Opinion

How Evangelicalism Lost Its Way And Helped Lose a Nation

Jesus said, “Any kingdom divided against itself is laid waste; and any city or house divided against itself shall not stand” (Matthew 12:25).

“Just preach the gospel.” How many times have you heard pastors and critics of social and political action scold Christians concerned about the moral direction the church is taking for mixing the gospel with politics? The gospel is more than a life insurance program or a “Get Out of Hell Free” card. It is transformational of everything we think about and act on. There’s no neutrality or areas that are off-limits to the application of God’s Word.

The gospel renews a life for service in God’s kingdom – an ever-present reality – via a changed heart and changed mind (Rom. 12:1-2). What are we to do with these two renewals? Wait to be taken to heaven in something called a “rapture,” live in the world God created and called “good” (Gen. 1:31; 1 Tim. 4:1-4) and allow the enemies of God to exercise dominion over it, claim that since Jesus didn’t get involved in politics that Christians should follow His example, or learn how the Bible applies to every area of life and make it our life’s work to transform every part of it?

The late Christian apologist Francis A. Schaeffer (1912-1984), wrote the following in the Preface to his 1974 book The Great Evangelical Disaster:

Throughout all of my work there is a common unifying theme, which I would define as “the Lordship of Christ in the totality of life.” If Christ is indeed Lord, he must be Lord of all life—in spiritual matters, of course, but just as much across the whole spectrum of life, including intellectual matters and the areas of culture, law, and government. I would want to emphasize from beginning to end throughout my work the importance of evangelism (helping men and women come to know Jesus Christ as Savior), the need to walk daily with the Lord, to study God’s Word, to live a life of prayer, and to show forth the love, compassion, and holiness of our Lord. But we must emphasize equally had at the same time the need to live this out in every area of culture and society.

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Schaeffer saw the problem more than 50 years ago in what he described as a shift in worldview—that is, through a fundamental change in the overall way people think and view the world and life as a whole…. to a world view based upon the idea that the final reality is nothing but matter and energy shaped into its present form by chance.

We’ve been told that the government can’t save us, and by government, they mean civil government, the State. Whoever said it could or should? What Christians aren’t often taught is that there are multiple decentralized governments: family, church, and civil. Government isn’t only about politics, the civil sphere of government is ordained by God and said to be a “minister of God to you for good” (Rom. 13:4). How can civil government be “good” if good people aren’t involved in the civil sphere of government?

Without good self-government under God, the three governments, no matter how well conceived, will fail. Let’s not forget that God is the Supreme Governor of all things and is the creator of family, church, and civil governments. These are God’s governments. He has not turned them over to those who hate His law to be redefined.

Evangelicalism has had a mixed history on how to apply the Bible to all of life. For years I heard that the Bible applies to every area of life but rarely have I seen or heard evangelical leaders explain how it applies in the details. Many Christians have been taught, “We’re under grace not law.” But when asked if this means that it’s now OK for Christians to steal, murder, commit adultery, lie, and covet, these same Christians dismiss such an objection. They might say, “If a law is repeated in the New Testament, it still applies.” There’s no law in the New Testament that says you shouldn’t curse the deaf or trip the blind (Lev. 19:14) or have sex with animals (18:23).

It’s true that the law does not save anyone or keeping a list of commandments makes us holy, but this does not mean that God’s law is irrelevant for the Christian. Paul writes the following to Timothy:

But we know that the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully, realizing the fact that law is not made for a righteous person, but for those who are lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers and immoral men and homosexuals and kidnappers and liars and perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching, according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, with which I have been entrusted (1 Tim. 1:8-11).

Note how the law and the gospel are not mutually exclusive because the proper use of the law is determined by the law and is “according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, with which [Paul] had] been entrusted.”

Like God’s creation, the Law is good. God’s commandments are good. Jesus said to His disciples, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15). John writes, “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3). R. J. Rushdoony writes:

Lawless Christianity is a contradiction in terms: it is anti-Christian. The purpose of grace is not to set aside the law but to fulfil the law and to enable man to keep the law. If the law was so serious in the sight of God that it would require the death of Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, to make atonement for man’s sin, it seems strange for God then to proceed to abandon the law! The goal of the law is not lawlessness, nor the purpose of grace a lawless contempt of grace.

Without an appreciation of God’s law, there is no way to combat lawlessness and the redefinition of everything from abortion to same-sex sexuality. Many of today’s churches have accepted homosexuality as a legitimate lifestyle choice and twist the Scriptures to justify their position. And why not? Christians have been taught that God’s law is either (1) just for the church or (2) grace supplants biblical law. It’s a double whammy making the Christian message irrelevant this side of heaven.

Another popular brief that ends up disengaging Christians from applying God’s Word to every area of life in a way that would realize long-term change is the belief that we are at the point in history that the end is near. The world is in such bad shape that their only hope is the “rapture of the church” or some other end-time event. The world is in a mess, but it’s not the end of the world as we know it.

William Edgar, a professor of apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary, recounts the time in the 1960s he spent studying in L’Abri, Switzerland, under the tutelage of Francis Schaeffer:

I can remember coming down the mountain from L’Abri and expecting the stock market to cave in, a priestly elite to take over American government, and enemies to poison the drinking water. I was almost disappointed when these things did not happen.1

Edgar speculates, with good reason, that it was Schaeffer’s eschatology that negatively affected the way he saw and interpreted world events. Schaffer was good at diagnosing the disease, but he found it difficult to prescribe a remedy. One of Schaeffer’s last books, A Christian Manifesto, did not call for cultural transformation but civil disobedience as a stopgap measure to postpone an inevitable societal decline.

