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Balancing grace and conviction

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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The judgement (Credit: Olly via Fotolia)

One of my favorite biblical texts is buried in a surprising place. In 1 Chronicles 12 we find a list of soldiers who served King David. Among them is the half-tribe of Manasseh with 18,000 troops (v. 31), Zebulun with 50,000 “seasoned troops, equipped for battle with all the weapons of war” (v. 33), and so on.

In the midst of such impressive fighting forces, we find the smallest group of all, and perhaps the most strategic: “Of Issachar, men who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do, 200 chiefs, and all their kinsmen under their command” (v. 32).

Do we need more “men of Issachar” today?

I have been asked to talk with you about balancing grace and conviction as a culturally engaged Christian. I am especially honored to do so in the context of the Hendricks Center. Dr. Howard Hendricks remains a theological hero to me and multiplied thousands of Christian leaders around the world. Bill Hendricks’s work in leadership development has impacted and resourced my life directly. And Darrell Bock’s leadership in cultural engagement is an inspiration and example for all ministries seeking to impact the culture. I am honored to commend their work to you and to stand alongside them today.

I’ve come this morning to propose a thesis: balancing grace and conviction as culturally engaged Christians has never been as difficult in American history as it is today, nor as essential. Let’s survey some of our challenges as evangelical Christians. Then we’ll explore the Ephesians 4:15 imperative to speak the truth in love.

Why we need to engage the culture

Why is it so important for Christians to engage the culture of our day?

Religion is dangerous

I am 57 years of age, old enough to remember a day when the church was central to the culture, at least in the South. Everyone went to worship on Sunday or said they did. Stores were closed on Sundays. No one would think of scheduling a soccer practice for Sunday morning.

In our lifetime, however, we’ve seen a dramatic shift. The church, once at the center of the culture, has been marginalized to the periphery. There are reasons for this shift, as we’ll see in a moment. But it’s clear that in our culture spirituality is now personal, individual, and subjective. God is a hobby. Church is what we do with our spare time. It’s fine for you to go to church, but don’t tell me I have to join you.

Now we’re seeing another shift—from central, to peripheral, to dangerous. Richard Dawkins calls religion “a virus in the software of humanity that must be expunged.” He claims that religion is “the root of all evil.” Sam Harris announced that “science must destroy religion.” Christopher Hitchens titled his bestseller, “god is Not Great.” Note the subtitle: “How religion poisons everything.”

Their assertion is that religion is an outdated, irrelevant, mythological construct. Just as we outgrew the gods of Mt. Olympus, today we are outgrowing the god of Christianity. Religion caused 9/11 and ISIS. It spends money on buildings rather than people and focuses on eternity rather than the here-and-now. The time has come to dispense with religion. It is dangerous to our culture—or so we’re told.

Postmodernism and her children

Behind this shift is a philosophical worldview called “postmodernism.” Time does not permit us to trace this epistemological movement in detail. To summarize: our minds interpret our senses, resulting in knowledge. But no two minds interpret data in the same way. And sense impressions vary from person to person. As a result, there cannot be such a thing as “objective knowledge.”

This assertion has led to three conclusions. The first is called “relativism,” the claim that all truth claims are personal, individual, and subjective. You have your truth and I have mine. Ninety-three percent of all Americans say they are their own sole determiner of moral truth. So long as you’re sincere in your beliefs and tolerant of mine, we’ll get along.

The second is “universalism,” the claim that God, if he exists, is too loving to send anyone to hell. Only two percent of Americans are afraid they might go there. It is conventional wisdom that everyone goes to heaven when they die, if in fact there is life after death.

The third is “pluralism,” the claim that all religions teach the same truth. Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw announced, “There is only one religion, though there are a hundred versions of it.”

The sanctity of life

A third area of challenge centers in sanctity of life issues. Since Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in 1973, more than 55 million babies have been killed. That is one-and-a-half times the population of Canada.

Governor Jerry Brown recently signed into law a euthanasia bill that made California the fifth state to legalize physician-assisted suicide. If the Belgian experience becomes ours, we’ll next move to suicide without physician approval, then to involuntary euthanasia, then to suicide at any age.

And genetic science is making it easier than ever to engineer life from conception to death. Genetic material from three parents can now be combined to make one embryo. Embryos created through in-vitro fertilization can be tested for diseases but also for aptitudes before implantation. Will this be modern-day eugenics?

Religious liberty

Add to our other challenges the threat to religious liberty rising in our day. As you know, last summer the Supreme Court discovered a right to same-sex marriage in the Constitution (though the document nowhere discusses marriage or even uses the word). Now we’re wondering what will happen to churches, religious schools, faith-based hospitals, and other organizations that support biblical marriage. Will our tax exemption be threatened? Freedom of speech? Ability to enforce biblical codes of conduct?

