TRANSCENDENT VALUES IN THE TANGIBLES
I have just read an article by Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr. entitled, “Preaching with the Culture in View,” which is a chapter in the book, “Preaching The Cross,” a ministry edition from Together For The Gospel. In this article he discusses the ideas of H. Richard Niebuhr compiled in the book, “Christ and Culture.”
“Christ and Culture” is a book which Tim Keller refers to when he writes or discusses culture, and a book which I had to read as a student at Covenant College, many years ago. All three of the aforementioned men are brilliant and the subject is one with which Christians need to come to grips. Just how do we Christians react or respond to the culture we live in, and how do we preach and live out the Gospel in it, and how can we remain faithful to Scripture as we (our lives, our integrity, and our faith) are affected by it?
I do not intend here to rehearse the various strategies outlined by Niebuhr from his lectures, nor the conclusions of Keller or Mohler in response to them. I do want to think a little about what Scripture calls on us to do in the world in which we live, and I reflect on these things around the time of the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I don’t have room here to go into depth but I do want to make a few points and ask some questions.
The first is that there may be something missing in the arguments I read or hear concerning this issue, and that is the observation that the Gospel does affect culture. Another is that transcendent values ( being things such as Justice, Mercy, and Love) do affect tangible institutions. Another point is that we should want that to happen because, I believe, God wants it to happen. One more point would be that it does not matter if the changes in such institutions are permanent, but rather that the values are eternal and each mark of them, for as long as they make that mark in history, do give glory to God.
Most arguments about culture from preachers seem to concern a conflict between preaching the Gospel and being distracted from it by attempting to fix things in the world. If one does substitute or replace the Evangelical concept of the Gospel of Jesus Christ for social reform then of course I would have to agree that is an error. The historic heresy of the Social Gospel was such an error. It is also an error to assume the Gospel does not affect society, or that it was not designed to do so.
The question for me is, just how “Wholistic” is the Gospel we are preaching? I am not advocating for moralism, only Biblical obedience and practice. While all nations and cultures will be forever changed in the new heavens and the new earth we understand that acts of love, justice, and mercy in the behavior of human beings, or the violation of those values, will be judged by Almighty God. We also believe that the exhibition of those values bring eternal glory to God, are a witness to his work among men, and something about which God cares. If he cares about them then how can the church be silent about them?
What right did John the Baptist have to tell people, even government agents, that they should do their work with integrity and justice? He called them to true repentance, not just good behavior, and he was specific about how they should act. Do we have the right to articulate to whatever culture we live in that God has expectations for how people behave?
Do we just gloss over acts of injustice, racism, social oppression of various sorts because we know people are just sinners and we should expect nothing else of them? Is our job simply to articulate the love of Jesus, and the death of Jesus for sinners, and call them to believe so that their hearts and character would be changed? Of course sinners sin, and no we don’t expect them to have the power to change their own hearts, but I never find God excusing injustice because people are totally depraved. In fact his anger about it is a cause for people to ask, “what must I do?”
We have to preach God’s expectations, those transcendent values, to everyone. We are to be salt and light, are we not? What does that mean? What does it mean to do our good works before men? When the church does live out its light and salt, when the church loves the poor, when the church boldly proclaims what is right and what is wrong, culture is affected. When the church lives righteously culture is transformed, if maybe only for short times, but those short times are important and bless everyone. Sometimes such preaching and behaving brings about persecution, but even that is used by God to change cultures.
Maybe if people stopped looking at the concept of transforming culture as a post-millennial progressive effort toward the Kingdom, and saw it as “righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit” they would begin to get it. Maybe if Christians saw Biblical ethics separate from political ideologies and political parties, (sometimes in agreement and often not), maybe they would not be so hesitant to preach about them.
I think a lot of preachers and folks who dismiss the idea of transforming culture end up dismissing a call to justice. They end up standing on the sidelines of social issues sincerely wanting to preach spiritual salvation and end up stifling a prophetic call for justice that pushes people to realize they need spiritual salvation. That may be one reason they stand on the sidelines, but another admittedly might be that they are complicit with cultural sins. Perhaps cowardice has stopped some preachers from preaching about sin, especially sins which are cultural or societal, and admittedly that borders on the political.
I am afraid too many Evangelical preachers have abandoned preaching and teaching ethics because they don’t think non-Christians have a hope of being ethical. My view is that it doesn’t have anything to do with the incapacity of non-Christians but rather with the demands of a holy and just God We dare not give up the preaching of the cross of Christ, nor how necessary it was for him to shed his blood, nor the necessity of repentance and faith.
If that substitutionary atonement, justification by faith alone good news is preached in the context of God’s concern for human life and dignity, for the call of all people to be just and merciful, then you create an ethical dissonance that reveals the need for a Savior. When you preach the gospel in that context the local church begins to stop being irrelevant to the context in which they live.
The church needs to take the suffering of all people seriously because God obviously does, or else the Scriptures are wrong in the way it describes his response to the injustice of nations. The church has sinned when it has lost its commitment to the Gospel, and it has also sinned when it was silent about injustice. “The lion has roared—who will not fear? The Sovereign Lord has spoken—who can but prophesy?” Amos 3:8 (NIV)
I end with this admission, the wisdom to know what is just and unjust, what is righteous and unrighteous can be difficult to discern. It is far too easy to assign motives to others recklessly, to get caught up in politics, to be unaware of our own bias. It is the Word of God which is our safety and the character of God which ought to be our cultural standard for the behavior of people, governments, and nations in the world.