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Changed people change the world

May 23, 2024 - and

Close up of the parable of the mustard seed in the Bible with a magnifying glass. By Marinela/

Close up of the parable of the mustard seed in the Bible with a magnifying glass. By Marinela/

Close up of the parable of the mustard seed in the Bible with a magnifying glass. By Marinela/

“The weakness of the Church lies not in the lack of Christian arguments but in the lack of Christian lives.” (William Barclay)

The story of Scripture is the story of God’s power at work through God’s people. Seldom have we been a majority in any nation or culture. Whether it was kings or prophets, fishermen or tax collectors, former Pharisees or imprisoned apostles, God’s Spirit has used his people as salt and light in ways that changed the course of history.

Jesus taught his disciples this parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches” (Matthew 13:31–32).

The mustard seed is the “smallest of all seeds” used in Jesus’ day (about the size of a period at the end of a sentence today). Would anyone believe that a tree some ten feet tall could grow from it? But the farmer has faith. He plants it, waters it, and waits for it. It takes time, several years, in fact.

Eventually, that tiny seed becomes a tree so large that birds come from all over to settle on its branches. They eat some of the seeds it produces. And that tree multiplies itself until it makes more and more trees—all from one seed so small you must strain even to see it in your hand.

That, says Jesus, is how God builds his kingdom on earth. Here we have the mustard-seed movement: God uses anything we entrust to him to do more than we ever imagined he would. If only we believe he can.

The mustard-seed movement in Scripture

Let’s examine the mustard-seed movement in Scripture:

  • Noah worked for one hundred years by himself to build an Ark to save the human race when it had never rained before.
  • Moses stood before Pharaoh with nothing more than a rod in his hand and God’s call in his heart.
  • David fought the mighty Goliath with a slingshot.
  • Prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel spoke divine revelation with effect all out of proportion to their social status.

One of the most remarkable Old Testament examples of the mustard-seed movement is the story of Gideon at the Spring of Harod. I have led more than thirty study tour groups to this spot, one of my favorite sites in all of Israel.

The Midianites were the enemy of the Jewish people and an indestructible army: “They would come like locusts in number—both they and their camels could not be counted—so that they laid waste the land as they came in” (Judges 6:5). Yet God called Gideon to march against them, his thirty-two thousand foot soldiers against their vast army (Judges 7:3).

Then God said, “The people with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hand, lest Israel boast over me, saying, ‘My own hand has saved me.’ Now therefore proclaim in the ears of the people, saying, ‘Whoever is fearful and trembling, let him return home and hurry away from Mount Gilead.’ Then 22,000 of the people returned, and 10,000 remained” (vv. 2–3).

Then he told Gideon:

“The people are still too many. Take them down to the water, and I will test them for you there, and anyone of whom I say to you, ‘This one shall go with you,’ shall go with you, and anyone of whom I say to you, ‘This one shall not go with you,’ shall not go.” So he brought the people down to the water. And the Lᴏʀᴅ said to Gideon, “Every one who laps the water with his tongue, as a dog laps, you shall set by himself. Likewise, every one who kneels down to drink.” And the number of those who lapped, putting their hands to their mouths, was 300 men, but all the rest of the people knelt down to drink water” (vv. 4–6).

Now “the Lᴏʀᴅ said to Gideon, “With the 300 men who lapped I will save you and give the Midianites into your hand, and let all the others go every man to his home.’ So the people took provisions in their hands, and their trumpets. And he sent all the rest of Israel every man to his tent, but retained the 300 men. And the camp of Midian was below him in the valley” (vv. 7–8).

With these three hundred, each bearing a trumpet and a torch, they went to battle. And this was the result:

Gideon and the hundred men who were with him came to the outskirts of the camp at the beginning of the middle watch, when they had just set the watch. And they blew the trumpets and smashed the jars that were in their hands. Then the three companies blew the trumpets and broke the jars. They held in their left hands the torches, and in their right hands the trumpets to blow. And they cried out, “A sword for the Lᴏʀᴅ and for Gideon!” Every man stood in his place around the camp, and all the army ran. They cried out and fled. When they blew the 300 trumpets, the Lᴏʀᴅ set every man’s sword against his comrade and against all the army. And the army fled as far as Beth-shittah toward Zererah, as far as the border of Abel-meholah, by Tabbath (vv. 19–22).

