Category Archives: Gospel in Culture
Some say evangelism is like tossing lit matches into upright kegs. Most kegs are filled with water, some are filled with gunpowder. C.S. Lewis was thinking gunpowder when he wrote this (Letters, 3:324–325):
My feeling about people in whose conversion I have been allowed to play a part is always mixed with awe and even fear; such as a boy might feel on first being allowed to fire a rifle. The disproportion between his puny finger on the trigger and the thunder and lightning which follow is alarming. And the seriousness with which the other party takes my words always raises the doubt whether I have taken them seriously enough myself.
In the aftermath of the tragedy in Arizona, there is a lot of finger-pointing: the left is pointing a finger at the right, the right is pointing back, those who are less politically inclined point to psychological abnormalities. In his letter on the pervasive wickedness of the natural heart, John Newton points the finger at himself. Newton writes (Works, 1:368–370):
The vilest and most profligate individuals cannot sin beyond the powers and limits of that nature which they possess in common with the more mild and moderate. Though there may be a difference in the fruitfulness of the trees, yet the production of one apple decides the nature of the tree upon which is grew, as certainly as if it had produced a thousand: so in the present case, should it be allowed that these enormities [the wicked displays of the natural heart] cannot be found in all persons, it would be a sufficient confirmation of what I have advanced, if they can be found in any; unless it could be likewise proved, that those who appeared more wicked than others, were of a different species from the rest.
This is precisely why few things are more horrifying to watch than the nightly news; there we see into the depths of evil that our species is capable of reaching.
The histories of Aaron, David, Solomon, and Peter, are left on record, to teach us what evil is latent in the hearts of the best men, and what they are capable of doing if left but a little to themselves. …
How wonderful is the love of God in giving his Son to die for such wretches!
Yes, that is wonderful love! We appreciate this amazing grace when we connect the dots and see that we share the same sinful nature with the most profligate individuals. Apart from the gospel that liberates us from sin, what hope would remain?
September 11th is four days away, and it will mark the ninth anniversary of 9/11. As a large portion of the world mourns, one church in Florida plans to celebrate with “Burn a Qur’an” day. How many copies of the Qur’an it will take to make a newsworthy flame I’m not sure, but I am sure the media will be there when the pile is lit.
The top US military commander in Afghanistan, General Petraeus, says this anti-Muslim act will only vex America’s enemies in the Middle East and give Islamic radicals more clout in the eyes of the moderate Islamic world. The Florida church now says it will be “praying about” whether to continue with the burning ceremony. Whether the event will actually happen is yet to be seen, but my guess is that Islamic moderates around the world have learned to distinguish religious devotion from the meretricious display of zealots.
The Bible, as far as I can tell, mentions one account where religious texts are thrown to the flames (Acts 19:11-20). On the heels of the great work of God in Ephesus, the people had come to fear God and to trust in the Savior. As a result, “a number of those who had practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all. And they counted the value of them and found it came to fifty thousand pieces of silver” (v. 19). In modern terms they ignited a bonfire using very expensive magic books.
What were these books? According to Eckhard Schnabel, they were occultist documents that described how to make amulets to protect against demons and how to make love charms (Early Christian Mission, 1221). The books gave directions for casting spells on others, either for good or ill, and they would have been quite expensive, which highlights the effect of the gospel upon the wealthy inhabitants of Ephesus. That Paul went toe-to-toe with the owners of documents, which later led to a book burning, tells me they qualify as religious texts, and probubly comprised the pop religion of the day.
From this account here are six points to ponder:
1. The Ephesian people burned their own books. These new believers renounced their past. This was not an act of Christians barging into homes to ransack libraries for kindling, or weeding out the public library, or buying up all available copies from the local bookshop. They gathered the valuable books from their own houses.
2. No Christian leader encouraged the book burning. At least the text doesn’t say it. Or would have been better for the books to be sold and the money given to the Apostolic ministry? Perish the thought. There there is no indication that Paul advised the people to burn (or sell) their occultist books.
3. The books posed no threat to the gospel. The gospel overcame the magic power of the books. The gospel is like a hurricane and nothing will stop its wind, certainly not a book of demonic spells.
4. God’s display of power convinced the people that their books were worthless. There was no need to address the value of the magic books directly. Once God’s power and his gospel were seen in the city, the matter was settled.
5. The book burning was a display of godly sorrow. The recently converted Christians wanted to confess their sin before “all.” The high value of the books (50,000 days wages worth!) made a strong statement. It was an act of personal sorrow for their own sin.
6. The burning illustrated the victory of the gospel. The magic books were burned because the gospel was spreading like wildfire: “So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily” (v. 20).
These six points should make us very hesitant about burning other people’s religious books.
May God give the Church open doors to preach the gospel, and may he bless his Word with self-authenticating gospel fruit. If we take our eyes off the priority of the gospel, we will be tempted to settle for the sparks of a small bonfire in a church parking lot, a miniature replica of what happened in Ephesus. The true gospel spreads like a wildfire, if we are faithful to lovingly and boldly proclaim it.
