The Clash of Cross and CulturePastor Lutzer | October 20, 1996
Selected highlights from this sermon
Christians are rightfully uncomfortable with our disintegrating society. The cross has always been at odds with popular culture. But how should we respond?
We need to choose the right battles and emphasize the Gospel of the cross. Governments may rise and fall, but the Gospel will endure despite the battles we face. We must not let ourselves get entangled and engrossed in lesser issues. And we must fight for the Gospel with humility, courage, and service.
I’m sure that I don’t need to tell you that the cross has always clashed with popular culture. Come with me to the year A.D. 410. Rome is lying along the Tiber River majestically asleep. When the citizens awake that morning they have no idea that traitors are within their gates. Alaric the Goth – some of his soldiers overpowered the soldiers that were stationed at the Salarian Gate and now they are within the walls of the city of Rome. They spend three days trashing the place. They take works of art, gold and silver and they load their carts. And three days later they leave. They did not burn Rome. They only destroyed it. They did not destroy the city entirely, but they wanted to humiliate it, and they did.
And the question that the people and the citizens of Rome asked, as they thought about it after the three days of horror were over, was this: Who is to blame? And most of the citizens of Rome said that it is the Christians who are to blame. Their God is responsible for this. Rome is the city of Christendom, and God did not take care of His own city and His own people.
In order to understand why the Christians were blamed, we need to go back nearly 100 years before that to the year 312. Constantine is coming to Rome and about to conquer it, and he sees the vision in this sign, Conquer, and he assumes that this is the Christian cross. He marches his men to the river, and has them baptized as Christians and puts the cross of Christ on their shields, and then goes to battle and wins. Thanks to his influential and famous mother, Helena, who urged him to make Christianity the religion of the Empire, Constantine does, and by the next generation the whole city of Rome, and the Roman Empire is (quote) Christianized.
The pagans resented it. Some of them said, “We are going to continue to worship our own gods.” And they did. Others said, “If we have to worship the Christian God, at least we can take some of our pagan practices and we can continue to worship those too, and that’s where you have a lot of paganism coming into Christianity.
Rome was pagan polytheistic. They had a god that you were supposed to pray to if you were to go on a journey. If you were to sell something, you were to pray to that god. Well, Christianity could not absorb all those different gods, but they accepted the idea that saints would now take over those responsibilities. And so many of the people who became Christians did so resentfully, and only outwardly, and they were not genuinely converted. And now Rome had adopted this Christian God who did not defend them, and the pagans said, “Our god could have done a better job.”
In order for us to understand what really happened, let’s put ourselves into the picture. Let us suppose that the religious right in America really got what they wanted – the criminalization of abortion and mandated school prayers. Let us suppose that we had a Christian Congress and a distinctively Christian president, and a Supreme Court that acted in a Christianly way, and judges who gave Christian decisions. Let’s suppose it were to happen, and in the middle of that there would be an economic collapse. Banks would be closed, and people would be laid off. What you would find are huge soup lines. Can you imagine what people would say? They would say, “You Christians, you’re the ones who wanted to take over America, and the minute you take it over here’s this economic crisis. And you promised us that if only you could have (quote) America back, then things would be different, and righteousness would abound and God would bless this place. And look at what has happened, and it is your fault.” Can’t you just hear it? Believe me, it would happen.
Now in order to defend the Christian God, and in order to give some perspective to what happened, there was a man by the name of Augustine, sometimes pronounced Augustin, and he wrote a book. And you heard me tell you several months ago that it is one of the great influential books of all time. And it’s entitled The City of God.
Augustine said that really in order to understand this we must see that there are two cities. There is the City of Man, and the City of Man goes by man’s rules. The City of Man lives according to man’s standards, and as far as The City of Man is concerned it is what men build. It is the art and the buildings and the paintings and the sculptures and the beauty of Rome. That is the City of Man. But there is another city. It is called the City of God. The City of God is the God of the apostles. It is the God of the prophets. It is the God of all those who trust Christ, and it is His city, and we seek that city whose builder and foundation is God. And of course, because there are two cities, there are also two different kinds of citizens. There are those who became angry when Rome was trashed because this is their life. They are materialistic. They are filled with greed. Wealth and pomp and creature comforts represent all that they live for. And when that is taken away, they think that that which is most precious has been taken from them. But then there are Christians, and the Christians did not lose a whole lot when Rome was looted. And they didn’t lose it because that’s not where their heart was. They have treasure in heaven where moth and rust do not corrupt, and where thieves do not break through and steal, and there is nothing that Alaric and his hordes of barbarians can do to touch what is particularly precious to them. It is secure.
