The Supremacy of Christ and the Church in a Postmodern World
Desiring God 2006 National Conference
The Supremacy of Christ in a Postmodern World
Roughly two thousand years ago, a young virgin woman named Mary gave birth to her firstborn son, Jesus, in a dumpy, rural, hick town, not unlike those today where guys change their own oil on their El Camino, think pro wrestling is real, and drink wine from a box as an essential part of a fancy meal. Jesus was adopted by Mary’s husband, Joseph, who was a carpenter. For roughly the first thirty years of his life, Jesus lived in relative obscurity, swinging a hammer with his dad. Then Jesus spent about three years doing public ministry that included preaching to multitudes, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, training his disciples, evangelizing the lost, befriending the outcast, and scrapping with the stuffed-shirt religious types who had taken all the fun out of fundamentalism.
At first glance, Jesus’ résumé is rather simple. He never traveled more than a few hundred miles from his home. He never held a political office, never married, never had intimate relations, never wrote a book, never went to college, never visited a big city, and never drove a stick shift. He died both homeless and broke.
Nonetheless, Jesus’ legacy is unprecedented; he is the most famous person in all of human history. History, in fact, literally hinges upon his life; our calendar is divided into the years before and after his birth, noted as b.c. (“before Christ”) and a.d. (anno Domini, meaning “in the year of the Lord”), respectively. More songs have been sung to Jesus, books written about Jesus, and artwork commissioned of Jesus than anyone who has ever lived.
Jesus has also transcended the world of faith and religion and has emerged as an icon in the world of entertainment and pop culture. In recent years, two of the top-grossing films, The Passion of the Christ and The Da Vinci Code, were based on the life of Jesus. Additionally, the blockbuster movie The Chronicles of Narnia imagined what would happen if Jesus had been incarnated in Narnia, with Aslan as the “Lion of the tribe of Judah” who died and rose to save his people from evil and death. In the film Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, comedian Will Ferrell (as Ricky Bobby) prays to an “eight-pound, sixounce, newborn infant Jesus” in “golden, fleece diapers.”
In the world of music, even unbelievers such as Kanye West cannot help but sing about Jesus. Joining him is everyone from alternative rockers The Killers to American-Idol-turned-country-music-darling Carrie Underwood.
In the world of fashion, the number of Jesus T-shirts is countless. One of the most popular says, “Jesus is my homeboy.” Everyone from Madonna to Pamela Anderson, Ashton Kutcher, Ben Affleck, and Brad Pitt has been seen wearing it.
Every month it seems at least one major magazine has an article about Jesus on its cover. A few years back, for example, the typically nap-worthy, staid magazine Popular Mechanics ran a cover story about their quest for the real face of Jesus (Mike Fillon, “The Real Face of Jesus,” Popular Mechanics, December 2002).
On television, Jesus often appears on the long-running animation hits The Simpsons and South Park. Jesus also appears in the comedic sketches of vulgar comic Carlos Mencia’s hit show Mind of Mencia. Dog the Bounty Hunter prays to Jesus on almost every episode of his hit television show.
Even the cross, which represents Jesus’ torturous death, has become the most famous and popular symbol in all of history. In 2006, Madonna concluded each concert during her $193 million-grossing Confessions tour by being laid upon a disco cross. Also in 2006, both old-school rocker Axl Rose of Guns N’ Roses and bullet-ridden rapper 50 Cent wore crosses around their necks to the MTV Video Music Awards. In short, Jesus is as popular, controversial, and misunderstood as ever. Therefore, it is imperative that Christians contend for a faithful and biblical Christology and contextualize that Christology for a fruitful and cultural missiology.
The Supremacy of Christ in a Postmodern World
The September 2006 cover story of Christianity Today announced the resurgence of Reformed theology among younger evangelical leaders (Collin Hansen, “Young, Restless, Reformed,” Christianity Today [September 2006]). The article also noted that competing with Reformed theology in popularity is Emergent theology, perhaps most identified with Brian McLaren and Rob Bell. According to the article, Emergent theology has been overtaken in popularity by cool Calvinism. Without wanting to be reductionistic, from my vantage point (as someone who was an early leader in Emergent circles but had to distance himself theologically from that tribe because of his evangelical and Reformed convictions, while still maintaining sincere friendships with some of the leaders), much of the debate between these two tribes results from a conflict of Christologies.
Over the centuries, various Christian traditions have been prone to emphasize either the incarnation/humanity of Jesus or the exaltation/divinity of Jesus at the expense of the other. Liberals and their Emergent offspring generally prefer the former, while conservatives and fundamentalists generally prefer the latter. On this matter we must be careful to avoid reductionism whereby we embrace only part of the truth and in so doing undermine it altogether.
It was the Council of Chalcedon in a.d. 451 that helped to clarify what Scripture says on this matter of Christology. They issued the Chalcedonian Creed, which declared that Jesus Christ is one person with two natures (human and divine) who is both fully God and fully man. Theologically, the term for the union of both natures in Jesus Christ is hypostatic union. The Chalcedonian summary of the incarnation is the position held by all of Christendom, including Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant Christians, despite numerous differences they have on various other matters.
