At one of our church’s recent corporate prayer meeting, we prayed for our nation. We prayed that the government would not legalise gay marriage, that the horrific practise of abortion would cease. More broadly, we prayed that our nation’s slide toward paganism would be slowed. Why do we pray for these things? Why do we need to contend for social, moral, and political issues? I was reminded of one of my favourite quotes from the great J. Gresham Machen. He explains an important reason why Christians must contend for these sorts of issues:
“We are all agreed that at least one great function of the Church is the conversion of individual men. The missionary movement is the great religious movement of our day. Now it is perfectly true that men must be brought to Christ one by one. There are no labor-saving devices in evangelism. It is all hard-work.
“And yet it would be a great mistake to suppose that all men are equally well prepared to receive the gospel.
“It is true that the decisive thing is the regenerative power of God. That can overcome all lack of preparation, and the absence of that makes even the best preparation useless.
“But as a matter of fact God usually exerts that power in connection with certain prior conditions of the human mind, and it should be ours to create, so far as we can, with the help of God, those favorable conditions for the reception of the gospel.
“False ideas are the greatest obstacles to the reception of the gospel.
“We may preach with all the fervor of a reformer and yet succeed only in winning a straggler here and there, if we permit the whole collective thought of the nation or of the world to be controlled by ideas which, by the resistless force of logic, prevent Christianity from being regarded as anything more than a harmless delusion.
“Under such circumstances, what God desires us to do is to destroy the obstacle at its root. . . .
“What is today a matter of academic speculation begins tomorrow to move armies and pull down empires. In that second stage, it has gone too far to be combated; the time to stop it was when it was still a matter of impassioned debate.” (HT: Justin Taylor.)
Christianity is the one truth. As Francis Schaeffer liked to say, it is true truth. We pray against lies, and against abominations, because ideas matter. The furthering of lies affects people, and their ability to receive the gospel. We pray against the legalising of homosexual marriage, against the murder of unborn and birthed children, against the propagation of lies in schools, against the march of secularism, against the Global Atheist Convention, against the spread of tyrannical governments across the world – why? Sure, these issues are not the gospel itself. But, as Douglas Wilson has recently pointed out, they are law. People must repent and believe, not just believe. Repentance requires them to submit to the law. How we handle moral, political, and social issues affects how the gospel is communicated and received.
Because the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the truth, and when things do not reflect that truth they either distort it or obscure it, we pray about the distortions and the things that stand in the way. We pray because we love people who are made in God’s image, and we want them to be free from all evil. Primarily, though, we pray because we want them to know the truth and have new life in the triune God. Because where He is, there is freedom. (2 Corinthians 3:17)
Our society is no better and no worse than the pagan society which Paul knew. As interesting as the quotes of venerable theologians may be, they are only useful to us in illustrating what we have deduced from the scriptures ourselves. It would be very useful to hear what you have found the scriptures to say on these subjects that move and motivate your praying.
Thanks for this reminder to pray for our nation Simon. As I was reading your post I was reminded of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount about Christians being the “salt” of the earth (Matt 5:13). We are to be an influence of Christ’s mercy and holiness to those around us so that people will see His transforming power in our lives and the hope we have. If we don’t stand up against the evil in this world and point people to what Christ commands in His Word, then how will we be a preserving influence in this world like salt is in food? If we lose our saltiness and/or stay in our holy salt shakers, then this world will become more and more rotten.
The tough thing is to know how to influence constructively. Clearly it is God at work in us alone that has any influence, and that leads us to pray first and foremost for our nation and then look at how we can be a godly influence.
I read a guest post in Kevin deYoung’s blog that I believe touches on the core issue here. Society has changed to the point that it no longer accepts the biblical perspective as truth, but rather as private, subjective non-facts. The biblical perspective is nothing more than “ethnic tradition”.
In this post, written by Jason Helopoulos, he quotes extensively from a book entitled, Saving Leonardo, by Nancy Pearcey. I believe this quote to be germane to our discussion.
If Pearcey is correct in her assertion, then perhaps our prayers need to be focused more around our desire that men and women will follow God, the author of truth and not Satan, the father of lies. Whether the issue is homosexuality or any other practice against which the Bible speaks, we need to pray that people will PLACE THEIR FATH IN JESUS and repent of their sin that blinds them to the truth.
Jason Helopoulos concludes with these words:
Well said Don! A changed heart for Christ is where it has to start.
