How Do We Awaken Today’s Culture to the Need of Salvation?
This is the first of four articles on the doctrine of salvation written by three scholars within the Bible Methodist Connection of Churches. For this article we posed several questions in regard to connecting our Christian doctrine of salvation to today’s culture. In subsequent articles we will hear their replies to three additional questions: “What does it mean to be saved?” “What role does the Church have in my salvation?” and “What do the sacraments have to do with my salvation?”
- Editor’s Question – What cultural challenges to the message of salvation do we face?
The first cultural challenge is biblical illiteracy and general ignorance of Christian doctrine. Not only does this factor exist among unbelievers, but it is present in the Church as well. Many studies have confirmed that biblical illiteracy is rising, but research published by Lifeway in September 2020 illustrates the resulting theological chaos. For example, 72% of Americans claim to believe in the doctrine of the Trinity, but 55% also believe that Jesus was the greatest created being and 52% believe that He was only a human teacher. Obviously the math doesn’t add up, which means that Americans hold contradictory beliefs about Jesus. When it comes to the Holy Spirit, 19% believe that the Holy Spirit may direct them to do something contradictory to the Bible. A solid majority (65%) believe that God accepts worship from a wide variety of religions. And 54% see theological beliefs as personal opinions rather than objective truth.
A second challenge is escapism or the idea that salvation is all about our future removal from this world. This is more of a church culture matter than a broad culture concern. Escapism is found in nearly every church sanctuary in America. A common form of it is the idea that Christians should circle the wagons and twiddle our thumbs until Jesus comes. There is, in this form of escapism, no concern for evangelism or missions. Another form is the idea that this earth is something to be exploited since God will burn it up and throw it away in the future anyway. We will show that the Bible teaches that the earth itself will be redeemed and that the biblical doctrine of salvation is incompatible with this form of escapism.
A third cultural challenge is, for lack of a better word, “feel-goodism.” We are defining this as a person’s self-satisfaction with being a generally good person. One result of the loss of biblical literacy is the idea that humanity is incapable of saving themselves. The Christian idea of humankind is rotten to the core is largely rejected. Instead, our culture feels like people are generally well-behaved and therefore well-deserving of a heaven-to-come, if there is one.
There are, of course, many other cultural considerations, but we will be conscious of these three as we answer further questions in this series of articles.
2. Editor’s Question – What does “salvation” mean to people in today’s culture?
We must not assume that people in our post-Christian culture understand what Christians mean by the word “salvation.” The average American does not understand or accept basic Christian concepts that underlie the doctrine of salvation: doctrines such as sin, the incarnation of Christ, and the authority of Scripture. Instead, many people think in terms of liberation, preservation of rights or liberties, and reparation for past injustice. These are the themes of “salvation” that pervade our culture.
For instance, an example of liberation is the post-humanist scientific movement. “Post-humanism” is what it sounds like–an attempt to create a better human being. Millions of dollars are spent each year in research on how to render the human condition immortal. Now tell me if that doesn’t have the ring of “salvation” to it? Baseball legend Ted Williams’ body is stored in a freezer at the Alcor Life Extension facility in Scottsdale, Arizona, where post-humanist scientists believe they may be able to revive him one day. Ted paid a hefty fee for that possibility prior to his death in 2002. Salvation for a post-humanist means being liberated from human frailty and disease. They need to be shown that such a salvation has already been paid for by Christ on the cross.
Post-humanism may seem like an obscure theory, but the fear of losing individual rights and liberties is felt everywhere. The fear is real and the loss is a real possibility, but Christian salvation is not driven by fear. The way this touches on the doctrine of salvation is that people feel compelled to “save” our rights and liberties. Now lest we be misunderstood on this point, we are as concerned as any Christian should about severe limitations in our legal privileges to live out our Christian faith.
However, protection of rights has become a religion in its own rite. God does not promise that we will not suffer for our faith; in fact, the Bible says quite the opposite: “To this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (ESV 1 Peter 2:21). When fear of suffering quells our willingness to suffer, we have ceased to understand the salvation of Christ. Some Christians in today’s culture are more eager to fight for civil rights than to suffer for Christian liberty. We pray and act civilly to preserve our freedoms, but the Christian doctrine of salvation compels us to embrace suffering over resorting to violence against our enemies.
A third social phenomenon that shapes our culture’s concept of salvation is social justice and reparation for past wrongs. Social unrest and a history of civil injustice makes the idea of reparation prominent in today’s cultural discussion. Whatever “reparation” means, advocates seem to believe in it with the same tenacity with which evangelical Christians have held to justification by faith.
We suggest that these ideas–liberation, preservation of personal rights and liberties, and reparation–are three ways our secular society conceives of the need for salvation. It is important for us to recognize where these cultural concerns touch on themes within the Christian doctrine of salvation. The Christian doctrine of salvation does teach liberation (liberation from sin), and personal freedom, (“Live as people who are free,” 1 Peter 2:16), and repairing wrongs that have been done. We do not need to ignore these themes as irrelevant, but as opportunities to introduce Christ and how He offers what these movements say they long for.
