The Culture Culture

The Bible teaches, from Genesis 3 onward, the antithesis. Antithesis is a rather fancy theological term that simply affirms that the people of God live their lives in the context of the battle between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. While we are called to love our enemies, we are called to recognize them as enemies. Though the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, we are at war. We are called to be set apart, distinct, separate from the world around us. One could even translate ekklesia, which is usually translated “church” in our English Bibles this way, “the called-out ones.” We seem to have forgotten the antithesis in our day, strategizing that if we will become more like the world we might make a difference, that the way to be salt and light is to mask our savor and cover our light. We are of the light, and they of the dark. We are of our Father in heaven, they children of the Father of lies. We are, by the grace of God, the friends of God. They are, by nature, His enemies.

There is, however, sundry points of contact. However mangled and distorted, those outside the kingdom still bear the image of God. Conversely, however, there is this point of contact- we are still sinners. Though we have been regenerated we yet struggle with sin. Though we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, we are still tempted by the spirit of the age. This point of contact, however, the ways in which we sin, is not designed to serve as a bridge to the lost world. It is instead designed to be direction away from itself. That we sin, usually in the same ways that they sin tells us how we can better recognize our sins, that we might flee those sins.

The culture then, serves as a “culture,” a way to discern what ails us. If we want to know the kinds of sins we are tempted toward, we ought to be watching the sins of the world around us. Chances are we are tempted in the same direction. This, sadly, is something too many that are wisely conscious of the antithesis miss. We are so intent on the differences between us and them that we fail to see us in them. They murder their babies, while we avoid ours. They steal from their god by cheating on their taxes. We rob our God by failing to tithe. We rant and we rail against the world’s sin x, and miss the fact that sin x comes in camel size at our favorite buffet. Is the world shallow and greedy? I probably am too. Is the world hell-bent on self? I probably am too. Is the world deaf, dumb and blind? I probably am too.

The difference, the antithesis, between us and the world isn’t that they have sin issues while we do not. The difference is two-fold. First, our sins have already been covered. Jesus died for them, and the Father is not angry with us. Second, we are committed to finding them out, rather than hiding them. Isn’t it gracious of God then to give us the glaring shamelessness of the world to make our own sins more known to us? May He in turn give us eyes to see.

Some Straight Skinny on Crooked Thinking

We serve an exponential God. He who made everything out of nothing does not increase through addition, but through multiplication. We move from faith to faith, from grace to grace, from blessing to blessing. The more we grow in grace the more blessed we are. The more blessed we are, the more we grow in grace. All of this reaches its crescendo when we reach eternity. We will be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.

This exponential reality, however, applies to His woe as well as to His weal, to cursings as it does to blessings. For those yet outside of Christ one of the gravest judgments over sin is being given over to sin. Those outside the kingdom find themselves circling ever lower toward that vortex that is the Lake of Fire. Consider Pharaoh. Here is a man deeply blessed of God, not only made the ruler of the greatest empire the world had ever seen, but blessed with an entire nation of priests to instruct him. He, however, remembered Joseph not, and hardening his heart, enslaved those priests, God’s people. So God hardened his heart and in His grace sent a prophet. Pharaoh’s heart already hardened, he would not hear God and hardened his heart. God returned the favor once again.

The same is true for those caught up in that peculiar perversion that Paul addresses in Romans 1. He tells us that though they knew God, they suppressed that truth in unrighteousness. They hardened their hearts. So God gave them over, that is, He hardened their hearts. And so they lusted after one another. This lusting, however, isn’t the root desire of the homosexual. The primeval desire is to rage against God. Since He is out of reach, they rage against His creation. They do what they do precisely because it is an abomination. It is its very vileness that makes it attractive. They are less caught up in an all consuming and merely misdirected libido, and more shaking their angry fists at God.