I don’t need to tell you today that in America there is increasing antagonism between the City of Man and the City of God. They are in conflict. Today in America the City of Man is based on self-absorption, radical individualism - the idea that I have the right to create my own truth, to have my own standards, to make actually ex nihilo – my own religion by combining whatever bits and pieces of other religions that I care to, or to believe nothing at all. Everyone is into his or her rights and into their freedoms.
The City of Man in America is based on human nature, the desires of human nature, doing your own thing, best summarized perhaps in the words of Woody Allen: The heart wants what it wants. And whatever it wants it should get. And then, of course, it is based on the lie of Eden, that basically you shall be your own god.
What do we do, folks? What do we do? That is the question of the hour and that is the purpose of the series of messages that I am beginning today. What does America need at this critical hour? What is our answer as we cast about reading the newspapers and seeing everything that we once counted dear being tossed aside? What is the answer?
Well, I want you to know today that the Bible has an answer for us as it always does, and I need to encourage you by reminding you that most of the epistles of the New Testament were written to little pockets of righteousness in the midst of a sea of paganism. The Christian Church today is not facing any challenge that the Church in the past has not faced. True Christianity has always been a minority. It has never usually been a friend to government, and government has never been a friend to it. There has always been this clash that we shall continue to talk about next week. And as a result of that I want you to know that God is able to work in and through us. And yes, perhaps in His grace, things can still be turned around, but the question is how and what are we to be doing?
I want you to take your Bibles and turn to Philippians 3 for just a moment. The Apostle Paul is sitting in jail in Rome, and he does not have a righteous ruler in Rome. As a matter of fact, did you know that as Paul was sitting there penning this epistle in Rome, sitting in jail, Nero was ruling? Nero, after all, was the man who had his own mother murdered. Nero was the one who, when Rome burned, blamed it on the Christians. And a number of years ago my wife and I were in Rome just outside of Nero’s palace. We were actually in the palace too (the ruins), and it is said that Christians lit his palace as they had pitch poured on them and they were lighted, and there they burned. He was an evil, evil ruler. We’ve not seen the likes of him in this country.
And the Apostle Paul now is talking about the two different cities. And you’ll notice in chapter 3 (we pick it up in verse 18) he is speaking about the fact that our citizenship – our polus (that’s the Greek word), our politics (verse 20) is in heaven. That’s the City of God. Our politics is in heaven.
And very briefly there are five contrasts between the City of Man and the City of God as outlined in these verses. First of all, notice that Paul says we walk in different directions. “For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ.” True believers walk toward the cross. We submit to the cross. The theme of my messages during these next weeks is the cross, which I’m going to explain because it is the centerpiece of God’s agenda. And we love the cross. God forbid that we should glory except in the cross of Jesus Christ. But those who are enemies are not walking with the cross. Now I want you to know that very probably Paul was not talking about the pagans here. He was talking about the Judaizers who were filled with legalism. Did you know that you don’t have to be a pagan to be an enemy of the cross? All that you need to do is to distort the cross, add to the cross, think of the cross as not sufficient for salvation, and in other ways distort its message, and you become an enemy of the cross of Christ. Notice the contrast though. The City of God – we love the cross. The City of Man despises the cross. One of my messages is going to be entitled What Men Think of the Cross and Why.
The second contrast is we have different appetites. “Their end is destruction, their god is their belly (their appetite).” In other words, “Whatever desires I have in the body I shall fulfill. Whatever I want to do, I will do. What seems good in my sight is sufficient for me.” They know nothing about the fact that there is meat to eat that they know not of, and that “man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.” They do not understand that because they are headed for destruction. Different appetites!
And then I want you to notice that we have a different language. It says, “They glory in their shame,” and what a commentary on some of our trash talk shows today. People should be embarrassed to let anybody know what they have done, but they are gloating about it on national television. Their glory is in their shame, they set their minds on earthly things, and that’s all that they can talk about - those earthly things. And what about us? Well, we have a different language. Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks and we talk about the glories of Christ. We talk about His wonders. We love God and we confess our love to Him.
And then notice another contrast. We live by different aspirations. “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” We want Him to return because we love Him.