The New Testament demonstrates the same pattern. Jesus told us that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matthew 5:13–16). It doesn’t take much salt to change the flavor of food or much light to shine in the dark. You can think of examples immediately:

  • Peter, the fisherman who failed his Lord before preaching the Pentecost sermon
  • Paul, the Pharisee who persecuted Christians before taking the gospel across the Empire
  • John, exiled on Patmos where he received the Revelation for the world

The first-century church had no strategy for political power or cultural engagement. They simply went where they went as the people of God, and, by Acts 17:6, they had “turned the world upside down.”

And the same model has worked throughout Christian history:

  • Martin Luther was an unknown German monk when he nailed his 95 Theses on the community bulletin board and sparked the Protestant Reformation.
  • William Wilberforce read a relatively unknown book by Thomas Clarkson about the horrors of the slave trade and then worked to abolish it.
  • And each of the Great Awakenings of the last three hundred years, even when led by well-known preachers, was fueled by the prayers and support of countless anonymous Christians who chose to embrace God’s call for their lives.

In short, God has always chosen to rely on the faithfulness of his people to advance his kingdom and help people to know him. And now it’s our turn.

So what would that look like in our culture today?

Note: This article complements episode 8 of “Being Christian in today’s culture,” a Denison Forum Podcast series.

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Choose to engage the culture with biblical truth

In 1951, Richard Niebuhr published a work titled Christ and Culture. It was my textbook in biblical ethics and is still considered foundational to the discipline today. Here Niebuhr sketches the five ways Christians can relate their faith to their society and culture.

One: Christ against culture

This model argues that we must reject the fallen world in every way, having nothing to do with the cultural issues of the day.

However, the incarnation seems to give the lie to this approach. If the physical world is inherently fallen, how could Jesus have remained sinless while inhabiting flesh? And why would he spend so much of his ministry healing and redeeming those mired in a culture beyond hope?

Even beyond those factors, though, the reality is that it’s not truly possible to escape the larger culture. We can retreat from certain elements of it and reject others, but anytime the church or even pockets of believers have attempted to take this approach, the larger body of Christ has suffered for it.

Two: Christ of culture

This model attempts to integrate the world and the word of God, the culture and the Christian faith. It blurs the distinction between the two and adopts the prevailing culture as the way to understand the faith. While the stated goal is typically making the gospel more appealing to those who desperately need to hear it, the end result is typically a version of the good news that does not resemble the message Christ called us to preach to the world.

Three: Christ above culture

This approach teaches that we live in two worlds, the spiritual and the secular, and we must give each its due. However, the great problem with this approach is the sinfulness of humanity. This model does not do enough to transform the culture it seeks to help. It lives in Sunday and Monday without seeking to bring Sunday to Monday.

Four: Christ and culture in paradox

This approach rejects Christ above culture by arguing that the culture is so inherently sinful as to be beyond saving. Yet it contradicts the first approach, Christ against culture, by arguing that we must try. We must preach grace to law, the gospel to the lost. We respond to the issues of our culture by preaching the gospel of salvation, for only when souls change can the world change.

The problem with this approach is that it often borders on a Christian nihilism in which we preach out of obedience but with little hope of making a real difference. Moreover, its proponents often do not speak to issues the Bible itself addresses, such as the treatment of the poor, care for God’s creation, or many of the other issues we addressed in our essay on biblical righteousness. In short, it takes too narrow a view of what God wants to accomplish in this world through his people.

Five: Christ transforming culture

This model seeks to bring the biblical worldview to bear on every dimension of society for the purpose of redeeming the culture for the kingdom.

Unlike the first model, it does not ignore the culture. Unlike the second, it does not adopt it. Unlike the third, it does not separate the two realms. Unlike the fourth, it seeks the salvation of souls but also the transformation of society. The fifth approach works to apply biblical truth to cultural issues for the sake of advancing the kingdom of God on earth.

I am convinced that God is calling his people to be catalytic agents of cultural transformation. However, this model comes at a risk.

The Deutsche Evangelische Kirche (German Evangelical Church) enjoyed the support of the Third Reich because it supported the Nazi movement. The swastika replaced the cross and Mein Kampf replaced the Bible.

Likewise, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement forms the only state-sanctioned or registered Protestant church in mainland China today. Registered churches face less persecution from the Chinese government than illegal “underground” churches, but their sermons are often edited and their finances and activities are carefully monitored.

