A conservative theologian's journey back to the garden

Ross Clifford, principal of Morling Baptist Theological College, says he has experienced dramatic changes in his values thanks to a new understanding of how to truly live out the power of the resurrection.

The conservative theologian and politician – as a leading light of the Christian Democrats he has long campaigned on moral issues – says he has been challenged in many of his beliefs on rights and justice issues, from climate change to animal care.

“The whole sense of understanding our responsibility to all of creation has come within this worldview framework. It’s just not been climate. It’s been animals. Respect for God’s creation and how it’s cared for. That for me has been a constant learning experience,” he tells Eternity.

Clifford and his American co-author Jim Baucom have helpfully come up with eight practical steps to reorient everyday life around the truth of the resurrection in their new book, Rise: Reimagining the resurrection life.

“A lot of churches have left before the last act! Or they think that’s still in the future.” – Ross Clifford

From Genesis 1-2 to postmodern spirituality, the authors guide the reader through the four phases of a symphony – creation, fall, resurrection and redemption – to unpack what work, rest, love, creation care and wellbeing should be like in the light of the resurrection.

“We put it in the context of a symphony that goes through four stages. There is the grand stage, and then there’s always the collapse. Then there’s the start of moving forward and there’s this rondo of the absolute climax. And that’s the story of the Bible,” he says.

“But a lot of churches have left before the last act! Or they think that’s still in the future. But they’re booked into the last act now. I mean, it’s playing now!”

The new book is a more popular reworking of Clifford’s earlier book, The Cross is Not Enough, which asserts that while evangelicals and Catholics affirm the fact of the resurrection, they don’t really apply this affirmation to their lifestyle.

“The resurrection of Jesus is the only doctrine that is in every sermon in Acts … so for us, it is the linchpin of the Christian faith, whilst we’ve tended to make the cross the linchpin of the Christian faith. Now I totally love the cross but with no resurrection, the cross is meaningless,” he says.

“Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, if Christ has been not been raised, I’m still in my sins and my faith is futile.”

Clifford acknowledges that his work on resurrection theology is not unique, but says it has been called “the forgotten truth.”

The big question is what difference does it make? Well, he says, the resurrection wipes the slate clean – we are forgiven – and now Jesus is writing on that slate what it means to be in him and living out the resurrection in revolutionary approaches to work, love and marriage, relationships, liberation from shame and wellbeing.

“In a real sense, resurrection living is living out the reversal of the fall – love God, love your neighbour,” he says.

“If love your neighbour is the key, then resurrection living is basically down to ‘no Greek, no Jew, no male, no female, no slave, no free man’ – that’s the in-breaking of resurrection living and theology that is played out in the very steps that we talk about.”

Putting on these “garments” of equality before God in “no Greek, no Jew” enforces a re-evaluation of work practices, he says.

“To be a Christian lawyer is not simply to have a prayer before I go to work or to find other mates to pray with. To be a Christian lawyer means I do law differently. I have to be about pro bono. I have to ask about mediation. I have to be involved in areas that make a difference to law. It’s just not a prayer mechanism.

“To be a Christian banker means that I’ve got to look at the workplaces; to be a Christian person involved in fashion I’ve got to take seriously where’s this stuff coming from and what are the work conditions?

“To manage a superannuation fund means I’ve got to have lots of questions about where are the investments of this fund going? It means what about my own workplace relationships as an employer of my hundred staff. What does that mean?”

To support his argument that the resurrection took place for the purpose of recapturing what was lost in the fall and returning to the blessings of Genesis 1 and 2, he points out that all the biblical accounts of the resurrection begin with “On the first day of the week”.

“With respect to Easter Sunday and the women going to the tomb, all of them begin with ‘on the first day of the week’. It’s either dark becoming light or light is breaking in. This is just not a time tag. Mary is in a garden, she confused Jesus for a gardener; he’s buried in a garden; he’s risen in a garden. And on the first day of the week is Genesis 1.

“On the first day of the week in Genesis 1, light breaks into darkness. This is the first day of the new order. This is the first day of the new creation. This is the first day of the fulfilment of Scripture.”

So what does the first day of the week look like?

“It looks like, ‘Hey, we’re back into work again. We’re back into love and marriage as it ought to be, we’re back to care of the environment. Creation care doesn’t come from an abstract theological concept. It comes from ‘we are back in the garden again, the stewards of God’s creation.’”

“To be in the Sabbath is to bring Christ into every aspect of our life and rest.” – Ross Clifford

One example where resurrection theology makes a practical difference is in observation of the Sabbath. According to Clifford, a legalistic understanding of the keeping of the Sabbath has no place in resurrection living.

“Our assertion is that the church has in some senses got this wrong, that the Sabbath regulations that came in the law were for the fallen society, was for a church that was still awaiting the outpouring of the Holy Spirit – they were regulations that allowed them to make sure that God was their focus and there’s a day set aside,” he explains.

“But with respect to the resurrection theology, Hebrews makes it very clear that the Sabbath is not picked up in this general concept of the rest of God. That’s not to say an order of seven days still doesn’t have a place – it’s useful – but we’ve turned it into a legalistic statement about the Sabbath which is typical of people who are not living in resurrection power. And so the whole sense of recapturing what Sabbath means … is not a legalistic formula that I must be in this church on this particular time, or I won’t go to the movies or something or other on a Sunday … to be in the Sabbath is to bring Christ into every aspect of our life and rest.

“It also overarches into our work because God didn’t stop working on that seventh day. He rested, but he didn’t just say, ‘Well, that’s it, the universe can take care of itself.’ He didn’t lay down tools. So it’s like we’re capturing that.”

Clifford even ventures into the area of new spirituality, which he generously characterises as a commitment to becoming the best person someone can possibly be.

“They are totally connected to a holistic theology in that context, but they don’t have a holistic theological foundation. Most of them have a theology of a solarscape, that eventually I’ll be some whiffy spirit in nirvana or somewhere into reincarnation. Where’s the wholeness in that? But resurrection theology says the whole of me is to be raised up with God. So here’s a vision of the whole of me being in the garden with him permanently. That means he’s concerned for me – body, mind and spirit – now. It’s the only worldview that captures wellness and wholeness. Now there’s no part of me that’s insignificant.

“Resurrection theology is so much more empowering, so much more fulfilling. Plus, if it’s true, it gives you the authority and the power to live it out.”


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Rise: Reimagining the resurrection life

Jim Baucom, Ross Clifford

Available from Koorong

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