On this recent tour to Israel somebody said, “You know, I want Christ to return, but what about those who are not ready for His appearing?” And that is a conflict indeed. We wonder about those, and therefore, it is with mixed emotions that we refer to the return of Christ. But over and above all things we desire His appearing because we are anxious to see Him as He is. And I hope that if you are a part of the City of God that that is your desire, that that is your aspiration. That’s not what the world is looking forward to. They are looking for one more opportunity to make more money so that they can live comfortably, so that they can live isolated from the traumas of life, and somehow eke out just a little bit more pleasure in the years that they might happen to have.
And then of course there’s a different destination. You’ll notice it says that “he will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.” And what about the end of those who know not God? Well, pick it up there in verse 19. “Their end is destruction.”
Now, said Augustine, “The City of Man and the City of God interact. In eternity past there was only the City of God. Because of the fall of man, now there is the City of God and the City of Man, and we are citizens of both realms. And in the future they shall be separated again forever, one to everlasting destruction, and the other to everlasting bliss.
But the challenge before you and me is this present moment. It is their interaction, and the question that is before us is, how shall the City of God live in the midst of The City of Man? What is our agenda at this very critical moment of American history? That’s the question before us. What do we do? People are asking. Christians are asking. What is God’s answer?
Well, do we withdraw? After the Scopes Trial in America, fundamentalism tended to withdraw from culture. It had its Bible studies. It preached its sermons, largely though to itself. There was really no bridge to culture because the world was deemed to be evil, and the best way that you separate yourself from the world is to be isolated from it.
Well, that does not seem to be the problem today. There’s another extreme that people are falling into, and that is to say, “Let’s do this. Let’s capture the City of Man. Let’s take it over. Let’s elect a Congress that is distinctively Christian. Let us elect a president who is distinctively Christian. Let us make sure that our judges of the land become Christian, and then we will be in charge, and you will see the changes that will be made, and America will be great again. Maybe if we can capture the City of Man, we can turn it into a paradise.”
Well I want you to know today that history does not bear out the possibility of that being successful. Surely the greatest time when the City of Man was captured by the City of God was during Medieval Times when even the political authorities were subject to the popes of Europe. And during that period of time what happened? Sometimes some of the best believers that God had got caught in the crossfire, and ended up dying as heretics. And Calvin, whom I greatly admire, there in Geneva tried to bring about a Christian enclave and forced people to go to church, and forced them to conform to his rules. And he didn’t pull it off because those kinds of changes do not change and transform the human heart.
Now I’m going to be saying some things today (and probably in this series) that some of you are going to disagree with, and that’s all right. Our intention is to find out what the Bible has to say, and then have some good discussions as to what Scripture has to say. But I’m just going to plow ahead, naively believing that all of you are going to agree with me at the end. Alright? And as I’ve frequently said, if you disagree with me, you come up later and I’ll accept your apology. Okay?
I’m going to share the burden that is on my heart for this wonderful country of America. What do we do? There are three lines of argument, three propositions to share with you today about what we do.
Number one, we choose the right battle. Let me ask you today, what is the focus of the great battle in America today? Is it family values? Is that really the issue, or is it something much more fundamental that lies behind what we generally call (quote) family values? Is it political? Is it moral? Is it social? Is it a clash of cultures? Or is the matter deeper? I am here to affirm to you today that I believe very deeply that the issue that is at stake is distinctly and uniquely spiritual. That’s the issue. Do you know what the great issue in America is today? It is namely how sinners get to God. Is Christ the only way or are there other options? That’s the number one issue that lies at the heart of what our debate, as believers, should be all about. That’s the issue.
What good does it do to get people to pray a prayer in school that they don’t believe? People are out there trying to get prayers back into the schools. I have a better idea. Let’s get prayer back into our churches. Let’s get prayer back into our homes. That’s what we have to do. (applause)
You know, when you do that you just inspire me to keep going. (laughter)
Last Tuesday I was on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem showing some people around. And as we were leaving, there was this heated argument. I mean people were really going at it. I mean they were shouting at each other, and fortunately their debate was in German, which was therefore probably not widely understood, but I was able to pick it up. And you know what the debate was? It was whether or not the god Allah (the god of the Muslims), the God of the Jews, and the God of the Christians was the same God or not. Now that’s the kind of discussion I would have liked to get into. If I had known German a little better I’d have gone over there and offered my services. That’s the issue, and I said to those who we were touring with, “Now there’s an issue that’s important. They aren’t discussing whether or not the earth’s fuel supply is going to run out. They’re not talking about who is going to win the next presidential election in America. All those are superficial and largely irrelevant, faced with the issue of which God is the right God and how sinners come into His presence to be received. That’s the fundamental issue.
