FORGET NONE OF HIS BENEFITS
volume 16, number 13, March 30, 2017
“. . . make disciples of all nations.” -Matthew 28:19
Redeeming the Culture?
Have you noticed all the talk, the many sermons, the many books and blogs telling the church of Jesus that our purpose is to redeem the culture? To be fair, many who are teaching this also speak of the importance of evangelism, but they nonetheless are urging a two-fold kingdom initiative. More specifically, they are urging us, as the church of Jesus, to seek justice, reconciliation, and reparations for victims of violence, oppression, or racism; to preserve God’s creation through Green energy initiatives; to transform social and cultural systems; or generally, to make this world a better place.
I have wondered for some time why the retreat on direct, intentional evangelism by so many in the western church. There is no doubt that the Scriptures speak of the necessity for justice, feeding the hungry, and caring for the widow and orphan. And we are not to retreat from but be involved and engaged in our culture. Jesus told us that we are the salt of the earth (salt slows down putrefaction) and the light of the world (bringing truth into a darkened world). The question, however, is to what degree should the church be involved in these issues? Are these the stated purpose of the church?
In the First Great Awakening the preaching of George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, and so many others focused on the new birth. Yes, Whitefield established Bethesda in Savannah, Georgia as an orphanage (which is still in existence to this day) but this work never consumed him. It was always “downstream” from his evangelistic preaching. Things began to change, however, during the Second Great Awakening when Arminianism largely replaced Calvinism as the theology fueling the movement. A weakened view of God, coupled with a more exalted view of man, eventually did its work to undermine the work of the gospel. How so? In Arminianism, the view is that the unsaved man “holds the Ace card,” that he decides whether or not he will follow Jesus. When this thinking takes control of the preaching it is not long before the preacher says what he thinks his audience wants to hear in order to get a decision for Christ. This “kinder, gentler” gospel, coupled with the liberal theology of German theologian Albrecht Ritschl ushered in the notion that the kingdom of God is brought in by social action. This is why, for example, Henry Ward Beecher at his Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn, furnished his “Beecher’s Bibles”, Sharps rifles for those in Kansas fighting the institution of slavery in that state.
Now fast forward to the 1950’s and the establishment of Christianity Today magazine. Christian Smith points out that the intention of Billy Graham, Carl F.H. Henry, Edward Carnell, Harold J. Okenga (founders of Fuller Theological Seminary), et al was to preach a scholarly, conservative, Bible believing message in the work of evangelism and discipleship but to couple that with a liberal political perspective in the magazine. Pick up any copy of Christianity Today and you will see that this liberal political and social perspective continues alive and well.
So, what is the purpose of the church? Of course we are to be concerned about the poor and needy. Of course we are to seek justice in the land. These are what individual Christians are to do as the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Paradoxically, as David Wells has noted, “Churches that actually do influence the culture distance themselves from it in its internal life.They do not offer what can already be had on secular terms in the culture. They are an alternative to it.”
In answering the question, what is the purpose of the church, we should not ask, “What would Jesus do?”, but rather, “What did Jesus do?” Is there any indication that Jesus worked to remove injustice, to eradicate the slavery of the day, to stop the Roman practice of killing young children? Did Jesus institute a massive “Feed the Hungry” program? Did Jesus heal everyone with whom He had contact? He did feed the 5000 and He did heal some people of diseases, but why? His compassion was a sign of His Messiahship. He came, He said, to seek and to save that which was lost (Luke 19:10). Jesus commissioned His disciples to make disciples of all the nations (Matthew 28:18-20). He told them to preach repentance for the forgiveness of sins to all the nations (Luke 24:47). There is not a word demanding the Roman Empire abolish slavery, oppression, poverty, or injustice of any kind.
What did His apostles do? Did they labor to eradicate the injustices they saw in the world? Paul did not rebuke slaveholders. Instead he told them how to treat their slaves. He did not incite slaves to rise up against their masters. Instead he taught them how to submit to them. Paul did not rebuke Philemon for having Onesimus as a a slave. Rather he told him to take him back. And yes, the apostles addressed the issue of discrimination against the Hellenistic Jewish widows, but did so by appointing deacons to address this physical need in the church, reminding the church that their responsibility was prayer and the ministry of the word.
So, bottom line. The church of Jesus has one task, not two. Our task, given to us by the glorified and resurrected Christ, is to make disciples of all nations. We are to evangelize and we are to disciple. Individual Christians, living out their faith in the world, are to be salt and light. As we move into the world we are to do what we can to alleviate the problems we find in the world; but even then the driving force must be the evangelization of the nations to the praise and glory of God’s grace. Think of it this way, anyone can work for justice and feed the poor, but only the Christian has the bread of life. To spend our time and resources on seeking to redeem our culture (something, by the way that is patently impossible because this world is passing away and will be consumed by fire, 2 Peter 3:10) is like embalming fluid. A corpse can temporarily be made to look good by the injection of embalming fluid, but it only slows down the inevitable putrefaction which comes to everything dead. We will always have the poor with us. We will always have injustice until the Lord Jesus returns and ushers in the new heaven and earth. Only two things last forever, the word of God and the souls of men. Therefore we are to invest our lives in these two things. Justice, racial reconciliation, feeding the hungry, while all commendable pursuits, will save no one. A well fed person living in peace with others, who remains in his lost state, will surely suffer an eternal hell away from the presence of the Lord and His glory.
Let’s get back to the main thing.
1. Amos 5:24, Matthew 25:34, James 2:6,7
2. Matthew 5:13,14
3. Ritschl, born in 1822 and died in 1889, rejected the doctrine of original sin, the virgin birth of Christ, the Trinity, and the incarnation of Christ <www.britannica.com>
4. The February 8, 1856 edition of the New York Tribune wrote, “He (Henry Ward Beecher) believed that the Sharps Rifle was a truly moral agency, and that there was more moral power in one of those instruments, so far as the slaveholders of Kansas were concerned, than in a hundred Bibles.” <www.en.m.wikipedia.org> “Beecher’s Bibles.
5. American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving, Christian Smith and Michael Emerson, page 12.
6. Cited in “Gospel Masquerade”, The Social Gospel, Part Two, February 26, 2013.