Our society is one typified as postmodern: it is a society that has left modernism behind it, at least in part. Modernism had its roots in the Renaissance and attained its full flowering in the Enlightenment. The philosopher Immanuel Kant described the Enlightenment as manʼs liberation from the dependency in which he had been holding himself captive. It was the authority of the church — and, indeed, that of Scripture — that Kant had in mind here.
For the propagators of the Enlightenment, it was reason and understanding that were decisive in everything. Only such truths as were apparent to reason were really true. What was authoritative was not what Scripture said, but what reason could accept as true. One of the consequences of this attitude was that Biblical events falling outside the ken of natural sciences were dismissed as unhistorical. In this manner of thinking, that which was impossible according to science could never have happened. One could summarize this view as, “That which is impossible with men is impossible with God”.
The Enlightenment — with modernism following in its wake — did, however, still hold to the existence of transcendent truth and transcendent morals. To account for the continuing post-Enlightenment acknowledgement of universal morality, we must bear in mind that even though the Christian faith had now been stopped up as the wellspring of Western civilization, this did not mean that all the waters that had accumulated in the basin drained away overnight. For instance, it long remained an understanding deeply rooted in Western culture that marriage and the family were building-blocks of society.
The transition from modernism to postmodernism has been one that has made itself felt gradually. It was in the 1960s and 1970s that this shift began to be visible, with the question being asked with increasing frequency as to whether there really was an all-pervading truth or morality. Unlike modernism, postmodernism answers this question in the negative. Truth is what is true for me. Everyone ought to observe values of their own.
It is your own truth that should be coherent; it ought to form a consistent whole as far as possible — and that is “all you need”. There is no objective truth applicable to all people. Postmodernism contends that relativism is actually the moral standard. I may not impose my values on others; the only restriction ought to be that my values should not threaten society as a whole. And, in turn, it is majority opinion in contemporary society that will determine when a threat is being posed.
With the arrival on the scene of postmodernism, attention has begun once more to be paid to the fact that man is more than a purely rational creature. It has become permissible once more to speak of experience and perception. This development must not, however, blind us to the persistence of the notion that no events could ever have occurred that do not fall within the frame of reference of natural science.
In postmodernism, the supremacy of the natural science model has remained intact, only with the amendment that everyone may uphold his own philosophy of life, including pursuing the lifestyle that corresponds to that philosophy. A catchphrase of postmodernism is “the end of the grand narratives”. Written off under that slogan are all philosophies of life with universal truth claims, from Christianity right through to Marxism.
What is the content of the Christian faith and who is a Christian?
How, then, is one to live as a Christian in a society that has turned postmodern — a society whose atmosphere we daily inhale? To be able to answer this question, we must first establish what a Christian is and what the Christian faith entails. The content of the Christian faith is found in the Bible, in the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament and the twenty-seven books of the New Testament. These books constitute the source and the standard of our faith; in these books, God has revealed Himself to us. God’s revelation is both personal and doctrinal in character.
By the latter, I mean that God has disclosed in the Scriptures truths about Himself, about this world, about mankind and about the means of access to Himself. This is why the classic Reformed baptismal liturgy is quite right to speak in terms of the doctrine contained within the Old and New Testaments and in the articles of the Christian faith. These doctrinal formulations of the Christian faith describe something of the character of God Himself and of the manner in which He governs the world and saves people.
The core of the Biblical message is that the living God is the triune God: Father, Son and Holy Ghost. The triune God is the God of full salvation. The Father, to Whom in particular the work of creation is ascribed, elected to Himself in Christ an ekklesia unto eternal life. In order to call and to preserve that ekklesia, He steers history. It is in history that His counsel is fulfilled. The Son of God became man and shed His blood for the remission of sins. He died, and what is more, rose again and will return once again to judge the living and the dead.
The Holy Ghost is the Lord, the giver of life. If we truly are Christians, we have not become so through our own efforts or those of other people (even though the Holy Ghost is pleased to use others in our conversions), but rather through the sovereign working of the Holy Ghost. As John chapter 3 verse 8 describes it: The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.
