Keeping gospel clarity in a world that prefers to blur
Two hundred years on, the idea of evolution no longer seems novel to us, but its all pervasive influence has certainly shifted the way we think and act. What was once regarded as fixed is now plastic; the intellectual hegemony of evolutionary theory, together with the huge social changes ushered in by the industrial revolution and modernity, mean life lacks the objectivity that would once have been the norm. The ‘normal’ life used to be fixed: an individual was born, worked, married and died in one place, with a clearly defined role in society. In our era of late modernity there is no normal. The objective given-ness of life has been superseded by a subjective uncertainty.
In this subjective world we know that facts still count: no one gets on an aeroplane without confidence that the facts of aerodynamics will hold true. And in many areas accuracy is increasingly prized: get the address on an envelope slightly wrong and the post office will still be able to work out where you intended it to go; make a single character mistake on an email address and delivery will fail. But despite the importance of facts, feelings are the way by which we measure certainty.
This has become as true within Christianity as it is in other areas of life – a defining characteristic of evangelicalism is a conversion experience we feel. We know that what we believe matters, but belief has to be felt in order to be real. The flip side of this is that if we don’t feel something, or stop feeling it, we don’t believe it.
This dependence on the subjective makes everything relative, with contemporary attitudes towards sexuality being the example par excellence. Objectively, marriage only makes sense as a union between a man and a woman, with a social utility centred around procreation and the building of community. Subjectively, marriage is simply a matter of the heart, so if two people love each other, hey, what difference does it make what their sex is? And if they fall out of love, what does it matter if they split up?
The turn towards subjectivity is a challenge for evangelism, as truth claims are often met with considerable scepticism, or at least a dismissive, ‘that’s great if it works for you’. It is also a challenge for discipleship, and maintaining unity in the local church: If truth is relative, why should church members submit to the discipline of the church?
In this subjective world, which prefers to blur, there are many areas where (if we are going to keep the gospel at all) we need to keep gospel clarity. Here are five examples:
1. Keeping gospel clarity by remembering the factual basis of the gospel
There is a God and he can be known. This is not a matter of feelings, but of fact; as Peter writes, ‘We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty’ (2 Peter 1:16). Christianity is not just another philosophy but rooted in the reality of the person of Jesus Christ. This means that if we are to avoid the blur, we need to keep clarity about Jesus.
2. Keeping gospel clarity by recognising that God demands certain responses & behaviours
Christ died for us so that we might die to the law (Romans 7:4) but he also died to redeem us from lawlessness (Titus 2:14). Thus it is no surprise that the New Testament is loaded with imperatives: ‘Do this; Don’t do that’. Despite this there is a growing tendency in sections of the church to deny the possibility of insisting on the imperatives as part of our growing as disciples – a trend that surely reflects the blur of our world rather than the clarity of the gospel. We need to be clear: the gospel demands holiness, and we shouldn’t be shy about calling one another to that.
3. Keeping Gospel clarity by remembering the priority of the local church
In the age of Christendom being a member of the church happened by default. To be a European and to be part of the church were one and the same thing. Today, church membership is a matter of personal choice – there are advantages to this, not least the fact that it means participation in the life of a church has to be an active decision rather than an accident of birth, but it also results in church membership feeling like one option among many. This kind of blur can even result in the biblically nonsensical situation whereby professed followers of Christ fail to work out their discipleship within the context of a local church.
In contrast to this worldly blur we need to be clear that Christ is building his Church, and that works out through churches! Evangelism best happens through local churches, as does discipleship. We need to be clear: our churches matter.
4. Keeping gospel clarity even as winter approaches
It seems that the church in the western world is slipping into autumn, with perhaps a rapid turn to winter. Over the course of 200 years we have seen the church move from the centre of society (with a confession of atheism being effectively career and social suicide) to a place of being treated with indifference to a climate where indifference is being replaced by hostility. Because the world prefers blur to clarity it is precisely at those points where the church is clearest that she will experience the greatest hostility. In this changing climate we will need increasing gospel clarity that, ‘Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come’ (Hebrews 13:14).
5. Keeping Gospel clarity by trusting the sovereignty of God’s timing
The tragedy of so much of the Jewish nation in the first century was a zealous striving after God, while missing the reality of the Messiah who had come. Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes and Zealots all tried in their own ways to speed the coming of the kingdom but, as Paul expressed it, ‘They have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge’ (Romans 10:2). It was as though they were trying to twist God’s arm, and that is always a fruitless cause.
A contrasting example is given by Carl Trueman in his exceptional Reformation lectures. In 1523 Martin Luther wrote a thesis welcoming the Jews. Treat the Jews kindly and they will convert, says Luther. In 1523 Luther thinks it is the end times; he thinks the conversion of the Jews will happen and then Christ will come again. Twenty years later Luther wrote another thesis, for which he is sadly much better known. Now he urges that Jews be burnt alive in their synagogues. Why the change? What could possibly have happened between 1523 and 1543 that caused such an appalling change? Trueman suggests it was due to Luther becoming a bitter old man as his hopes of the triumph of the Reformation, the conversion of the Jews and the return of Christ were dashed.
This is an extreme example, but all of us can be prone to trying to force God’s arm. We can adopt the latest spiritual fad, and then give into disappointment when things don’t work out the way we thought they would. We can start with youthful enthusiasm and end in bitterness. We can fall into the trap of thinking it is about us, rather than trusting Jesus that it is all about him.
Rather than blurring this way we need to have clarity that Christ is building his church. He is sovereign, and he does things when he decides they need to be done.