Thursday, April 06, 2006

Radical Christianity


If we belong to Jesus Christ, we have a double calling in relation to the world. On the one hand we are to live, serve and witness in the world, and not try to escape from it. On the other hand we are to avoid being contaminated by the would. So we have no liberty either to preserve our holiness by escaping from the world, or to sacrifice our holiness by conforming to the world. Escapism and conformism are both forbidden us.

This is one of the major themes of the whole Bible, namely that God is calling out a people for himself, and is summoning us to be different from everybody else, saying: 'Be holy as I am holy'.

This foundational theme recurs in all four of the main sections of Scripture - the law, the prophets, the teaching of Jesus, and the teaching of the apostles. Let me give an example of each.

Firstly, the law: 'I am the Lord your God. You must not do as they do in Egypt where you used to live, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan where I am bringing you. Do not follow their practices. You must obey my laws and be careful to follow my decrees. I am the Lord your God.' (Leviticus 18:3,4)

Secondly, the prophets: God complains against his people through Ezekiel; 'You have not followed my decrees or kept my laws, but have conformed to the standards of the nations around you' (Ezek. 11:12).

Thirdly, the teaching of Jesus: In the Sermon on the Mount he drew the disciples' attention to the behaviour of pagans and of hypocrites, and then added: 'do not be like them' (Matthew 6:8).

Fourthly, the apostles in the letters of the New Testament. Paul wrote: 'Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind' (Romans 12:2).

Here then is God's call to radical discipleship, or to radical non-conformity to the surrounding culture. It is a call to develop a Christian counter-culture. So what are the contemporary trends which threaten to swallow us up and which we must vigorously resist? There are many, but I will select three.

l. The Challenge of Pluralism

Pluralism is not just an acknowledgment that there is a plurality of faiths and ideologies in the world. We all know that. Pluralism is rather itself an ideology. It insists that every religion has its own independent validity, and that all religions have an equal right to our respect. So pluralism condemns as sheer arrogance every attempt to convert anybody (let alone everybody) to our opinions. Pluralism dismisses world evangelization (and would dismiss the Urbana Convention) as a wholly unacceptable form of imperialism.

Sometime ago I read of a social worker in Nigeria who visited a youth in a back street of Lagos. On his bedside table he found the following books: the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, the Koran, three copies of Watchtower (the magazine of Jehovah's Witnesses), a biography of Karl Marx, a book of Yoga exercises, and a popular paperback entitled How to Stop Worrying.

How then should we respond to the spirit of pluralism? I suggest with great humility and with no tinge of personal superiority, we must continue to affirm the uniqueness and finality of Jesus Christ. He is unique in his incarnation (the one and only God-man). He is unique in his atonement (only he has died for the sins of the world), and unique in his resurrection (for he has conquered death). And since in no other person but Jesus of Nazareth did God first become human (in his birth), then bear our sins (in his death) and then triumph over death (in his resurrection), he is uniquely competent to save. Nobody else possesses his qualifications. We may talk about Alexander the Great, Charles the Great and Napoleon the Great, but not Jesus the Great. Jesus is not the Great, he is the Only. Jesus has no rivals and Jesus has no successors.

2. The Challenge of Materialism

To those of us who have had any experience of Majority World poverty, the western world is almost unbearably affluent. To visit a North American or West European supermarket is to be exposed to a choice of goods so wide as to be positively bewildering. Such wealth leads naturally into materialism.

Materialism is not an affirmation of the material order. In that sense all Christians would be materialists because we believe in the created order (God has given us all things richly to enjoy), in the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus, in the waters of baptism and in the bread and wine of Holy Communion. Christianity has been described as the most materialist of all religions. But no. Materialism is a preoccupation with material things, until they smother our spiritual life. We need to hear again the words of Jesus 'Don't store up for yourselves treasures on earth' (Matthew 6:19). Again, 'Beware of covetousness, a human life does not consist in the abundance of our possessions' (Luke 12:15). That is, there is more to life than money and property.

In addition, we need to listen to the words of the apostle Paul, who also calls us away from covetousness to a lifestyle of simplicity, generosity and contentment. 'Godliness with contentment is great gain', he wrote (1 Timothy 6:6). 'For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it' (1 Tim. 6:7). As Job put it, 'naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked I will depart! (Job 1:21). Thus, life on earth is a pilgrimage between two moments of nakedness. So we will be wise to travel light.

After the funeral of a wealthy lady in the community, a worshipper was brash enough to ask the officiating minister 'How much did she leave?' To this question he had the wisdom to reply 'She left everything'. Thus Paul went on: 'If we have food and clothing' (including shelter) and (I think we may legitimately add) whatever else we can justify as reasonable necessities in our particular context, 'we will be content with that' (1 Tim. 6:8).

I read long ago of a young man who found a $5 bill on the street. 'From that time on he never lifted his eyes when walking. in the course of years he accumulated 29,516 buttons, 54,172 pins, 12 cents, a bent back and a miserly disposition!' Think what he lost. He lost the glory of the sunlight, the sheen of the stars, the smile of his friends, the blossoms in the spring, the blue skies above and the entire joy of living.' All because his eyes were in the gutter!

I am afraid I know some Christians like that. They are materialists. We need to lift up our eyes for the first glimmer of light that tells us that Christ is on his way. We are pilgrims on our way home.

