Christians disagree on a lot of issues. One of the areas of big disagreement is whether we should just be about “preaching the gospel.” Getting people saved is the Christian’s priority. All this stuff about cultural, social, and political Christianity is a distraction of the gospel. In fact, so the argument goes, the more we address social issues, the less the unsaved will be attracted to the Bible. This is nonsense. Jesus healed people, returned the dead back to life, fed thousands at no cost to them, and ministered to the infirm and social outcasts. He did all of this in the name of religion. The religious and political leaders were upset about Jesus because of the implications of His words and action to all of life. There are those in the church today who want to soft peddle the gospel by turning it into a “skyhook religion”: Believe in Jesus and you won’t ever have to worry about this world again.
The United States became a great nation because there were enough Christians who understood that the Bible in its particulars has something to say to this world in the here and now. What made America attractive to people from around the world was the fair shake they would get as individuals. We weren’t perfect about the way we treated people, but underneath it all there was the operating assumption that there was an underlying moral foundation that gave stability to the nation. Even non-Christians knew and appreciated our nation’s reliance on a biblical system of justice.
A New York judge used the Bible to determine the amount of bail a former Episcopal Church treasurer should pay who was accused of embezzling $267,000 from his congregation. Judge Robert Meehan set bail at $534,000, “pointing out that the sum was $2.00 for every $1.00 he allegedly stole. The judge said he chose the bail figure because ‘it has a religious message, that if you steal you have to pay back two-fold’ [Ex. 22:4, 7].” ((Edward E. Plowman, ed., National & International Religion Report (July 2, 1990), 4.))
Contrast the action of this judge with that of Judge John Vigil who ordered a new sentencing hearing for Robert Harlan who had been convicted of kidnapping, rape, and murder. In the sentencing phase, the jurors had made reference to the Bible during their deliberations about whether to impose the death penalty on Harlan. The judge said this was inappropriate. ((Also see Jean Torkelson, “Case spotlights moral convictions in jury room,” Rocky Mountain News (May 5, 2003).)) Bob Grant, who prosecuted the case in 1995, said, “The Bible is part of people’s lives. We can’t prohibit them from saying ‘an eye for an eye’ because that is the way they were brought up.” ((Associated Press (May 17, 2003).))
Of course, being brought up a certain way does not mean that what a person believes is necessarily right. There must be a foundation for why something is right or wrong. What is the standard? If Harlan’s death sentence was thrown out because the jurors consulted the principles of the Bible to determine punishment, then why not throw out the conviction as well since the prohibitions against kidnapping, rape, and murder are also found in the Bible.
Charles Colson, president of Prison Fellowship, has been calling for the contemporary application of the Bible to judicial affairs as the solution to prison reform.
Recently I addressed the Texas legislature. . . . I told them that the only answer to the crime problem is to take nonviolent criminals out of our prisons and make them pay back their victims with restitution. This is how we can solve the prison crowding problem.
The amazing thing was that afterwards they came up to me one after another and said things like, “That’s a tremendous idea. Why hasn’t anyone thought of that?” I had the privilege of saying to them, “Read Exodus 22. It is only what God said to Moses on Mount Sinai thousands of years ago.” ((Charles Colson, “The Kingdom of God and Human Kingdoms,” Transforming Our World: A Call to Action, ed. James M. Boice (Portland, OR: Multnomah, 1988), 154–155.))
As these examples demonstrate, there is more to the Bible than being saved and receiving eternal salvation through reconciliation with God through Jesus’ atoning death. While this is the Bible’s starting-point message, it is not the end-point. The time should come when every Christian neophyte moves from the milk stage to the meat stage; from the student phase to the teacher phase (Heb. 5:11-14).