Yep, a great point. Thanks for the link, Don. I intend to read Pearcey’s book sometime.
“It is true that the decisive thing is the regenerative power of God. That can overcome all lack of preparation, and the absence of that makes even the best preparation useless. …But as a matter of fact God usually exerts that power in connection with certain prior conditions of the human mind, and it should be ours to create, so far as we can, with the help of God, those favorable conditions for the reception of the gospel.”
Those “favorable conditions” are an interesting area of exploration. From my reading of conversion experiences, conversion is markedly non-uniform across the world in the sense that what people convert to and their understandings of the process vary across time and place. God’s intervention into the hearts and minds of his creation does not seem to display any rhyme or reason. In fact, it seems to follow very mundane lines. The transmission of particular Christian ideas through this-worldly communicative means is the process through which “favorable conditions” are cultivated. And in these conditions, the potential converters respond in ways that are highly patterned on already existing ways of life that tend to make hybrid forms of traditional ideas and new ones. This seems to call into question God’s role in such conversions, given that the kind of divine revelation assumed to be present in such transformative events appears to be lacking, or at least lacking consistency. I think this is in some ways evident in the rise of denominationalism where competing and contradictory theologies nonetheless share the same effectiveness in calling into being new converts.
It seems to me that the ‘Church’ has never recovered from what began with the Reformation, when the collective religious images of the world lost their universal status. The ‘Truth’ is lost through a process of division, perhaps initially though Protestantism and denominationalism, which has resulted in a multiplicity of ideas about the world rather than one enforced through unilateral power. Conversion, in this light, now follows these lines of multiplicity. People convert to particular identities (as born-again, charismatic, liberal, Anglican, Baptist, Reformed, or Jewish Christians – the list goes on indefinitely) via what they understand to be the truth. In fact, ‘the truth’ is quite a particular idea as is clearly demonstrated throughout the world, particular within global Christianity.
In regards to this secular pluralism (a state of affairs that the Reformation helped produce), your post reminds me of what was said in the “An Evangelical Manifesto,” which said something like, “We respect the freedom of others (their opinions etc) to the extent that this freedom is reciprocated”. I assume that what the ‘secularist’ does not enjoy about religious proselytisation is that the majority of its content is couched in absolute terms, where clearly that idea of the ‘absolute’ or ‘Truth’ is no longer universally shared. Of course most people find it offensive that proselytisers talk in such absolute terms about a version of reality that is not widely shared, let alone readily understood. In a pluralist society, individuals want their social and political freedoms reciprocated. How respect for the rights of others are reciprocated is, perhaps, another question.
I fear that saying things like “true truth”, whilst perhaps useful words for the fellow believer, does not really help the outsider. In fact, it all seems a little arrogant.
I am reminded of Dilthey’s words of which I read for the first time last night: “One of the reasons which was and still is the most responsible for the growth of skepticism is the anarchy of philosophical systems. There is a contradiction between the historically justified awareness of limitless variety and the claim of each system to be universally true; it is this contradiction which supports the skeptical attitude more effectively than any systematic argument.”
Piling on more claims of absolute knowledge about the nature of the universe and ultimate meaning breeds more skepticism, not greater revelation.
My apologies for the length of this post. I really should be spending my time writing for a looming deadline than writing in response to a provocative blog post of community to which I do not belong.
Thanks Simon for a thought provoking post despite it not being, I presume, your primary aim.
Well . . . thanks for the comment, Adam. I’m not sure where to begin! I can’t really respond adequately to everything you’ve raised, so forgive my brief responses.
Firstly, I do not share your view of God’s role in conversions. If I understand you correctly, you are suggesting that the fact of diversity in denominations and Christian groups, coupled with the fact that all these groups garner converts in varying conditions using varying theologies, calls into question whether God is in fact working. This is interesting sociologically and ecclesiologically, but not really a problem theologically. God’s Word (his Scriptures), and the work of the Spirit, are consistent in all conversions. The work is inward, and therefore not able to be observed as such. Yet the genuine conversions are always brought about by the power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:1-11, 1 Corinthians 2:12-16), through the preaching of the gospel (eg. 2 Timothy 3:14-17 on the importance of the Scriptures in salvation). So the conditions in which these conversions occur are of importance and interest (which is my point in this post) but I don’t share your view of the variety of conditions in conversion being evidence God’s role or lack thereof.
