April 11, 2023

The Pulpit, Pastors, and Culture

We are living in a collectivist age. Individual people are increasingly lost in the mass of news media, the anonymity of social media, the crowd of progressive movements, and among ‘the people.’ It is an age of totalizing politics, where the messianic state must act as saviour to the public from cradle to grave. God’s image-bearers are viewed merely as abstractions, known only by group identities and the degree to which, as a class, they feel oppressed or victimized by ‘the majority.’ There is a grand leveling underway: the democratization of human beings as mere variables in an equation or cogs in a machine; and the spiritual uprooting of the individual before the living God. This levelling has shattered family, community, social and national life. A sense of individual accountability to God and personal responsibility for oneself and others has largely dissipated. Western civilization has emphatically broken up, its religious unity shredded, whilst neo-pagan ideologies have risen. The younger generation is rudderless, confused, and tempted to despair. Little wonder, since for much of their lives our young people have been treated like laboratory animals in an ideological sexual-social experiment. 

Ours has become a tragi-comic era. Tragic because we are decaying, comic because we persist in our decadence. Many of the outward forms of Christendom remain, but they have been evacuated of their meaning, denuded of their significance. Royals still rule, Commons and Lords still legislate, Justices still judge, Bishops still teach – tragic because their offices were once great and noble; comic because, in open war against Christ, they continue without real majesty, authority or substance. They are hollow men and appear more and more as pantomime.

It is into this moment, the end of an epoch, that Christians are called to preach, teach, and lead to give shape to the future. The only hope for renewal in Western society consists in religious confrontation again with the Absolute in Jesus Christ. Strange as it may seem, this moment of chaos and uncertainty presents us with a remarkable opportunity for the gospel of the kingdom, bringing life, godly order, peace, and hope. As such, Christian leaders today must be missionaries with evangelistic zeal, apologetic acumen, and pastoral concern. We must live in the Word and be empowered by the Spirit.

Perhaps the greatest mistake the Western pulpit has made over the last century in the face of the radical, secularising demand for autonomy, has been to try and remove the offense of the gospel rather than emphasize it.  This is a disaster because the offense of the gospel is the great testament to its truthfulness. It is the least calculated of all claims to flatter the human ego as all other religions do (because they are man-made). It marks the confrontation of the Absolute in Jesus Christ with individual sinful human beings and so there is no escaping its offense.

Creation in and through the Son – revealing the responsibility and accountability of man’s creatureliness – offends human scientism. The Fall of man and its universal, all-pervasive consequences, offends our corrupted sense of fairness and justice. The Incarnation, as the Great Paradox – the divine becoming human; the eternal, temporal; the exalted, lowly; the all-powerful, weak and helpless – offends not only man’s logic, but his ideal of culture, glory and honour. The cross of Christ, as the fulcrum of history and only means of redemption from sin and death through repentance and faith, deeply offends man’s idea of himself as a cosmic victim and his self-righteous notion of his own virtue. Moreover, it is thought a supreme folly that such a shameful defeat could be construed as victory. The resurrection offends man’s view of history as something determined by man and governed by his expectations as a closed system. And the radical call of discipleship to take up your cross and follow Christ is an egregious offense against man’s perceived autonomy and self-will.

The area of deepest offense today actually centres upon Christ’s incarnation as a man, bound as it is to the creation of human beings as image-bearers. The theologian Hans Jurgen Baden in the last century prophetically saw that:

The coming religious controversy will no longer take place on the basis of the logical pro and contra, but on a basis which grips man utterly. It will change from the sphere of the word and of words into the sphere of being and life-form. The final legitimation of the truth lies in the possibility of its incarnation.[1]

The all-pervasive spiritual conflict taking place today over identity, sexuality and marriage – with its correlate attempts to chemically and surgically remake human beings – is a struggle over being and life-form at the root of human existence.  Baden correctly perceived:

The transformation of the individual man with Christian contents is the essential, the task of our time…only if the Church can create a living type of man all its own (as the present world-forces do) is its existence justified…it is the mission of the church in our time to restore to life the dimension of depth.[2]

This is part of the apologetic mandate for the pulpit and church leaders. We must again speak as those who actually believe that the secular, neo-pagan ‘immanent’ answers to the human situation are hopeless and that the Christian revelation alone is God’s authoritative answer in Christ, the incarnate Word, to man’s ruined nature, situation, vocation and social order. I would summarise our three-fold apologetic task in the pulpit in this way; rooted in Scripture we must:

  1. Critique the supposed autonomous, neo-pagan/secular systems of thought and ways of life that destroy man’s life and lead only to despair.
  • Prepare the would-be believer to take the step of faith in committing the totality of their life to Christ and His lordship, tearing down all their hiding places.
  • Train believers in setting all the aspects of their life and thought in relation to the absolute claims and Lordship of Jesus Christ

Over-against the spirit of the age, we must restore the depth dimension of the Christian life and mind and incarnate the kind of discipleship Christ and the apostles urged upon God’s people by both teaching and example. 

We are to be on the offensive, not defensive.  As believers we have been vested with authority by Jesus Christ Himself, and have an anointing from the Holy One.  It is not the spirit of the age which judges Christ and His gospel, but the Holy Spirit who judges the age by the faith once delivered to the saints.  The Holy Spirit does not conceal or soften the offense of the gospel or adapt the faith to suit human desires or preferences, rather He transforms the heart and mind of the unbeliever to change their desires. Our task is to remove misunderstandings, errors, blinkers and prejudices which hinder the unbeliever from seeing the claims of Christ clearly.

All Christians, most especially pastors and teachers, must remember that we are not preaching or speaking to ‘the public,’ ‘the media’ or some other collective abstraction. ‘Public opinion’ is an illusion, a nothingness. We are speaking to individual people in the immediacy of the testimony of the Holy Spirit, to graciously confront them with Christ, the Absolute, to whom they must give account. We are seeking to help them realize the contemporaneousness of the life and work of Christ, the eternal God, with them at that moment. This is more than accepting an opinion, a philosophy, a lifestyle, or an historical event; it is embracing a present reality – that Christ their creator and redeemer is calling them from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light.  Whatever is happening in the culture throughout the centuries, the human problem remains essentially the same and so we must not be intimidated by ‘public opinion.’ Opinions are cheap, the mob is fickle. But Jesus is the same, yesterday, today, and forever.

[1] Denzil G. M. Patrick, Pascal & Kierkegaard, Strategy in Evangelism (London, Lutterworth Press, 1947), 395.

[2] Ibid.

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