Which puts them in a rather damning dilemma. The cultural push, or putsch if you prefer, of the homosexual movement is for acceptance. They keep promising us all will be well if we would just get over the heebie-jeebies we feel over their behavior. As they succeed, however, they fail. For the more the culture accepts their behavior, the less it works as spitting at the sky. Which drives them in turn to more and more flamboyant and perverse behavior. The next time you are tempted to conclude that these folks are just like straight people, but with one crossed wire, watch five minutes of a Gay Pride Parade. The rage is the meta.

Until the church begins to understand this we will continue to lose the cultural battle over homosexuality. Some Christians want to lob Bibles at these folks, arguing merely that God said it’s a sin, and that settles it. Others want to take a more natural law approach, pointing to suicide and substance abuse rates, and low life expectancies among the homosexuals. The truth is the God who wrote Bible and made nature condemns this behavior, which is why they do it. What the culture needs is what we all need, to cease suppressing the truth, and to repent and believe. That will happen when we in the church cease suppressing this disturbing truth about our relationship with the Queer Nation- there but for the grace of God go we. Not because thankfully He didn’t cross our wires, but because thankfully He changed us. Our nature was to rage against Him, to suppress the truth. But He came and remade us, so that now we move from grace to grace, from faith to faith. We must call to all the lost not to cease from perversion, but to cease from rage. Our Father, prodigal in His love, delights to turn death into life, hatred into repentance, rage into peace.

Ask RC: What is the purpose of a college education?

One of the great dangers of our industrialized view of education, wherein we view our children as raw material that are moved along a conveyor belt until they come out the other side educated widgets, is that it bifurcates our lives. We are, in this view, students for a time, until we are students no more. We think grade school is for this, junior high for that, senior high for the other, college for the next thing, and maybe some graduate school for this last thing. When we’re done, we’re done. Instead, a college education is for the same thing a kindergarten education is for, to repair the ruins. The great Puritan poet John Milton wisely said: “The end then of learning is to repair the ruins of our first parents by regaining to know God aright, and out of that knowledge to love him, to imitate him, to be like him.”
How many of us, wherever we might be in the educational process, now know God aright? How many of us sufficiently love Him, imitate Him, are like Him? When we understand this purpose of education, we in turn understand that graduation happens when we die; our death certificate is our diploma. When we understand this purpose, this end, suddenly our means change as well.

There are essentially two common views on the purpose of college education. The great majority of people in our day see it as preparation for a career. We go to college to acquire specialized skills that will be in demand so that we can make a good living. This is school-to-work for the college set. I’m not against people learning skills. This, however, is training, not education. In addition, the Bible says that we prosper through frugality and integrity, not through acquiring the right set of tools.

The less common, far more historical view is that we go to college to receive a liberal education, to learn those things necessary to give us the tools to make us thoughtful adults who are familiar with the key issues of public life. We read the great books, so we can join the great conversation.
This second approach I certainly prefer to the first, though every time I am in an airplane I give thanks for engineers. The trouble with the second approach is that freedom, according to the Word, comes from the Word. That is, it is the truth that sets us free. The folly of Homer, the blindness of Plato, these will not enlighten my path like the Word, which is a lamp unto my feet. I don’t want to exit the education factory looking like Michelangelo. I want, every step of the way, to look more and more like Jesus.
There is virtue in reading the great books. We do so not to find direction, but to learn to recognize where the culture is headed. We find there the traps that are set before us. We do so not to join the great conversation, but to win the great confrontation, to be faithful soldiers in the war between the city of God and the city of man. That happens, however, only as we read the Great Book, as we study its wisdom, and submit to its discipline.
The goal then is to become more like Jesus. Which means we don’t need to pursue the kind of education Calvin or Luther or even Milton received. We need to receive the kind of education Jesus received. Study the Word, in season and out. And repair the ruins.

Go, Stand, Speak

We know more than we let on. So Paul tells us in Romans 1. Still our conclusions are not the fruit of careful, dispassionate reasoning. Motives mix up our minds, and too often we end up believing not what we know but what we want to believe. Which is one reason I am so grateful for those who faithfully go, stand and speak outside the baby killing centers in our neighborhoods. The “clients” came to the Orlando Women’s Center in various groupings: boyfriends with their girlfriends; girls with their girl friends; even one grandmother with her pregnant granddaughter. They came knowing that they were not there to have cells removed. They came to murder their unborn babies. The tool they used to suppress that truth, however, was its very banality. They tell themselves that it’s no big deal, precisely because the world doesn’t make a big deal out of it. They thought they would walk in, hand over their cash, and walk out just a little more hollow.

