and redemption, earthly pleasure and heavenly purpose. We'll go after this from several angles. I will offer some thoughts theologically, Doug Moo will explore it biblically, Martin Spence and John Duff will give perspective historically and Neal Plantinga will demonstrate it homiletically. Then we'll close with a concert from the Getty's. It will be an inspiring day that will give leaders plenty of rich material for sharing with the people God has entrusted into their care.

DY: What are you personally hoping for most at the conference?

MW: I hope that all who come will discover why it's essential to avoid both extremes of secularism and spiritualism. We aren't godless materialists, but neither are we sloppy pietists. We need an earthy faith to be authentically Christian and to reach our world, and I pray that this conference will equip everyone to see its importance and how to get there.

Learn More

Later this week, Steven Lister, a GRTS student, will offer a reflection on how new creation theology has proved significant in his life and ministry.

Categories: Interviews, Theology