3. The Challenge of Relativism

All round us moral standards are slipping, certainly in the West, and increasingly elsewhere as television creates a mono-culture. People are confused as to whether there are any moral absolutes left. Relativism has permeated our culture, and is seeping into the church. Here is a bit of doggerel which illustrates the meaning of ethical relativism:

It all depends on where you are, It all depends on who you are, It all depends on what you feel, It all depends on how you feel. It all depends on how you're raised, It all depends on what is praised, What's right today is wrong tomorrow, Joy in France, in America sorrow. It all depends on point of view, Australia or Timbuctoo, In Rome do as the Romans do. If tastes just happen to agree Then you have morality. But where there are conflicting trends, It all depends, it all depends ...

There is no sphere in which this relativism is more obvious than that of sexual ethics and the sexual revolution which has taken place since the 1960s. It used to be universally accepted (at least where the Judaeo-Christian ethic had penetrated) that marriage is a monogamous, heterosexual, loving and lifelong union, and the only God-given context for sexual intimacy.

But today, even in some churches, cohabitation before marriage (even cohabitation without marriage) is widely practised, dispensing with that commitment which is essential to an authentic marriage; while same-sex partnerships are being promoted as a legitimate alternative to heterosexual marriage. And in the West one marriage in two or three ends in divorce.

It is sometimes said by people who should know better that Jesus did not address these issues. But he did. He quoted Genesis 1:27 'he who made them in the beginning made them male and female'. Then he quoted Genesis 2:24, the biblical definition of marriage: 'therefore a man shall leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh, so they are no longer two but one, and what God has joined together, let no human being separate.' In other words, Jesus affirmed that God created our heterosexuality, and that he instituted heterosexual marriage, and he endorsed this teaching with his own divine authority.

So the fundamental question before us today is who is the Lord? Is the church the lord of Jesus Christ, so that it has liberty to edit and manipulate his teaching, accepting what it likes and rejecting what it dislikes? Or is Jesus Christ our teacher and Lord, so that we believe and obey his teaching? He still says to us: 'Why do you call the Lord, lord, and do not do what I say?' (Luke 6:46). To confess Jesus as Lord but not obey him, is to build our lives on a foundation of sand. To engage in mission while living in disobedience is a contradiction in terms.

Here then are two cultures, two value-systems, two standards and two lifestyles. On the one hand there is the fashion of the world and what is regarded as 'politically correct'. On the other side there is the revealed, good and pleasing will of God (Romans 12:2). Radical disciples have little difficulty in making their choice.


We have considered some of the main contemporary challenges of the world to the church, in the face of which the church is called not to feeble-minded conformity but to radical non-conformity. Over against the challenge of pluralism we are to be a community of truth, maintaining the uniqueness of Jesus Christ. Over against the challenge of materialism, we are to be a community of pilgrimage and simplicity. Over against the challenge of relativism we are to be a community of righteousness and obedience. This is God's call to us to be different from the prevailing culture.

Thus is why Karl Barth called Christian ethics 'the great disturbance', because it violently upsets our tranquil status quo. And this is why C.S. Lewis called Jesus 'a transcendental interferer'. We are not to be like reeds shaken by the wind, Jesus said, bowing down before the gusts of public opinion, but as immovable as rocks in a mountain stream. We are not to be like fish floating with the stream ('only dead fish swim with the current', said Malcolm Muggeridge), but to swim against the stream, even against the cultural mainstream. We are not to be like chameleons, lizards which change their colour according to their surroundings, but to stand out visibly against our surroundings.

What then are Christians to be like, if we are not to be like reeds, dead fish or chameleons? Is God's Word entirely negative, insisting that we are not to conform to the world around us? No, indeed not. God's Word is positive as well as negative. We are to be like Christ.

I think we would find it helpful to keep three biblical texts together, which all make Christ-likeness God's purpose for his people.

Firstly, it is God's eternal purpose because we have been 'predestined to be conformed to the image of God's Son' (Romans 8:29). Secondly, it is God's is God's historical purpose, for we 'are being transformed into the image of Christ from one degree of glory to another' (2 Corinthians 3:18). Thirdly, it is God's eschatological or ultimate purpose, for, though we do not yet know what we will be, we do know that 'we will be like him, because we will see him as he is' (1 John 3:2). Thus from a past eternity to a future eternity, through the process of time, God's unchanging purpose is that, instead of being conformed to the fashions of the world, we will be conformed to the image of his Son.

I sometimes wonder if anything is more essential to evangelism than the Christ-likeness of the evangelist. As John Poulton wrote: 'The most effective preaching (or evangelism) comes from those who embody the things they are saying. They are their message. Christians need to look like what they are talking about ... what communicates now is basically personal authenticity.' (A Today Form of Evangelism by John Poulton, Lutterworth 1972, pp. 60-61, 79).

Let us pray! O that we may be like Christ. God help us!

*I thank God for the gracious opportunity to have been part of the 20,000-plus audience that listened to this presentation in late 2003 at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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4/06/2006 04:55:00 am  
Blogger Bob said...

That was an excellent summation and response to the ideologies currently struggling with the gospel for preeminance. I like that in your response you focus on bringing the gospel into these cultural contexts. I pray that I may have such passion for soul winning.

In Christ,

4/06/2006 09:16:00 am  
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how else could we respond to this gracious saving act of our God incarnate if not by giving our entireselves and surrendering to the absolute lordship of Christ.
i pray that we may remember the ideals of the reformation and be entirely biblical christians!

4/08/2006 11:02:00 pm  
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