A few weeks ago, I was talking with some pastors in England. In spite of the fact that Britain has been outpacing the United States in the usual signs of secularization, one of the pastors said that developments in the last couple years, even in Britain, have had a new effect on people in the church. It seems now to many believers that true Christians hold views so different from the culture that they wonder if anyone can be converted.
I think this is a common feeling. Will deeply secular people, with little or no Christian background, see the moral implications of following Christ as so unimaginable that they treat Christianity as equivalent to the Greek myths of Zeus and Hermes?
Here are three biblical perspectives that make that kind of pessimism unwarranted in the church.
1. God is always at work loosening individual people from the group-think of the prevailing culture of unbelief.
It is a mistake to look at the “culture” and assume that all the unbelieving people are in lockstep with the spirit of the age. In fact, someone’s child just died. Someone just found out he has cancer. Someone just lost his job at 55. Someone just had a terrifying dream about hell. Someone alone in a hotel room just happened to read the story of the prodigal son. Someone has just decided his life of self-indulgence is meaningless. Some young couple has just had a long conversation about the absence of moral standards to pass on to their children. Someone just felt a wave of guilt pass over his soul, and a deep sense that he is accountable to a Creator.
In other words, we make a huge mistake if we forget that people get saved one at a time as unique individuals, not as mere specimens of the “culture.” At any given moment in the secularization of our culture, God is at work in ten thousand ways to prepare particular individuals to hear the gospel.
When you get on a bus, or go to the gym, or stand on the sidelines of your child’s soccer game, the dozen other people there are not in lockstep with a monolithic secular culture. There are a hundred other things going on in their lives, and you never know (until you probe) whether five of these factors are actually making them disillusioned with the very culture you think is enslaving them. Don’t think of people as specimens of culture. Think of them as individual people that Providence may well be leading to repentance (Romans 2:4).
Take heart from the way the New Testament paints both with big brush strokes of cultural darkness, and in fine brush strokes of individual conversions. Paul knew he was entering enemy-held territory every time he went to a new city. “The prince of the power of the air was at work in the sons of disobedience” (Ephesians 2:2). The “god of this age” was blinding all unbelievers (2 Corinthians 4:4). It was an “evil age” (Galatians 1:4). And Peter described this world as “living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry” (1 Peter 4:3). None of these broad brush strokes are favorable for fruitful evangelism.
But then there are the fine brush strokes of amazing conversions in this impossibly dark culture:
- Zacchaeus — the apostate, thieving, tax-collector — strangely desirous of seeing Jesus (Luke 19:1–8).
- Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager (Luke 8:3).
- The Ethiopian Eunuch, who just happened to be reading Isaiah 53 when Philip just happened to come by (Acts 8:26–40).
- Cornelius, a God-fearing Roman military man pursued by God through Peter’s stunning midday vision (Acts 10).
- Saul, who shared in the killing of angelic Stephen, and who breathed out threats and murder against Christians (Acts 9).
- Sergius Paulus, an intelligent Roman Proconsul of Cyprus (Acts 13:7–8).
- Lydia, a well-to-do business woman (Acts 16:11–15).
- An unnamed, demon-possessed slave girl (Acts 16:16–18).
- A Roman jailer (Acts 16:25–34).
- And, amazingly, people in the very household of Caesar (Philippians 4:22).
God saves individuals. None of them is merely a product of sensual, spiritualistic, or secular culture. God is at work loosening thousands and thousands from the group-think of the secular media or any other pretenders to cultural hegemony.
2. Initial animosity from secular people may be a prelude to their awakening.
In other words, don’t assume that a person’s initial negative response to the truth you speak, and the life you live, is their last word.
The apostle Peter knew that this is not always the case. “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:12). First they speak against your “evil deeds,” and then they glorify God because of those deeds. There is a time lapse. For example, someone may “speak against” your view of homosexual practice, but then finally realize you are not hateful after all, but a servant of the weak.
Again Peter says, “Have a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame” (1 Peter 3:16). So, some secular person starts by slandering you as a Christian. This seems evangelistically hopeless. But it’s not. They may, by God’s grace, be put to shame by your “good behavior.”
What makes the difference? The will of God. “It is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil” (1 Peter 3:17). “Let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good” (1 Peter 4:19). The sovereign will of God is not a cause for fatalism, but a crucial source of hope that secular people will turn from slander to shame, and finally to faith. One by one it happened in the first century, and it will happen in ours.
3. It is no harder for God to raise the spiritually dead in Post-Christian America than it was in Puritan America. Dead is dead.
“God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:4–5). Calvinists should be the most aggressive and hopeful evangelists in this “impossible” cultural moment.
We believe that the rich young man was hopelessly enslaved to his money. Only a miracle of sovereign grace could bring him to faith. Jesus said the conversion of this money-saturated secularist was as likely as a camel going through the eye of a needle. His disciples responded, “Then who can be saved?” To this Jesus said, “What is impossible with man is possible with God” (Luke 18:26–27). Faith is impossible for the spiritually dead. In this generation, and every generation. But not with God.
The difference between the Calvinist view of salvation and other views is that the Calvinist believes God is the decisive cause in the creation of faith. Other views believe God can “influence” or “nudge” or “invite” or “prod” or “spur” the human will toward faith. But one central mark of Calvinism is the belief that God can and does overcome all the resistance in his elect, and create in their hearts the gift of faith. He is not just a cause, but the decisive cause. We are not.
Therefore, it is no harder for God to save people today than it ever has been. Evangelistic despair or cowardice in the face of a deeply secular culture is wholly out of place in the Christian church because . . .
God is always at work loosening individual people from the group-think of the prevailing culture of unbelief.
The initial animosity from secular people may well be a prelude to their awakening.
And it is no harder for God to raise the spiritually dead in Post-Christian America than it was in Puritan America.