The fact remains that Dr. Schaeffer’s manifesto offers no prescriptions for a Christian society…. The same comment applies to all of Dr. Schaeffer’s writings: he does not spell out the Christian alternative. He knows that you “can’t fight something with nothing,” but as a premillennialist, he does not expect to win the fight prior to the visible, bodily return of Jesus Christ to earth to establish His millennial kingdom.2

This view has been true for millions of Christians. There is no doubt that many Christians are otherworldly and have no interest in culture or the dirty business of politics. Many more Christians are eschatologically schizophrenic. They believe that we are living in the last days but still engage society at some level. You can see it in a book like David Jeremiah’s The Coming Economic Armageddon. But why warn about such a thing when the subtitle links the economic Armageddon to “Bible Prophecy” that all the current prophetic signs point to, for example, The Book of Signs: 31 Undeniable Prophecies of the Apocalypse?

Prophecy advocate John Hagee writes in a similar way. In one book, Financial Freedom, Hagee sets forth “What you must do to survive the devastation of an economic collapse!”3 In another book Hagee asks, Can America Survive?: 10 Prophetic Signs that We are the Terminal Generation. ((John Hagee, Can America Survive: 10 Prophetic Signs that We are the Terminal Generation (New York: Howard Books, 2010).) )He devoted an entire chapter to the “terminal generation” in his 2003 book The Battle for Jerusalem.4 Hagee is not the first to use the “terminal generation” idea. Hal Lindsey made the phrase popular in 1976! A 1977 review of Lindsey’s book The Terminal Generation gets it right:

Lindsey has unquestionably tapped the pervasive apocalyptic mood in American society. The realization is growing that we are living in a world of limits, not an open future. Unfortunately, neither Lindsey’s strained attempts at biblical interpretation nor his socio-political analysis will help people to understand their world and act in faith and responsibility.5

Economic, political, moral, and religious conditions seemed to have set the world on the brink of destruction numerous times in history. Economic circumstances were so bad in Israel thousands of years ago that some people resorted to cannibalism (Deut. 28:53-57; 2 Kings 6:28-29; Jer. 19:9). Josephus relates an account of a woman who killed, cooked, and ate her own child during the siege of Jerusalem which began in A.D. 70.

There have been other economic crises in the not too distant past, and we have weathered them: The Great Depression in the United States and the hyperinflation in Germany where the United States dollar was worth 4 trillion German marks. We can include two world wars, prime indicators used by the prophetic speculators that the end was near.

The late Larry Burkett wrote The Coming Economic Earthquake in 1991. It was republished in 1994 and included the following subtitle: “Revised and Updated for the Clinton Agenda.” Evaluating economic conditions and the state of foreign policy can and should be done without weaving a web of prophetic intrigue, especially since so many have been so wrong for so long. There’s enough in the Bible on economics and politics that can be appealed to without framing everything in prophetic terms.

Joel Carpenter noted the following:

For evangelical Protestants, who represented the nation’s most influential religious persuasion … the chief engine of social reform or social preservation was the revival. Revivals would change people’s hearts, and with this new motivation they would voluntarily organize and engage in activity for the common good.6

As a result, Christians check the hourglass of time running out and wait in vain for a rapture that is always promised but never comes.

J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937) gets to the heart of the issue:

[T]he field of Christianity is the world. The Christian cannot be satisfied so long as any human activity is either opposed to Christianity or out of all connection with Christianity. Christianity must pervade not merely all nations, but also all of human thought. The Christian, therefore, cannot be indifferent to any branch of earnest human endeavor. It must all be brought into some relation to the gospel. It must be studied either in order to be demonstrated as false, or else in order to be made useful in advancing the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom must be advanced not merely extensively, but also intensively. The Church must seek to conquer not merely every man for Christ, but also the whole of man.7

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  1. William Edgar, “Francis Schaeffer and the Public Square” in J. Budziszewski, Evangelicals in the Public Square: Four Formative Voices on Political Thought and Action (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 174. []
  2. Gary North and David Chilton, “Apologetics and Strategy,” in Tactics of Christian Resistance: A Symposium, ed. Gary North (Tyler Texas: Geneva Divinity School, 1983), 127–128. Emphasis in original. []
  3. John Hagee, Financial Freedom (Lake Mary, FL: Front Line, 2008. []
  4. John Hagee, The Battle for Jerusalem (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2001), chap. 5. []
  5. John M. Mulder, “A Review of Hal Lindsey’s The Terminal Generation,” Theology Today 33:4 (January 1977): http://theologytoday.ptsem.edu/jan1977/v33-4-bookreview8.htm []
  6. Joel A. Carpenter, Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 117. )

Over time, however, revival was limited to conversion, to get people ready for heaven or to be prepared for an any-moment rapture. As a result, dispensationalists argued that “The church is largely parenthetic, thus unimportant. The teachings of Scripture have largely to do with the Jews alone. The Sermon on the Mount is largely for the Jews. The Lord’s prayer is for the Millennium rather than for the Church.” ((Peter E. Prosser, Dispensational Eschatology and Its Influence on American and British Religious Movements (Lewiston, New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1999), 148. []

  • Christianity and Culture,” The Princeton Thelogical Review, 11 (1913), 6-7. []
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