Reformers Interview: Not Home Yet with Ian Smith

Interview with Ian Smith -- Christ College, Sydney

Watch our full interview with Ian Smith, principal of Christ College here.

 Not Home Yet: How the Renewal of the Earth Fits into God's Plan for the World

Not Home Yet: How the Renewal of the Earth Fits into God's Plan for the World

by Ian K. Smith




Interview Transcript

TE: G'day, Tom here from Reformers Bookshop with another Reformers Interview. Today we're here at Christ College with Ian Smith. Thanks for joining us, Ian.

IS: Good to be here.

TE: Now you're the principal here at Christ College in Sydney, can you tell us a bit about Christ College and what you do here?

IS: Sure, so Christ College trains people for all forms of Christian ministry. And that's one of the things I talk about in the book, but we'll get there in a second, I'm sure. So primarily, we're owned by the Presbyterian Church, and we train people for ministry in the Presbyterian Church. That of course, is ordained pastoral ministry, but it's also training people to be leaders in churches, to be leaders in their workplace and to present the Christian gospel in a better way, hopefully after their training in whatever context they're in. Yeah.


TE: And you have written recently, this book here, "Not Home Yet.

IS: Yep.

TE: Can you tell us why you decided to write this book?

IS: Oh, absolutely. This book has been 20 years in the making. It goes back a long way. Do you want me to give you a longer answer?

TE: Lets go for it.

IS: Okay, let's go for it. When I was at university, that's a while ago.

TE: What did you study?

IS: I did teaching, I did arts got involved in the AFES group, really, really grateful for that grounding. But... okay? And I really am very grateful for that grounding. But I was asked as a young Christian male in particular, "why are you not going into Christian ministry?" That was the question. And if I couldn't give a valid answer to that, then I should have gone into it. Now, in a sense, that was good and I'm grateful for it, because I became a minister, I've become a missionary, I've become a Bible College principal, so I guess I've gone into Christian ministry. But there's an implication in that question, which is that other people have not gone into Christian ministry. And that just didn't resonate with me. And, in our modern world, where we're living in a world now, 30, 40 years after I left university, where we're all decrying and saying the fact that the media is controlling society, or, as we've seen very recently in the New South Wales parliament, medical practise is not going according to Christian values, where many parents are saying, "I can't send my kids to the local school." I'm just wondering if we had a different message back there 30 years ago, and we actually said that, being in the media, and being in education or being in medicine is valid Christian ministry, and we want to, in our churches, empower people within that ministry, we might be living in a bit of a different world today. So, I value it, I believe that the call of God upon my life was to do the things that I'm doing, but I think that God calls other people to do other things. And I think we need to have validity in that. So that then leads into a worldview, and the worldview that talks about "the only thing in life that is important is for people to become Christians and go to heaven when they die, and the things of the world like education and medicine and engineering and architecture and [I could keep going], don't matter." I go back to an understanding of how we understand the earth. And the more and more over the last several decades, as I've read the Scriptures, I've seen that the Scriptures talk about, new heavens and new earth. And it talks about the fact that when God made the world, it was very good. And He delighted in it. And He delights when His creatures delight in the things of the world. And there is this thing called the righteousness of God, which is about access to heaven. But it's not just about access to heaven. God is a God who is concerned for righteousness and justice and healing and compassion in His world. And, I don't know, something's happened in the last 200 years, in evangelical Christianity, and even Reformed Christianity where we've lost that. It was pretty strong in the time of the Puritans, but we've lost it a bit. And so that really motivated me to do something here. But there was something else. Sorry, this is a long answer. But there was something else that also motivated me. That in the academy of theologians, the world in which I live, lots of people are writing on this sort of stuff. And they're talking about the Greek and textual variants and all that sort of stuff. But I wanted to write a book that anybody could pick up and read. And actually, I found that really challenging to actually have something that is accessible, and it's not too long, and that people can read and say, "hey, what I'm doing in God's world has value because God values the earth, and he's going to renew it." So, that's what motivated me to write the book.

TE: Well, it is very readable. So you achieve that end, well done.

IS: Thanks Tom.


TE: So I want to explore some of these ideas with you a little bit. One of the things you talk about, how people will say that the goal is to get to heaven, and we sort of have this idea of heaven is something abstract. In your book, you make a distinction between spiritual and heavenly and earthly. Can you talk us through, maybe how understanding those three terms, helps us to think through who we are and what we're destined for?