To touch on the issue of pluralism and truth; I suppose if someone finds absolute claims which contradict their own offensive, and that absolute truth claims are disrespectful of people’s freedoms, then we’re faced with a choice of who will be offended. Because absolute claims are unavoidable. Likewise, Dilthey’s idea may well be true, but the triune God commands all people to repent and believe, and tells his followers to go into all the world and make absolute truth claims (eg. Luke 24:45-49). Christians who believe that Jesus meant what he said have to trust that the Holy Spirit will work in some non-believers, despite this growing skepticism in others.
On this thing about conversion, I would not want to rule out God’s role entirely. However, on the surface of things, conversion occurs in a vast variety of ways that do not collectively point to the same conception of God. Does God play a role in the conversion of an individual to a ‘heretical’ version of Christianity (e.g. Mormonism)? What role does he play in Islamic conversion? On the surface of things, these examples of display the same signs of individual transformation. The conversion experiences seen in Islam, Mormonism, Pentecostalism (etc), whilst being different in content, all display signs of their effectiveness in calling into being new subjects to what they consider uniquely true ideas about ultimate reality. But the real question is; conversion to what? They cannot be all equally true in the same that they conceive of themselves to be true. It is true that one cannot rule out decisively the role of God in “genuine conversions”. But then, what is a genuine conversion and how would we know it?
Sometimes evangelicals leave the door open a bit to ‘interpretation’ on ‘conversion’. I would prefer to use the term regeneration which means that we understand all people to be dead in trespasses and sins. We are dealing with spiritual corpses, and you can prepare a corpse as much as you like but it is dead, dead, DEAD. There is, and always has been only one solution to this, and it is in the person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ, who explicitly said ‘I am the way, the truth and the life, NO-ONE comes to he Father but by Him.’ Any religion which denies the preeminence of the lord Jesus and the exclusivity of His salvation is false and misleading, and its adherents and teachers remain in their sins and are therefore DEAD.
GOD ALONE RAISES THE DEAD – both in this life, and at the Judgment.
Thanks, SDG. No-one can really argue with that. Although, I once witnessed a guy get up during a church service to exclaim, “I am the last prophet!”. I couldn’t really argue with him either. I don’t know who to believe.
1 Cor 4: 10
I sympathise, and why should you believe another fallible and sinful human being. The bible is the key. Read for yourself. Read it all with an open mind and a heart willing to hear what God says for himself.
Then and only then seek out faithful Christians who may help you with your quetions.
Btw, in case you think this is a mamoth task, bordering on reading ‘War and Peace’, you can read through comfortably in 90 days using the Youversion reading plan on this site. It is not easy in places, and you will need to hold a number of questions in your mind until you get to the new testament, where the answers come thick and fast. Many would advise you to read a gospel or the NT first. I suggest you read from Genesis first, because here is the explanation of the mess we are in now, and the burden we bear because of sin.
Something as important as this deserves a fair reading and commitment instead of other things that simply waste our time.
The more I read, the more amazed I am at the greatness, majesty, and mercy of God.
Thanks, SDG, for your recommendation. I have done a fair amount of reading of the Bible in my time. I haven’t read ALL of it, but a fair chunk. I agree that it does deserve our attention, if for no other reason than its undeniable influence on Western civilisation.
In my experience, it has been the community of believers in communal devotion and fellowship that has had the greater impact on personal faith than has the reading of the Bible. It is really in such a setting that the life of its words are generally made manifest.
There is no denying the benefit of the communion of the saints, but we have a personal responsibility to inform ourselves of what God has provided for our good.
I love diy! There is nothing so therapeutic as DOING somehing. And then you find something doesnt fit AND THEN YOU READ THE INSTRUCTIONS! Life has a habit of throwing deeply personal and distressing circumstances in our way. As sympathetic as our friends may be they have no way of being able to say in truth ‘I know what you are going through’. There is no substitute for grappling with the source of all comfort (in the scriptures) for yourself, and then interacting with its Author and our Creator.
It is tempting to read only the parts we like. Did the perfect Creator really give us more than we need? I dont think so now (though on e through my practice of selective reading I betrayed the fact that I did.)
Prepare now for comfort in trouble later.
I reiterate SDG’s thoughts about the importance of reading the Bible in large portions. I am almost seventy, and ashamed to say that it is only in the past twelve months that I have undertaken and completed a through-the-Bible reading project. It has become such a source of joy for me that I am now going through it again. What took me so long?
One of my favourite bloggers, Tim Challies, wrote the following:
Then there is this insightful quote from Herman Bavinck.
