Oil and water shouldn’t mix. By nature they should always remain separate. The same is true in regards to Christianity and culture. The clarion call of scripture is to imitate Christ and to mirror the holiness of God, not culture. But in America there are two seemingly opposed streams of thought which are finding an uncommon and unhelpful solidarity.
Two Paths Converged
On the one hand we still have nominal, or cultural, Christianity. This is the awareness (or obligation) that we should go to church, have a basic awareness of Christian morality, and religious identity. Yet on the other had we have a progressively anti-religious movement calling for solidarity of all thought and belief.
Interestingly though, rather than rubbing up against each other, the two are joining together. Nominal Christianity is reshaping itself to look exactly like culture. Instead of dropping the name “Christian” they are trying to redefine what it means to be Christian.
What we do as true “Christians” is increasingly being pressed, challenged, and mocked by culture. This present reality gives us a good opportunity to pause and reflect on the question of why we do what we do. Why does the gospel bring with it certain actions and limitations which are often contrary, or at least unexpected, to culture?
Belief and action are tied together. To kill what Christian’s do is to push reshape what they believe, and to change what Christians believe is to alter the landscape of what we do.
In Romans 15:8-13, Paul concludes the practical section of the book by appealing to the hope of the gospel. This hope (what we believe) is necessary for us to do all that Paul has called the church to do in Romans 12-16. Here are three hopes that Paul gives us in order to outlast and overcome the increasing opposition to Christian thought and deed.
The Glory of God in Salvation
In Romans 15:8-9, Paul reminds us “Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy…”
In concluding his instructions on Christian living Paul finds it ultimately important to remind us of God’s glory in salvation: the promise made to the Jews, and seen as fully fulfilled to the whole world in the cross.
This bears one important point: If we are to live and think distinctly as Christians in the face of a confused and confusing culture, we must know the glory of God. To know God’s glory is like knowing the sun. We can see it in pictures and paintings, or hear about it books and songs, but in order to really understand it we must experience its rays, feel its warmth, squint at its brightness. This means that any sort of gospel command is useless if we don’t know the saving truth of the gospel. To know God’s glory as a motivation for action is to know salvation at a personal level. If we struggle with gospel living, the first thing we must examine is our understanding and emotion towards the cross of Jesus.
The Fame of God among the Nations
Romans 15:10-11, “And again, ‘Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people.’ And again, ‘Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, with his people.’”
Paul is pulling quotations from Deuteronomy and Psalms. The interesting thing is that both of these passages come at really big moments in Jewish history. Yet Paul is choosing to emphasize not God’s localized faithfulness to the Jews, but God’s prophetic cry that he will be praised among the Gentiles.
When faced with cultural pushback for how we love our spouses, raise our children, share our gospel, and worship our Lord, we can often become introspective and disheartened when we examine the seemingly overwhelming opposition to the Christian faith. Paul wants to hold up for us not only the plan of God’s glorious salvation, but the assured result. God will be praised! And he will not only be praised among a limited few, but among the world! Among all the ethnic groups!
We may take up encouragement to live distinctly because 1.) We know that we do not suffer alone, and 2.) It is through our uniquely Christian witness that God’s name will be worshipped among the nations.
We seek to live boldly because we care about other people. The claim to be a loving person is rendered empty if your love lacks gospel proclamation. We proclaim God’s fame to a world eager for a savior.
The Good of Man through Gospel Hope
Kantian ethics tries to tell us that our actions must be done out of a strict sense of duty. We act because we owe it, and to take joy in our actions is to pervert our intentions and render the action empty. The gospel doesn’t know such a foolish divide. Look at what Paul says, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing…” (Rom. 15:13).
We must know the glory of God, we must see the need of God’s fame among the nations, but we must also see that believing and living out the gospel is the answer to Paul’s prayer for joy and peace! We will be able to endure cultural, political, and even physical opposition to our Christian existence only when we learn that our greatest joy is in the God of the gospel.
We fight for right belief and proper Christian action because we desire joy above all else! The joy that comes from knowing God is motivation enough to endure all the world throws at you. When opposition comes, we must look back to our belief as a motivation, and that retrospection leads us to joy and peace as we remember anew the wonders of our God!
So let us joyfully seek to understand, live and articulate the clear and winsome message of God because it is what most glorifies God, most benefits our neighbors and most enlivens our own hearts. This is what it means to live a gospel shaped life.