WHERE DO WE FIGHT?
CREC COUNCIL TALK – OCTOBER 27, 2021
Video available here.
I have been tasked with answering the question, “Where do we fight?”
I am inclined to answer that question with a quotation. Remember Winston Churchill’s famous World War II speech?
“We shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air…we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender….”
Transpose Churchill’s speech to Spiritual warfare, and you can see where we must fight. We must fight everywhere.
There is no neutral place in the whole cosmos where the warfare between Christ and Satan does not rage. There is no “demilitarized zone” you can retreat into. Just as Churchill was a wartime Prime Minister, we must get accustomed to being wartime pastors and we must see to it that our churches function as wartime churches. Our sermons need to be wartime sermons, we need to sing wartime songs, and we must pray wartime prayers.
It is true to say the church is always at war with the world but sometimes that battle is more intense than at other times. We are entering into one of those periods. If you are at peace in a time like this, it’s a sign something is amiss.
I have had people ask me over the last year and a half, “Has it been hard pastoring through this mess?” While there have certainly been some hard things, if I’m honest, I have to say it’s actually been easier to pastor that at any other time in my ministry. The lines are more clearly drawn than in the past. The issue are more sharply defined. The squishy middle is going away. People’s true colors have been revealed.
The biggest challenge of all in our time is simply the challenge to be courageous. It is cowardice that got us into this mess and it will take courage to get us out. There have been times in church history when being civil and winsome could protect you from the world’s ire, even if your position was in the minority. Those days are now gone. Your winsomeness will not save you. In times like these, courage is more important than civility.
This is because we have entered into what Aaron Renn has called the “negative world,” a situation in which the culture in general is much more hostile to the church. Unbelievers now occupy the cultural and political “high places.” The ruling class is dominated by those who reject God’s truth. The most powerful people in our society do not need to hide their contempt for the faithful Christians. We are “deplorables.” Get used to it.
David Wells once said (paraphrasing) “worldliness is when sin becomes normal.” That’s exactly right. The world has normalized what is abnormal. Sin has been normalized. Righteousness is now odd. The result is that if you fight actual evil today, you will be called evil. If you fight for what is really and truly and normal (according to God’s Word and creational design), you will be considered a bigot and an oddball. It reminds me of that saying from Flannery O’Connor: “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.” Maybe that should be our motto going forward.
We are now outlaw pastors, leading outlaw congregations. How could it be otherwise in a culture that calls good evil and evil good (cf. Isa. 5:20)? When biblical religion has been outlawed, only outlaws can be biblical Christians. Our culture is progressively outlawing truth. Our culture is at war with reality because it is at war with God. Because the culture is at war with God, it will inevitably be at war with God’s people.
We have to be ok with being called names. We have to be ok with being ostracized. We have to be ok with our loved ones suffering for the stands we have taken as pastors. Our culture has replaced God’s good and gracious law with man’s law, which is cruel and tyrannical. In times like these, the cost of discipleship escalates quickly.
All this brings me back to the question I started with: Where do we fight? The simple answer is everywhere. Our war with evil covers every square inch of the creation, the whole of culture, every aspect of life. There can be no truce with the world.
At root this is what the so-called culture wars are about. The culture wars are really a specific manifestation of the Spiritual war that is always going on between Christ’s kingdom and Satan’s kingdom. The culture wars are a manifestation of the antithesis. While the culture wars are an inescapable feature of a society like ours, they have taken on different shape in recent years. Today, where someone stands in the culture wars is a much clearer revelation of where that person stands Spiritually than ever before. In America today, the progressive left is so openly and overtly hostile to God and his truth, so clearly demonic, that the culture war and the Spiritual war have become almost indistinguishable. There is no question that a lot of what progressives push on the culture today is clearly Satanic. Thus, there is no question we have to push back. Again, O’Connor’s words come to mind: “Push back against the age as hard as it pushes on you.”
