The Church vs. The World By John MacArthur

Do not marvel, my brethren, if the world hates you” (1 John 3:13).

Why do evangelicals try so desperately to court the world’s favor? Churches plan their worship services to cater to the “unchurched.” Christian performers ape every worldly fad in music and entertainment. Preachers are terrified that the offense of the gospel might turn someone against them, so they deliberately omit the parts of the message the world might not approve of.

Evangelicalism seems to have been hijacked by legions of carnal spin-doctors, who are trying their best to convince the world that the church can be just as inclusive, pluralistic, and broad-minded as the most politically-correct worldling.

The quest for the world’s approval is nothing less than spiritual harlotry. In fact, that is precisely the imagery the apostle James used to describe it. He wrote: “Adulterers and adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4).

There is and always has been a fundamental, irreconcilable incompatibility between the church and the world. Christian thought is out of harmony with all the world’s philosophies. Genuine faith in Christ entails a denial of every worldly value. Biblical truth contradicts all the world’s religions. Christianity itself is therefore antithetical to virtually everything this world admires.

Jesus told His disciples, “If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:18-19).

Notice that our Lord considered it a given that the world would despise the church. Far from teaching His disciples to try to win the world’s favor by reinventing the gospel to suit worldly preferences, Jesus expressly warned that the quest for worldly accolades is a characteristic of false prophets: “Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for so did their fathers to the false prophets” (Luke 6:26).

He further explained: “The world . . . hates Me because I testify of it that its works are evil” (John 7:7). In other words, the world’s contempt for Christianity stems from moral, not intellectual, motives: “And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed” (John 3:19-20). That is why no matter how dramatically worldly opinion might vary, Christian truth will never be popular with the world.

Yet in virtually every era of church history there have been people in the church who are convinced that the best way to win the world is by catering to worldly tastes. Such an approach has always been to the detriment of the gospel message. The only times the church has made any significant impact on the world are when the people of God have stood firm, refused to compromise, and boldly proclaimed the truth despite the world’s hostility. When Christians have shrunk away from the task of confronting popular worldly delusions with unpopular biblical truths, the church has invariably lost influence and impotently blended into the world. Both Scripture and history attest to that fact.

And the Christian message simply cannot be twisted to conform to the vicissitudes of worldly opinion. Biblical truth is fixed and constant, not subject to change or adaptation. Worldly opinion, on the other hand, is in constant flux. The various fads and philosophies that dominate the world change radically and regularly from generation to generation. The only thing that remains constant is the world’s hatred of Christ and His gospel.

In all likelihood, the world will not long embrace whatever ideology is in vogue this year. If the pattern of history is any indicator, by the time our great grandchildren become adults, worldly opinion will be dominated by a completely new system of belief and a whole different set of values. Tomorrow’s generation will renounce all of today’s fads and philosophies. But one thing will remain unchanged: until the Lord Himself returns and establishes His kingdom on earth, whatever ideology gains popularity in the world will be as hostile to biblical truth as all its predecessors have been.

MODERNISM

Consider the record of the past century, for example. A hundred years ago, the church was beset by modernism. Modernism was a world-view based on the notion that only science could explain reality. The modernist in effect began with the presupposition that nothing supernatural is real.

It ought to have been instantly obvious that modernism and Christianity were incompatible at the most fundamental level. If nothing supernatural is real, then much of the Bible is untrue and has no authority; the incarnation of Christ is a myth (nullifying Christ’s authority as well); and all the supernatural elements of Christianity–including God Himself– must be utterly redefined in naturalistic terms. Modernism was anti-Christian at its core.

Nonetheless, the visible church at the beginning of the twentieth century was filled with people who were convinced modernism and Christianity could and should be reconciled. They insisted that if the church did not keep in step with the times by embracing modernism, Christianity would not survive the twentieth century. The church would become increasingly irrelevant to modern people, they said, and soon it would die. So they devised a “social gospel” void of the true gospel of salvation.