IS: Exactly. We are spiritual beings. But, we're not heavenly beings. And that's an important distinction. Heavenly beings are creatures who were made for heaven. And we normally call them angels. And, when we sing the doxology in church, if we sing a doxology in church, we include the whole of creation in that, "praise God from whom all blessings flow, praise Him all creatures here below, [thats Earthly], praise Him, above ye heavenly host," I don't know how often people think about it, we're actually addressing the angels at that point, "praise Father, Son, Holy Ghost." So there are heavenly beings who are made for their home, which is heaven. But, if you self-identify as a non-Angel, then it's not you. But there are... But there are earthly beings. And it's quite easy for me to work out what I am. So I was made for Earth, and, Christians will go to heaven. I'll talked about that in the book. But, in a sense it's home, because we are absent from the body, and at home with the Lord at that point, but it's not the home for which we were made, and it's not our eternal home. Christians often look at this world, and they say, "I think there's gonna be something better than this." At a level that's true, and it's not true. It's true, because this world is tainted with sin. And the problem is not the world, the problem is sin. But, it also implies that when God made this world, He makes something that was second best. And that's not what the Bible says. It was a very good, which, in the original Hebrew could also mean was very beautiful. You know, it was awesome. And that's the home for which we're made. And, as I think about that, when I just you know, go to the beach or go to the mountains or go to some place that is particularly beautiful or see something in creation that's beautiful, it just causes me to rejoice and to think, imagine this, imagine this without sin. And that's my hope. So, sure, I'm spiritual, because God has given to me His spirit. And He's given to me His Spirit as a down payment, awaiting that which I will receive at the new heavens and the new earth. I am spiritual. But I don't want to compartmentalise that which is spiritual from that which is physical and the body and soul. God is much more holistic than that. So, I guess it comes home to are you an earthly being or a heavenly being, and that will tell you where home is.


TE: Thank you. Which is fascinating because, I was at a concert the other day. And, the final song... it was a Hugh Jackman concert... and the final song was "I Still Call Australia Home" And there were 10... 15,000 people in the stadium, and we all sang it. And there was this idea of having a home, and this belonging, is so ingrained, I think, these days in what we want, in what we desire. And so how does that help us, maybe relate to this culture? How does it help us in terms of where we can aim for in a hope?

IS: So it's good that that resonates because if we talk about heaven being home, which in one sense it is, but there's so much about heaven I don't know. But I know about what it's like to live in Sydney, or Australia, that's home. And every time I travel, and I think most travellers are like this, it's always exciting to go, but when the plane touches down, in Sydney, and you come out and you just sort of hear Australian accents and you just... I know how it works here.

TE: You usually say "G'day Mate!"

IS: Exactly, I'm just kind of home. And, you know, it's where we belong. There's a lot of people in the world who don't get that privilege. There's a lot of refugees in the world who long for home. I mentioned this in the book. My grandfather was a Yorkshireman. And, a couple of years ago I was in Yorkshire. And, I had this strange feeling in Yorkshire. It wasn't home, I didn't understand a word they were saying in Yorkshire, they speak a strange English, but I had this feeling that my forebears, for hundreds or thousands of years, however long have lived here. And that was a kind of, there's kind of self identity in that. So, if we're migrants to Australia with both those things are alive. But, this world is the world I'm made for. This is home. So the fact that Hugh Jackman and they all started singing yeah, I'd be there too, I'd be singing with gusto. So this is home, Sydney is home, It's good to touch down in Sydney Airport. That's it.

TE: Which really just makes the story of redemption so beautiful.

IS: Exactly.

TE: Because it's not that we're messing around here, but it's all going to change later on,

IS: Exactly.

TE: it's that Jesus is saving everything.

