Christianity Revised for Modern Man
A church adrift from its fundamental heritage reaches neo-evangelicalism in three stages. In the first stage, the people in the church acquire a new attitude, a new outlook on life. Instead of seeing the Christian life as a life of service, sacrifice, and suffering in preparation for eternity, they see it as a life of smart choices in pursuit of happiness. Heavenly mindedness gives way to earthly mindedness.
I am reminded of something a prosperous preacher told me some years ago. "You know, even if Christianity were not true, I would still be a Christian because there is no better way of life." So, did he or did he not believe that Christianity is true? In raising the possibility that it is not true, perhaps he was revealing his own disbelief under the guise of a hypothetical case. Yet suppose he was a true believer who presented this case just for the sake of argument. The best rejoinder, showing his reasoning to be foolish and unscriptural, comes from Paul. If the dead do not live again,
Let us eat and drink; for to morrow we die.
1 Corinthians 15:32
And if tomorrow we die, why waste today on religion? Christianity, of all religions, would be least appealing, for in Islamic or Communist nations, the church is hounded and persecuted. In the other nations, where life is more relaxed, the narrow lifestyle of a Christian keeps him from enjoying a bounty of sinful pleasures, cheap and easy to obtain. Indeed, if Christianity is not grounded in truth, there is much to be said for a life of sin. The result may be self-injury or premature self-destruction, of course, but if a sinner avoids excess in his pursuit of vice, he can build a life that is far more electric and Elysian than the life of a saint. Perhaps, if the sinner has a strong constitution and an unusual knack for self-preservation, he can die a happy man at the end of many satisfying years.
Scripture agrees that within the duration of earthly life, it is possible to beat the devil—to cheat him out of rightful payment for sinful pleasure.
3 For I was envious at the foolish, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
4 For there are no bands in their death: but their strength is firm.
Psalm 73:3, 4
All things have I seen in the days of my vanity: there is a just man that perisheth in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man that prolongeth his life in his wickedness.
In 1 Corinthians 15:32, quoted above, Paul seems to say that Epicureans are wiser than Stoics. Pleasure, whether innocent or sinful, is a reasonable aim of life if there is no existence beyond the grave, if at our last breath we slump over into nothingness. If death is a dead end, reaching it by the Christian road is madness.
According to the Bible, the Christian road is hard and demanding. A true follower of Christ must love Him more than anyone or anything else (Luke 14:26). He must lose his life, in the sense that he must yield to the will of God and surrender the right to make his own choices (Luke 9:24). He must devote himself not to gaining money (Matthew 6:24) or pleasing fleshly appetites (Galatians 5:19-21), but rather to reaching the world with the gospel (Acts 1:8). Like a runner in a race, he must focus all his energy and determination on the task at hand (1 Corinthians 9:26-27). He must strategically employ His time (Ephesians 5:16), money (1 Corinthians 16:2; 2 Corinthians 9:6-7), and skills (1 Peter 4:11) to achieve the greatest eternal result, in terms of souls brought to Christ. He must put aside every affection and worldly practice that might interfere with his work (2 Timothy 2:3-4). He must accept persistent trial and suffering as God's means of refining him for more valuable service (Romans 5:3-5). If others mock or despise him because he is a Christian, he must not back down from confessing Christ as His Master (Matthew 10:32-33). If necessary, he must follow his Master by figuratively taking up a cross—in other words, by accepting the world's persecution (Luke 14:27).
Who, then, could imagine that Christianity is a good choice even if it is false? If it is a delusion, why bother? The preacher who extolled the Christian life because of its temporal advantages must, therefore, have been using the term "Christian" rather loosely. He must have been applying it to a manner of life somewhat removed from the real thing. In fact, his brand of Christianity was a radical departure from historic fundamentalism. The departure was most evident in his attitude toward priorities. The fundamentalist, because he is narrowly Biblical, regards life as a short span of hard work in anticipation of the day when he will stand in judgment. He has little patience with self-pampering choices, with habitual ease and luxury, and with bondage to money and career. His priorities are in line with eternal importance. But the neo-evangelical wants to enjoy life in this world, though it is a fallen and thoroughly corrupted world headed for damnation. His priorities are a curious blend of Biblical demands and personal dreams.
For me, the nature of the blend was illuminated some years ago when I heard a sermon by a prominent neo-evangelical leader. In explaining how we determine God's will, he said that we must first do those things clearly required in the Bible. Specifically, we must accept Christ, and we must refrain from grievous sins like adultery. But what we do then depends on our own inclinations. Once we are saved and free of the worst sins, we may follow our own desires. Why? Because the Holy Spirit lives within us. Having the Spirit, we can be sure that our desires come ultimately from Him. It is hard to believe the man said this, but he did. With incredible naiveté, he underestimated the power of sin, as well as the deceitfulness of self-examination.