One of the reasons many Christians are drawn to Emergent thinking is because of its emphasis on the incarnation and subsequent humanity of Jesus Christ, as stressed in such places as the Gospels (especially Luke) and Philippians 2:1–11. An incarnational Christology is attractive in that it stresses the immanence of God at work here with us. It focuses on bringing about the new way of life offered to the citizens of the kingdom of God. Furthermore, this incarnational Christology paves the way for a robust missiology, which is the wonderful upside of a rigorous understanding of the incarnation of Jesus Christ.
As the second member of the Trinity, Jesus Christ ruled from eternity past as God exalted in glory. He then humbly entered into history as a man to identify with us. The common jargon for the second member of the Trinity entering into history as a human being is incarnation (from the Latin meaning “becoming flesh”); it is a biblical concept.
On the earth, Jesus grew from infancy to adulthood, had a family, worked a job, ate meals, increased his knowledge through learning, told jokes, attended funerals, had male and female friends, celebrated holidays, went to parties, loved his parents, felt the pain of betrayal and lies told about him, and experienced the full range of human emotions from stress to astonishment, joy, compassion, and sorrow. Furthermore, Jesus experienced the same sorts of trials and temptations that we do, with the exception that he never sinned. Subsequently, Jesus lived the sinless life that we are supposed to live but have not; he was both our substitute and our example.
Significantly, Jesus lived his sinless life on the earth in large part by the power of the Holy Spirit. This does not mean that Jesus in any way ceased to be fully God while on the earth, but rather as Philippians 2:5– 11 shows, he humbly chose not always to avail himself of his divine attributes. Thus, he often lived as we must live: by the enabling power of God the Holy Spirit. I want to be clear: Jesus remained fully God during his incarnation while also fully man on the earth; he maintained all of his divine attributes and availed himself of them upon occasion, such as to forgive human sin, which God alone can do (Mark 2:1–7). Nonetheless, Jesus’ life was lived as fully human in that he lived by the power of the Holy Spirit.
This point is perhaps best witnessed in the writings of Luke. The empowerment of Jesus through God the Holy Spirit is repeatedly stressed in his Gospel. There we find that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and given the title “Christ,” which means anointed by the Holy Spirit. Jesus baptized people with the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus at his own baptism. Furthermore, Jesus was “full of the Holy Spirit” and “led by the Spirit,” came “in the power of the Spirit,” and declared that “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” He also “rejoiced in the Holy Spirit.” Regarding the Holy Spirit’s ministry to and through Christians, Jesus also promised that God the Father would “give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him” and that the Holy Spirit would teach us once he was sent (See Luke 3:16, 21–22; 4:14, 18; 10:21; 11:13; 12:12).
In Luke’s sequel, the book of Acts, Jesus told his followers to wait for the coming Holy Spirit to empower them for life and ministry, just before ascending back into heaven. Then the Holy Spirit descended upon the early Christians just as he had descended upon Jesus. In this way, God revealed that through the power of the Holy Spirit, the followers of Jesus are given the ability to live a life like Jesus (though admittedly imperfectly since we remain sinners) by the same Holy Spirit that enabled Jesus. The result of the arrival of the Holy Spirit is that throughout the book of Acts, God’s people are missionally engaged in culture, just as Jesus was.
Practically, Luke’s revelation of Jesus’ continual reliance upon God the Holy Spirit is important because it allows us to see that Jesus really was tempted as a missionary in culture. Jesus really did suffer like us and really did triumph, as we also can by the power of the Spirit. Sadly, without an acknowledgement of the full humanity of Jesus, we are left with a Jesus who appears eerily similar to Superman. We are left to believe that although Jesus looked like a Galilean carpenter, he did not really endure temptation and suffering as we do. The deity of Jesus without the humanity of Jesus tragically leaves us to see Jesus as a faker, not unlike Clark Kent. All we are left with is someone who cannot really sympathize with us in our weakness, as Hebrews says (4:15), because he was not fully human.
All of this matters because Jesus’ life was the perfect human life of a missionary in culture. He lived the life that we are each supposed to live as missionaries in culture; we can therefore pattern our lives after his by the power of God the Holy Spirit. However, there has been a tendency in some theological circles to virtually ignore the humanity of Jesus and the details of his life on the earth in culture. For example, the Apostles’ Creed says that Jesus “was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried.” Curiously, this creed essentially says nothing about Jesus’ life as a man on the earth. Instead, it moves quickly from his birth to his death without any mention of his life in culture.
Fortunately, what is being recovered along with a vibrant incarnational Christology is a robust missiology. Jesus came to earth and entered into a sinful culture as a missionary. Therefore, not only is Jesus our prophet who speaks to us, our priest who heals us, and our king who rules over us, but he is also the model missionary who leads us into culture, enabled by the Holy Spirit and equipped with the truth of the gospel so that others may be saved from their sin by trusting in Jesus Christ.
