From the beginning of the Church, Christians have struggled to understand their relationship with and responsibility to the culture around them. Many have wondered whether we should strive to improve society when there are so many lost souls needing the Gospel. These questions point to important issues about what it means to be Christian. The answers aren't always clear.
Phrases like "redeem" culture or "transform" culture can confuse the fact that God is, as multiple Scriptures attest, always at work in every time and place. Note especially the Psalms and Paul's testimony to Athens. Our best efforts, most effective strategies, or hopes for change will never ultimately determine whether a culture collapses or is renewed. God is orchestrating history, and he sets his people in various times and places according to his will. So a better question is whether Christians should care for culture and seek to influence it as part of their faithfulness to Christ?
God's Word makes plain that his plan involves not just the saving of souls but the restoration of his creation. His efforts in various times and places in history are according to this redemptive plan. The final chapters of Revelation culminate in a New Heaven and a New Earth, a restored creation fully realized in the return of Christ. The garden home of Adam and Eve in Genesis is renewed in the garden city of Revelation, bringing to fruition Christ's command for us to pray that God's Kingdom come, "on Earth as it is in heaven."
If we are to pray that God's Kingdom come on Earth as in heaven, then we must care for the culture around us. We were created to worship God not only with our words but with our work. The first few chapters of Genesis make plain that humans were created for the purpose of cultivating the rest of creation for the glory of God (Genesis 1:26-28). After Adam's Fall in Genesis 3, this work would be frustrating, spoiled and even painful. But the call to cultivate endured.
The rest of the Old Testament, especially in the books of the Prophets, makes plain that, yes, God deals with people as individuals but also as groups, cultures and even entire nations. When God called Abram to father a new nation, it was to bless the other nations. This established the overall trajectory of Scripture. That narrative implies that the Gospel is about the rule and reign of God in Christ over all his creation. This includes but is not limited to how sinners are made right with God.
God blesses and judges nations throughout Scripture based on their cultures. He stewards the world through human beings created in his Image, with sexed bodies united in marriage in order to guarantee the future of his world. Ultimately, Christ redeems Adam's failure so his creation can be rescued, restored, renewed, redeemed, resurrected and reconciled.
Jesus' second great commandment, to "love your neighbors as yourself," is best understood considering this redemptive trajectory. This is why, in both the Old and New Testaments, God commands his people to defend the helpless, protect life, speak truth and rescue the captives. To stand aside when faced with the realities of the Fall afflicting our neighbors guts our claims to love them as ourselves.
The Apostle Paul was a lifelong evangelist, proclaiming the Gospel and equipping others to do so. He did this by establishing and maturing churches to be a corporate presence in various times and places. His instructions to the Church were not just reminders to evangelize but were instructions about being a member of a family, interfacing with the government, dealing with enemies, doing the work of our hands, caring for the poor and standing up for those who are victims of injustice.
The best way to understand Christianity, the Gospel and God's call for our lives isn't by citing isolated Scriptures. It is by embracing the entire scope of God's revelation of his plan and work throughout the Bible. While the Church has not always done its job well, the fruit of its efforts are often overlooked. The Church has truly been salt and light in this world, preserving the good and exposing the evil, all through the power of God in Christ by the Spirit's presence among his people. Individuals saved by the Gospel, in following their Savior and working together, have had an incredibly transformative effect on the world by ending evils, fighting disease, bringing justice and proclaiming truth. These are the eternal works to which God's people have been called. Just because they are cultural doesn't mean they are not eternal. Influencing culture to bring life closer to God's original goals for human flourishing is indeed eternal.
It's impossible to know whether we are in a Wilberforce moment (where our efforts will be rewarded by Christ to bring about restoration) or a Bonhoeffer moment (where our faithful witness and lives do not heal, but our testimonies stand amidst the collapse). "For us," as T.S. Eliot says, "There is only the trying. The rest is not our business." Or to quote a motto that Chuck Colson embraced, our job is "faithfulness, not success."
From Breakpoint, April 27, 2023; reprinted by permission of the Colson Center, breakpoint.org.