Those who do not believe they are part of the continuous process of The Dreaming will never be connected and alive in the universe.
Those who do not submit to Allah will never enter paradise.
Those who never recognize that the world is an illusion will never achieve freedom from this world of suffering.
Those who do not accept the teachings of Joseph Smith will never attain salvation.
Faith in science is different to faith in religious dogma. Faith in science does not require (and is quite opposed to) commitment to absolute tenets. It proceeds through trial and error to arrive upon knowledge. Its epistemological methods are transparent and its theoretical contents falsifiable. This is quite unlike religious commitment, which, from my understanding, is a movement of self-transcending faith that is based upon itself; a faith in faith. The contents of this faith, however, seem quite arbitrary. It is a top-down approach, not bottom up.
I’m sure I’m going to be shot down for these comments, but I’d be interested in how you think faith works.
Just a point of clarification; when you say “faith in science”, or more specifically “science”, are you referring to scientific naturalism (or a view of things assuming the non-existence of the supernatural)? Or are you referring to the practice of science? I would read you as referring to the former, as you have juxtaposed science against a theistic or supernatural (misleading word, but you get my drift) worldview. Anyway, I’m just checking.
I am referring to scientific methods, as in the practice of science, hence my emphasis on notions such as ‘falsification’ and ‘trial and error’. Scientific naturalism relates more to talk of world-views etc. The contrast is between kinds of faith.
The faith in my knowledge that the sun exists is different to my faith in whether God does or does not exist. A proposition about the existence or non-existence of God is unfalsifiable, whereas a proposition about the sun is.
*that the sun exists…
Which science are you thinking of having faith in? It changes and contradicts itself continually. So it should. Science is a quest to find out, but its knowledge is always incomplete.
Has Science ever raised a corpse from the dead? Has science given sight to the blind? Of course not. The claims of Jesus Christ demand our attention. He is either God (as He said), or otherwise he is the biggest fraud of all time. Don’t waste time speculating about lesser things. No-one ever did what He did, claimed what He claimed, and was witnessed to be crucified, dead, buried, sesurrected, and ascended to heaven. It is Christ or nothing.
SDG, I think we will forever be talking across each other.
Plenty of others have claimed similar things as Jesus supposedly did. So I don’t think I agree with the “biggest fraud of all time” suggestion. It sounds like you are forcing a rather particular distinction by saying, “It is Christ or nothing,” that does not apply universally. Yes, for the Christian, I suppose it is ‘Christ or nothing’, but not for the non-Christian. As I said earlier, I cannot argue with that; it is a closed system.
I don’t put my faith in scientific method to look after my life or even to explain everything. It is a body of principles that deal with empirical knowledge, not total metaphysical systems. Of course it is limited. Its limitations are self-imposed.
If you read what I have written, I was saying that this type of faith is different from the religious type. I make the distinction not to belittle religion, but to separate what can and can’t be said about it. If we accept the claims made about one person’s death, resurrection and ascendancy into heaven, then we ought to accept every other miraculous claim made throughout the human history.
I don’t think we are talking accross each other.
The faith of the Christian is substantially different to the faiths that you have referred to. Faith for us is completely bound up with a Person, not a system, not an idea. The claims of the Lord Jesus would be empty without reality. His miracles and ultimately his resurrection and assention attest to the truth of His claims. Otherwise He would be a liar. I am not in love with an idea, or a code, or a system. I am in love with a Person. I talk with Him, I rejoice in His activity in every aspect of my life. I grieve Him, I notice when I sin, and He withdraws the comfort of His fellowship and His presence. I am not alone in this, and if you read the letters of Paul in particular, you find that he experienced these things (and much more).
There is a lot more to say, but I think this is the important thing that distinguishes religions from a knowledge of God. God can be known personally, but only through the Lord Jesus Christ. I sincerely hope this helps you.
I think I will have to disagree with you; I believe we are talking across each other. Our approach to this subject is too different. Where you see direct relationship with God, I see something else. Where you see substantial difference between Christianity and all other religions, I see similarities. I realise that you don’t have faith in Christianity as a system of ideas. Nonetheless, it remains systematic. You have more or less indicated this through talking about your relationship with God.
Anyway, I don’t think any further discussion will be constructive beyond this point. As in all hearty discussions, we will have to agree to disagree.
Yes Adam, I know we disagree, but it is my hope and prayer that the God who can be known by thinking people such as yourself will one day soon reveal Himself to you.