In conclusion, the Emergent connection of the humble incarnation of Jesus into culture as our missional model is a glorious rediscovery of a biblical truth. It is inspiring a generation of young Christians not merely to sign up for mission trips around the globe, but also to move into neighborhoods in their own city to live in community with lost people as missionaries like Jesus himself modeled. The result has been a refreshing interest in everything from living in Christian community in urban centers to various forms of church planting intended to reach new cultures and subcultures of people who do not connect with more traditional churches.
“Jesus’ legacy is unprecedented.”
However, as is often the case, the strength is also the weakness. By itself, an incarnational Christology, though true, is not truly complete. Without a robust recognition of the corresponding deity of Jesus, the humanity of Jesus has the propensity to leave us with a marred false image of Jesus — little more than a limp-wristed, marginalized, hippieesque, unemployed Galilean pacifist in a dress with feathered hair and open-toed sandals — a guy that the average man would be remiss to worship because he could beat up that Jesus.
Therefore, in addition to the humble incarnation of Jesus where his humanity shines forth, we must also retain the glorious exaltation of Jesus where his divinity likewise shines forth. While it is the Emergent tribe of Christians that has perhaps most zealously explored the humble incarnation of Jesus the man, it is the Reformed tribe of Christians that has most ardently defended the glorious exaltation of Jesus the God-man.
If we were to see Jesus today, we would not see him in his state of humble incarnation. Rather, we would see Jesus as both Isaiah and John saw him — enthroned in glory as King of kings and Lord of lords (see Isaiah 6:1–5; John 12:41). This Jesus rules over gays and straights, men and women, young and old, rich and poor, black and white, simple and wise, healthy and sick, powerful and powerless, Republicans and Democrats, married and single, Christians and non-Christians, angels and demons, and the living and the dead.
The sovereign, unprecedented, and glorious exaltation of Jesus is typified by a throne. The imagery of a throne is used roughly 196 times in Scripture, with 135 occurrences in the Old Testament and 61 occurrences in the New Testament. Of the New Testament occurrences, 45 of the 61 are in the book of Revelation. The imagery of the throne appears in seventeen of its twenty-two chapters. The book of Revelation breaks into earthly scenes of sin and the curse, as well as heavenly scenes of worship and rule. The central piece of furniture on the stage of the heavenly scenes is the throne. Seated upon the throne over all peoples, times, places, and cultures is Jesus Christ. Throughout Revelation, all truth, authority, and judgment proceed from the One seated on the throne. All praise, worship, and gladness proceed to the One seated on the throne from all created beings, including men, women, angels, beasts of the field, birds of the air, and fish of the sea.
Perhaps my favorite picture (and that of my young sons) of the glorious exaltation of our great God Jesus Christ is what we like to refer to as Ultimate Fighter Jesus. In Revelation 19:11–16, Jesus rides into town on a white horse, with his steely eyes blazing red like fire and a tattoo down his leg that says “King of kings and Lord of lords.” He is wearing white like a gunslinger from an old western and carrying a sword, looking for some bad guys as the blood of already-fallen enemies drips to the ground below. Simply, Jesus was, is, and forever will be fully God; he is not someone anyone would want to mess with.
The supremacy of Jesus Christ as our sovereign and exalted God is our authority for mission. There is not one inch of creation, one culture or subculture of people, one lifestyle or orientation, one religion or philosophical system, that he does not possess full authority over and command to turn from sin and glorify him. We derive our authority to preach the gospel to all peoples, times, and places from the glorious exaltation of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.
Jesus claimed all authority for himself and commanded us to go in his authority to preach the gospel truth: “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3–4). Jesus himself said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18–20). Indeed, the authority of our mission rests on nothing less than the authority delegated to us by the exalted Lord Jesus Christ who rules over all.
Nevertheless, as Christians enter into their local culture and its subcultures, we must also remember that it is Jesus (not us) who is sovereign, and it is Jesus (not the church) who rules over all. We are to come in the authority of the exalted Jesus, but also in the example of the humble incarnated Jesus. This means that we must come into culture as Jesus did — filled with the Holy Spirit, in constant prayer to the Father, saturated with the truth of Scripture, humble in our approach, loving in our truth, and serving in our deeds. Once we have the incarnation and exaltation clear in our Christology, we are then sufficiently ready to contend for the truth of the gospel and contextualize it rightly for various cultures and subcultures of people, as Jesus did and commands us to do.
The Role of the Church in a Postmodern World
Not only must God’s people personally believe the gospel of Jesus Christ, but they also must publicly contend for it. This is because the gospel is under continual attack by Satan, the “father of lies,” and a seemingly endless army of false teachers, false prophets, false shepherds, and false apostles, whom he sends to wage war against the church. The New Testament letters model a warrior’s battle cry, declaring that heretics are: dogs and evildoers, empty and deceitful, puffed up without reason, given to mythical speculation and vanity without understanding, products of a shipwrecked faith, demonic liars with seared consciences, peddlers of silly myths, arrogant fools with depraved minds, the spiritual equivalent of gangrene, foolish and ignorant, chatty deceivers, destructive blasphemers, ignorantly unstable, and antichrists.
