In an attempt to pen an anthem for change, Bob Dylan wrote, in 1969, “Come gather ’round people wherever you roam; and, admit that the waters around you have grown; and, accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone. If your time to you is worth savin’, then you better start swimmin’; or, you’ll sink like a stone for the times they are a-changin’.” He accomplished his goal. For over 4 decades those words have shaped peoples’ views on society — “The times they are a-changin’.”
For the Christian church in America, however, the times aren’t a-cahngin’; they have changed. We presently live in “post-Christian times.” That does not mean that there aren’t plenty of churches and many Christians in our country. Actually, the opposite is the case. We have one of the highest rates of churches per capita in the world, and we have more churches now than we’ve ever had in our history. And, though mainline Christian denominations have experienced decline in recent years, the number of evangelical Christians has steadily grown. This means that the Christian church, as a whole, is actually growing numerically. Yet, this growth can be misleading because other religions have steadily grown as well. America is more religiously diverse than ever.
This rise in religious diversity indicates that a a drastic shift in the prevailing influence on the mind and heart of our culture has occurred. Our social, political, moral, and intellectual landscape has changed, causing Christianity to no longer occupy a place of dominance. It is now just one of many voices being heard around the table of American religious and public life. This shift causes us to make a choice: We can romanticize the past, lament the change, refuse to accept it, and withdraw (even bitterly) from society. Or, we can accept the reality of the change and live our lives in the gospel in a way that ensures that our voices will be heard. You and I both know what the only biblical option is — to accept it and live so our voices are heard.
What has Happened?*
We have been overrun by barbarians. But, these contemporary barbarians are not like those who attacked ancient Rome and threatened its women and children with violence, or who stormed its borders and climbed its walls. They are far more civil, so civil that they are unrecognizable and have gained significant influence in our society and culture. Charles Colson explains:
“…[T]he invaders have come from within. We have bred them in our families and trained them in our classrooms. They inhabit our legislatures, our courts, our film studios, and our churches. Most of them are attractive and pleasant; their ideas are persuasive and subtle. Yet these men and women threaten our most cherished institutions and our very character as a people” (Colson, Against the Night, 23-24).
These new “non-threatening” barbarians see themselves as catalysts for building a better society — an inclusive society which they will build by making truth relative (relativism) and by elevating the rights of the individual (narcissism). This philosophy is nothing new. It is, however, more prevalent now than it has ever been in America, and it is leading to our demise, signaling “the death of a culture based on objective truth and civic virtue” (Ryken, City on a Hill, 18).
Simply put, relativism is the rejection of absolute truth, which leads to the opinion that reality itself depends upon one’s personal perspective. Reality adapts as each person finds what is true for him or her. Everyone has his or her own story, but there is no divinely ordained story that ties them all together. Thus, no one knows anything with objective certainty; it all depends on a particular point of view. A person’s worldview is only a matter of his or her opinion.
Because of its prevalence in all generations, relativism has had and continues to have tremendously negative effects in American culture and society. Perhaps the most troubling effects are seen in the areas of ethical and intellectual standards of science, law, medicine, and journalism, as well as the way our culture understands religion. At best, Christianity is just one of the many religious options for people, and, at worst, it is to be rejected because of its exclusive claims such as, “the Bible is God’s authoritative Word” or “Jesus Christ is the only Savior.”
Narcissism is radical individualism and/or an infatuation with oneself. Though there has always been a general narcissistic tendency in human culture because of human sinfulness, contemporary American culture has taken it to a new level by removing the constraints of an objective reality built upon objective truth. We now live in a time of unbridled individualism. Such an individualism, which emphasizes self-love, is quickly becoming a foundational virtue of American culture.
As is the case with relativism, narcissism effects the majority of Americans, not just the younger generations. And, the toll it is taking on our culture is equally pronounced. When people make value judgements and decisions regarding their behavior on the basis of self-love, they feel justified to do whatever is in their self-interest, without respect to their spouses, children, co-workers, and neighbors. This leads to the development of a consumer culture full of takers and critics, not givers and creators. Our culture is devoid, for the most part, of any notion of self-sacrifice, so even the simplest of tasks that require cooperation have become increasingly difficult.