In our natural state, sin and lust permeate our souls. Looking at sin, we say it is innocence, and obeying lust, we say we are only doing what is natural and right. The hard-driving momentum of our wickedness before conversion is not halted just by a conversion experience. Thus, the desires in the heart of a new Christian are mostly wrong, as they were wrong before he was saved. If he gives them free reign, foolishly confusing them with the leading of the Spirit, he will quickly leave the path of Christian duty. So, it is not helpful to advise a new convert that after weeding out desires clearly forbidden by the Ten Commandments, he can trust whichever desires remain. Such advice is like putting a match to dry leaves in the attic. The result will be ruinous. Most of the remaining desires will not be as innocent as he thinks. Under their influence, he will make carnal choices. Instead of pursuing goals of the Kingdom, he may, for example, pursue the "good life," a goal he has learned from the world.
In affluent America, the familiar picture of the good life is a life free from trouble and overflowing with good things, good times, and good friends. Unlike the man who rejects God, the Christian may not adore these idols of the god Pleasure with passionate singleness of heart and mind, but still he may bow the knee to them in disloyalty to his real master. Although the hope of heaven has liberated him from dread of sickness and death, he may still be overly concerned with health and security. Although his good times may not be riotous and shameful like the carousing of the ungodly, they may still add up to a self-centered lifestyle. Although his hands may not be clenched in selfish defiance against giving to others, they may still be busy gathering possessions.
In his appetite for possessions, the Christian today is not readily distinguishable from the crowd. He covets the same cars, the same vacations, the same house in the same suburbs, the same boat and RV, the same TV and surround sound, the same rich food, the same wardrobe, the same interior décor, the same landscaping, the same gifts under the same Christmas tree, and, of course, the same gadgets for every conceivable purpose. To put it bluntly, when we compare the Christian and non-Christian, we see the same materialism.
How can the good life be attained? The answer is money. With sufficient money, we can buy any treasure, travel to any interesting place, frequent any place of amusement, turn any meal into a feast, and acquire any remedy for trouble. Besides money, the good life is built on leisure. Therefore, money and leisure are worshipped in this world as the twin deities from whom all blessings flow. To emphasize that money is a deity, Jesus calls it Mammon as if it were a person, and Scripture places covetousness (the love of money) in the same category as idolatry (Colossians 3:5). But few people inherit an inexhaustible supply of money and leisure—of Mammon and Idleness. Ordinarily, these delights come as the reward for profitable labor of some kind. Therefore, success must be the first destination of anyone questing after the good life.
Yet people do not view the good life as an end in itself. Rather, it is rather the means of gaining happiness. This is the dearest and most compelling of all goals, especially in a nation founded on the idea that pursuit of happiness is a fundamental right of man. So, today's prevailing vision of the good life—the so-called American dream—presents success as the foundation and happiness as the result.
After visiting a church some years ago, we received a letter inviting us to return. It held out as an incentive their conviction that "a Christian can be happy and successful." A better example of a neo-evangelical attitude, conditioned by a blend of Biblical and worldly priorities, can hardly be imagined. To say that Christianity produces happiness and success is a species of false advertising. Although deep and abiding, the happiness that Christ affords is not what the world means by happiness, for, "many are the afflictions of the righteous" (Psalm 34:19). The success open to a Christian as he works for a harvest of souls is unlimited and undying, but it is not what the world means by success, for the Christian will be "hated of all men" (Matthew 10:22). A balanced outlook must recognize that some Christians do achieve happiness and success of a temporal nature. Yet such privileges are not automatic or even (in many places today) probable.
To emphasize the earthly advantages of Christianity is a great disservice to the unsaved. If they come into the church hoping for heaven now, they will soon leave. They need reasons to accept and serve Christ that will make their commitment as strong as possible, that will seal them against the furious testings of Satan and sustain them through painful frustrations and difficulties in the Christian life. The proper reasons are to gain benefits in eternity. Why should they receive the gospel? To escape an everlasting hell. Why should they do good works? Because they will soon come before the Lord and hear either His censure or commendation. They must view life as a pilgrimage from the passing to the permanent. Along the way, they must with equanimity accept whatever life brings, whether to abound or be abased (Philippians 4:12). Shutting out the temptations to be satisfied with this world, they must set their eyes upon the fuller, brighter, unaging world of heaven. They must hold to a Christianity that, in its essence, is the intersection between two worlds, seen and unseen, and they must view the latter as more solid and enduring.