IS: Absolutely. We live in a world which has many refugees. And, when I look at refugees, and the problem with refugees in the world, my heart breaks. I mean, if you think of places like, I've not been to these places, but, Gaza, and Afghanistan, they're beautiful places, and they're home, and it's an issue of last resort when you flee home, because of the sin at home and you try and set up somewhere else. That's the Christian gospel I keep on hearing, that this world is no good and we're gonna be eternal refugees in heaven in a place that was really not made for us. It's gonna be great. Heaven will be great. And, when the Christian dies, and awaits the new creation that will be home for a short term, which is what the scripture says. But if that was to be our eternal home, then we're kind of living as eternal refugees in a place for which we were not made. And that's redeeming all things, redeeming the beauty of creativity, redeeming the beauty of food, redeeming the beauty of colour and delights. The amazing thing in the gospel is, God takes things that are the effects of the fall, and then He redeems them to be part of His new creation. I mean, sickness is part of the fall. And the gospel is about healing. And the prerequisite for healing is sickness. Resurrection is part of the redemption, but the prerequisite for resurrection is death. And at the core of the gospel is forgiveness. And when we come to the absolute core of the gospel, the righteousness of God is displayed by the horrendous injustice that was done by a corrupt Roman procurator by nailing an innocent man to death. And so the righteousness of God is shown by an act of injustice. And that does my mind in that God's sovereignty over the power of evil is such that He even uses the effects of sin, to bring about His glory and to redeem that for which He made it initially. I wish I understood that, that is just mind blowing. But that's what God's doing. He's creating a new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. And that's pretty awesome. Yeah?

TE: Yeah. And the incredible thing really too is that this isn't plan B, He had this idea from the beginning.

IS: That's right, this is the initial plan. "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." And at the end of the story, "I saw a new heaven and a new earth." The Bible starts and ends the same way. It's God's, there's no planet B, there's no plan B. It's God has this covenant of redemption that goes through the whole of the Scriptures. And it's not just about "me", it's not just about "me getting into heaven", or maybe "me getting into the new heavens and the new earth" it's not even just about people, important though, that is, it's about all of creation that is groaning, awaiting this, as Romans 8 tells us. And, you know, I've just grown and grown over the years in my understanding of what God's doing. And I got an email yesterday from somebody who read the book. And I'm really, I mean, it was great, I've got a couple of emails. But he didn't say the book was great. Although he kind of thought that. But his email said, "isn't God great?!" And I thought, well, that's the story I wanna hear, because that's what God's doing. It's pretty exciting.


TE: If we can spend a few moments, sort of pushing this down a little bit. Because, you're saying that what we do in this life, even outside of evangelism, because that's the other the other line, right? If you don't go into Christian ministry, well at least you can evangelise your coworkers.

IS: Exactly, yes.

TE: So, how does this change the view of, say, if we pick the engineer, or the scientist, that sort of realm, the teacher or the educator and then someone in the creative, get parts, kind of works for that sort of... anyway. How did how does this change all of those things?

IS: Exactly. Okay, let me be clear on something to start of with which I bring out in the book and something I really needed to wrestle with, to bring this down to, down is a bad word, but to express this in a popular way. The gospel is always heraldic. That's a big word, Herald. So the Gospel is always an announcement. The Greek word, euangelion, gospel means good news. So, the people who say, "preach the gospel and use words if you have to", I don't think are really preaching the gospel. Okay? So we don't proclaim the gospel by being a good engineer. We proclaim the proclamation of the gospel by telling the story of Jesus. And that's what the gospels are about. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are all about Jesus life and death and resurrection. That is the gospel. And then we call people to respond to that Gospel, through faith and obedience. We desperately need people to be doing that in all contexts. And so if this book undervalues that, that would be a pity, because I don't want that to be the case.

TE: And that's the calling of all Christians.

IS: Absolutely. All Christians, and we're all gifted differently to do it. And we should all know what it means to give a defence of the faith, and for the things that we hold within us. But, there's also Kingdom work. And we are members of the kingdom, and the king is doing a work. And the work that the king is doing, is he is renewing a world. And engineering has got a big part of that. And teaching has got a big part of that because we are nurturing young lives and we're bringing them up and we're educating them in a way that they value the Christian gospel, absolutely, but God is the God of mathematics, and God is the God of history, and God is the God of French, and all those things, and we want kids to understand God's common grace, and we want medical people to express the character of God in their work. And so it's kind of, if I understand that the kingdom is pointing to a place where all will be redeemed, I think what we need to be doing is having more and more conversations one-on-one, between people in churches, with the pastor and elder, or just a Godly, wise person, and the engineer, or the person working in some valid profession, of course, there are some invalid professions, we don't want to go there, but assuming people are working in valid professions, and to ask the question, "what does it mean to be a kingdom ambassador in the work that I'm doing?" And because God values order, God values healing. For the Christian police officer, then you ask the question, "how am I showing the justice of God in the way that I work as a real estate agent", as it goes on and on. We also need to be praying for opportunities to proclaim the gospel. But, at a pragmatic level, people are never gonna listen to us proclaim the gospel, unless we're living out the values of the kingdom. And so the two go together.