Of course, biblical Christianity survived the twentieth century just fine. Wherever Christians remained committed to the truthfulness and authority of Scripture, the church flourished. But ironically, those churches and denominations that embraced modernism were the ones that became increasingly irrelevant and all but died out before the century was over. Many grandiose but nearly empty stone buildings offer mute testimony to the deadliness of compromise with modernism.

POSTMODERNISM

Modernism is now regarded as yesterday’s way of thinking. The dominant world-view in secular and academic circles today is called post-modernism.

Post-modernists have repudiated modernism’s absolute confidence in science as the only pathway to the truth. In fact, post-modernism has completely lost interest in “the truth,” insisting that there is no such thing as absolute, objective, or universal truth.

Modernism was indeed folly and needed to be abandoned. But post-modernism is a tragic step in the wrong direction. Unlike modernism, which was still concerned with whether basic convictions, beliefs, and ideologies are objectively true or false, post-modernism simply denies that any truth can be objectively known.

To the post-modernist, reality is whatever the individual imagines it to be. That means what is “true” is determined subjectively by each person, and there is no such thing as objective, authoritative truth that governs or applies to all humanity universally. The post-modernist naturally believes it is pointless to argue whether opinion A is superior to opinion B. After all, if reality is merely a construct of the human mind, one person’s perspective of truth is ultimately just as good as another’s.

Having given up on knowing objective truth, the post-modernist occupies himself instead with the quest for “understanding” the other person’s point of view. So the words truth and understanding take on radical new meanings. Ironically, “understanding” requires that we first of all disavow the possibility of knowing any truth at all. And “truth” becomes nothing more than a personal opinion, usually best kept to oneself.

That is the one essential, non-negotiable demand post-modernism makes of everyone: we are not supposed to think we know any objective truth. Post-modernists often suggest that every opinion should be shown equal respect. And therefore on the surface, post-modernism seems driven by a broad-minded concern for harmony and tolerance. It all sounds very charitable and altruistic. But what really underlies the post-modernist belief system is an utter intolerance for every world-view that makes any universal truth-claims–particularly biblical Christianity.

In other words, post-modernism begins with a presupposition that is irreconcilable with the objective, divinely-revealed truth of Scripture. Like modernism, post-modernism is fundamentally and diametrically opposed to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

POSTMODERNISM AND THE CHURCH

Nonetheless, the church today is filled with people who are advocating post-modern ideas. Some of them do it self-consciously and deliberately, but most do it unwittingly. (Having imbibed too much of the spirit of the age, they are simply regurgitating worldly opinion.) The evangelical movement as a whole, still recovering from its long battle with modernism, is not prepared for a new and different adversary. Many Christians have therefore not yet recognized the extreme danger posed by post-modernist thought.

Post-modernism’s influence has clearly infected the church already. Evangelicals are toning down their message so that the gospel’s stark truth-claims don’t sound so jarring to the post-modern ear. Many shy away from stating unequivocally that the Bible is true and all other religious systems and world-views are false. Some who call themselves Christians have gone even further, purposefully denying the exclusivity of Christ and openly questioning His claim that He is the only way to God.

The biblical message is clear. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). The apostle Peter proclaimed to a hostile audience, “Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” The apostle John wrote, “He who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (John 3:36). Again and again, Scripture stresses that Jesus Christ is the only hope of salvation for the world. “For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5). Only Christ can atone for sin, and therefore only Christ can provide salvation. “And this is the testimony: that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 John 5:11-12).

Those truths are antithetical to the central tenet of post-modernism. They make exclusive, universal truth-claims declaring Christ the only true way to heaven and all other belief-systems erroneous. That is what Scripture teaches. It is what the true church has proclaimed throughout her history. It is the message of Christianity. And it simply cannot be adjusted to accommodate post-modern sensitivities.

