What if Tom Petty wrote the anthem for twenty-first-century evangelicals?
In the increasingly post-Christian worlds of Europe and North America, society relentlessly pressures biblically faithful Christians to back down. Back down on your stance against abortion. Back down on your refusal to condone homosexual practice and so-called “gay marriage.” Back down on claiming your Bible is inerrant. Back down on male leadership in the church and the home. Back down on the exclusive sufficiency of Jesus’s person and work for salvation, and your claim that there is only one name given among men by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12).
“I Won’t Back Down”
It was the first hit from Petty’s first solo album in 1989. “I Won’t Back Down” had so much spine that he feared it might not fare well, even a generation ago. “I kind of felt nervous about it,” he says, “like maybe I should take it back and disguise it a little bit, but I’m glad I didn’t.”
The song’s message is unprogressive. Petty doesn’t sound ready to try new things or compromise for the sake of everyone getting along. Rather, he comes off as one deeply principled, if not stubborn, full of conviction, resolved not to bend. He will stand alone, if he must, against the pressure to give in. He won’t back down — against what, he doesn’t specify. The song is “a message of defiance against unnamed forces of difficulty and possibly oppression,” according to one source.
A Refrain for Evangelicals?
The risk of the song’s generic nature is that mindless conservatives and mere curmudgeons can draw strength from such lyrics. But the corresponding virtue is that the song is ready-made for application to truly worthy causes, where the pressure to back down on something important needs to be met precisely with a calm but resolute declaration, “I won’t back down.”
The song popped in the wake of Tiananmen Square in 1989 and again following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Whether or not the song becomes a rallying cry for twenty-first-century, biblically faithful, evangelical Christians, it’s a fitting chorus to consider.
The Mood of Christian Resolve
What makes the song so powerful is not only the lyrical backbone which repeatedly declares, “I won’t back down,” but a mood that embodies an approach to not backing down which we desperately need in the post-Christian moment.
Not only do Petty’s lyrics echo the words of Matthew 16:18 (“You could stand me up at the gates of hell”), but they challenge us to “know what’s right,” take care to steward the “just one life” we have, “keep this world from draggin’ me down,” and not back down against “a world that keeps on pushin’ me around.”
Based on the nerve of the song’s message, you might expect something that sounds like a frenzy of zeal from Metallica. But Petty is not swollen with adrenaline. There’s no yelling, no rashness, no recklessness. The pace is smooth and melodic — composed and collected, but not sluggish. Deep inner strength meets with great self-control. It’s solid confidence on a mid-tempo beat. The song is both patiently reserved and full of resolve.
The Calling to Christian Resolve
This is why it resonates with the church’s calling in an increasingly post-Christian society. Our lot is less the sprint, more the marathon. Less the energy from Red Bull, more the fruits and veggies. Less about bursts and big events, more about the long, arduous arc of disciplemaking.
For some, no doubt, the response that we won’t back down will be accompanied by circling the wagons; for others, by a fury of ill-conceived activity. But our portion in the days ahead should be with Petty, and more importantly, with the apostle Paul — knowing with deep confidence whom we have believed and being convinced that he is able to guard the gospel until that Day (2 Timothy 1:12). which takes the swagger out of Christian cultural influence.
The Reason for Christian Resolve
Of all people, biblically faithful evangelicals have something to stand for. We have a real reason to not back down. What you don’t get from Petty’s generic song is whether his cause is worth standing for — and whether his cause is unstoppable or already lost. Indications are that Petty is no Christian, and has no religion but music.
But the Christian has specificity. We have an indomitable, risen Jesus who promises to build his church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18) — that’s why we can stand against those gates and not back down. This is no mere stubbornness or determination of will. We have what Petty doesn’t — infinite power at work in us to will and to do for God’s good pleasure (Philippians 2:13).
The Legacy of Christian Resolve
It should be no surprise that Christ in us would lead us to take a stand and not back down. Jesus himself didn’t back down before Pharisees and Sadducees, before Zealots and Herodians, before scribes and priests. He made the good confession before Pilate (1 Timothy 6:12), and held his peace when he could have called twelve legions of angels (Matthew 26:53).
The apostle didn’t back down before Judaizers and Helenizers, before Felix and Festus and Caesar himself. The early church didn’t back down against Greek intellectual assaults and Roman capital punishment. Athanasius stood against what seemed like the whole world and held his ground on the deity of Christ. Luther and Zwingli and Calvin didn’t back down to Medieval nominalism and sacramentalism. Spurgeon and Machen and Henry and Graham didn’t back down to post-Enlightenment naturalism and ecclesiological liberalism, but paved the way for the day in which we carry the mantle and keep standing.
Calm and God-Confident
And unlike what may have been the case for Petty, we don’t stand alone. God, in his extraordinary grace, has given today’s Elijahs many more than seven thousand with whom to not back down. We stand together. We stand on the Rock. And we can be confident to stand calmly, collectedly, with a gentle, sure voice, and unshaken resolve in our hearts, to take whatever comes at us in stride, knowing that, God willing, our feet aren’t moving. Because the one with whom we stand, for whom we stand, simply cannot be defeated.
Perhaps God would be pleased to plunder this tune from the Egyptians, fill its generic form with biblical contours, and inspire us for the composed and God-confident calling of not backing down.