In our day of pluralistic, postmodern, perspectival politeness, the terse language of Peter and Paul seems narrowly intolerant, as if they had never been enlightened by taking a philosophy of religion class at a community college from a long-haired, self-medicated grad student. Nonetheless, the truth is the truth, and Peter, Paul, and many of the faithful who have followed Jesus on the narrow road of truth have seen their blood spilled by those who were as brotherly as Cain for contending for the truth.
Since nothing short of God’s glory and human eternal destiny are at stake when it comes to matters of the truth, we must contend for it like Jude 3 commands: “Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” In every age there are certain doctrines that are attacked in varying ways by the occasional “innovative” wingnut. In our day there are many, but for the sake of brevity I will only list ten theological issues we must contend for, not necessarily in order of importance. There is much more that can and should be said about each point.
1) Scripture as inerrant, timeless truth. In the opening pages of Genesis, we see that one of the Serpent’s first tricks was hermeneutical in nature. While he did not seek to take God’s Word away from our first parents, Adam and Eve, the Serpent instead sought to change the meaning of what God had said. Sadly, the Serpent has been up to his old tricks ever since.
The new serpentine hermeneutic goes by many names, including trajectory hermeneutic and redemptive-arc hermeneutic. Perhaps the most popular preacher in America using this approach to Scripture is Rob Bell. In his book Velvet Elvis, Bell calls the doctrines of the Christian faith “springs,” not “bricks,” and encourages his readers to challenge and question Christian doctrines (like the virgin birth and the Trinity) so that they stretch like springs (Bell, Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith [Zondervan, 2006], 21–27). He also says that verses in the Bible “aren’t first and foremost timeless truths” (Ibid., 62).
Brian McLaren also says that the Bible is “not a look-it-up encyclopedia of timeless moral truths” (McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy [Zondervan, 2004], 171). Nonetheless, at the Society of Biblical Literature’s 2006 annual meeting, Phyllis Tickle, author of two dozen books on religion and spirituality who often appears as an expert on the subjects in Publishers Weekly, USA Today, The New York Times, PBS, and NPR, said that “Brian McLaren is to this new reformation what Martin Luther was to the Protestant Reformation” (Adam Walker Cleaveland, blog entry “SBL/AAR Day 2/3 & What is Emergent?” [accessed February 15, 2007]).
While it is true that the truths of Scripture did not arrive apart from a context and culture, we must affirm that these truths still have application for today. Few have said it better than D.A. Carson: “No truth which human beings may articulate can ever be articulated in a culture-transcending way — but that does not mean that the truth thus articulated does not transcend culture” (Carson, “Maintaining Scientific and Christian Truths in a Postmodern World,” Science & Christian Belief).
Because Scripture reveals to us the person and work of Jesus and is the way in which God has chosen to speak to all people, we must contend for the inerrant perfection and cross-cultural authority of all Scripture as timeless truth.
2) The sovereignty and foreknowledge of God. In recent years, a view of God contrary to classic Protestant theism has gained popularity in some circles. It goes by various names, such as an open view of God, openness theology, and open theism. It undermines the biblical teaching that God is both fully sovereign over and knowledgeable of the future.
Because open theism undermines who God has revealed himself to be in Scripture, we must contend for both the sovereignty and foreknowledge of God.
3) The virgin birth of Jesus. Perhaps the most curious doctrine to be undermined recently is the virgin birth of Jesus Christ. Bell says that if the virgin birth of Jesus was taken away from our faith and we instead learned that “Jesus had a real, earthly, biological father named Larry, and archaeologists find Larry’s tomb and do DNA samples and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the virgin birth was really just a bit of mythologizing the Gospel writers threw in to appeal to the followers of the Mithra and Dionysian religious cults that were hugely popular at the time,” we would essentially not lose any significant part of our faith because it is more about how we live (Bell, Velvet Elvis, 26).
The only alternative to the virgin birth offered in Scripture is that Mary was a sexually sinful woman who conceived Jesus illegitimately, which was the accusation in Jesus’ day (See Matthew 13:55). If the virgin birth of Jesus is untrue, then the story of Jesus changes greatly; we would have a sexually promiscuous young woman lying about God’s miraculous hand in the birth of her son, raising that son to declare he was God, and then joining his religion. But if Mary is nothing more than a sinful con artist then neither she nor her son Jesus should be trusted.
Because both the clear teachings of Scripture about the beginning of Jesus’ earthly life and the character of his mother are at stake, we must contend for the virgin birth of Jesus Christ.
4) Our sin nature and total depravity. It seems that every age has a groundswell of support for the denial of the doctrines of original sin and total depravity, despite overwhelming evidence that anyone awake long enough to actually see the world could hardly deny. In the early church a debate arose between Augustine, who argued that we are all sinners by nature, and Pelagius, who denied that we are by nature inherently sinful. Pelagius was ultimately condemned as a heretic at the Council of Carthage (a.d. 418). Nonetheless, one of the founders of the Emergent community, Doug Pagitt, has defended the theology of Pelagius. He argues that Pelagius was excommunicated from the church “on false pretenses and for personal and political and not primarily doctrinal reasons” (Pagitt, “The Emerging Church and Embodied Theology,” in Listening to the Beliefs of Emerging Churches [Zondervan, 2007], 128).