It will not have escaped many readers’ notice that my summary of the key content of the Christian faith is contained in the Apostles’ Creed. I note in passing that the Reformed confessions of faith are in fact nothing other than an outworking of that Creed. Put slightly differently, the content of the Bible can be summarized in four words — creation, fall, redemption, consummation. God, Who created the world, saves sinners from among the human race that has turned away from Him.
At the return of Christ, the great division of humanity into two will be effected irrevocably. Those who in this life came to know the triune God as the God of their salvation will be with God in His glory for evermore. The rest of humanity will be excluded eternally. There is of course very much more indeed to be said about the content of the Christian faith, but the above ought to be covered in the ‘rudiments of catechism’, as the title of a book by Augustine of Hippo puts it.
A nominal Christian is one who, while confessing the truth, does not live on the basis of that truth and who knows nothing of its power. A true Christian is one who, through the working and indwelling of the Holy Ghost, knows of the access to God that there is through His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. To believe truly is, as the answer to Question 20 of the Heidelberg Catechism puts it, not only a sure knowledge whereby I hold to be true that which God has revealed to us in His Word, but also a wholehearted trust, worked in me by the Holy Ghost through the Gospel, that not only for others but also for myself there is granted by God forgiveness of sins, eternal righteousness and salvation, out of sheer grace, on the merits of Christ alone.
Down the ages, it has been the calling of Christians to confess the triune God as the God of full salvation. In that confession, every age has had its own issues, cares and challenges to contend with, which have lent their own tint to the manner in which the triune God has been confessed. Equally, however, it is true that there are matters in the confession of the Christian faith that transcend times and cultures.
The calling of the Christian is to confess the Name of Christ in the time and the culture in which he is placed. The essence of this is not that the message be adapted to the time or the culture, but that the time and culture be imprinted by the message; that life here on earth be imprinted by the glory of the new Jerusalem. That imprinting of this world by the Kingdom of God will only ever be partial. Indeed, even a Christian gives but a poor showing of the image of his Master. What is certain is that being a Christian always necessarily entails being a stranger on the earth to some degree. Whenever the church marries the zeitgeist, she is a widow in the next generation.
The lie that there is no objective or universally-applicable truth
Armed with this knowledge, we now consider the subtitle I have given to this lecture: unmasking the lies of our culture. The master lie of our culture is that there is no objective truth and that, concomitantly, there are no standards — or, as we can say it in other words, norms and values — that are unchanging or that are binding for all people. The Bible might still be permitted to be seen as an interesting book, but, we are told, we must always keep in mind that it is a book describing the experiences of people who lived in times totally different from our own. Admittedly, we might learn the odd thing from those people’s views and experiences, but they needn’t be our views or experiences; more than that, they cannot be ours. Whenever the Bible speaks of a reality that falls outside the frame of reference of natural science, then that Biblical witness has the same value as a fairy tale.
Now the Bible does have the premise of objective truth. The truth, that is, that God is our Creator, Whom we since the fall have only been able to approach through His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. The truth, also, that we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ. It is within that Biblical frame of reference that a Christian views not only his only life but also the lives of others. A Christian looks at other people the way that God looks at them. That is, we know that all people are by nature children of wrath. The wrath of God is revealed against —, as Paul’s Greek preposition ἐπι is rightly rendered in the King James Version (Romans 1:18) — all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men. Our God is a wrathful God.
One could hardly think of a notion more diametrically opposed to the postmodern vibe. If God is permitted to exist, surely it can only be a god that is under an obligation to let me get on with my life, that respects me without quibbling, that accepts me as I am and as I act? The Christian is called to talk to others honestly about the wrath of God and about sins. The Book of Acts is full of instruction for us in this regard. From the apostles’ pronouncements in Acts, we may learn that the wrath of God is not once brushed under the carpet in an initial presentation of the Christian faith. The attitude in which the wrath to come is to be spoken of, is the attitude that each of us — speakers included — have deservedly incurred God’s anger.
The Bible teaches us that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. Inevitably, if we truly do look upon others as God does, we will be moved and will yearn for people to be saved. Salvation is only possible by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. This means that we ought to be witnesses of Christ, in our words but very much in our actions too. We are called to confess His Name and to portray His image.