…The creation of the first man shows this; the subduing of the earth, that is, the whole of culture, is given to him, and can be given to him, only because he is created after God’s image; man can be ruler of the earth only because and in so far as he is a servant, a son of God…Culture, therefore, sinks into the background; man must first become again a son of God before he can be, in a genuine sense, a cultured being. Israel was not a people of art and science, but a people of religion; and Christ is exclusively a preacher of the gospel, the savior of the world, and founder of the kingdom of heaven. With this kingdom nothing can be compared; he who will enter into it must renounce all things; the cross is the condemnation of the world and the destruction of all sinful culture.
But it is wrong to educe from this pronouncement that the gospel must be at enmity with culture. For although the gospel limits itself to the proclaiming of the requirements and laws of the kingdom, it cannot be set free from the organic alliance in which it always appears in history and Scripture. For, in the first place, Christ does not stand at the commencement, but in the middle of history. He presupposes the work of the Father in creation and in providence, especially also in the guidance of Israel; yea, the gospel asserts that Christ is the same who as the Word made all things and was the life and the light of all men. As he was then in his earthly life neither a politician nor a social reformer, neither a man of science nor a man of art, but simply lived and worked as the Son of God and Servant of the Lord, and thus has only been a preacher and founder of the kingdom of heaven, he cannot have come to annihilate the work of the Father, or his own work in creation and providence, but rather to save it from the destruction which has been brought about by sin. According to his own word, he came not to judge the world, but to save it…
The gospel of Christ promises righteousness and peace and joy, and has fulfilled its promise if it gives these things. Christ did not portray for his disciples a beautiful future in this world, but prepared them for oppression and persecution. But, nevertheless, the kingdom of heaven, while a pearl of great price, is also a leaven which permeates the whole of the meal; godliness is profitable unto all things, having the promise of the life which now is, and that which is to come.
The gospel gives us a standard by which we can judge of phenomena and events; it is an absolute measure which enables us to determine the value of the present life; it is a guide to show us the way in the labyrinth of the present world; it raises us above time, and teaches us to view all things from the standpoint of eternity. Where could we find such a standard and guide if the everlasting gospel did not supply it?
But it is opposed to nothing that is pure and good and lovely. It condemns sin always and everywhere; but it cherishes marriage and the family, society and the state, nature and history, science and art. In spite of the many faults of its confessors, it has been in the course of the ages a rich benediction for all these institutions and accomplishments. The Christian nations are still the guardians of culture. And the word of Paul is still true that all is ours if we are Christ’s.
—Herman Bavinck, The Philosophy of Revelation (1909), pp. 266-269.
I’ve been meaning to transcribe an excerpt from a recent message at my home church, Covenant Life (Gaithersburg, MD). Being in Louisville, perhaps, is why the excerpt from Dr Albert Mohler’s message came back to mind.
On May 4th Dr Mohler preached on The Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:1-23). He made these remarks at the beginning of the message:
“The crowd is so large that has been gathering over the course of this day that Jesus is required to do what a teacher must do and that is find some way to get distance from the crowd that is necessary to be seen and heard. In this case Jesus gets into a boat and goes slightly off shore in order that he might teach. The crowd is a very important factor to this passage.
The crowd is a matter of some question–some challenge, some perplexity–to us as well. Is has become clear that evangelical Christians in particular have a hard time understanding the nature of a crowd. We are tempted to think of a crowd as a great gathering of receptivity.
We understand that the crowd is gathering because something has been happening. We as evangelicals sometimes mistake a crowd for a church. It’s hard for us sometimes to understand what’s going on. Jesus helps to clarify this for his own disciples.”
–Albert Mohler, The Parable of the Sower, sermon at Covenant Life Church (Gaithersburg, MD) on May 4, 2008.
Often, the way Timothy Keller articulates the gospel (and the implications of the gospel) in his new book–The Reason for God– are incredibly thought-provoking. Take this one for example,
“A central message of the Bible is that we can only have a relationship with God by sheer grace. Our moral efforts are too feeble and falsely motivated to ever merit salvation. Jesus, through his death and resurrection, has provided salvation for us, which we receive as a gift. All churches believe this in one form or another. Growth in character and change in behavior occur in a gradual process after a person becomes a Christian. The mistaken belief that a person must ‘clean up’ his or her own life in order to merit God’s presence is not Christianity. This means, though, that the church will be filled with immature and broken people who still have a long way to go emotionally, morally, and spiritually. As the saying has it: ‘The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.’
… Now imagine that someone with a very broken past becomes a Christian and her character improves significantly over what is was. Nevertheless, she still may be less secure and self-disciplined than someone who is so well adjusted that she feels no particular need for religious affiliation at all. Suppose you meet both of these women the same week. Unless you know the starting points and life journeys of each woman, you could easily conclude that Christianity isn’t worth much, and that Christians are inconsistent with their own high standards. It is often the case that people whose lives have been harder and who are ‘lower on the character scale’ are more likely to recognize their need for God and turn to Christianity. So we should expect that many Christians’ lives would not compare well to those of the nonreligious (just as the health of people in the hospital is comparatively worse than people visiting museums).”
