In the book of Revelation, Jesus wrote seven letters to cities in Asia Minor. He didn’t write them to city hall; He wrote them to the church.
Let that sink in for a moment. In the closing chapters of Scripture, the Lord did not set His church on a mission to “redeem the culture.” He didn’t advise His people to leverage political power to institute morality, or to protest the rule of immoral men. In fact, He didn’t launch a social revolution or devise a political strategy of any kind.
The church today—and particularly the church in America—needs to understand that God has not called His people out of the world simply to wage a culture war with the world. We’re not meant to gain temporal ground, like some invading force working to superficially “turn this country back to God.” We need to shed the illusion that our ancestors’ morality once made America a “Christian nation.” There have never been any Christian nations—just Christians.
Believers need to understand that what happens in America politically and socially has nothing to do with the progress or the power of the kingdom of God. Cultural change can’t accelerate the kingdom’s growth; nor can it hinder it (see Matthew 16:18). Christ’s kingdom “is not of this world” (John 18:36).
That’s not to say I’m dismissive of our democratic process or ungrateful to have a voice in it. It’s a great blessing to have a vote and to be able to support biblical standards of morality. Many Christians throughout the history of the church have lived through far worse circumstances than ours, with no legal means to do anything about it.
But the presumption that a social movement or political clout could make a significant spiritual difference in the world is evidence of a severe misunderstanding of sin. Believers need to put our energies into ministry that can transform lives, not laws. The work of God’s kingdom is not about overhauling governments, rewriting regulations, or rebuilding society into some version of a Christian utopia. Political and social justice efforts are, at best, short-term, external solutions for society’s moral ills, and they do nothing to address the personal, internal, dominant matter of sinful hearts that hate God (see Romans 8:7), and can be rescued from eternal death only by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Morality on its own is no solution; it damns just like immorality. Morality cannot turn the stony heart to flesh, it cannot break the chains of sin, and it cannot reconcile us to God. In that sense, morality alone is as empty to save as any satanic religion.
Jesus went head to head with the most religious and outwardly moral people in His world, particularly with the priests, scribes, and experts in Old Testament law. He said, “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). And in Matthew 23, He unleashed His most searing accusations against the religious right of His day, the party of the Pharisees. These were the most pious men in the nation, who fastidiously kept the law of God and faithfully followed rabbinical tradition. Jesus says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites” (Matthew 23: 13). The word “woe” is the equivalent of saying “curse you.” He’s pronouncing damnation and judgment on them. He repeats the same phrase over and over in the subsequent verses. He calls them “blind guides” in verse 16, as they led Israel astray through their empty, pious morality.
Neither social change nor moralism was ever the message of the Old Testament prophets. They were never the message of the Messiah or the New Testament writers. Such has never been God’s message to the world at all. In fact, Isaiah tells us that “all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment” (Isaiah 64:6). Man’s morality at its apex is nothing more than foul, defiled rags.
Moreover, Romans says, “There is none righteous . . . there is none who does good, there is not even one” (Romans 3:11–12). So whatever imaginary righteousness man has, whatever superficial morality he exhibits, is just a charade. There is no one righteous, no matter what kind of pious façade people put up.
People can change their lives. They can have a moment of crisis and decide they’re going to turn away from immorality or addiction and start living a better life. People can, to some degree, clean up their act simply by applying extraordinary human effort and resolve. If enough of them do it, there can be a slight moral upgrade in human society. But behavioral reform has no bearing on people’s relationship with God. It has no means to deliver them out of the bondage of sin into the kingdom of Christ. The best that morality can do is turn people into another batch of condemned Pharisees. Morality can’t save anyone from guilt or fuel genuine godliness. Pharisees and prostitutes share the same hell.
The push for cultural morality or even social justice is a dangerous distraction from the work of the church. It wastes immense amounts of precious resources, including time, money, and energy. Ephesians 5:16–17 urges believers to “[make] the most of your time, because the days are evil. So then do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.” And the will of the Lord is not a culture governed by social equity or even institutionalized Phariseeism.
The word evangelical is derived from the Greek word for “gospel.” It originally signified Christians who understood that the gospel is the core and the very essence of Christian doctrine and therefore must be guarded at all costs. But it has been so painted over with social and political colors as to have become a political term, rejected by most of society and even most professing Christians.
The True Calling of the Church
The will of God is not that we become so politicized that we turn our mission field into our enemy. Christians are right to repudiate sin, and to declare without equivocation that sin is an offense to our holy God. That includes sins like abortion, homosexuality, sexual promiscuity, and any other sins that our corrupt culture says we must accept. But a culture sold out to sins such as those is not going to be turned around—much less won over—by angry protests and partisan politics. It’s futile to think the solution to our culture’s moral bankruptcy is a legislative remedy. There is no law that can make fallen sinners righteous (see Galatians 2:21).
Timothy ministered in a culture that was at least as bad as ours. Nothing in Paul’s instructions to his younger disciple suggested that Timothy should try to redeem the culture. Indeed, he told Timothy things would get even worse (2 Timothy 3:13). What the people of this depraved world need is the gospel. They need to be told that their sins can be forgiven and they can be set free from the chains of sin and this world’s system. Believers have no right to regard lost sinners with contempt or loathing. Our attitude toward our neighbors should be a reflection of Christ’s love for them, not an expression of our disagreement with their politics or even their morality. We have no right to withhold the good news of salvation from them, like Jonah tried to do with the Ninevites. We ought to make sure that the lost sinners in our lives know that we love them enough to offer them God’s forgiveness. There is a holy hatred for sin, but Christ wept over the lost in sympathy, and so must we.
The world is the way it is today because it is the world, and the church must confront it with the full truth. It’s hypocritical for Christians to berate the secular world for the way unbelievers behave when so many churches are validating that either by believing in its ability to be redeemed by human power or by putting on a worldly circus of entertainment and cheap distractions from the real issues. It’s time for the church to be about the ministry of reconciliation—for God’s people to boldly and faithfully proclaim His gospel and for His church to be salt and light in this dark and desperate world (Matthew 5:13–16). That was the Lord’s message to the churches in Revelation. He commanded them to put off worldliness and corruption, to renew their love for Him, and to guard the purity of His gospel and His church. Virtually every admonition, rebuke, warning, and call to repentance our Lord makes in these letters is applicable to the church in the twenty-first century—including many of today’s best known and most influential evangelical churches. It’s time for us to pay attention to the letters to those churches in Revelation and heed Christ’s call to reform of His church.
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