I want you to know today, my dear friends, that I think we are losing it. Could you write this upon your hearts so that it shall never, never leave you, that if there is some good news in America, it is never going to come out of Washington? Never! It is never going to come on NBC or ABC or even CNN. If there is some good news in America, it will be proclaimed by the Church. And it will be good news that has come to us from the Scriptures that God was in Christ reconciling the world onto Himself, and that those who believe in Christ can be reconciled to God. That is our message, and the only ones who are going to proclaim it are those who know it to be true through the Scriptures. That’s our responsibility. The issue today is not political. The issue today, as always, is spiritual. And I believe that the Church has largely lost its confidence in the ability of God to save sinners, even big ones. Number one, choose your right target.
Number two, use the right weapons. And now because you clapped a few minutes ago, you gave me the courage to just keep plowing on. We have in America what is called the Christian Coalition – the Christian Coalition that works with Protestants and Catholics and Jews and Mormons, and anyone else that will join to get across the (quote) Christian agenda. Conservative Coalition perhaps would be a better term, but Christian Coalition? Really?
Let me say this to you from the bottom of my heart, and from the depths of my spirit today. There may be some value in uniting for certain political causes, for those who are believers in different gods and different religions. There may be some value. And of course, politics is a game of numbers and that’s the purpose for these coalitions because you have to be able to outvote those whom you want to have in office or not to have in office. And that’s the name of the game, but it’s a high stakes game with all kinds of problems. And it has backfired significantly.
Well listen to this: If there is ever a cause in which we unite with those who are of different religions, whatever may be said about that cause, it absolutely cannot be the main mission of the Church. It can’t be! It’s got to be something else – something of lesser importance because the mission of the Church is “Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel,” and “I am the way,” said Jesus, “the truth and the life, and no man comes unto the Father but by Me.” And that is our mandate, and that is our mission, and we must stick with those who agree with us and unite with them. But we cannot even begin to think that we can make common cause with those who believe in different religions and somehow still fulfilling that mandate. It’s impossible! And let us simply admit it.
PBS is going to do a series, or at least one presentation on the religious right in America. I saw it advertised yesterday in the newspaper. A news reporter working on it went to a friend of mine who is a scholar, and who would have some input on those things. And my friend tells me that he was speaking to this woman who had interviewed 40 people on the religious political right. And he said to her, “Did anyone explain the Gospel to you?” She said, “No, what is the Gospel? What do you mean?” And he explained the Gospel to her, that Jesus Christ died for sinners and we can be reconciled to God because Christ met all of God’s requirements, and He’s the only qualified Savior, and salvation must be a free gift because if you understand the nature of who we are and who God is, it can be no other way. She had never heard that before. That was news.
My dear friend, has it really come to a point in America where a news reporter can interview 40 Christian politicians and not hear the message of the Gospel of Christ? Has it come to that? Could it well be that we are missing it, and we have forgotten what our main mission is, and that is to exalt Christ? And could it be that the reason that we cast about for one of these political solutions is because we somehow think in the depths of our hearts that the cross does not work anymore? Could it be?
Of course there’s a place for political involvement. All good citizens should be involved. They should vote. I believe that Christians should run for office, but I’m very wary about an organization that says this is the Christian view, or this is the Christian party. We need to think these things through, don’t we? We need to use the right weapon. And what is the right weapon? It is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
A few years ago somebody came up with a document to try to unite those who are a part of Christendom but do not believe in justification by faith alone with those who do. And the reason is because things are so bad that we need one another. And the contention was that that which unites us is greater than that which separates us. Well let me tell you something today. When it comes to justification by faith alone, there is nothing that could possibly unite us if we disagree on that point. And that which divides us on that issue is always much greater than that which could possibly unite us because it is the heart of what we believe to be most precious.
There are few things that I would ever die for. I think I’d find it difficult to die for my country. I’ve never been asked to do that. I think I’d find it difficult to die for a lot of different things, but there’s one thing I’d be willing to go to the stake for by God’s grace, and I hope that I would march there triumphantly, and that is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is the distinctive message of today, and the only message that is the power of God.