As ancient Nineveh was, America is filled with people who do not know their right hand from their left (Jonah 4:11). They do not know what is true (if anything is true) and they are unable to do what is right, just and good. Essentially, they do what is right in their own eyes (Judges 21:25). And, we should not be surprised at this. Intellectual skepticism quickly leads to moral relativism because the standard of truth upon which morals are built is eroded by our skeptical presuppositions. People feel, therefore, alienated and abandoned because they are unable to connect to loving and living communities. Their skepticism causes doubt regarding the possibility of love and romance, not to mention marriage and family. Consequently, we live in a time when people are skeptical about the possibility of truth and serve themselves, causing them to be hesitant to engage and connect with other people.
What is Our Response to the Shift?
As I mentioned earlier, our only biblically acceptable response to this cultural shift is to accept it and to commit to living our lives in the gospel in such a way as to ensure that our voices are being heard. That means that with respect to the evangelical Christian Church we are to resist the temptation to think that we need to either: find a new way of “doing” church or to become more set in our traditional way of “doing” it. On one hand, we want to be relevant so that we are able to engage the people we have been called to reach for Christ. On the other hand, we don’t want to be so relevant that we do away with the distinctions that make us a church. We have to find that proper balance between these two extremes.
The Acts 2 Balance
The earliest Christians lived and breathed in times that were very similar to ours. They were certainly no strangers to relativism and narcissism. They also suffered from another deadly “ism,” syncretism, which wreaked havoc on their spiritual and religious climate. Yet, they found their balance and we are to learn from them.
Acts 2:42-47 gives us a remarkable description of how they built their church on the Lord Jesus in such a way as to have a tremendous impact in their world. This description also sheds light on their congregational and ministry priorities in the way that it reports the congregation’s activities. They devoted themselves to “the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (vs. 42), and they involved themselves in ministries of mercy, generosity, and outreach.
A Brief Discussion of the Essential Components
If we were to break each of those congregational priorities and activities found in Acts 2:42-47 down in detail, it would take pages upon pages to complete. And, that is NOT my desire! I want to give you a brief overview of, what I believe are, the essential components of the early church’s life. These are the things that must be emulated if we are to be faithful and effective in the 21st century. The Bible and our culture demands a church that is focused on worship, community, service and outreach.
Keep Plugging Along
As our culture continues its downward trajectory, our biblical responsibility is to continue doing things that we have always done, which are: standing strong on the Bible and the gospel and involving ourselves in worship, nurture, service and outreach. I am confident that we will experience organic and sustained spiritual and numerical growth as we maintain our biblical focus. We will also find that what God has given in the church is exactly what the post-Christian culture needs.
Therefore, congregations are to renew their commitment to being a congregation that exists to glorify God by developing mature, worshipping disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ for the advancement of His Kingdom to the ends of the earth. May God bless us and make us more devoted disciples of Christ personally and establish our congregations firmly as congregations devoted to “the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42).
*My line of reasoning originated while reading Phil Ryken’s book, City on a Hill
This past Sunday our congregation heard from Romans 1:16-17 during our morning worship. These two short verses contain Paul’s justification for his conviction that the gospel must be believed and proclaimed throughout the world. The gospel is the dynamic, saving power of God for all who believe in Jesus. Its power is found in its revelation of the righteousness of God.
Paul was, therefore, not ashamed of the gospel. He was proud of it. He lived by it. He proclaimed it to the world. He devoted his life to it.
Wouldn’t it be great if all the followers of Jesus had the same pride in the gospel? The Church would be empowered, and the world would be changed for the glory of Christ. Marriages would be strengthened, parents would rear their children in godly homes, people’s finances would reflect godly priorities, business owners would treat their employees with grace, employees would work hard as working for the glory of Christ, politicians would exhibit godly character and make appropriate decisions, the poor and hurting would have their spiritual and physical needs met, and missionaries would be sent around the globe. Men, women and children would live their lives boldly with Christ as their goal and his Word as their guide. They would seek his glory and the good of those around them. It would be awesome in the truest sense of the word.