For postmodernism, it is basically a problem that people have religious convictions, that they believe in God. Problems arise most definitely when the Biblical witness is voiced that there is no salvation outside Christ. How exceptionally arrogant and even intolerant this seems! Consequently, Christians have been withholding salvation for themselves and sending others to their doom. They have thereby set themselves up as the judge of others.
How are we to respond to this? We are to subtract nothing from the Biblical testimony. It is true and will remain so even if we set about to add to or subtract from it. What we do have to do, however, is to seek to make it clear that what we hold out to others, we apply to ourselves too: that living faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is not a product that is bundled by default in the package of a Christian upbringing or obtained from concourse with the Christian church, but the gift of God, a gift to which none of its recipients had any entitlement. Let us testify to others that we too would never dare to meet with God outside of Christ and that we would never dare advise others to try that either.
We are called to be clear in our presentation of the Christian faith, and at the same time meek in the manner of our own demonstration of it. Meek behaviour does not imply that we detract at all from God’s truth; what it does mean is being ready to suffer reproach ourselves and to make ourselves less than others in our personal relationships.
In the matter of looking upon others — and of course upon ourselves — as God looks upon others and us, I am bound to think of the Lord Jesus, Who received publicans and sinners. His receiving of them did not mean that the Lord Jesus accepted people just as they were in terms of their lifestyles; they were to “go thy way and sin no more”. What it does mean is that He excluded no-one then and excludes no-one now (for the Lord Jesus Christ lives today) from the call to faith and repentance.
The Christian must, like Christ Himself, distinguish himself from the world yet at the same time be concerned about the world. Being a Christian aright involves recognizing ourselves in the parable of the prodigal son’s return to his father, even if some of us have never lived as ruined a life as that prodigal son did. For anyone who does not recognize himself in the prodigal son is the elder brother! A concern for people, and an urge to share the content of the Christian faith with others, ought to characterize everyone that bears the name of Christian.
The lie that there are no unchanging or universally-applicable standards regarding marriage and sexuality
Modernism maintained the pretense that reason and science were capable of formulating and legitimizing a universally-applicable ethics. This pretense has been abandoned by postmodernism, which is typified by ethical relativism. I am well aware of the reawakening of interest in standards, certainly in the general Western public dialogue about “norms and values”, but that is a dialogue taken up with the safety of our streets, courtesy, concern for our neighbours, and such like.
Without wishing to suggest that those are trivial matters, they leave us nowhere near the heart of ethics. In the area of sexuality in particular, postmodern man refuses to countenance any norms that are applicable to everyone or that remain unchanging. Shouldn’t everyone be left to live as they themselves wish, as long as they do not harm others? The last Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, is a textbook example of this view. He has gone on record (in The Body’s Grace) asserting that the only standard for authentic sexuality is that our bodies should be a source of joy to others. On this basis, while he does repudiate paedophilia, he leaves the door open not only for homosexual relationships but also for extramarital heterosexual affairs.
Of course, the argument runs, people are still perfectly free to choose traditional marriage, but let them not dare insist that it is the only channel for the expression of sexuality! Those who disapprove of sexual activity among unmarried young people are dismissed as hopelessly behind the times. Why restrict yourself or deny yourself pleasures? Safe sex can be promoted, for sure, for the sake of your own health. For many, that is the only boundary there is in human sexuality.
Above all, it is disapproval of homosexual relationships that tends to attract fierce to very fierce condemnation. The mantra we hear is that everyone should do what seems right to them, as long as they harm no-one else. Whom could it possibly be damaging if two people have a loving homosexual relationship? Surely, forbidding people of homosexual orientation from having sexual relations is placing a burden on them that we are absolutely not at liberty to place? After all, it is not as if they themselves chose their orientation, is it?
Current-day opposition to the Christian faith is in no small measure finding its expression in an opposition to the Christian view of marriage and sexuality, which is now even being called a danger to society. Recently, a U.S. magazine published an article stating that a child that grows up in a traditional family is in dire need of being sent to kindergarten at age four to be redeemed by being taught by a lesbian. I have little difficulty in discerning that this attitude reveals that actually, the world still does insist upon an ethics that must be applied to all, and that this ethics is based in its entirety upon human autonomy. Yet that basic premise must be subjected to criticism from the Scriptures. Moreover, it is a basic premise that is not evident to all as having that status. It is unmistakably a philosophical and ideological premise. Tolerance appears here to have led to intolerance.