Because God is holy, we are sinners, and Jesus’ mission was to save sinners, we must contend for the truth that we are totally depraved sinners by nature and choice.
5) Jesus’ death as our penal substitution. The doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement is regarded by many as the primary accomplishment of Jesus’ death on the cross, in addition to innumerable secondary accomplishments. Publishers such as InterVarsity Press have ironically published some of the greatest books on the cross of Jesus and some of the worst books on the cross of Jesus.
Perhaps the very worst of the worst offers a crude caricature of the doctrine of penal substitution: “God takes on the role of the sadist inflicting punishment, while Jesus, in his role as masochist, readily embraces suffering” (Joel Green and Mark Baker, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross [InterVarsity Press, 2000], 30). The authors say that penal substitution “has been understood in ways that have proven detrimental to the witness of the church” (Ibid., 32). They conclude that “it will not do, therefore, to characterize the atonement as God’s punishment falling on Christ” (Ibid., 113). This sort of understanding is favored by men such as Brian McLaren, who recommends the previously quoted book (McLaren, Generous Orthodoxy, 47).
“Not only must God’s people personally believe the gospel, but they also must publicly contend for it.”
Another book suggests that we should throw out the atonement because people today do not believe they are sinners: “In an increasingly ‘sinless’ society, where guilt is a marginal concern, even such functional views of the atonement are wholly inadequate in expressing the actuality of the atonement” (Alan Mann, Atonement for a ‘Sinless’ Society [Paternoster, 2005], 47). The author goes on to say that “a meaningful and appropriate story of atonement must be one that speaks dynamically and specifically to the plight of the post-industrialized, ‘sinless’ self as the self perceives it, and not as we would wish to describe it” (Ibid., 53–54).
Because the gospel is at stake, we must contend that Jesus was wounded and crushed for our sins and died for us and our sins by bearing our sins on the cross as our substitute.
6) Jesus’ exclusivity as the only possible means of salvation. Oprah Winfrey expressed the thoughts of many in our age of spiritual pluralism, saying, “One of the biggest mistakes humans make is to believe there is only one way. Actually, there are many diverse paths leading to what you call God” (Cited in LaTonya Taylor, “The Church of O,” Christianity Today, [April 1, 2002], 38). While the view seems kind and generously open to all faiths, the belief is as foolish as saying that every road one might travel in his life ultimately leads to the same destination. Because the superiority, glory, exclusivity, preeminence, and singularity of Jesus as both God and Savior are at stake, we must contend for Jesus as the only God and the only possible means of salvation, as both Jesus (John 14:6) and the early church did (Acts 4:12).
7) God-designed complementary male and female gender distinctions. Evangelical feminism has become widely popular today as it seeks to eradicate the gender distinctions and roles that God assigns to us in the church and home. The result is an increase in female pastors in the church and a lack of loving masculine leadership in the home. Going one step further is an effort to refer to God as someone other than Father and to Jesus as someone other than a male. Going even further is the attempt by some to eradicate our created gender distinctions so that homosexuality is no longer considered an aberrant and sinful lifestyle.
Because the health and faithfulness of both the home and church are at stake, our God-designed male and female gender distinctions must be contended for against both feminism and homosexuality.
8) The conscious eternal torments of hell. Today there are some notable Christian leaders who have sought to redefine the hellishness of hell. Perhaps the most prominent is Brian McLaren in his book The Last Word and the Word After That (McLaren, The Last Word and the Word After That [Jossey-Bass, 2005]). On September 2, 2006, the issue of hell made the front page of the Los Angeles Times*in a lengthy article ( Christopher Goffard, “Father, Son and Holy Rift,” *Los Angeles Times [September 2, 2006]).
It explained a falling out of sorts between notable pastor Chuck Smith Sr., leader of the Calvary Chapel movement with some one thousand churches in the United States alone, and his son and namesake, Chuck Smith Jr., over a number of theological issues. On the issue of hell, the article said, “For years, Smith Jr. said, he had preached about hell uncomfortably, half-apologetically, because he couldn’t understand why a loving God would consign his children to eternal flames. It felt like blackmail for a pastor to threaten people with hell-scapes from the Middle Ages to induce piety. Now, he came to believe that the biblical images used to depict hell’s torments — such as the ‘lake of fire’ and the ‘worm that does not die’ — were intended to evoke a feeling rather than a literal place” (Ibid.).
Because God is holy, we are sinful, justice is beautiful, and God will not be mocked, we must contend for the conscious, eternal torments of hell and invite everyone to avoid its clutches by turning from sin to Jesus, who speaks of hell more than anyone in Scripture.
9) The preeminence of God’s kingdom over human culture. Due to the postmodern fascination with the present, there is a growing interest in the immediacy of the kingdom of God. For example, it is increasingly argued that the eschatological timeline of the New Testament ended with the Jewish age and the destruction of the temple (a.d. 70), and not the end of the world, as we have wrongly understood it (Andrew Perriman, The Coming of the Son of Man: New Testament Eschatology for an Emerging Church [Paternoster, 2006]).