But, sadly, we know the reality. We struggle with fear. We have doubts. We cower in the face of opposition. We fall to the temptation to be ashamed to build our lives on the gospel story — a story about a man who claimed to be God, lived 2000 years ago, died on a cross and then rose from the dead, a story that the non-believing world labels a fairy tale.
Paul faced the same temptation. John Stott, following the lead of the Scottish pastor, James Stewart, argued that Paul would have never boldly asserted that he was unashamed of the gospel had he never been tempted to be ashamed of it (Stott, Romans, 60). Boldness and pride are relative words that find their fullest meaning in the context of fear and shame. So, when Paul emphatically stated, “I am not ashamed of the gospel…”, he meant that he had learned to overcome the temptation to be ashamed of the gospel through the power of the risen Christ living in him in the person of the Holy Spirit.
The gospel is fanciful unless your eyes have been opened to it by the Spirit of God and your heart has been touched by his transforming grace in Christ. But, when that happens, you know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the story is true. It is absolutely true. You, then, willingly build your life on it because it is the power of God. You proclaim it because it reveals the righteousness of God, not only to your soul, but to the world around you. And, you love it because it tells you about Jesus who is your only hope in this life and in the life to come.
May we be like Paul who learned through his experience of the power of God in his life to overcome the temptation to be ashamed of the gospel and strove to live a bold Christian life and to proclaim Christ daily. And, may our confession be that which he wrote to Timothy, “But I am not ashamed, for I know I whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me” (2Timothy 1:12).
We all have friends and family members that aren’t involved in a church. Some may be members of a church, but they aren’t by any means active. Others currently aren’t members of any church and probably have never been members of a church. We love them, and, like Paul, we feel obligated to share Jesus with them (Rom. 1:15). But we wonder how to do it effectively.
I offer you the following five helpful practices for sharing Jesus with your friends. May the Lord bless you with a rich harvest among your friends and family for his glory.
During our recital of the Apostles’ Creed in Sunday’s worship service, I heard a young woman’s distinguished voice over the rest of the congregation. I thought to myself, “Man, she really believes this creed.” When I spoke to her after the service, I said, “I love the conviction and passion in your voice when you say the Creed. I heard you above everyone else.” Her response was golden; she said, “I love the Creed. I love to say it! It means so much to me.”
I’m with her. I love the Creed. And, I love to join along with my fellow worshippers saying it each week. The Creed holds a special place in my heart, and the hearts of many others, because it ties us together as the people of God and reminds us of the faith that is ours in Christ Jesus. I remember how, as a child, reciting the Creed Sunday after Sunday with men and women, young and old, was an encouragement to my faith. These brothers and sisters – fathers and mothers – shared the faith that I had in the Lord Jesus Christ. What a great reminder that we are the family of God and equals in Christ!
The Creed also helps remind us each week of just what it is that we believe as orthodox Christians. It is a basic summary of the things – things like: God is Trinity; Jesus is fully divine and fully human; the resurrection from the dead; the forgiveness of sins – that every Christian should believe. In addition, the Creed enables us to proclaim to visitors what we believe as a congregation. Chester ARP Church is an Apostles’ Creed congregation.
I pray you love the Creed too. May the Lord bless you and keep you in his grace.
I haven’t written in a while, but since Thanksgiving is tomorrow, I thought I would write a brief piece on the importance of “giving thanks in all circumstances.” The majority of this piece originally appeared our congregation’s November 2014 newsletter.
It won’t be long until we are sitting around a table with our family and friends eating our fill of turkey and pie, swapping stories, and enjoying the company of others. And, we’ll be thankful — thankful for all kinds of things, for the blessings we experience, for everything in our lives.
It’s easy to be thankful for those good things in life, isn’t it? It’s easy to be thankful for the smell of children’s freshly washed hair, for the beauty of the fall foliage, for the love of family and friends, for the memories of loved ones who’ve gone to their heavenly home, and for the many other blessings we experience each and every day. But, it’s not so easy to be thankful for the difficult things, the sad things, the challenging things.