A church that is strong on the temporal advantages of Christianity differs from a traditional fundamental church not only in its attitude, but also in its preaching. It plays down unpleasant truth. It says little about hell or sacrificial duty. Instead, it emphasizes the positives. It encourages people to attend services and activities with the mind set that they will enjoy themselves, and the result is an enthusiastic mode of worship in a warm atmosphere. Newcomers come away remarking, "Those people really love the Lord."
So far, so good. This should be the reputation of every church. But a church on the neo-evangelical road is so earthly minded that it soon adopts the wrong strategy for every ministry. The music becomes upbeat and conducive to foot tapping, or sweet and sentimental. Sermons become full of cheery thoughts with the net implication that life in this world can fulfill our dreams. The calendar becomes overcrowded with social and recreational events—films, concerts, plays, outings, excursions, and seminars. These seminars feature experts who guide people over the practical hurdles to success and happiness. Psychologists give advice on personal problems. Businessmen show people how to earn and invest money. Others give instruction on diet, exercise, crafts, computer programming, sex—you name it.
The church where all this is happening, being still a Christian church, is not oblivious to the Great Commission, and it continues to funnel money and resources into authentic gospel ministry. Yet its budget leaves ample room for selfish expenditure. Large sums go to making the church facility as plush and commodious as possible. The sanctuary strives for sensual beauty equal to the interior of a Gothic cathedral. The adjoining classrooms look like a slice out of the local university. Kitchen, dining hall, library, and gymnasium complete a self-contained paradise. No doubt a large and varied facility may be justified if it is also spare and economical. But a lavish facility is best suited to a neo-evangelical attitude, ascribing greater value to a good time than to a good message. A church where this attitude expresses itself in a beautiful building, fun-packed agenda, and emphasis on the positives is, altogether, a nice place to attend. Established members are contented, and new folks are continually being added.
Jesus' Warning to Laodicea
The true plight of such a church as it slips away from a Biblical attitude is, thus, often masked by a spurt of growth, interpreted as God's blessing. Actually, the growth is not the old gospel marching on. Rather, it is a watered-down gospel gaining acceptance in the world. Yet the influx of numbers desensitizes everyone to the chilling fact of compromise. If such a church will listen, however, they will hear the loving admonition of the Lord.
19 As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent.
20 Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.
The Lord is speaking to the church in Laodicea. We know that the name He uses has symbolic meaning today as well as literal meaning in the first century because, even though the ancient city of Laodicea now lies in ruins, He implies that a Laodicean church (like most of the other churches addressed in the first chapters of Revelation) will exist at the time of His coming. It is likely, therefore, that some or all of them correspond to distinct entities within modern Christianity.
That Laodicea represents neo-evangelicalism is suggested by the strong parallel between their outstanding characteristics. In verses 14-17 of Revelation 3, the attitudinal, behavioral, and doctrinal stages on the road to neo-evangelicalism appear in reverse order.
Verse 17 describes the materialistic, this-worldly preoccupation of a church that has gone at least to the attitudinal stage.
17 Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked.
The behavioral stage brings a decline in Christian practice. This is the subject of the previous two verses:
15 I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot.
16 So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.
In the third stage, when a church has completed its transition to neo-evangelicalism, evil tendencies ripen into full-blown heresy. A new doctrine of divine revelation emerges, with the effect of paring anything from the Bible that offends modern thinking. The church puts the Bible on the same level as another authority, either scholarly expertise or mystical communion with God. To the former it gives the privilege of finding errors in the Bible, to the latter the privilege of finding divine revelation outside the Bible. Either concession has the effect of nullifying what the Bible actually says.
Neo-evangelicals share their low view of Scripture with the Laodiceans. That the Laodiceans imputed error to Scripture is implicit in the Lord's reminder,
These things saith the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God.
In other words, "Everything I say from beginning to end is true, and you may not modify it or escape it by any of your corrupt notions of authority."
If the Laodicean church is a cryptic reference to modern neo-evangelicalism, Christians today had better be careful where they stand on the theological spectrum, lest they share the fate of Laodicea. The Laodiceans' enjoyment of life in this world is soon cut short. The Lord handles them roughly, even contemptuously. Some of them He suddenly spits out of His mouth, as if He came to a decision not to incorporate them in His own body (Revelation 3:16). Others, the ones He loves, He severely chastens until they come to a place of repentance (Revelation 3:19).
© 2007, 2012 Stanley Edgar Rickard (Ed Rickard, the author). All rights reserved.