First Importance: The Church and “The Man” Part Two
I didn’t intend for this to be a series, but enough questions were raised between here and on Facebook that I think this is a topic worth returning to. I’m not sure how many posts I’ll on this topic I’ll wind up making, but it will be at least one or two more. For part one, click here.
As Paul walked across the hills and valleys, through the towns and cities of the known Roman world he no doubt had plenty of time to consider his missional strategy. No man in history has reached as many unreached people groups as Paul. He faced a world that had never heard the name of Jesus Christ and disdained the Jewish roots of his new religion. For all our decadence, the Roman empire makes America look like a nation of pietists. Infanticide by exposure was commonplace (especially for female babies and the deformed). Homosexuality was smiled upon. The people appeased the popular deities by performing sexual rituals with temple prostitutes. The legal system was fraught with corruption. Nearly 1/4 of the population were slaves, and therefore considered not human.
1 Corinthians 15:3-5 describes Paul’s missionary work among the Corinthians:
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according tot he Scriptures and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. (emphasis mine)
The gospel was of first importance to Paul because the gospel was of first importance to Jesus Christ. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. That was His purpose, that was His mission. Jesus was not primarily concerned with transforming society. He was not primarily concerned with showing compassion to the suffering multitudes. Everything He did was focused upon bringing the hope of the gospel to blind and hateful men. Christ came to die and be a propitiation for our sins.
It has become popular in our culture to focus upon Jesus’ life rather than on Jesus’ death. Of far greater importance is Christ’s weeping over the city of Jerusalem than His weeping before the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane. The pinnacle of Christ’s teaching is found in the Sermon on the Mount rather than in the Upper Room Discourse. And of far greater interest is Christ lifting the temporary burdens of men than bearing their eternal ones in His own body on the tree. Christ did not come to change the culture. Christ came atone for the sins of mankind.
That brings us to the critical question: Is the church to be gospel-focused or issue-focused? Some claim that this is an unfair distinction because the issues are subsets of the gospel. The gospel informs how we think through and interact with every cultural conflict. Yes, that is true. But that’s why I also used the word “focused.” What is to the one thing we must spend our energy and intellect for? It is the same for which Christ spent His own life for. The church exists first and foremost to proclaim the gospel into the darkness.
But what of William Wilberforce, the great British MP who worked tirelessly against the tide of public opinion to abolish slavery in the British Empire? Didn’t he focus his energy and passion on curing a societal evil? Yes, he did. But the movie of Amazing Grace isn’t the whole story. Wilberforce’s greatest grief in life was not the slave trade, but that his sons grew up and renounced the evangelical movement to join the High Anglican Church. Wilberforce was a determined dissenter. In his classic work A Practical View of Real Christianity, he takes the church to task for its lack of passion for the gospel. Written in the middle of his struggle against the slave trade, it never pauses to make a grand appeal for the cause of abolition. Rather, Wilberforce condemns the public for its lack of being converted. As much as he cared about ridding England of the slave trade, Wilberforce’s chief concern was the gospel.
Wilberforce is often held up as the champion of the progressive-conservative missional movement. He was a dissenter, calling out the church. And he worked himself to exhaustion for a great societal cause. But the two are not directly connected. His passionate plea was for the church to return to Christ, not to abolish the slave trade.
I talk about Wilberforce at length because he understood something that those who champion his name often do not: The church does not exist to cure society of its ills. Jesus did not come to heal. Jesus came to save. And while in the process of saving He healed, He never considered that the point of His coming to earth. John goes so far as to say that his entire book (including the compassion miracles) “have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:31)
The church does not exists to address homosexuality. The church does not exist to discuss the Christian’s responsibility as globalism becomes an ever-increasing reality. As the Word is taught through expositorily, those issues will come up. Eventually. But the grand truths of justification, sanctification, glorification, atonement, adoption, etc. are not to be eclipsed by the passions of the moment. The church exists to proclaim the power of the Cross and the greatness of Christ. Everything else was secondary to Paul, was secondary to Christ, and must be secondary to us.