Living Toward Christ
“Do not love the world, nor the things in the world,” reads 1 John 2:15. These are strong words, and when I first heard them as a young Christian they were given more weight than they might be in certain quarters today. As a new believer, I sought guidance on how I should live, and was duly rewarded with an appropriate set of prohibitions. The instruction was largely of the “don’t do this” or “avoid that” variety. I quickly grasped that the main agenda was to avoid contamination. This is what Dallas Willard describes as “the gospel of sin management.”
Armed with my first burst of enthusiasm and zeal for my newly born faith, I took to the “not-doing” and “avoidance” with a missionary zeal that would have put William Booth to shame. I read books on the exchanged life. I was sure that the sloppy, half-hearted, and mediocre life I was living was a denial of true Christianity and a mockery of the real thing. Yet my focus on withdrawal, personal holiness, and my purity became, however subtly, a distraction. I was more occupied with me and less with Christ. My internal state, feelings, and spiritual condition (as I saw it), totally filled my horizons.
The great reformer Martin Luther suffered similar preoccupations in his time. He obsessed about sins, he feared God’s wrath, he longed for a divine welcome. His awakening to what he called an “alien righteousness” (something provided by another for him) shattered his self indulgent illusions and opened up a world rooted in God’s amazing grace and mercy. Luther learned what so many have had to learn since; namely, that salvation is the gift of God’s grace. We can’t earn it, work for it, wrestle it to the ground, or fight for it. It is God’s gracious, merciful gift (cf. Ephesians 2:8-9).
Now, the yearning for righteousness, Christlikeness, and a devout life is an admirable longing; indeed, it is an essential longing of discipleship. But the great mistake is to somehow embrace this as a call to individualism and self-obsession. It is not. As the French theologian Jacques Ellul said, “The yearning for holiness is not at odds with the desire for relevance. For while holiness sets us apart unto God, it is God who calls us into the world.”(1) Christians are called to God and sent by God into the world.
Os Guinness captures the necessary tension between our need to pursue holy lives as individuals and the desire to connect meaningfully with our culture and those around us. He speaks of “prophetic untimeliness” and the sense that the man or woman of God lives by the eternal in time. Likewise, Richard John Neuhaus, former editor of First Things magazine, suggested we are to be “in the world, not of the world, but for the world.” The danger for many of us is to live the extremes in either direction. I so love the world that I embrace its ways, values, attitudes, and delights uncritically—thus, losing any sense of distinction and prophetic edge for the gospel. Or I so withdraw from the world that my life may seem pure (to the audience of oneself), but exists in splendid self-obsession; thus I may end up (perhaps) morally distinct, but socially irrelevant.
Must we embrace such a dichotomy? Surely the example of Jesus in his incarnational ministry is far superior? Or the model of the apostles and the early church who took to the streets, the forums, and the places of civic discourse? They lived, loved, and preached in all of these diverse places and were themselves the better for it. They lived, loved, and preached in all of these places not because they were consumed with themselves but because they were filled with the love of Christ and hence a love for the world around them.
(1) Charles Ringma, Resist the Powers (with Jacques Ellul) (Colorado Springs, Colorado: Pinon Press, 2000), 171.
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