-Timothy Keller, The Reason For God (Dutton: 2008), pp. 53-54.
“We must understand that Christianity is not a mood. It is not an emotion. It is not a feeling. It is not an amorphous set of beliefs. It is established by the truth of God’s Word, by the saving reality of God’s deeds in Jesus Christ, around certain definite doctrines without which it is not possible to exercise the kind of faith that saves.”
The free magazine also features the testimony of Marxist-turned-Christian, Michael A.G. Haykin on pages 18-19. Good stuff.
From time to time we like to feature parody on TSS.
But this is no joke.
Recently NavPress published a book titled I’m OK – You’re Not: The message we’re sending nonbelievers and why we should stop by John Shore. It was written by a humorist, but it’s not going in the “funny” folder.
The book’s purpose:
“Pretty much every last, single person in America has heard the word of God! The Great Commission has gone a very long way toward being completely fulfilled right here in our own backyard! …
So. Now what?
Well, the contention of this book is that now that it’s safe to assume that all of our neighbors already know the story of Christ and the Bible and so on, it might be a good time to take some of that enormous energy we currently spend on converting those same people, and to focus it instead on ‘just’ loving them as much as we love ourselves.
In other words, I think that here in the great, gospel-saturated U.S. of A., it’s time to shift our concentration from fulfilling the Great Commission to fulfilling the Great Commandment.
I do want to be clear about the caveat, though, of ‘only’ meaning that we should ease off trying to tell people about Christ who haven’t first asked us to tell them about Christ. If someone has indicated to us that they’re open to hearing the Good News, then by all means let us share until we’re hoarse (or until it’s clear they’d like us to go home so that they can go to bed). By extension, then, I’m also not in any way meaning to suggest that preachers should stop preaching, or that stadium-filling Billy Graham-style revival meetings should stop happening. Of course they shouldn’t. Because again: Those kinds of public or corporate affairs are presented to people who have asked to participate in them, who have willingly volunteered to hear the Word of God. Such people are fair game — and have at ‘em then, I say! Praise the Lord, and save me a front row seat” (pp. 14-15).
I’m aware this quote probably reflects the sentiments of a broad stroke of American Christianity. So in no way am I singling this author out (he is merely a representation). But so many things come to mind after reading this, I hardly know where to begin. In part, this reveals an overly-optimistic view of our country’s understanding of the Cross, a market-driven evangelism outlook, a misunderstanding of human nature, and a deficient understanding of the Great Commission (as being limited to media saturation and evangelism). Quite obvious is the purposeful disconnect between service and persuasion. Where to begin?
Serving up persuasion
The truth is, our acts of obedience and kindness are used to ‘win’ unbelievers to Christ. “Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct” (1 Pet. 3:1-2). It’s okay to have evangelistic motives behind your obedience. We can (and should) love and serve our neighbors, motivated that God would use that service in some way to radically change them (as He has changed us!).
And our evangelism must be done with humility. Certainly! But our humility comes from realizing that we are absolute failures before God. The Cross tells me I’m not okay with God and my neighbor is not okay with God either. The Gospel tells me (in myself) I am an absolute failure before God because of my sinfulness. Only in Christ do sinful failures have the hope of eternal life. So any pridefulness in Christian evangelism – which is what this book aims at stopping – is a derivative of misunderstanding of the Gospel itself.
If Christians act with belligerence in evangelism, and this reveals a lack of understanding in the Gospel, how misunderstood is the Gospel in the rest of “gospel-saturated U.S. of A”?
Ironically, the assumption of a widespread understanding of the Gospel affirms a superficial understanding of the Gospel, and this fuels pride in evangelism! This book unwittingly incubates what it sets out to cure.
We interrupt this program …
But enough about us, Christ is coming back in flames with a host of angels to “inflict vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thes. 1:7-8). That’s news worthy of interruption.
Remember Paul’s conversion? God apparently did not feel restrained to await Paul’s permission before knocking the Gospel-despiser down blind into the dust (Acts 9:1-9). Even before his conversion, Paul heard the Gospel and knew why the message was dangerous to his self-righteous religion. He was out to stop the spread of the Gospel. God interrupted his program.
But what incredible grace was shown to Paul! How does Paul recall this event in his life? Does he say it was unfair for God to have dropped him in the dust like that? No. Does he reprimand God for not asking permission first? No! He says, “though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 1:13-14). The blinding interruption in Paul’s life was mercy and grace!
Paul soberly reminds us from his own testimony that knowing about the Gospel does not disqualify us from being “ignorant” of the Gospel. Which is why evangelism must continue — no matter how pervasive the Christian message seems on the outside, nor how oppressive the influence to “stop” comes from the inside.
Pursue, persuade, serve, and share. But do it all in the strength of the Spirit and the humility so fitting the message.