A Divine Welcome
Christians are called to be “against the world for the world.” But this is no easy task, and indeed, the danger for many of us is to live the extremes in either direction.
“Do not love the world nor the things in the world,” reads 1 John 2:15. These are strong words, and when I first heard them as a young Christian they were given more weight than they might be in certain quarters today. As a new believer, I sought guidance on how I should live and was duly rewarded with an appropriate set of prohibitions. The instruction was largely of the “don’t do this” or “avoid that” variety. I quickly grasped that the main agenda was to avoid contamination, what Dallas Willard describes as one of the “gospels of sin management.” He writes,
[T]he Christian message is thought to be essentially concerned only with how to deal with sin: with wrongdoing or wrong-being and its effects. Life, our actual existence, is not included in what is now presented as the heart of the Christian message, or it is included only marginally….
When we examine the broad spectrum of Christian proclamation and practice, we see that the only thing made essential on the right wing of theology is forgiveness of the individual’s sins. On the left it is removal of social or structural evils. The current gospel then becomes a “gospel of sin management.” Transformation of life and character is no part of the redemptive message. Moment-to-moment human reality in its depths is not the arena of faith and eternal living….
What is taught as the essential message about Jesus has no natural connection to entering a life of discipleship to him.
And so, armed with my first burst of enthusiasm and zeal for my newly born faith, I took to the “not-doing” and “avoidance” with a missionary zeal that would have put William Booth to shame. I read books on the exchanged life. I was sure that the sloppy, half-hearted, and mediocre life I was living was a denial of true Christianity and a mockery of the real thing.
Yet my focus on withdrawal, personal holiness, and purity became, however subtly, a distraction. I was more occupied with me and less with Christ. My internal state, feelings, and spiritual condition (as I saw it) totally filled my horizons.
The great reformer Martin Luther suffered similar preoccupations in his time. He obsessed about sins, he feared God’s wrath, he longed for a divine welcome. His awakening to what he called an “alien righteousness” (something provided by another for him) shattered his self-indulgent illusions and opened up a world rooted in God’s amazing grace and mercy. Luther learned what so many have had to learn since; namely, that salvation is the gift of God’s grace. We can’t earn it, work for it, wrestle it to the ground, or fight for it. It is God’s gracious, merciful gift to each of us as believers in Christ: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Now, the yearning for righteousness, Christlikeness, and a devout life is an admirable longing; indeed, it is an essential longing of discipleship. But the great mistake is to somehow embrace this as a call to individualism and self-obsession. It is not. As the French theologian Jacques Ellul said, “The yearning for holiness is not at odds with the desire for relevance. For while holiness sets us apart unto God, it is God who calls us into the world.” Christians are called to God and sent by God into the world.
Colleague Os Guinness captures the necessary tension between our need to pursue holy lives as individuals and the desire to connect meaningfully with our culture and those around us. We are called to “prophetic untimeliness,” for “Thinking and acting Christianly in the blizzard of modern information and change requires the courage of a prophet, the wisdom of a sage, and the character of a saint—not to speak of the patience of Job and the longevity of Methuselah.”
Likewise, the late Richard John Neuhaus, former editor of First Things magazine, suggested we are to be “in the world, not of the world, but for the world”—or “against the world for the world.” This is no easy task and indeed, the danger for many of us is to live the extremes in either direction. That is, I may so love the world that I embrace its ways, values, attitudes, and delights uncritically, thus losing any sense of distinction and prophetic edge for the gospel. Or, I may so withdraw from the world that my life seems pure (to the audience of one) but exists in splendid self-obsession. I may appear morally distinct, but I am socially irrelevant.
But must we embrace such a dichotomy? Surely, the example of Jesus in his incarnational ministry is far superior as are the apostles and the early church that followed him, taking to the streets, the forums, and the places of civic discourse. They lived, loved, and preached in diverse places and were themselves the better for it. They lived, loved, and preached in all of these places not because they were consumed with themselves but because they were filled with the love of Christ and hence a love for the world around them. They had received and embodied God’s divine welcome and so offered his great invitation to the world around them. Oh, that we may hear his calling and do the same!
Stuart McAllister is Global Support Specialist at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life In God (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), 41-42. “Gospels of Sin Management” is the title of his second chapter, where this excerpt is found.
Charles R. Ringma, Resist the Powers (with Jacques Ellul), (Colorado Springs, Colorado: Pinon Press, 2000), 171.
Os Guinness, Prophetic Untimeliness: A Challenge to the Idol of Relevance (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2003), 56.
 See Against the World for the World: The Hartford Appeal and the Future of American Religion, eds. Peter L. Berger and Richard John Neuhaus (New York: Seabury Press, 1976).