Ordinary Christians, lining the sidewalk, speak a very simple truth- You are going in there to murder babies. Some hold up signs of aborted babies. Some stand and silently pray. Some gently plead. Some boldly preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. All tell the truth- You are about to murder your baby. All tell the truth- the culture is lying; you are about to murder your baby. All tell the truth- you know the truth. If you will embrace Him, you will find life abundant.

Some of the couples walk past sharing the nervous laughter of those walking through a graveyard. Some angrily denounced us. Many drew their hoods over their faces, blocked their ears with their ipods, and hurried past. All heard the truth- I’m here to murder my baby- and all felt its weight. They didn’t believe the lie. They did, however, act on it. They murdered their babies. They went home, and like those on the sidewalk, they mourned the death of their babies. They suppressed the truth, and the result was something even more perverse, more unnatural, than the burning lusts of those Paul addresses in Romans 1-­- mommies murdering their own babies. As perverse as it is, we ought not find this shocking, to be surprised that the unregenerate side with the lies. All of us, in our natural state are of our father, the father of lies.

The second lie is worse. Inside the church, inside the vibrant, orthodox, passionate, politically active, evangelical church we believe this lie- Abortion is a political issue. We should vote for that electable candidate that is more “pro-life” than the other electable candidate. We believe this lie- that abortion is a bad social problem. We should write a check to the Crisis Pregnancy Center. I saw the truth when I went there. Twenty yards away there was no political issue. Twenty yards away there was no bad social problem. I learned the same truth as those who went inside- those who went inside were murdering their babies.

Political issues are solved politically. Social problems are solved socially. But when babies are being murdered, we are called to go there, to stand, and to speak. We are called to bring the potent and powerful Word of God to bear at the very gates of hell. We are called to bear witness to Him, who bore our shame. We, each of us, carry within us the Spirit of Truth. He indwells us. When we suppress the truth, however, we quench Him. Praise God by His omnipotent grace, we are then convicted. We then go, kneel and weep. Our hands are bloody. But they are washed in His blood.

Here I Stand

There was once a great man who managed to upset the religious leaders of his day. They were screaming for his blood because he had both bypassed their own power structure, and had gained a large popular following. He had taught those under his influence that the traditions they had received were wrong, distortions of the Word, and called them to something far older, something far more biblical. And the world was being turned upside down. Those in authority accused the man of heresy, demanding that he cease and desist. And then, the most amazing thing happened. The history tells us that “…while He was being accused by the chief priests and elders, He answered nothing. Then Pilate said to Him, ‘Do you hear how many things they testify against You?’ But He answered Him not a word, so that the governor marveled greatly” (Matthew 27:12-14.)

Jesus gave no dramatic speech. He did not thrust His chin out, confess that He could not recant because His conscience was captive, turn on His heels and walk off. Instead He went like a lamb to the slaughter. He submitted Himself to the scribes and Pharisees, to the Roman empire, and more important, the Emperor Beyond the Sea.

Luther did the right thing, standing on the Word at Worms. And we, too often, do all the wrong things in his name. We think that the glory of that story is that he stood his ground, that he was courageous, immovable, a rock. And so we go in search of the same opportunities. We boldly stand, and walk out of our churches because this possible inference of that potential trajectory of the other postulation in the pastor’s off-the-cuff remark might impinge on an important doctrine. We boldly defy the American empire, refusing to tell their census taker how many toilets are in our house. We boldly dishonor our parents, because we think them to be not quite as honorable as we are.

Luther is a hero not because he was bold, but because he was meek, not because of his stance, but because of where he stood. I suspect that great speech at Worms was delivered not with bravado, but as a plea, that he whimpered rather than thundered. Luther is a hero because he was willing to be slaughtered for the sake of the Lamb. It was not because he stood, but because he knelt, in submission to the Word.

