Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Church, Truth, and Relevance

“The church, if she is to remain the church, must remain out of step with common culture and its morality…A church that alters the Christian message in order to attract people soon blends in with her surroundings and is no longer distinguishable from the world.”—Dr. David Scaer

A pressing question that faces the church of every generation since Christ is how to reach people around us with the Gospel, in an ever-changing world. While at different points in history the morality of culture has been either closer to or further from the Bible, the church can never really be “in step” with the culture around us. In other words, our morals cannot conform to the world, or else we would become indistinguishable from the world. Jesus declares the distinctiveness of the church in His prayer for believers: “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth” (John 17:14-19)

Paul adds a similar thought in Romans 12:2 where he writes, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” John writes: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15). All of these emphasize that the identity of the church is apart from the world, and that conformity to the world is to forsake the truth and the Father’s love. So the church will perpetually be “out of step” with common culture and its morality. No matter how far the pendulum of culture swings in one direction or another, our foundation is what Jesus said: “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” Whether it’s the teachings of the faith concerning God and Jesus’ life and work of salvation, or whether we are speaking of the ethics we are called to live by in the 10 Commandments, God’s Word is the Truth. Truth is not something subjectively defined by each person or by different times, cultures, or philosophies. Truth comes down from above—revealed by God in His spoken and written Word—the Bible, and in the Word Incarnate—Jesus Christ (John 1:1). Ultimate Truth doesn’t originate from us, it originates from God.

So “relevance” can never mean that the church takes on the appearance or values of the world. The question of how the church can continue to reach out with the message of the Gospel to a world that never stays the same is not answered by blending in, accommodating, or conforming to the world by somehow altering our message or our morals. A Christian made the wise observation that “the church that is seeking to be relevant is already irrelevant.” That is to say, that if the church is trying to be relevant by constantly changing its message and moral view to be “cutting edge,” it has conceded that the church is already “irrelevant.” Similarly, an early Christian, Irenaeus said: “What doctor, when wishing to cure a sick man, would act in accordance with the desires of the patient, and not in accordance with the requirements of medicine?...How, then, are the sick to be made strong? And how are sinners to repent?” By contrast, when the church recognizes and grasps the True and abiding relevance of God’s Word, that does not change, it sees that God’s Word is timely and relevant for every time and place and culture. The relevance of the church is found in the same Word of God that sanctifies us and keeps us in the truth. This Word runs counter to the culture and to its morality, but it is the eternally relevant cure, that witnesses to the truth of the Gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection, for a world shattered and corrupted by sin. The Word that outlasts all fads or fashions, revolutions or movements. As Scripture says, “All flesh is as grass, And all the glory of man as the flower of the grass. The grass withers, And its flower falls away, But the word of the Lord endures forever.” (1 Pet 1:24-25). Amen!

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