Like me, you are probably disoriented by how quickly culture is changing. Just over a decade ago, there was no such thing as ‘gay marriage.’ Now it is a legal right. When the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court got the ball rolling on the establishment in 2004, most college students were hauling desktop computers to college. Now they take laptops, along with tablets, smartphones, and Apple watches. Amid the rapidity of these changes, our temptation to retreat from public engagement is understandable. That’s why it’s important for us to gather historical and biblical wisdom in order to gain perspective in our outlook and purpose in our prayer. We can gather a few lessons from two great fathers of the faith: J. Gresham Machen and William Wilberforce.
There Is Nothing New Under the Sun
Many Christians lament the present cultural decline as if it were unique. Over two centuries ago, the great Christian abolitionist William Wilberforce observed:
The peculiar doctrines of Christianity went more and more out of sight, and as might naturally have been expected, the moral system itself also began to wither and decay, being robbed of that which should have supplied it with life and nutriment.
One hundred years later, J. Gresham Machen noted that ‘this optimistic religion of a self-sufficient humanity has been substituted today, to a very considerable extent, in most of the Protestant communions, for the redemptive religion hitherto known as Christianity.’ As a result, ‘A polite paganism’¦with reliance upon human resources was being quietly and peacefully substituted for the heroism of devotion to the gospel.’
Both Wilberforce and Machen witnessed a corresponding decline in the church’s proclamation of the gospel and culture’s adherence to basic moral norms. Every age has seen its share of disappointments, decline, and decay. While creation and humanity are still imbued with a degree of created dignity, the fact is that humanity is in rebellion against God, and like Abel we feel the weight of that rebellion upon our own brow.
Maintain Focus On Primary Mission
It’s a great relief to know that our mission is not to transform society. While we long for fewer broken homes, less crime, and trustworthy public servants, these are the byproducts of faithful Christian witness in the world, not its purpose. Machen did not generally want to be associated with the fundamentalists of his day, because they, like the liberals, often made the church merely a means to a greater end’social transformation. The liberals wanted a social utopia; the fundamentalists wanted a ‘Christian’ America defined in terms of morality.
In this approach toward culture, Machen reminds us that ‘religion itself, and even God, are made merely a means for the betterment of conditions upon this earth.’ As a result, ‘religion has become a mere function of the community or of the state.’ In its quest to save culture, the church is often at risk of losing the gospel. Machen reminds us:
Its weapons against evil are spiritual, not carnal; and by becoming a political lobby, through the advocacy of political measures whether good or bad, the Church is turning aside from its proper mission, which is to bring to bear upon human hearts the solemn and imperious, yet also sweet and gracious, appeal of the gospel of Christ.
The fact that the primary purpose of the church is spiritual, not social, doesn’t mean that the Christian is not to participate in culture. Machen himself was quite the political activist. He corresponded with and influenced various politicians, and even testified before a Senate committee on education. But his activism was a consequence of the gospel, not the gospel itself.
Cultural Changes Are Not Irreversible
Perhaps we have joined the culture-at-large in lifting our noses in chronological snobbery. Maybe we’ve bought into the cult of self-esteem and celebrity, or been carried off into utopian flights of fancy. Whatever the cause, we tend to believe that the whims of our culture have ultimate, eschatological importance, which is why we grow euphoric when the tide seems to go our way and despondent when it heads the other direction. We place more significance on our powers of persuasion than on God’s silent providence. T. S. Eliot reminds us that human causes by nature are transitory:
If we take the widest and wisest view of a Cause, there is no such thing as a Lost Cause because there is no such thing as a Gained Cause. We fight for lost causes because we know that our defeat and dismay may be the preface to our successors’ victory, though that victory itself will be temporary; we fight rather to keep something alive than in the expectation that anything will triumph.
In the service and cause of Christ, we know that worldly kingdoms come and go, but the kingdom of Christ will reign forever and ever. We fight for a cause’the gospel’which is foolishness and weakness in the eyes of the world but is nothing less than the wisdom and power of God. We recognize that the ordinary means of grace are extraordinary in the power that stands behind them and in the power they hold over the human heart.
Machen reminds us that ‘this world cannot be bettered if you think that this world is all. To move the world you must have a place to stand.’ To put human culture into proper perspective, we must remember that our foundation is in the character and work of a God who does not change like the shifting shadows of historical circumstance. People and societies change; God does not. Despite how things may seem, he reigns over all, so that everything will be brought to its God-appointed end.
We Must Joyfully Consecrate the Culture in All Seasons
A former Navy Seal, Eric Greitens, once wrote that he believed he had been born in the wrong era’one that no longer valued courage and sacrifice. I think many of us can relate. But God’s holy, wise, and powerful providence does not allow for this. We may yearn for a different age, but the truth is that we have been specifically called to live in a season such as this.
Consider the discouragement Wilberforce faced in his time. Did you know that the slavery battle consumed forty-six years of his life? He suffered eleven defeats in Parliament before the slave trade was abolished in 1807, and the abolition of enslavement did not occur until 1833. Yet his God-given determination in that great cultural calling was not diminished, nor was his faith in Jesus Christ.
Machen wrote of three different approaches to culture: compromise, capitulate, or consecrate (my paraphrase). The liberals compromise the truth in order to make Christianity more palatable to the pagan mind, while the fundamentalists tend to run away from the academy and culture at large. Machen advocated a third way: consecration of the culture.
Instead of destroying the arts and sciences or being indifferent to them, let us cultivate them with all the enthusiasm of the veriest humanist, but at the same time consecrate them to the service of our God.
By consecration, Machen did not mean the overly idealistic quest to sanctify culture, but the basic responsibility to engage culture to the glory of God. ‘So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God’ (1 Cor. 10:31).
Likewise, ‘every branch of human endeavor’ must ‘be brought into some relation to the gospel. It must be studied in order to be demonstrated as false, or in order to be made useful in advancing the kingdom of God.’ In our present age of Christian ghettoization, Machen reminds us to engage the world around us and do it to the glory of God.
God Will Have the Final Word, So Labor with Confidence
A Christian sister put together a video documentary of her struggle with cancer, including her physical suffering and sorrow at the thought of leaving her young children. Uncertain of what the future held, she concluded, ‘Whether I live or I die, God wins.’
Sometimes, we see visible fruit to our labors. It was said of Wilberforce that he ‘changed the moral outlook of Great Britain.’¦The reformation of manners (morals) grew into Victorian virtues and Wilberforce touched the world when he made goodness fashionable.’ But contrast that with Machen and the several thousand lonely believers who followed him into exile from the PCUSA. Machen did not dwell on this fact at the point of his death; he merely remarked that he was ‘so thankful for the active obedience of Christ.’ No hope without it.
Brothers and sisters, there will be a day when the trump shall resound and the Lord shall descend, a day when our robes will be washed white in the blood of the Lamb, and every tear will be wiped from our eyes. Until then, let us joyfully consecrate our lives and labors to the glory of God, patiently waiting for that assured and blessed moment.’