We say, “We want to see God’s power,” and so people go into all kinds of meetings with ecstatic utterances, and what have you. And they say, “We want to see God’s power. We want to see people who are touched by God.” Paul says, “I offer you to the Gospel, which is the power of God unto salvation.” It is our most formidable weapon. I agree with Bonheoffer who said, “It is not before us but it is before the cross that the world trembles.”
Third, we fight with the right attitude. We fight with humility. We don’t come to the political process thinking that we have all the right answers, and that if we did all the right things, everything would come out nicely. Perhaps you disagree with Luther, but at least some of us maybe have the humility to admit that he was right when he said, “I would rather be governed by a wise Turk than a stupid Christian.” And we’re not so foolish to think that just because a Christian is in power that somehow that’s going to reverse everything that is wrong with America. Of course, politics is important, and I’ll comment more on that next week, but it is not America’s great hope.
So we come and we serve with humility. We come with service. Yes, we are at abortion clinics, but what are we there for? Are we there to shout, to scream, to rant or to rave? Or are we there to minister to young women, some of whom think they have no other alternative, and with tears in our eyes plead with them to keep their offspring, and when they choose to do so, are we there with our clinics, and with our help and with our support, helping them with that alternative? That’s really the issue.
I told you before about Bishop Samuel (who died in that burst of gunfire with Anwar Sadat) explaining to Ray Bakke as to why Christianity captured so much of Northern Africa. Those were in the days, of course, before the invention of a baby bottle, and the pagans would just take babies and leave them out on the steps to die. That was their abortion technique. And Christians would take nursing mothers and they would put them in the city square. And then they would have other people go on baby runs and they would pick up these babies, and they’d bring them to the nursing mothers, and the nursing mothers would nurse them and care for them. And they would rear these kids. And the pagans said, “Where in the world is all this compassion coming from?” And they were impressed with the compassion and the caring love of Christians. And that began to turn the hearts of the pagans toward Christianity.
Somebody says, “Well, there are so many people with whom I work who are so hard to the Gospel. They are cynical.” Yes, and the way in which that is broken down scripturally, as we shall see in this series, is through living lives of humility and service and brokenness and integrity in the presence of the watching world. And that’s the way we impact culture.
Is there an answer for us? I want you to know today that when the Apostle Paul wrote the book of Philippians there was no Christian even represented on the Roman Senate where Nero ruled. There was no possibility of appealing special rights, or appealing for your own rights as a Christian in the Roman Empire. No, the Christians got burned at the stake. That’s what happened. They had none of that. And yet about them it is said that they turned the world upside down. Why? It was unshakable confidence that they had a message that could explode in the lives of the most wicked person and transform him into someone who would love God, and whose life would be changed from the inside out.
I conclude by saying simply this: Our problems in America are far too deep to think that they can be changed by a change of administrations in Washington. Certainly we should vote for the person who is best, for the person who represents those values that we hold dear, but at the end of the day, America needs something much more drastic. What we need is a message that can come to men and women as members of the City of God reaching out in the arts, in our businesses, in our relationships, in our families, reaching out to the City of Man and showing them the beauty and the love and the service and the compassion and the wonder of Christ. That’s what we need in America. And therefore I want you to know today that the destiny of this great country rests not in Washington but in Chicago, and not just in Chicago, but in Peoria and in all the cities where the Gospel is preached and where men and women gather together in the name of Christ, and are willing to be witnesses wherever God has planted them.
And with this I do conclude: I urge those of you who are still members of the City of Man to become members of the City of God. Augustine said, “Whatever men build, men will destroy.” Your retirement programs, your buildings, your prestige, your reputation will be destroyed. But only those who belong to the City of God (who have found refuge in Christ our Lord, who have seen the cross in its beauty as the means and the instrument of death, but also the instrument of reconciliation) and those who cleave to Him, will be spared, because the City of Man will disintegrate. But only those who know God will live forever. They have a treasure that Alaric the Goth could not touch.
And if you will, let us pray.
Our Father, we ask today in the name of Jesus that You shall help us even at the beginning of this series of messages to understand that You have entrusted into our hands the most precious possession that we could ever own. And that is a message that changes people from the inside out, that takes hardened abortionists and turns them into loving servants, that takes people who have been disenfranchised and angry and grants them the gift of peace. We ask today, Father, that You shall help us to understand our role in the world, and take Your cross and its message to a culture that is decaying. Grant us that privilege we ask in Jesus’ name, Amen.