Listen to how Cornelius Van Til answered that question, “Where do we fight evil?” “[The believer has a comprehensive task, which is] exterminating evil from the whole universe.” That’s our mission: exterminating evil from the whole universe. By grace, through faith, we are to undertake an evil extermination project. Van Til goes on to say, “We have the further obligation to destroy the consequences of sin in the world as far as we can.”
Anything infected with evil has to be reformed and transformed. Because evil has gotten into every aspect of life, every aspect of life must be exterminated. The Christian can be satisfied with nothing less.
Now, I have to interject a side point here. We do not fight evil using the world’s weapons. Christians have done a lot of evil trying to fight evil in the wrong way. The primary way we fight is through the Spiritual weapons God has given us – the proclamation of his Word, which is a double-edged sword; singing psalms, hymns, and Spiritual songs; prayer; the communion of the saints; and so on. Our weapons are not the world’s weapons, and we do not fight in a worldly way.
But the point is this: We have a world to conquer and nations to disciple. We are to drive evil out of God’s good creation. We are evil exterminators.
If you want to state what Van Til is saying in positive terms, you could put it this way: We have a calling to build Christendom. We do not just destroy evil; we build a Christian civilization. We not only demolish Satan’s kingdom, we build Christ’s kingdom. We are called not just to an extermination project, but to a construction project. We are to construct the new Jerusalem, the City of God. Obviously, only God can build his city, but he promises to use us to do so as we are obedient to him in all of life. As we sing during Advent, Christ “came to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found.”
We have plenty of models of this kind of evil-exterminating, nation-discipling project from church history: Patrick in Ireland; Alfred in England; Boniface in Germany; John Calvin in Geneva; John Knox in Scotland; and so on. The greatest Christians through the ages have understood that the Christian religion is a socially transformative faith, with cultural, political, economic, and aesthetic goals. The best Christian leaders over the centuries have understood the importance of building Christian institutions. We destroy even as we build; we deconstruct even as we reconstruct. We tear down the world’s idols so we can set up altars to the true God.
Run a thought experiment with me. If you could exterminate evil out of the world, what would be left? What if all the evil was sucked out of your family life? What if evil was exterminated from business, politics, art, education, music, sports, and everything else? We can scarcely imagine it, but that’s what we want the world to look like. If evil was exterminated, all of life would be offered as a sacrifice of praise to God.
When Adam sinned, Satan laid claim to this world. With the human race in bondage to him, Satan became the prince of the world. In some sense, the kingdoms of this world and their glory really belonged to him. But when Jesus, the Second Adam, stepped onto the stage of history, he counter-claimed the world. He told Satan, “Get your hands off my world. It is mine. I made. I purchased it with my own blood. I suffered and died for it. It is mine. Every square inch. I’m here to take to take it back.”
And that is exactly what Jesus has done in his death and resurrection. He has reclaimed the creation. He has established a new creation. His kingdom of light is displacing the kingdom of darkness. He is the ultimate Evil Exterminator, the one who has exorcized the world (cf. John 12:31; 1 John 3:8). He has won the decisive battle.
Now Jesus sends us out into the battlefield of the world to proclaim his victory and claim what is rightfully his. This is what the Great Commission is all about: Jesus receiving what is already his (Matthew 28:16-20; cf. Psalm 2). The battlefield becomes a mission field. We drive evil out of the world as we follow Jesus, as we preach Jesus, as we trust Jesus, as we obey Jesus, as we love Jesus, as make disciples of Jesus. And even as Jesus served and suffered his way to victory, so it will be for us, as we are in union with him.
All that to say: The evil extermination project Van Til talked about is built on the bedrock of Christ’s finished work. This project is now underway, and it will not be completed until Jesus returns at the last day. But in the meantime, we press the crown rights of King Jesus in every realm, applying his truth to every area of life and every cultural endeavor. Jesus enables us to smash idols that set themselves up as rivals to the world’s true King.
What are some of the idols we have to go to war with in our own day?