It is at this very point that unmasking is called for. A Christian is called to be a confessor of the Gospel against the spirit of the age, very particularly in the domain of marriage and sexuality, and this not in word alone but in deed. Let me address the most controversial point, that of homosexuality, first of all. How are we to treat those who pursue that lifestyle? We must always accept and respect others, whoever they are, as creatures of God. At the same time, we are not to hush up the fact that according to the Biblical testimony, it is impossible for those who adhere to a homosexual way of life to enter the kingdom of heaven.
Yet, with this as in other sins, whoever confesses and desists from his sin will receive grace and forgiveness. We read in I Corinthians 6:9-11, Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God.
Being erotically inclined to one’s own sex is a heavy cross for people to bear. The Biblical way to deal with it is to maintain a lifelong struggle against yourself. Indeed, we are all Biblically called to do that. The standard to be maintained in that struggle is not the broken status quo of fallen mankind, but the image of God in which we were created and the image of Christ in conformity to which we are being renewed by the Holy Ghost. The Christ, that is, Who came not to destroy the law or the prophets (the Dutch Statenbijbel translates καταλῦσαι in Matthew 5:17 as ‘unbind’, which is a more literal translation) but to fulfill them.
In this as in other matters, we cannot work ourselves free of our culture. We daily breathe in the spirit of the age, and if God does not avert it, we will be infected by it and already are infected by it. What is needed is daily prayerful reading of the Bible in the knowledge that in it God has provided us with an infallible and immutable guide for the pilgrimage to the new Jerusalem. Let us live chaste and pure, whether in the estate of marriage or outwith it.
Let us cling to the Biblical fact that marriage and the blessing of children are inseparable, and that the role of a married woman is, if not exclusively, then certainly at the very least primarily a role within the family. Consider the words of the apostle Paul regarding the married woman: Notwithstanding she shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety. (I Timothy 2:15) It will be evident that on this very point, large swathes of the Christian church have fallen massively under the influence of the spirit of the culture — a spirit incongruent with the Gospel.
Let Christians make clear in their words, and even more so in their deeds, the positive meaning of what is now known as the “traditional family”. In such testimony, God’s commandment is a garment that matches this truth. Through grace, the Christian does not find this garment a straitjacket. The true Christian understands God’s commandments in the light of their preamble: I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee … out of the house of bondage (Exodus 20:2). How vital it is that Christian living — in the matter of marriage and sexuality, but no less in other areas — be a lifestyle that entirely fits us; that people can see that what they regard as a burden is no burden at all to us. Postmodernism is very hot on consistency and authenticity. These are good notions in and of themselves; a Christian ought to be consistent and authentic.
Seeking to win others for Christ has everything to do with leading a Christian and Biblical lifestyle. When we do so, the difference between us and others will leap out at every turn: in sexual ethics, in our view of the first day of the week, in our reading matter, in our media consumption. I am bound to think of the words of Paul on this point: that ye may be blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom ye shine as lights in the world. (Philippians 2:15)
At the same time, the Christian observes a number of standards that are held in high regard in our society as much outside the Christian church as within it. Again, I find Paul’s words from the same epistle compelling: Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. (Philippians 4:8) I am convinced that it was especially with those virtues in mind that Paul wrote elsewhere that a would-be church office bearer must have a good report of (or ‘from’) them that are without (I Timothy 3:7).
Just as we have a completely different view of the ultimate nature of this truth than is held in our non-Christian surroundings, so we ought in interpersonal relationships to be genuine, considerate and courteous, that we bring no shame to the Name of Christ through our inattentiveness.
Let me cite one striking line from the Epistle to Diognetus, an anonymous early treatise in defense of the Christians and their lifestyle: “They marry and have children just like everyone else, but they do not throw their children away.” (This is a reference to abortion and leaving babies out to be foundlings.) The letter goes on: “They have their food in common” — mutual help being offered among believers — “but not their wives. They are in the flesh, but live not after the flesh. They dwell on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven.”