TE: So either/or.

IS: Absolutely, it's both/and. So I hope people will, after reading the book, will recognise that in their valid professions, and it's not just paid professions, there's parenthood and there's being a friend and there's being retired and there's being... it just goes on and on. I hope people will recognise worth in that, as a kingdom ambassador, I hope people will be challenged about the importance of things like compassion and truth and justice and all the sorts of things that will be revealed in the new heavens and the new earth. And I hope there will be a synergy with proclamation of the gospel as well, because ultimately, we won't do it. We will not bring about the new heavens and the new earth, that's God's work. But we are still members of the kingdom, and we need to show the values of the kingdom. Yeah.


TE: So the way you were talking just then sounded a bit like image bearing.

IS: Absolutely. Yeah.

TE: And so in each of those different professions, you can bear God's image in a particular way.

IS: Absolutely, we are made for image-bearing. So here's one of the big problems that I see, certainly in the circles that I move. People tell the story of the Gospel as if the Bible started at Genesis 3. And the problem is the fall, and it needs to be fixed up. Now, this is not rocket science, but this will totally change the way you read redemption. The Bible starts at Genesis 1, not Genesis 3. And at Genesis 1, we're told that we're image bears. And that means that we have dominion over creation. God did not create us to preach the gospel. We should be preaching the Gospel, but that's not why He created us. He's the Creator, He calls the shots. He is clear in Genesis 1, to be image bearers and have dominion over the fish, the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, and so the passage goes on. It's interesting in the ministry of Jesus, that when you get to Colossians 1, that Jesus is also called, the image of God. In that same passage He's also called, the first born of all creation. Now, who's first firstborn of all creation? It's Adam. And so it's not talking about the fact that Jesus was born. But the firstborn has dominion, the firstborn has authority. And so although our dominion has been marred by the fall, it has been redeemed by the one who in the New Testament, is called the last Adam, the image of God, the firstborn of all creation. And so if we understand ourselves as being in Christ, and of course, Christ is just a Greek word that means Messiah, and of course Messiah is the kingly one who's to come, then if we understand ourselves as being in Christ, then we recognise that the work that the king of the kingdom has given us to do is to be image bearers. Now the problem is, we don't have to look far in our world to see that the human beings that live in Australia are not being image bearers. So we need to call them to repentance. And we need to point to the Gospel that they might enter the kingdom, and then as they come into the Kingdom through the work of Jesus, then we see that image-bearing starts to bless society. And, one of the things we learned from Church history is that when people have regained the Christian gospel, and when there's been times of revival, and if people just get it: what it means to be an image-bearer, there's been enormous blessing. And there's been enormous social change has happened. At that time, I can give you many examples. Yeah.


TE: Well, so it's a wonderful thought. And so what really what you're saying is that there are two Commissions, not just one great Commission, but we've missed the first Commission, at times.

IS: Absolutely. That's right. So the Great Commission is to make disciples. But the covenant of God's grace all the way through the Scripture is always given in the context of God's work of creation. So, you know, to use reformed categories, the covenant of grace happens within the covenant of works, but, to use more popular language, God's work of redemption happens within a paradigm that has already been given. And that's the paradigm of Genesis 1 and 2 and that's what God is... He's taking us back to the garden. In Revelation 22, we're in the garden with the tree of life in the middle of a city. And that city, this is what cities are, are full of human development. And in Revelation 22, people are giving, bringing their gifts into the city. And so human accomplishment, is part of God's good purposes for us. He's made us to work the soil. He's made us to be creative. And like any good parent, we value that in our children, how much more does a Creator value that in His creatures? So, yeah, that what it's saying.

TE: Well, I wish we could talk all day.

IS: So do I.

TE: But I hope many people read the book. I hope it's helpful and I found it helpful.

IS: Great.

TE: Thank you for writing it.

IS: Thanks Tom.

TE: And thanks for interviewing with us.

IS: My pleasure. Thanks a lot.