These idols include the sexual revolution, as it continues to work itself out to a dreadful and tragic consistency. Of all the secular, humanistic revolutions that have rocked the world over the last several centuries – most notably the French, the Russian, the Chinese – the sexual revolution is the bloodiest of them all. When we reject the life-giving beauty of God’s sexual design for humanity, we are left with ugliness, fruitlessness, and death. Because we have rejected God’s design, we have made human flourishing impossible. No civilization that so completely rebels against the created order can last for long; when we fight nature, nature fights back, and nature always wins in the long run. But the answer is not just to teach rules for sex but to show the beauty of God’s design, rooted in creation and redemption. We have to tell a better story about sex than the one the world is telling. God ordained sex to symbolize the deepest mystery of the universe, namely, the union of Christ and his bride. Our sexuality is not plastic, able to be molded to fit any ideology we choose. We have to respect and submit to the way God made the world. Of course, forgiveness is available for sexual sinners in Christ, but the consequences of sexual sin are not always easy to mitigate. We need to be very clear about our mission in this area: We are called to destroy the sexual revolution, including rolling back the laws and court rulings that have propped it up. We are called to exterminate the world of the wreckage of sexual evil.
This means we are also called to wage war against the offshoots of the sexual revolution, including feminism and egalitarianism. All forms of gender bending, all deliberate confusing of the sexes, all blurring of the lines between male and female, any attempt to make male and female interchangeable – we have to fight back against these attacks on God’s design. The roles God calls us to play as men and women in church, home, and culture are not arbitrary; they are grounded in the way God made us. Men and women have different roles because they have different souls. We are oriented to the world and to one another differently. But, again, our culture has launched an all-out war on God’s sexual design. We have to fight back. God did not make an androgynous world. Androgyny is just paganism in the area of sexuality. We must seek to restore God’s order. God gave a peculiar masculine glory to men and a peculiar feminine glory to women. We are called to display and preserve these glories. We are called to fight the good fight against the evil of feminized men and masculinized women.
We have to fight against the evil of critical race theory. The story told by proponents of critical race theory is a counterfeit narrative. Scripture tells a very different story about the various ethnic groups we find in the human race. The human race has been fractured because of sin, going back as far as Babel, when diversity gave way to division. But Jesus came to (re)unite the human race in himself. He came to reconcile estranged people groups. He came to form Jew and Gentile into one new man. He came to bless every family of the earth and bring them into the blessed family of Abraham. This is the true message of racial reconciliation. But critical race theory divides what Jesus came to unite. All it can do is divide. It does the opposite of the gospel. Critical race theory drives a permanent wedge between different races by turning them against each other. In the American context, critical race theory means whites have to be ashamed of their skin color and blacks have to think of themselves as perpetual victims – and thus both groups are dehumanized. A while back, I saw a report on the effects of teaching critical race theory at the Pentagon to the people most entrusted with the defense of our nation. The result, according to one whistle blower, has been “plummeting morale, [and] growing mistrust between the races and sexes where none existed just six months ago.” That’s what critical race theory does: people who loved each other and worked together go through critical race theory training and end up hating each other six months later. It’s the very opposite of the fruit the gospel bears. Where the gospel creates love, critical race theory fosters hatred.
We have to fight the evils of socialism and statism. Never before in our nation’s history have we seen such overt trust in the state to bring about salvation. To be sure, God ordained the state for a good purpose, and in its proper place, the state is a crucial institution that serves the good of humanity by administering God’s justice in the civil realm. But when the state is twisted into an idol, as is now happening more than ever before in our country, it is becomes a rival to Christ. It becomes an agent of injustice and tyranny. There is no question the power of the state is being used for evil in many ways today. Insofar as the state is an idol, a false savior, it must be torn down. We have to drive evil out of the political and civil realm. Our politics needs exterminating.
We could go on and on, but you get the idea. There are many cultural idols that must be smashed. These are the places where we fight because these are the places where evil rages.
But fighting evil “out there” in the world is not enough. There’s another place we have to fight evil. Listen to the rest of the Van Til quote cited earlier. After expressing the truth that the Christian is called to exterminate evil from the whole universe, Van Til goes on to say that the Christian “must begin this program in himself. As a king reinstated it is his first battle to fight sin within his own heart. This will remain his first battle till his dying day.”
