The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the Good News that by grace through faith sinners can be reconciled with God (Ephesians 2:7-8). But the Gospel is more than just how to be made right with God; it is a holistic message that speaks to every area of our lives. This includes the area many refer to as cultural engagement.
During every campaign cycle, it is unfortunate but common to hear evangelicals allege that politics is inherently secular, and that Gospel believing Christians would do well to avoid defiling “their witness” by getting too involved in the political process. As tempting as this position is to adopt, it is not one that Bible-believing Christians can or should accept.
When I was a sophomore in college I was selected to represent my university at a leadership forum in the state capitol. Sponsored by a United States Senator and his wife, the forum focused on the model of leadership embodied by Jesus of Nazareth. Student attendees represented every public university in the state and included SGA presidents, members of campus leadership councils, and leaders from various faith-based campus organizations.
Although many of the attendees identified as Christians, the forum was explicitly not confessional and organizers repeatedly emphasized that Jesus’ leadership abilities were the focus of the event. Ironically, they claimed that what various religious traditions believed about him was besides the point.
Overall, the content of the forum was helpful and I learned some basic leadership principles. However, a series of conversations with another attendee proved to be the most valuable experience of the weekend.
On the last night of the event I was approached by a student with whom I had discussed the upcoming Presidential election earlier in the evening. He invited me to join a group of guys who were going downtown on a search for “beer and women.” I politely declined. However, he continued to insist that I join, pressing the promise of “meeting cute girls” and the opportunity to “have some fun with them.” Confronted with a stereotypical peer pressure moment, I demurred again.
This second rejection was followed up with an outright questioning of my sexuality which prompted laughter from other guys within earshot. At this point I realized that the conversation was not going where I wanted it to and I decided that the best course of action would be to be forthcoming concerning my views on marriage and sex.
Over the next five minutes I summarized a basic biblical sexual ethic, explaining that monogamy, exclusivity, and permanence should be seen as virtues rather than oppressive relics from the past. I explained that sex is a good gift from a loving God who put in place certain parameters that if followed would result in optimal happiness. With a look of complete bewilderment, the other student excused himself from the conversation.
The next morning, a group of about twelve students met to debrief before returning home. When the group leader asked about what we had learned, he was interrupted by my friend who interjected, “Hey, I’m sure we’ve all learned some great things about leadership, but my friend David here has some crazy views on marriage and sex. You mind if he shares?”
Although taken off guard and surprised, I took the opportunity to explain that my understanding of marriage and sex was based on my belief in the Bible – which in addition to providing guidance on these areas – taught how people can be reconciled with a loving and just God through a relationship with Jesus, our model of leadership for the weekend. Afterwards, several students told me I had given them a lot to think about and were grateful that I shared.
Reflecting on this experience, I believe there are two lessons that can be learned about how the Gospel influences cultural engagement—conviction and winsomeness.
When Christians engage the culture with the Gospel, there is going to be resistance. This has been the norm; not the exception. In fact, recent decades of widespread nominal Christianity in the Western world have been a notable exception in church history. This is because the Gospel is offensive. Paul explained to his first century audience: “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).
He continues, “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:23-24). Understanding Paul’s logic is important. For Jews living under Roman occupation the earnest desire was the arrival of their Messiah; someone who would destroy their enemies and usher in the kingdom of God. To them the idea of a crucified Messiah was nonsensical. For Greeks who prized knowledge and philosophy, a crucified Messiah was equally illogical. Thus Paul challenges the underlining assumptions of both groups when he teaches about “Christ crucified.”
Christians engaging the culture must understand that the core of our message is deeply offensive to those lost in sin. No one is neutral regarding the claims of the Gospel. In fact, before coming to Christ people are naturally enemies of the Gospel and defiantly worship idols instead of God. John Calvin captured an important truth of Romans 1 when he said that man’s nature is a perpetual factory of idols. When Christians engage the culture we are engaging worshipers of money, prestige, power, fame, etc. – people who want nothing to do with God.
This means that when we engage culture with the truths of the Gospel we need conviction. This will require courage. Increasingly our message is going to be ridiculed, mocked and seen as outdated. To effectively engage the people around us we need to remain steadfast in the truth, convinced in our own hearts and minds that the Gospel is what it claims to be—the only way of salvation.
Not only must Christians stand boldly for the truth of the Gospel, they must engage with winsomeness. It is not merely enough to be right; we must embody the fruit of the Spirit in our speech, lifestyle and engagement.
Paul provides an example of winsome engagement in Acts 17. When invited to address the philosophers at Mars Hill Paul began his remarks by observing, “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” (Acts 17:22-23).
Rather than blasting the Athenians for unrepentant sin and demanding that they repent, Paul begins his discourse by complimenting their religious sensibility. Certainly, Paul would have been doctrinally sound had he begun his address with an exposition on sin, but almost assuredly he would not have been well received. In fact, although Paul is eventually dismissed when he teaches about the resurrection, there are some in the assembly who “join him and believe” (Acts 17:32). Paul’s gracious and winsome approach to sharing the Gospel gave him audiences that undoubtedly would have been reluctant to hear an ungracious diatribe. This must be our example.
Because the Gospel is a holistic message it speaks to all areas of life including how we engage our culture. Both conviction and winsomeness are needed to properly honor Christ—they are both absolutely essential. Denying doctrinal truths for the sake of being perceived as ‘culturally relevant’ inevitably results in spiritual deadness. Liberals churches that years ago jettisoned miracles and resurrection in exchange for social capital are closing in droves. Thus, conviction and being faithful to what the Bible teaches is imperative for engaging the culture. Further, winsomeness is essential for engaging those that are predisposed to reject our message. The cliché is true—people don’t care how much (or what) you know until they know how much you care. Thus, winsomeness in speech, lifestyle and engaging the culture should characterize every Christian seeking to be obedient to the Great Commission.
During my conversation with my friend years ago I could have caved on conviction. I could have gone out with him and his friends and exposed myself to potential moral sin. More realistically I could have lied and come up with an excuse on why I couldn’t go with him. Or I could have sacrificed winsomeness and berated him with an orthodox message on why sex outside of marriage is wrong and a sure-fire indication that he was headed for hell. Thankfully, I held firmly to both and as a result was privileged to share Christ’s message of hope and forgiveness to a dozen guys the following morning.
In a time when many are tempted to cave on principle and others are provoked to lash out in anger, Jesus of Nazareth offers us a model of leadership on engaging culture. But thankfully (praise God!) He offers us even more than this—He offers us Himself and a reconciled relationship with God.