But such a misunderstanding is actually quite old. The church at Corinth suffered from a similar overrealized eschatology, which led to a laundry list of sins and errors. The same are plaguing many churches today, such as addiction to philosophy, sexual sin of every sort and kind, alcohol abuse, gender confusion, homosexuality, and a denial of the need for a resurrection to enter the kingdom of God.
Because the postmodern fascination with the present leads to the same sort of cultural worldliness as is rebuked in Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, we must contend that there is an eternal state marked by God’s kingdom that takes preeminence over any culture and its faddish trends in defining faithful Christianity.
10) The recognition that Satan and demons are real and at work in the world. As Paul says in the closing chapter of Ephesians, behind all of the philosophical, gender, and lifestyle wars is an even more insidious battle being waged by Satan and demons against God’s people and God’s truth. Because spiritual warfare has real consequences, we must prayerfully contend that Satan and demons are real and at work in the world today as they always have been.
Once we have rightly understood both the incarnation and exaltation of Jesus Christ and have contended for them both, along with related truths, we are then ready to contextualize Christian belief and practice to varying cultures and subcultures.
As we examined, in John’s Gospel alone, Jesus told us no less than thirty-nine times that he was a missionary from heaven who came to minister incarnationally in an earthly culture. Furthermore, Jesus also commanded us to be missionaries in culture as he was: “As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (John 17:18). He also said, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21). The Father sent Jesus into a specific time and culture as our example. Therefore, when the incarnation of Jesus is not fully understood, neither is the truth that God in his sovereignty has determined when we would be born and where we would live (Acts 17:26). He has put every Christian in a time and place as a missionary to bring the good news of Jesus to the people in that culture (in addition to calling some Christians to move from their native culture to a cross-cultural missions situation).
To do that we must follow the example of Jesus; he came into a culture and participated in it fully by using a language, participating in various holidays, eating certain foods, enjoying various drinks, attending parties, befriending people — while never crossing a line into sin. We are to emulate Jesus’ perfect and model missionary life lived for God in culture, without falling into the pitfall of liberal syncretism or fundamental sectarianism. It deserves to be noted, however, that for those in the first century who were fundamental and separatistic in their thinking, Jesus simply went too far.
In their eyes, though not the eyes of God the Father, his actions were sinful and they falsely accused him of being a glutton, a binge drinker, and a good tipper at Hooters (Matthew 11:19). In reality, in his magnificent High Priestly Prayer, Jesus prayed against us either becoming liberals who go too far into culture and act worldly, or fundamentalists who do not go far enough into culture and act pharisaically: “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (John 17:15–18).
Jesus prayed that we would not leave the sick and dying world and huddle into a safe subcultural ghetto of Christian nicety, but that we would stay in the world. In the same way, Jesus himself did not remain in the comforts of heaven but rather entered into a sinful culture on the earth as a missionary. Jesus also prayed that we would not simply go with the flow of sin and death in the culture but rather swim upstream against the current of worldliness. We can live countercultural lives like him by being guided by the timeless truths of Scripture that are intended to be lived out by missionaries in every culture.
The undeniable truth is that contextualization is not done just by Christian missionaries in other nations, but it is done by every Christian in every culture — whether they recognize it or not. For example, having the Bible in English rather than the original languages, gathering for church in a building instead of under a tree, choosing to sit rather than stand for the service, choosing to start on time rather than wait for everyone to arrive, watching a pastor in a suit stand behind a pulpit on a platform rather than sitting cross-legged on a floor in a loincloth, and choosing which music we will sing and what (if any) instruments will accompany the singing — all of these are examples of contextualizing Christian faith to a culture.
While some may protest that Christian faith and worship do not need to be contexualized to America, they are foolishly overlooking that they have already done it. They assume that their contextualization should work for everyone, as if our pluralistic and multicultural nation is somehow homogenous. We are a nation of numerous languages, races, cultures, subcultures, and styles, with tribes of every sort and kind, and Jesus commands that we as missionaries bring good news to each.
In addition to the incarnational example of Jesus, perhaps the person in Scripture who most exemplifies the missional ministry of contextualizing Christianity for varying culture groups is Paul. Paul’s clearest articulation of contextualization is found in 1 Corinthians 9:19–23:
For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.
Paul is emphatic that contextualization is nothing short of a gospel issue. It is not a secondary matter to be reserved only for trained missionaries living in foreign lands. If we truly believe the gospel of Jesus, then we should yearn for everyone to hear its truthfulness and see its helpfulness in the most effective manner possible. Therefore, every Christian leader, Christian church, and Christian person must ask themselves if they are doing all that they can to “win more of them . . . for the sake of the gospel.”
This is the burning of my heart as a pastor in Seattle. I did not know the gospel until I was nineteen years old, and to this day I have spent more than half of my life utterly lost. I minister in my hometown, which is among the least churched in the nation. In our city there are more dogs than evangelical Christians. Some researchers have even told me that the true percentage of evangelicals in our city is roughly the same as in communist China. Many urban centers across our nation are in the same sad state, which means we must, by God’s grace, do all we can to “win more of them . . . for the sake of the gospel.” By God’s grace, what began as a Bible study in my rental home ten years ago has become a church of more than five thousand people, of which roughly 40 percent were previously unchurched, as far as we are able to verify.