Fighting evil means, first and foremost, fighting the evil in your own heart, in your own life. That’s your first battle. And it’s a battle you must fight every day, until your dying day.
Yes, good soldiers will fight the enemy on the battlefield. But good soldiers know they must conquer themselves before they can conquer enemy territory. This means that you have to smash your own personal idols before you can smash the culture’s idols. This means your lusts, your pride, your selfishness, your grumbling, your laziness, your effeminacy, your lovelessness, your envy, your misuse of God’s good gifts, your failure to thank and glorify God must all be put to death. You cannot exterminate the universe of evil if you are not exterminating your own heart of evil. You cannot topple idols in the world if your own personal idols go unchecked.
Sometimes as church leaders – the religious ruling class, if you will – are the most skilled at hiding our own idols. The pressure to look more righteous than we actually are is intense. But in reality we should lead the way in destroying our idols, in repenting of sin, in trusting God’s mercy, in going to war with our own indwelling evil.
But frankly, sometimes we are better at fighting the evil “out there” than the evil “in here,” in our own hearts. It can more gratifying and more glamorous to fight sin in the world than in our own hearts. It is always easier to fight other people’s sins than our own.
The nineteenth century Scottish pastor Robert Murray M’Cheyne once said of his own congregation, “My people’s greatest need is my personal holiness.” That is true. The best way a pastor can serve his congregation is not by preaching dynamic sermons or organizing the church’s ministries but by leading a holy life. By extension, we could say the world’s greatest need is the church’s corporate holiness. Only a holy church can exterminate the world of evil. Only a holy church can give the world a compelling reason to turn from its idols to serve the living God. Ecclesial holiness is essential.
If we do not fight evil in our own hearts with great success, we cannot fight evil in the world with great success either. Personal holiness, familial holiness, and congregational holiness are the foundations of social holiness, cultural holiness, and national holiness. Any new Christendom will have to be built on the foundation of personal piety.
Where do we fight? Everywhere. But the fight starts in our own hearts. The heart war precedes the culture war.
Think of Bilbo Baggins in the J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Bilbo was sent into Smaug’s lair to confront the dragon and draw him out. The ultimate goal of the mission is to fight the dragon so the treasure can be reclaimed, so peace can be restored, so Middle Earth can be exterminated of Smaug. But as the story unfolds, we find that Bilbo has to conquer his own dragons before Smaug can be conquered. Tolkien tells us that Bilbo fought the real battle in the tunnel alone before he ever even saw the dragon lying in wait. Tolkien tells us that going on from there was the bravest thing Bilbo ever did. He slayed the dragon of his own cowardice which made it possible for him to play his part in slaying Smaug.
So, yes, fight cultural evil. Attack the culture’s sin. But make sure you attack your own sin first. Go to war with your own evil first. Fight dragons, starting with those lurking in your own heart. That’s your first battle. Van Til was right.
Do not fall into the pietist error of fighting evil only in your own heart, while ignoring the world. But as you fight evil in the world, make sure you are fighting the evil within or you will never conquer the culture. Only faithful disciples can disciple the nations. Only faithful Christian individuals can build faithful Christian institutions.
We cannot conquer the nations for Christ unless we first conquer ourselves for Christ. Is your heart conquered for Christ? Are you exterminating evil from your own life? Are their pockets of your life you are holding back? Idols you are protecting and secretly cherishing rather than smashing?
The battle is not limited to our hearts, but that’s where it has to begin. Do the necessary heart work so you can do the culture work. Fight the battle inside so you can fight the battle outside. To win the culture war, to win the nations to the obedience of faith, we must win the heart war. Indeed, probably the reason Christians have lost so much ground in the so-called culture war is because we have lost the heart war so often.
By all means, preach holiness and repentance. But preach them to yourself first. Only then can we have victory in our program of exterminating the world of evil. Where do we fight the good fight? Everywhere. But we fight it first in our own hearts.