3. Editor’s Question – What can Christians do to raise awareness of salvation in Christ?
First, Christians should introduce Jesus as a caring Savior. He fed people, healed people, and met physical needs, and all of this often before addressing any spiritual need. Likewise, Christians raise awareness of salvation when they simply offer Christian care for their neighbors.
Second, since people are acutely aware of suffering and evil in the world, we have an opportunity to introduce people to a suffering Savior. Social justice movements, for example, assure us that the problem of evil will remain front page news. Yet for all the attention evil receives, the popular solutions fall short and have no sense that salvation comes through suffering. Suffering, on the other hand, is central to the Christian message of salvation, after all, Jesus saves through his own suffering. Christians may raise awareness of salvation by having a more Christ-like attitude toward suffering, not by seeking out suffering for its own sake, but by enduring it as part of our identity with Christ. Rather than behaving like we must avoid suffering at all costs, Christians should count it all joy to endure suffering for Christ’s sake.
Third, our culture values genuineness and authenticity. A self-proclaimed “Christian” who is rude and abrasive, or cheats and lies, or is generally selfish undercuts their witness. On the other hand, a Christian who never confesses wrongdoing, doesn’t apologize or ever show remorse, or sounds spiritually arrogant hardly bears well the name of Christ either.
Finally, the Christian gospel is about hope in Christ. Jesus is the hope of the world because only He will bring perfect justice and righteousness in the world. Because Jesus arose from the grave we can be assured that what He says He will do, He will do.
4. Editor’s Question – What are some ways to present the Gospel of salvation to today’s culture?
We encourage Christians to get involved in the lives of the people around you, listen to their stories, share your own, and use those moments as segues through which you can share the gospel story in its beauty, simplicity, and power. Jesus tells us that it is the work of the Holy Spirit to “convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (ESV John 16:8). We share in the Spirit’s mission when we make known the good news to the people in our sphere of influence.
It is important to note here that Paul was both a missionary and a church planter. He served in some of the great cosmopolitan centers of the gentile world, from Jerusalem to Rome, from the island of Malta (Acts 28) to Mars Hill in Athens. Paul was accustomed to interacting with people from diverse cultural contexts — and some of whom were not at all oriented to his Jewish background and worldview. But whether he stood among fellow Jews in a local synagogue, among the philosophers in Athens, or among the pantheon of gods in Rome or Corinth, Paul still relied upon the message of the gospel itself to make people aware of their need of salvation (Rom. 1:16-17). The only thing that changed was the way in which Paul contextualized his proclamation of the gospel in order to make sure that his audience would be able to understand and receive the message.
5. Editor’s Question – Are there examples in Scripture of how to connect the doctrine of salvation culturally?
The gospel does not change and neither do God’s requirements for salvation change. We must never let go of the eternal truth of Scripture. At the same time, our understanding of the gospel is shaped by the culture around us. The presuppositions we unconsciously accept affect our understanding of the gospel. For example, Paul challenges our individualistic understanding of salvation in Acts 16. He says to the Philippian jailer: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.” Then he continues with, “you and your household.” We gloss over this too quickly. Why would Paul mention the jailer’s household at that point? Did he mean that one man’s decision to accept Christ would save the other members of his household? In that culture, the father was the unquestioned leader of his household. His decision would change the “official position” of the family, and his family members and servants would be likely to follow his lead. The cultural assumption (“where the father leads, the family follows”) affected the presentation of the gospel (“if you accept Christ, your household will also be saved”).
Paul demonstrates cultural sensitivity again in Acts 17. Looking over the city of Athens, he found the city “wholly given” to idolatry, with little obvious opening for the gospel. Because he knew the culture, Paul was able to pick up on a specific religious/cultural aspect – the “unknown god” – and use it as a way to introduce the gospel (17:22). He even quoted pagan religious poets, using their work as a way to explain God to the pagans (17:28). Here is Paul’s pattern of presenting the Gospel: find the “redemptive” elements of culture and use them to present the Gospel. Redemptive elements are those elements that reflect some aspect of biblical truth and are redeemable for Christ’s sake.
Let us summarize. How do we awaken today’s culture to the need of salvation? First, only the Holy Spirit can awaken a person to their need. The Apostle John says in John 1:9 that the True Light has enlightened every person. Paul told Titus (2:11) that the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all people. This is the work of the Holy Spirit. Just as God did not leave ancient people outside of Israel without a witness (Acts 14:16-17), so has God given witness to all people today.
Second, in his infinite wisdom God has chosen to use the foolishness of preaching to make people aware of their need. Bible-based, Christ-centered preaching is guaranteed by God himself to impact people (1 Cor. 1:18-2:5).
Third, like the sons of Issachar who understood their time and knew what Israel ought to do, we must be discerners of our times. This means communicating in language that is understood in our world without compromising the truth. We offered three concepts from today’s culture–liberation, freedom, and reparation–that are redeemable for Christ’s sake. We should affirm truth wherever it is and connect it to salvation through Christ.
Fourth, we must serve others as Jesus taught us to serve. We have that precious promise that when we serve “the least of these” we are serving Jesus. Our service to one another should begin right in our local church because Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (ESV John 13:35).
Finally, our testimony in the midst of suffering must not be underappreciated. Whether we suffer from natural causes or for our faith, our attitude in suffering is a tremendous testimony to the grace of God. “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 3:12).