Tragically, my personal experience is that the more conservative and theologically minded a pastor is, the less likely he and his church are to be missionally minded and evangelistically engaged with the people who surround them. This was made painfully clear to me at a meeting I was honored to attend with some of the most able, godly, and skilled Christian preachers I am aware of in our entire nation.
As we each took a moment to briefly introduce ourselves and our ministries, nearly every pastor said that everything was going well at his church, with the notable exception that he was not seeing people becoming Christians. Researcher Thom Rainer confirms this fact, saying, “Church leaders are becoming less evangelistic. A survey of pastors I led in 2005 surprised the research team. Over one-half (53 percent) of pastors have made no evangelistic efforts at all in the past six months. They have not shared the Gospel. They have not attempted to engage a lost and unchurched person at any level” (Rainer, “First-person: The Dying American Church,” SBC Baptist Press [March 28, 2006]).
Every Christian must contextualize.
This cannot be seen as anything less than a sin to be repented of. Such repentance requires missiology, the precursor to evangelism. Missiology is getting to know a person and his or her culture; in turn, the gospel can be contextualized to that person or people group, which is evangelism. The problem is that when we undertake evangelism without conducting a prior missiological study of the culture or without practicing contexualization of the gospel, we do not bear much fruit. Rather, we are communicating in a way that is foreign to the hearer’s understanding. By way of analogy, we cannot bear much fruit if we don’t first take time to investigate the soil into which the seed of the gospel is to be planted.
A Two-handed Approach to Christian Ministry
What I am arguing for is a two-handed approach to Christian ministry. In our firmly closed hand we must hold the timeless truths of Christianity, such as the solas of the Reformation. In our graciously open hand we must hold timely ministry methods and styles that adapt as the cultures and subcultures we are ministering to change. Practically, this means churches must continually ask questions about their use of technology (e.g., web sites, MP3s, podcasts, e-mails), musical style, dress, verbiage, building aesthetics, programming, and the like: Are they being as creative, hospitable, relevant, and effective as possible to welcome as many people as possible to connect with Jesus and his church?
I am not arguing for relativism, by which truth is abandoned and all of life and doctrine is lived out of an open hand. Rather, I am arguing for relevantism, by which doctrinal principles remain in a closed hand and cultural methods remain in an open hand.
The problem is that most Christians and Christian ministries have only either an open or a closed hand. The result is relevant heresy among some liberals and irrelevant orthodoxy among some fundamentalists. Both groups fail to contend and contextualize equally; fundamentalists largely only contend, and liberals largely only contextualize. The Bible itself models this two-handed approach by giving us four Gospels. Each Gospel is written both to contend for the truth of the person and work of Jesus and to contextualize that truth to varying cultural groups so that the gospel is most easily understood by people in that culture. This explains why Matthew was written primarily to Jews by a Jew, Mark was written primarily to Romans, Luke was written primarily to Gentiles by a Gentile, and John was written to Greeks. They each tell the same truth, but with different emphases, language, and style, thus doing all they can to “win more of them . . . for the sake of the gospel,” as Paul commands.
What I am not arguing for is seeker-sensitive Christianity where human felt-needs overshadow God’s commands, and evangelism is reduced to marketing, which results in the rough edges of our faith being sanded off so that more customers shop at the church for religious goods and services. What I am arguing for is seekersensible Christianity (I want to thank my dear friend and fellow Acts 29 board member Ed Stetzer for his distinction on this point). Paul argues for seeker-sensible Christianity in 1 Corinthians 14; God’s people were speaking a language that lost people simply could not understand, and Paul rightly commanded them to speak intelligible words in the church so that lost people could comprehend and be saved. Sadly, too often the church is filled with language, customs, and styles that are so altogether foreign to the average lost person that unless contextualization occurs and explanation is given, lost people will remain, in Paul’s words, “foreigners” and not friends.
One of many examples Scripture gives us to illustrate all of this involves circumcision. On his various missionary journeys, Paul would take with him such people as Timothy and Titus. On those journeys, he had to decide how to deal with the very hotly debated cultural issue of circumcision, which distinguished the Jews from the Gentiles. More specifically, while both Timothy and Titus were uncircumcised, Paul had to determine whether or not to have both men circumcised in light of the various cultural groups they would be ministering to. Paul decided to have Timothy circumcised, but not Titus. Why?
D.A. Carson was kind enough to send me a personal e-mail about this point. With his permission, I am including his insightful explanation. He said:
Paul refuses to circumcise Titus, even when it was demanded by many in the Jerusalem crowd, not because it didn’t matter to them, but because it mattered so much that if he acquiesced, he would have been giving the impression that faith in Jesus is not enough for salvation: one has to become a Jew first, before one can become a Christian. That would jeopardize the exclusive sufficiency of Jesus.
