Are there situations where our zeal for certain cultural issues can detract from our central message? How do we balance that?
The key is grounding the way we address these different issues in the truths of the gospel. Take the debate about marriage. It’s most helpful when we tie the discussion back to God and his plan. A good God created marriage as a reflection of his love for his people. God designed marriage to be a picture of Christ’s love for the church, how a husband should lay down his life for his wife in serving her. And that’s a picture of the way Christ has laid down his life, because he loves us and he wants to save us from our sins.
Likewise with other issues, the conviction that we are created in the image of God makes a difference. A good God forms babies in his image, by his goodness, for his glory. Being made in the image of God has implications for religious liberty or immigration or sex trafficking. Who Christ is, how he came to a sinful world to live among us, to save us from our sin and ourselves and from all of our propensities for evil and injustice—these elemental truths make a difference in how we view our culture and our world. The more we relate these core truths to social issues, the more we will have an opportunity to share the beauty of God and the grace of the gospel.
But these are controversial issues. How do we keep from being sidetracked on important but peripheral battles as we seek to drive home the central point of the cross?
The first word that comes to my mind is humility. We’re submitting our lives to who God is, what God has said, and then that comes across in the way we communicate these things. Yes, we want to be bold, but there’s a contrite courage, a humble boldness, that I think the Word warrants. So we share humbly.
And we share personally. We can’t address these social issues and keep an arm’s distance from real people who are involved in these social issues—whether it’s the poor and the enslaved, or our homosexual neighbor, or the illegal immigrant living down the street. All of these issues represent real people who all desire the same things—to be loved, to love, to have meaning and identity. So we address these issues personally—we are compelled to provide for those who are poor or to care for the orphan or the widow. There are actions that flow from our convictions.
So we speak, but we also act—humbly and personally and courageously. We will be tempted to try to remove the offense of the gospel, and to avoid the primary issue of who God is and what it means to follow him. So it takes courage. We’ve got to move forward prayerfully—and I think that’s why the New Testament church was always praying for boldness. It wasn’t easy for them to make the gospel known in their culture; it’s never going to be easy to make the gospel known in any culture. So we depend on the Spirit of God and the power and confidence that comes only from him. But at the same time, trusting in the Word of God, that it’s not just true, but that it’s good.
In the book you link social justice with divine justice. How do we balance the idea of God’s justice with his grace?
We have this natural inclination, this desire for justice in the world. That passion for justice doesn’t just pop up out of nowhere. God has put a moral law on our hearts. This desire for justice is a product of being created in the image of a just God. So, we fight for justice for the persecuted, justice for the unborn, justice for the enslaved, freedom for the oppressed. These things are rooted in the character of God.
Now at the same time—take sex trafficking, for example. Having seen this face-to-face and being heartbroken, crushed by the realities of sex trafficking in the world around us, I feel a longing for justice, particularly when it comes to the traffickers. In this pervasive industry where it seems so many traffickers are getting away with injustice, there’s a confidence that justice belongs to the Lord and nobody’s getting away with anything.
At the same time, there is a desire to see traffickers come to know the grace of God. They need their hearts changed by the gospel. So I want to be a part of spreading a gospel—this is what the Bible compels us to do—to share the gospel that says God is just and he will hold all people to account before him. But he is also gracious. He provides the way to be saved from our sinful and selfish nature that has a propensity to do such evil. And that’s the greatest news in all the world, and it’s news that must be proclaimed. So there you see the twin realities of the justice and the grace of God in the gospel that compels us to act when it comes to an issue like sex trafficking.
So the challenge of what it means to live like Christ in our culture is played out in three arenas. Our individual, personal convictions—we ought to know what the gospel compels us to think and to feel about these things. The teaching of the church—as part of our discipleship mandate, how do we help people of faith understand what it means to live in the culture? The third level, I think, is where we, as the church, speak to the culture at large, how we engage on those issues in the most productive and redemptive way.
Obviously all of those are extremely important. That middle piece, the teaching of the church, is where I have been burdened to equip the saints, the members of the church that I pastored, to know how to understand and apply and speak God’s Word when it comes to these issues. We’ve got to be intentional about equipping the body with the Word of Christ—in the process, not just equipping them so they’ll have information, but for the sake of proclamation.
God is sovereign over all things, including every single detail of the culture, and he’s put us in this time, in this place for a reason. He wants his gospel proclaimed, he wants his glory known, and he’s designed us to be salt and light. So this is not just for the building up of the church, it’s for the spread of the gospel and leading people to see the beauty of God and trust him more than they trust cultural trends.