The American Vision: A Biblical Worldview Ministry

The Old and the New Jerry Falwell

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Jerry Falwell has made a number of transitions in his fruitful ministry. Few people had heard of Jerry Falwell prior to 1979. His Thomas Road Baptist Church was his mission in life. In a sermon delivered in 1965, entitled “Ministers and Marchers,” Falwell said:

[A]s far as the relationship of the church to the world, [it] can be expressed as simply as the three words which Paul gave to Timothy—“Preach the Word.” This message is designed to go right to the heart of man and there meet his deep spiritual need. Nowhere are we commissioned to reform externals. We are not told to wage war against bootleggers, liquor stores, gamblers, murderers, prostitutes, racketeers, prejudiced persons or institutions or any other existing evil as such. Our ministry is not reformation, but transformation. The gospel does not clean up the outside but rather regenerates the inside.

While we are told to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” in the true interpretation we have very few ties on this earth. We pay our taxes, cast our votes as a responsibility of citizenship, obey the laws of the land, and other things demanded of us by the society in which we live. But at the same time, we are cognizant that our only purpose on this earth is to know Christ and to make him known. Believing the Bible as I do, I would find it impossible to stop preaching the pure saving gospel of Jesus Christ, and begin doing anything else—including fighting Communism, or participating in civil-rights reforms.[1]

Fifteen years later, Dr. Falwell repudiated his earlier remarks calling them “false prophecy.” In Listen, America!, he outlined a new comprehensive agenda: “I am speaking to rally together the people of this country who still believe in decency, the home, the family, morality, the free enterprise system, and all the great ideals that are the cornerstone of this nation. Against the growing tide of permissiveness and moral decay that is crushing our society, we must make a sacred commitment to God Almighty to turn this nation around immediately.”[2]

What Falwell did not understand was that his 1965 remarks were biblical. There was nothing to apologize for. The first step in turning a culture around is to “Preach the Word.” The heart of man must be changed before there will be any external change, either individually or societal. There still exists in some parts of fundamentalism a dualistic worldview where one must give up reformation for individual transformation. The Christian’s ministry is first individual transformation (the preaching of the gospel) and only then reformation (discipleship); it’s conversion, then discipleship; justification, then sanctification.

The changing of the broader culture is based on two essential elements: (1) the preaching of the gospel and (2) the implementation of God’s Word to every area of life. Let’s look at an interesting example of how this might work. Today there is great concern over the content of rap music lyrics similar to the concern that Tipper Gore[3] voiced in the 1980s over rock lyrics. One proposed solution is to put warnings on the outside of the CDs informing parents that the contents contain explicit sexual, racial, and generally offensive language. Some even want a listing of the lyrics so parents know what their children are listening to. While this might be helpful and necessary in the short-term, it misses a very important point. It is nearly impossible to enforce an ethic when a society constantly rebels against it.

Christians seeking to influence law and public policy must be sensitive not only to basic biblical and theological principles, but to practical considerations as well. Would the proposed law be enforceable? If not, the actual effect of legislation might be to undercut respect for the rule of law and the credibility of Christian political action. The unsuccessful attempt to outlaw the production and sale of alcoholic beverages during Prohibition is an example. The enforceability of a given law presupposes a significant degree of community consensus regarding its justice and wisdom. At times, however, a prophetic minority may be called to create a consensus where none exists. . . .[4]

The biblical approach is to change the hearts and minds of people through the preaching of the gospel through which the sovereign work of the Spirit does His work. The result is that there is no longer a market for such material. Let’s look at a biblical example. When the Gospel was preached in Ephesus, the black arts were exposed:

And many of those who practiced magic brought their books together and began burning them in the sight of all; and they counted up the price of them and found it fifty thousand pieces of silver. So the word of the Lord was growing mightily and prevailing (Acts 19:19–20).

A change in heart and mind (transformation) resulted in a change in lifestyle (reformation). The market for these books dried up. Obviously, the consensus had changed. Now it would be easier to pass laws prohibiting the importation of these materials, if that was justified and needed. But such laws would do little good if the people had a change of heart and mind once again to embrace the demonic spirits to which they were in bondage.

. Quoted in James A. Speer, New Christian Politics (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1984), 19–20.
[2]. Jerry Falwell, Listen, America! (New York: Doubleday, 1980), 244.
. Tipper Gore, Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated Society (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1987).
[4]. John Jefferson Davis, Evangelical Ethics: Issues facing the Church Today (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1985), 19–20.
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