It is a good thing to want to do great things for the kingdom. It is a better thing to understand that the better thing is almost certainly to submit to those in authority over you. The greatest thing Jesus ever did was not His miracles. It was not the proclamation of His message. It was not even the walking out of the tomb alive. The greatest thing Jesus ever did was to say, at the greatest possible cost, “Yes, Father.” May His grace and power teach me to do the same. May those in authority over me marvel.

Ask RC: How does one recognize a mature Christian?

That’s easy enough- by the size of his library. Sadly, among Reformed Christians this sometimes seems to be our standard. Were we to narrow our library down a smidge to the Word of God we would find there a far more clear answer- the fruit of the Spirit.

Fruit, as a general rule, does not pop up overnight. One does not plant a seed today and come back tomorrow looking for the harvest. The fruit of the Spirit is much the same. It is not that one must wait five or ten years after ones conversion before one can manifest love, joy or peace. The point is instead that these blessings will flourish and ripen over time as they are cultivated by the Spirit.

One of the challenges we face is faux fruit, wax versions created by the Great Deceiver to deceive us. Love, for instance, in our peculiar time, is essentially equated in the public mind with mere permissiveness. The mature Christian doesn’t smile blandly in the face of grievous sin. Genuine love mourns for the destructive power of sin. Genuine love enters into the lives of others, mourning with those who mourn.

Joy, as well, should not be understood as mere happiness. It is instead something far more august, more unshakable, more rich. Do you see in the Christian joy even in the context of hardship? Is this person rejoicing in the grace of God, in the glory of Christ, even when health is elusive, or even in the loss of a loved one? Here joy intersects with peace. The mature Christian doesn’t merely believe in the sovereignty of God in the abstract, winning arguments over predestination. The mature Christian instead rests in the knowledge that God Himself brings all things to pass. President Obama to the mature Christian, isn’t the cause of the sky falling. He is instead what God has given us for our good and His glory. Peace rests.

We can recognize the mature Christian in how he reacts to we who are immature. Patience means not growing frustrated with the rest of us, and our weaknesses. The mature Christian remembers his own journey, and again rests in confidence that God is on His throne. This will show itself in turn as kindness. The mature Christian looks for opportunities to encourage and help others rather than to criticize and attack others. Which in turn is an expression of gentleness. The mature Christian knows that his strength is in the Lord, and thus has no need to throw his weight around. Self-control then isn’t merely avoiding fatty foods. It isn’t control over impulse buying. It is mastery of ones emotions. It is decision making grounded in the Word.

Which brings us to faithfulness. Faithfulness isn’t the first on the list, nor the last. It does, however, in my judgment, neatly subsume them all. The mature Christian is the person whose passion is to submit to all that the Bible teaches. He is faithful to the Lordship of Christ, focused on his calling to become more like Him. His pursuit isn’t human accolades, professional success. Instead he labors daily to win this great prize, to hear Jesus declare, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant. Enter into your reward.”

The mature Christian, however, more than anything else, knows himself. He knows his failures and his weaknesses. I would suggest then that in the end the clearest mark of the mature Christian is the mark of the Christian- repentance. We are never closer to the mark then when we are most conscious of how far off the mark we are, when we beat our breast and cry out, “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

What about me and my weeds?

It’s a big world out there, full of all manner of sin. In these United States sodomites parade their perversion down Main Street. In Canada to denounce sodomy as perversion is to invite prosecution by the state. In parts of Europe more couples cohabit than marry. In Iraq and East Timor militant Muslims blow up churches in service to Allah. Sin abounds out there.

Too often Christians, in rightly wanting to wage war with sin, aim far and miss far. One of the great evils of these great evils is that they distract us from the great evils in ourselves. Flamboyant sin delights the devil because its very brightness blinds us to our own more humdrum sins. It is a good thing to be aghast at the great sins of the world. We ought never to become jaded to any sin. We must see it for what it is, an affront to God, and an assault on His dignity. The problem of sodomy isn’t that it turns our stomachs or makes our children ask embarrassing questions, but that it is a vile stench in the nostrils of God. It is a good thing to pray that God would do great things to stop this wickedness, to pray that His grace and His wrath would be poured out.