Why should America’s Christians be countercultural? Why not “stick to the gospel”?

I have heard pastors say that they “speak where Jesus spoke and are silent where Jesus was silent.” If he didn’t address issues such as gay marriage, why should we? (I think he did, but that’s another subject.)

Why not focus on evangelism and discipleship, leaving cultural issues that require religious liberty to the side? Because evangelism and discipleship require us to speak to the whole of society and its issues.

Why focus on our fallen society? After all, “the world is passing away along with its desires” (1 John 2:17a). But John’s statement continues: “whoever does the will of God abides forever” (v. 17b). It is the will of God that we speak the word of God to the cultural issues of our day, seeking transformation by the Spirit of God to the glory of God.

We are called to speak truth to culture

Old Testament prophets clearly spoke out against the sins of their day. Hosea condemned the “swearing, lying, murder, stealing, and committing adultery” of his culture (Hosea 4:2). He warned his society against drunkenness and sexual immorality (v. 18) as well.

Amos condemned enslavement (Amos 1:6–8), mistreatment of pregnant women (1:13) and the poor (2:6), sexual abuse (2:7), drunkenness (4:1), greed (5:11), and corruption (5:12). Obadiah warned against violence (v. 10); Micah condemned theft (Micah 2:1–2).

Are these sins increasingly prevalent in American culture today?

Paul, like the prophets of old, was grieved by idolatry (Acts 17:16) and the sins of his day, many of which he listed specifically (Romans 1:18–32; Galatians 5:19–21). He had “great sorrow and unceasing anguish in [his] heart” (Romans 9:2) for his fellow Jews who had not made Jesus their Messiah. And he gave his life as a missionary to the Gentile world (Galatians 2:7–8).

In his cultural engagement, the apostle followed the example and ministry of our Lord. Jesus fed the hungry (John 6:1–14), healed the sick (Mark 1:33–34), and befriended the outcast (Luke 19:1–10).

He taught us to do the same. As a result, the first Christians gave their goods to anyone who “had need” (Acts 2:45) and ministered to “the sick and those afflicted with unclean spirits” (Acts 5:16).

Clearly, they did more than “preach the gospel.” Or, better said, they preached the gospel of God’s love in actions as well as in words. They met felt needs in order to meet spiritual needs, earning the right to share the message of salvation in Christ.

Changed people change the world

So as we think about ways to engage with the culture to the glory of Christ, start with the opportunities God has already brought your way. Use your influence for the kingdom, praying for those in other spheres of influence. Make your work, home, and school your mission field. Ask God to make you his faithful presence there. See every person you meet today as a subject for ministry, every problem and opportunity and temptation as a way to serve your King.

And, step by step, day by day, as we serve our King with civility, faith and joy, he uses us to change our world.

To that end, let’s close our exploration with this statement by the brilliant Chinese theologian Watchman Nee:

A day must come in our lives, as definite as the day of our conversion, when we give up all right to ourselves and submit to the absolute Lordship of Jesus Christ. . . . There must be a day when, without reservation, we surrender everything to Him—ourselves, our families, our possessions, our business and our time. All we are and have becomes His, to be held henceforth entirely at His disposal. From that day we are no longer our own masters, but only stewards. Not until the Lordship of Christ in our hearts is a settled thing can the Spirit really operate effectively in us. He cannot direct our lives until all control of them is committed to Him. If we do not give Him absolute authority there, He can be present, but He cannot be powerful. The power of the Spirit is stayed.

Our goal throughout this series has been to explore ways that we can think biblically and act redemptively. However, neither is possible without the active presence and power of the Holy Spirit in our lives. The problem we often face when trying to make a difference for the kingdom or discern God’s will is that “the power of the Spirit is stayed.”

So, as we conclude, take some time right now to pray and ask God to show you if there are any ways in which you are hindering the Holy Spirit’s ability to work in and through your life. Is there a sin you need to confess? A fear, worry, or regret you haven’t given over to God? Or perhaps the problem is closer to a prideful belief that you can do things on your own.

Whatever the case may be, know that you cannot fulfill God’s purpose for your life without God’s power in your life, and that means surrendering every facet of your existence to the Holy Spirit.

Let’s start today.

For more, read the accompanying article, “Lies that lead us astray.”

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