In applying the Bible to all of life, those “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1) must have a “new heart” and a “new spirit” so they can rightly understand the Bible (1 Cor. 1:8–25). The “heart of stone” must be removed and substituted with a “heart of flesh,” that is, a heart and mind open to God speaking through His Word. This is God’s work. God’s Spirit must be in us before we can “walk in” His “statutes.” The result will be that we “will be careful to observe” His “ordinances” (Ezek. 36:26–27). The New Testament summarizes it this way: “If any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Cor. 5:17). All of this requires a belief in the sovereign work of God. Only God can make dead men live (John 11:25–26). Only God can bring a dead culture back to life. Cultural “resurrections” are made possible when people are “resurrected” (Eph. 2:6) and then apply their faith to all of life. “New creatures” (2 Cor. 5:17) mean new societies. Noted scholar and author Rousas J. Rushdoony summarizes it this way:
The key to remedying the [modern] situation is not revolution, nor any kind of resistance that works to subvert law and order. The New Testament abounds in warnings against disobedience and in summons to peace. The key is regeneration, propagation of the gospel, and the conversion of men and nations to God’s law-word. ((Rousas J. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1973), 113.))
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Clearly, there is no hope for man except in regeneration. ((Rushdoony, Institutes of Biblical Law, 449.))
Politics, a conservative economic policy, and other social-oriented agendas are not in and of themselves the answer to man’s sinful condition. Because we are sinners, we cannot make proper evaluations of how we ought to live in the world until we have a new heart that guides a new mind. But once this happens, God’s Word in all its fullness begins to make sense. We learn to love God’s law (Psalm 119:47, 97, 113, 127, 159), because it is “a lamp to [our] feet, and a light to [our] path” (119:105; Prov. 6:23) so that we can shine it on a world that shows the effects of sin.
A direct relationship between personal salvation and reform can be found in a number of places in Scripture. Zacchaeus not only found Jesus, he also found a new lifestyle. He restored what he had unlawfully taken from others (Luke 19:8; cf. Ex. 22:1; Lev. 6:5; Num. 5:7; 2 Sam. 12:6). His personal regeneration had societal and civil impact. Keep in mind that Zacchaeus used his office as a tax collector and the power of the Roman civil government to line his pockets at the expense of the citizenry (Luke 19:1). Jesus’ public ministry was the perfect mixture of evangelism, personal, social, and worldly concern. He went about teaching and preaching (Matt. 4:23; 9:35) and doing good and healing (Acts 10:38). He did not see these works as the domain of civil government. Bible nowhere teaches that money (taxes) should be taken from the rich and redistributed to the poor.
Similarly, “John the Baptist told tax-gatherers and soldiers not to use their positions to extort money (Luke 3:12–14). When Paul had the opportunity to speak with Felix he talked about ‘righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come’ (Acts 24:25). James warned the rich of the judgment that must come to those who had defrauded a workman of his wages (James 5:1–6).” ((Noel Weeks, The Sufficiency of Scripture (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1988), 252.))
The first efforts of the early church were to minister to the worldly needs of its members. The gospel included works of mercy, works that had an impact on seemingly mundane issues like seeing that widows were not “being overlooked in the daily serving of food” (Acts 6:1). In our modern welfare-state economy, those least able to care for themselves are most often turned over to government agencies for assistance and made dependents of the State, so their last state has become worse than the first (Luke 11:26). Supposedly these are secular concerns that are the sole province of civil government. This view, however, is not the view of the early church (1 Tim. 5:3). James writes that “pure and undefiled religion” consists of visiting “orphans and widows in their distress” (James 1:27). In the same verse, he exhorts Christians to keep themselves “unstained by the world.” Therefore, it cannot be considered “worldly” to involve oneself in activities that are not solely evangelism. On the other hand, works of mercy often lead to evangelistic opportunities: “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16; James 2:16).
The apostle Paul makes a similar application of what a new creature in Christ is to do: “Let him who steals steal no longer; but rather let him labor, performing with his own hands what is good, in order that he may have something to share with him who is in need” (Eph. 4:28). In another place, Paul exhorts Christians to settle disputes by using law courts within the church: “Does any one of you, when he has a case against his neighbor, dare to go to law before the unrighteous, and not before the saints?” (1 Cor. 6:1–11).