But it is a better thing, if you’ll pardon the piety, that we pray and labor to eradicate that sin which is closest to us, which resides within our own hearts. Sodomites, after all, not only do not have the Spirit of God indwelling them, but are in fact doing what they do as a result, not just a cause of, the judgment of God. Political fools who will not kiss the Son won’t kiss the Son because they can’t even see His kingdom. Fornicating Euros were raised by those outside the covenant, and so it is little wonder that they play the harlot. And Muslims are in the grip of the demon that they worship.

I, on the other hand, have been bought with a price. I am a child of the Father, in union with the Son, and indwelt by the Spirit. I have been born again unto good works. I am a new creation, and so my sins, rather than being small by comparison, dwarf the peccadillos of the damned. I haven’t been given much, but have been given everything. And so everything is required of me. I, as a Reformed person, am the worst of the lot. I would rather spend my time debating about the place of good works in the life of the Christian, than cultivating good works in my life. I would rather hone my “worldview” than see the log that is in my own eye. I think sanctification is a doctrine, rather than a calling. And I am more interested in having my mind renewed than in being transformed. I would rather look down my nose at piety than I would seek it out.

Fool Me Once

The Bible is right. It tells us that the serpent was more crafty than any of the beasts of the field. He still is crafty, and we still just fell off the rutabaga wagon. A case could be made that what we seek to do at Highlands Ministries, in encouraging people to be more deliberate in how they live their lives, is expose the games of the devil. He sells barrenness, and we celebrate fruitfulness. He sells autonomy, and we enjoin submission. His craftiness, however, isn’t always fought best through reaction. If the devil says, somehow with a straight face, impersonal non-forces unintentionally collided and out came life, and we look to Genesis 1 and 2 simply as the antidote to this folly, we have already lost the battle. Genesis 1 and 2 is the true story of creation, because it is the story of God. If we miss God in defense of creation, we’ve missed the point.

The devil also likes to mock us. We are told by the serpent, often through his respectable mouthpieces, men like Marx and Freud, that religion is a superstitious reaction to forces beyond our control, an opiate. We are told that Jesus is a crutch, and that religion is for the weak. The devil wins best, however, not when we concede the point, but when we fight it. We beat our chest, and become macho for Jesus, showing ourselves again to be fools. We whip out our strength credentials, and the devil laughs.

Jesus isn’t a crutch for me, not because of my strength, but because of my weakness. A crutch is no help to a dead man. Jesus is more than a crutch, more than a wheelchair, more than a cure for cancer. He is life. Not only is He necessary to give my life meaning, but only in Him does meaning have life. Is He a means to help me face up to the harshness of this world? Yes indeed, but far more than that, He makes me able to face the harshness of the next world. It isn’t that He makes this world bearable, but that, because He bore my sins, He allows me to miss an unbearable eternity of anguish.

We are the fellowship of the weak, who rejoice in our weakness, for once we were fully dead. We were dead, and now we merely stumble. We are the ones who can’t face reality, the reality of His wrath. Because of Him, we won’t have to. We who once dwelled in darkness now live in light. And we who were once fools, are fools still.

When the devil accuses us, of weakness, of fear, of hypocrisy, of selfishness, let us speak with boldness that it is all true. We’re guilty as charged. But it is not true of Jesus.

Ask RC: Belong, then believe or believe, then belong?

“Will going to church eventually lead to conversion, or must one be born again and then desire to belong to the Body of Christ in a church?”

Believe, then belong. However, it is certainly possible that one might attend, then believe, and then belong. That is to say, church membership is for those who have a credible profession of faith (and some would add as well that the children of those who have a credible profession of faith should likewise be members of the church.) It is not a civic association, a country club, or any such thing. It is a local body of professing believers in the finished work of Christ.