Plato said democracy would never work, because citizens would inevitably discover they could cast ballots based on personal preference rather than the collective good. What would he say about our culture today?

How to engage the culture

How are followers of Jesus to respond? I’d like to suggest three imperatives.

One: Seek transformation.

Richard Niebuhr’s classic Christ and Culture outlines five ways Christians have typically addressed culture:

  • Christ against culture: have as little to do with society as possible
  • Christ of culture: integrate culture and faith
  • Christ above culture: live in the secular and the spiritual
  • Christ and culture in paradox: use cultural issues to advance the gospel
  • Christ transforming culture: redeem the culture for the Kingdom.

Jesus’s metaphors likening us to salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16) make clear the importance of a transformational model. Salt is not much use in a saltshaker, or light under a basket. Jesus’s incarnational strategy must be ours. As Irenaeus observed, he become one of us that we might be one with him. Now, with Paul, we are to become all things to all people that we might by all means save some (1 Corinthians 9:22).

Two: Maximize faithful influence.

James Davison Hunter teaches sociology at the University of Virginia, where he founded and leads the Institute for Advanced Studies of Culture. His magnum opus is titled To Change the World. Here he shows that culture does not change merely by winning elections or building large churches or ministries. Culture changes top-down as people achieve their highest place of influence and “manifest faithful presence.”

I would summarize his outstanding research with the imperative, “Maximize faithful influence.” Achieve that status where you can most impact other lives within your Kingdom calling. Then be faithful to God and your call. And know that the Lord is using your obedience in ways you cannot measure. As Alfred North Whitehead observed, great people plant trees they’ll never sit under.

Three: Speak the truth in love.

So seek cultural transformation by maximizing faithful presence. How? Consider two biblical texts.

In Ephesians 4, Paul explains that Christian leaders are to “equip the saints for the work of the ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (v. 12). Here’s how: “Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (v. 15). We are to proclaim God’s word and will in every situation, to every challenge, in every cultural moment. But we are to do so in love, showing his grace in ours.

Peter adds: “In your hearts honor Christ as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). With this result: “having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame” (v. 16). “Gentleness” translates prautes, meaning “humility, courtesy, kindness.” “Respect” translates phobos, here meaning “reverence” or “deference.”

Can speaking the truth in love impact the culture?

The Epistle to Diognetes (AD 130) described early believers: “They are evil spoken of and yet are justified; they are reviled and bless; they are insulted and repay the insult with honor; they do good yet are punished as evildoers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life.” Tertullian (AD 197) quoted the enemies of Christianity: “See how they love one another.”

Sociologist Rodney Stark: “To cities filled with the homeless and impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachment. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by violent ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity.”

Ken Medema, the blind singer and songwriter, has a line in one of his songs that says, “Don’t tell me I have a friend in Jesus until you show me I have a friend in you.”

Conclusion

Can believers who balance grace and conviction as culturally engaged Christians make a difference? We have before.

Prior to the First Great Awakening, perhaps seven percent of colonial Americans went to church. During the height of the Awakening, eighty percent went to worship. The Second Great Awakening birthed the modern missions movement and was instrumental in preserving the union of American colonies. The Third Great Awakening led more than a million Americans to Christ in a nation of only 30 million.

The Fourth Great Awakening was perhaps the most unusual. In Wales, saloons went bankrupt; police formed barbershop quartets to sing in churches because there was no one to arrest. Coal mines shut down for a time, because coal miners all became Christians, stopped their obscene language, and the mules could no longer understand their commands.

The Awakening spread to America. In Atlantic City, New Jersey, a city of 50,000, only fifty were unconverted. In Portland, Oregon, more than 200 stores closed each day at noon so customers and employees could attend prayer meetings.

Now we’re seeing a Fifth Great Awakening around the world. South Korea is one-third to one-half born-again Christian. The Hillsong worship movement is sweeping Australia. Brazil will be one-half born-again Christian by 2025. More than a million Cubans have come to Christ in the last ten years.

When I was in Beijing, I was told that 100,000 people come to Christ every day in the People’s Republic of China. More Muslims have come to Christ in the last fifteen years than the previous fifteen centuries, many after seeing visions and dreams of Jesus.

Will this awakening come to our culture? That depends on us. If we seek cultural transformation, maximizing faithful influence by speaking the truth in love, we position ourselves to be used by the King of kings and Lord of lords. We balance grace and conviction in a way that offers both to our culture. And we cannot measure the eternal significance of present faithfulness.

I’ve been reading Max Lucado’s Grace. Here he quotes Nancy Spiegelberg: “Lord, I crawled across the barrenness to you with my empty cup. . . . If only I had known you better, I’d have come running with a bucket.”

Which will you bring to Jesus today?