To create a contemporary analogy: If I’m called to preach the gospel among a lot of people who are cultural teetotallers, I’ll give up alcohol for the sake of the gospel. But if they start saying, “You cannot be a Christian and drink alcohol,” I’ll reply, “Pass the port” or “I’ll think I’ll have a glass of Beaujolais with my meal.” Paul is flexible and therefore prepared to circumcise Timothy when the exclusive sufficiency of Christ is not at stake and when a little cultural accommodation will advance the gospel; he is rigidly inflexible and therefore refuses to circumcise Titus when people are saying that Gentiles must be circumcised and become Jews to accept the Jewish Messiah.
By giving two answers to the same question, was Paul being relative? No, he was being relevant. Was Paul being seeker sensitive? No, he was being seeker sensible. Why? Because he was doing all he could to “win more of them . . . for the sake of the gospel.”
Admittedly, as the gospel passes from one culture to another there is the very difficult matter of determining what is to be rejected, what is to be received, and what is to be redeemed. This is true in both the culture that is sending and the culture that is receiving the gospel; the gospel will not be held captive to any culture without continually calling it, including church culture, to repentance. While Paul is specifically talking about prophecies, his general principle from 1 Thessalonians 5:21–22 is helpful: “Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil” (NIV). This requires discernment, wisdom, the leading of the Holy Spirit, and a deeper understanding of a culture and its people than is possible from a distant glance.
Learning to be relevant and seeker sensible is one of the reasons we have the New Testament epistles. Much of their content deals with the questions and conflicts regarding what was to be rejected, received, and redeemed as the gospel moved from the Jewish to the Gentile culture. Therefore, the New Testament is in itself a missiological example of the difficult theological work of contextualization. Today, this includes mode of dress, tattoos, piercings, plastic surgery, music styles, use of technology in church, entertainment (including television and film), smoking, drinking, and language.
On many of these issues, many fundamentalist Christians are like their ancient pharisaical Jewish counterparts; they embrace numerous rules and assumptions on such cultural matters but lack clear theological and biblical support. Subsequently, Gentile postmoderns are now calling many of these cultural assumptions into question; they deserve the same kind of thoughtful, scriptural reflection that we see modeled in the New Testament epistles, and the same kind of humility from fundamentalists that newly converted Jews demonstrated when they willingly gave up their cultural elitism.
For example, in our day we must reject the rampant sexual sins of pornography, homosexuality, bisexuality, fornication, friends with benefits, and any and every other form of sexual deviancy because they are simply incompatible with Christian faith. Nevertheless, we cannot reject sex, because it was created by God and given to us as a very good gift. Therefore, we must do more than just tell our people to be virgins when they get married and to not commit adultery in marriage (though both are true).
We must instead redeem sexuality as the Song of Songs does; sex is a gracious gift from God to be enjoyed only within heterosexual marriage. We must stress that while we reject sexual sin, we receive God’s intention for sex and seek to redeem sex in our culture so that monogamous, pure, passionate heterosexual lovemaking is both free and frequent among God’s people.
The Cutting Edge?
In closing, some people will want to dismiss all of this as yet another faddish trend promoted by a young megachurch pastor devoted to giving an extreme makeover to the Puritans in order to promote cool Calvinism. I will confess that in some ways this is all very cutting edge — the cutting edge of the sixteenth century (Lester De Koster, Light for the City: Calvin’s Preaching, Source of Life and Liberty [Eerdmans, 2004]; Frank A. James III, “Calvin the Evangelist,” Reformed Quarterly 19, [Fall 2001]).
In the 1550s, John Calvin saw the population of his city of Geneva double as Christians fled there from persecution. Among the refugees was Englishman John Bale, who wrote: “Geneva seems to me to be the wonderful miracle of the whole world. For so many from all countries come here, as it were, to a sanctuary. Is it not wonderful that Spaniards, Italians, Scots, Englishmen, Frenchmen, Germans, disagreeing in manners, speech, and apparel, should live so lovingly and friendly, and dwell together like a . . . Christian congregation?” (Cited in James, “Calvin the Evangelist.”)
In his loving providence, God forced Geneva to become a shortterm training ground in missions. Christians from varying cultures lived together there under the teaching of John Calvin, and they had to determine what to receive, reject, and redeem from their culture in order to effectively contextualize the gospel and do evangelism.
After they had such wonderful theological training and missiological experience, and after the persecution subsided, many of the Christians returned to their cultures. The result was an explosion of contending, contextualizing, and church planting. There were only five underground Protestant churches in France in 1555, but by 1562, 2,150 churches were planted, totaling some three million people. Furthermore, some of the churches were megachurches, with anywhere from four thousand to nine thousand people in attendance.
Additionally, church-planting missionaries were also sent by Calvin to Italy, the Netherlands, Hungary, Poland, and the free imperial city-states in Rhineland. The Atlantic Ocean was even crossed by church-planting missionaries, sent by Calvin to South America and present-day Brazil.
Because he was like Jesus and Paul in not merely his doctrine but also his practice, John Calvin rightly understood that God has both predestined the elect to be saved and predestined the church to be instruments of his election by contending and contextualizing in culture. He did this all for the sake of the gospel and was able to share in its blessings, including many people being saved and many churches being planted. I pray that is the fruit of the Reformed resurgence in our day as well.