Attendance is another thing altogether. While we believe that corporate Lord’s Day worship is designed to be the assembling together of the saints, and not an evangelistic event per se, at the same time the gospel is made known, or should be, when the saints gather. The Puritans wisely believed not that “going to church [will] eventually lead to conversion,” but that God the Holy Spirit is far more likely to give new life to a man sitting under gospel preaching than a man sitting on a bar stool Sunday morning. It is always a wise thing to sit under the faithful preaching of the Word of God. Faith, after all, comes by hearing.

If God has indeed given a man new life, his immediate obligation is to be baptized (if he has not already been baptized) and to come under the authority of a local body of believers. He ought not to wait for there to be the desire, but ought to be instructed that such is his calling. When we join a local church our faith is nurtured and fed, both in Word and sacrament. We are protected by the grace of church discipline. And we are given an opportunity to serve the body as the Spirit equips us for ministry.

One of the great successes of the serpent in our own day is that he has persuaded too many of us that joining a local church is unnecessary and superfluous. Many claim to be members of “the invisible church.” Others argue that church membership vows are not in the Bible. That is true enough. The Scriptures do, however, call us to submit to those in authority over us, even those who will give an answer for our souls (Hebrews 13). If you are willing to publicly acknowledge your obedience to that particular command, you have joined a church.

On the other hand, obviously church membership will save no one. One of the dangers of the view that one can belong first and then believe is the temptation to believe that belonging is what matters. Too many of us have said of this loved one or that, “Well, he’s not a Christian, but at least he attends a church.” If such a man does not believe, his membership in the body will only bring greater judgment, especially if he profanes the Lord’s Table by eating there without saving faith.

Two Cheers for Suburbia

We are what we cheer. Which is one of the many things that ought to concern us. Consider, for a moment, the literary world. Our heroes, in terms of the modern canon, are Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, Hedda Gabler. The villains on the other hand are men like Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt. The former, misunderstood ladies, were heroes because they cast off conventional morality and adulterated. The latter is wicked because he lived a decent, honorable, middle class life. Babbitt worked hard, provided for his family, labored for his community, and received for it our disdain.

Babbitt was on my mind this week as I took the opportunity to walk among the homes of Morton, Illinois, a rather ordinary suburb of Peoria, in a rather ordinary part of the country. What I found there were well cared for homes and lawns, white picket-fences, children’s toys in the driveways. I found beautiful what the progressives and elites find so reprehensible and banal. These are homes peopled by husbands who love their wives and children, wives who love their husbands and children, and children who love their parents. Where is the excitement in that? Why are there no magazines at the grocery check-out with headlines screaming, “Mr. Jones Takes His Three Year Old Daughter Out for Breakfast!” Why are there no paparazzi snapping pictures of mom folding laundry, or big sister teaching little brother to ride a bicycle? Decency has its place, and ought to be honored. But we, as CS Lewis warned in The Abolition of Man, laugh at virtue and are stunned to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid geldings to be fruitful.

In the great war between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent, that war that began in Eden and will end fully and finally at His return, we have got to recognize that which is of the serpent within the woman. Our white hats are rather filthy. That is, the front of the war is right in front of us, where we citizens of God’s kingdom behave like citizens of Satan’s kingdom. But we would be wise as well to learn to recognize the remnants of the image of God amongst our enemies. When unbelievers love their families, when they work honestly, when they seek out beauty, we need to encourage them, and to rejoice as well. They live off borrowed capitol, but we ought to be happy to lend.

We must, however, be careful. While we recognize the relative goodness of the “good life” lived by our neighbors, what they desperately need is direction on how to have a good death. Suburbia, so long as it is content with mere blessings, will not miss out on the Giver of those blessings, but will find Him too, in His wrath. We must call good good, and evil evil, burning wood, hay and stubble, but strengthening the things that remain. Two cheers we ought give, and a call to flee the wrath that is to come.

Stand on the Word. Walk by the Way. Run to the Battle. Rest in the Son.
Dr. R.C. Sproul Jr. teaches at Reformation Bible College and Ligonier Ministries in Sanford, Florida.
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