Paul says, though, that we are to “give thanks in all circumstances,” for it is the “will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess. 5:18). That’s a pretty powerful and convicting statement! It is the will of God for us to be thankful in all circumstances — good and bad. Why is this so? The answer is simple. First, giving thanks is a recognition that our God is a good God regardless of whether or not we consider certain circumstances and things in our lives to be a burden or a blessing. And second, giving thanks expresses our unwavering trust in Him and his perfect plan for all things to bring about his glory and our good. His glory and our good is not dependent upon our understanding, but on his goodness.
So, let me encourage you to fulfill the will of God by being thankful for all a things this Thanksgiving season. Be thankful for all the usual good things — faith, family, God’s word, and creation. But also, be thankful for the difficult things in life — daily problems, sufferings, and inadequacies. It is these difficult things that remind us of our need for a Savior and of our dependence upon him.
I recently read an essay by B.B. Warfield, a 19th century Princeton theologian, in which he made the claim that Christianity is the chief among the world’s religions. The reason for this, he said, was that Christianity has the Bible – “the book of the ancient world, the book of the Middle Ages, and…the book of these new days of ours.” He further wrote that the Bible is “mankind’s book. Other books may belong the a people, an age, a stage of human development: this book (the Bible) belongs to all peoples, all ages and all stages of growth, whether of the individual or of the race – unifying them all and welding them into one vitalized and vitalizing whole.”
Now, I know this is not the most popular claim in today’s society, which celebrates religious pluralism, a relativistic view of truth, and the ever-changing value system of tolerance. But, think about it for a minute. Where else can you find the answers to life’s big questions – Who am I? Where did I come from? What is my purpose? What is wrong with the world? How does the world get fixed? And, what will ultimately happen to me when I die? – answered in a succinct and hope-filled way? Nowhere. And, what other religious book has the rich, storied, and reliable history of the Bible? None. The Bible we have today is the same as the one that the Jews read before Jesus’ birth, the same as the one Jesus read, and the same as the one that Christians have read throughout history. It has, therefore, shaped the lives of countless men, women, congregations and societies. No other “holy” book can make that claim. The Bible is the book of books.
As Christians, we posses the word of God in the Bible, and I want to encourage you to take full advantage of it. It is the story of God. It is your story. Therefore, read, study, learn, memorize, and thank God for it. May God bless you as he instills his truth in your heart and draws you closer to him as you read and study the book of books.
After a week away and reading through some difficult texts, I’m glad to be back writing. I must say, though, that the text is no less difficult. For me, Romans 9-11 are perhaps the three hardest collection of chapters to understand in the whole Bible. They just don’t sit well with me intellectually, emotionally, or pastorally. They’re hard. But, they’re exceedingly important because (if I understand Paul right, and that’s a big if) God’s faithful fulfillment of his promises to the Gentiles rests on his faithful fulfillment of his promises to Israel.
The ESV Study Bible comments in its explanatory notes on 9:1-11:36,
“Paul has made it clear that God’s saving promises have been fulfilled for the Gentiles. Indeed, the church of Jesus Christ now enjoys the spiritual blessings promised to Israel: the gift of the Spirit (8:9); adoption as God’s children (8:14-17); future glory (8:17,30); election (8:33); and the promise of never being severed from God’s love (8:35-39). Paul now asks in chs. 9-11 whether the promise of God made to ethnic Israel will be fulfilled. If his promises to the Jews remain unfulfilled, how can Gentile Christians be sure that he will fulfill the great promises that conclude ch. 8?”
So, our hope in the salvation of God provides in the gospel through faith rests upon God’s faithfulness to fulfill ALL of his promises, not just those to he made to the Gentiles . He is a great and faithful God who will fulfill all his promises of salvation, and he will fulfill them in the same way — through the finished work of Christ, gospel proclamation, and a faithful response to his grace. Notice the following three sets of verses.
May the Lord bless you as you read (and reread) Romans 9-10. Its tough, but it’s good. Don’t lose heart.