Instead, many Christians simply pass over the exclusive claims of Christ in embarrassed silence. Even worse, some in the church–including a few of evangelicalism’s best-known leaders–have begin to suggest that perhaps people can be saved apart from knowing Christ.

Christians cannot capitulate to post-modernism without sacrificing the very essence of our faith. The Bible’s claim that Christ is the only way of salvation is certainly out of harmony with the post-modern notion of “tolerance.” But it is, after all, just what the Bible plainly teaches. And the Bible–not post-modern opinion–is the supreme authority for the Christian. The Bible alone should determine what we believe and proclaim to the world. We cannot waver on this, no matter how much this post-modern world complains that our beliefs make us “intolerant.”

TOLERANT INTOLERANCE

Post-modernism’s veneration of tolerance is its most obvious feature. But the version of “tolerance” peddled by post-modernists is actually a twisted and dangerous corruption of true virtue.

Incidentally, tolerance is never mentioned in the Bible as a virtue, except in the sense of patience, forbearance, and longsuffering (cf. Ephesians 4:2.) In fact, the contemporary notion of tolerance is a pathetically feeble concept compared to the love Scripture commands Christians to show even to their enemies. Jesus said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you” (Luke 6:27-28; cf. vv. 29- 36).

When our grandparents spoke of tolerance as a virtue, they had something like that in mind. The word used to mean respecting people and treating them kindly even when we believe they are wrong. But the post-modern notion of tolerance means we must never regard anyone else’s opinions as “wrong.” Biblical tolerance is for people; post-modern tolerance is for ideas.

Accepting every belief as equally valid is hardly a real virtue, but it is about the kind of only “virtue” post-modernism knows anything about. Traditional virtues (including humility, self-control, and chastity) are openly scorned–and even regarded as transgressions–in the world of post-modernism.

Predictably, the beatification of post-modern tolerance has had a disastrous effect on real virtue in our society. In this age of tolerance, what was once forbidden is now encouraged. What was once universally deemed immoral is now celebrated. Marital infidelity and divorce have been normalized. Profanity is commonplace. Abortion, homosexuality, and moral perversions of all kinds are championed by large advocacy groups and enthusiastically promoted by the popular media. The post-modern notion of “tolerance” is systematically turning genuine virtue on its head.

Just about the only remaining taboo is the naive and politically incorrect notion that another person’s “alternative lifestyle,” religion, or different perspective is wrong.

One major exception to that rule stands out starkly: it is OK for post-modernists to be intolerant of those who claim they know the truth–particularly biblical Christians. In fact, those who fancy themselves the leading advocates of tolerance today are often the most outspoken opponents of evangelical Christianity.

Look on the World Wide Web, for example, and see what is being said by the self-styled champions of “religious tolerance.” What you’ll find is a great deal of intolerance for Bible-based Christianity. In fact, some of the most bitterly anti-Christian material on the World Wide Web can be found at sites supposedly promoting religious tolerance.

Why is that? Why does authentic biblical Christianity find such ferocious opposition from people who think they are paragons of tolerance? It is because the truth-claims of Scripture–and particularly Jesus’ claim to be the only way to God–are diametrically opposed to the fundamental presuppositions of the post-modern mind. The Christian message represents a death blow to the post-modernist world-view.

But as long as Christians are being duped or intimidated into softening the bold claims of Christ and widening the narrow road, the church will make no headway against post-modernism. We need to recover the distinctiveness of the gospel. We need to regain our confidence in the power of God’s truth. And we need to proclaim boldly that Christ is the only true hope for the people of this world.

That may not be what people want to hear in this pseudo-tolerant age of post-modernism. But it is true nonetheless. And precisely because it is true and the gospel of Christ is the only hope for a lost world, it is all the more urgent that we rise above all the voices of confusion in the world and say so. [1]


[1] Dave Jordan, M. E. Pulpit Magazine November 2012 Vol. 01. No. 2.

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