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“In the midst of a world of light and love, of song and feast and dance, [Lucifer] could find nothing to think of more interesting than his own prestige.” (C.S. Lewis)

What does a heart after Jesus look like? Simple. Find nothing to think of more interesting than Jesus’ prestige! Where the world and culture has become opposed to God, the fundamental problem is idolatry. We are prone to trample what is good because we too often “find nothing to think of more interesting than [our] own prestige.” Christians know better. Jesus is worth every heart, every praise, and every allegiance. But we know the god of “this world” is in total opposition to Jesus. How should that truth affect how we live in the world? The Bible teaches, “Do not love the world.” What does that mean? To answer that question, we will need to study the different uses of the Greek word for “world” in the Bible, especially as it is used in texts like James 1:26-27 and 1 John 2:15-17.

The Greek word is kosmos, a word found 104 times in John’s writings alone. The text we will focus on here is 1 John 2:15-17: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world — the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions–is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.” These are serious words. Many Christians cite 1 John 2:15-17 to denounce popular culture. But does 1 John 2:15-17 really teach that all popular culture is bad? Or, for that matter, does it really teach that “the world” is all bad? Here it helps to see the different ways in which the biblical writers employed the term kosmos in their writings. We will look at four of them briefly in this post.

First, kosmos can mean “all of God’s creation.” This is the world, the universe, and everything in it. In John 1:10, Jesus is said to be the one who created the world, and the word used there is kosmos. So, we should ask the question — should we love or not love the world Jesus created? Of course, the answer is, yes, we should love God’s creation. God loves his creation, and we should certainly love it also. Thus, this first meaning of kosmos doesn’t seem to be the use John is employing in 1 John 2:15-17.

What other meanings are there? A second use is what Kittle defines as “the theater of human and earthly history.” This use of kosmos simply means the inhabited world, what we call the earth. We see this definition employed in Matthew 4:8, for example, where Jesus is tempted by Satan in the wilderness. “Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.” World in Matthew 4:8 is again that word kosmos. In this verse, it is a neutral term — unless, of course, “their glory” refers not only to the kingdoms. Again, this use of kosmos does not seem to fit John’s use in 1 John 2:15-17.

So let’s consider a third use. This one is pretty important. Kittle defines this third use as “the theater of salvation history.” This is what we call the world of redemptive history. Here we find kosmos used in that famous verse, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” So, should we despise the “world” that God so loves? The answer is clearly no. So what does John mean by world in 1 John 2:15-17?

Thankfully, there is a fourth use — or I’m not sure what we’d do! John employs kosmos in 1 John 2:15-17 in reference to the world which is in opposition to God. This is the kosmos which, according to Kittle, is lost in sin, wholly at odds with God, lost and depraved. We see this use employed in John 16:11 where Satan is described as the world ruler, the “prince of this world.” This is the world in which Christians are to avoid at all costs. As John Bunyan writes, “What God says is best, is best, though all the men in the world are against it.” We see this meaning of kosmos similarly used in verses like 1 Corinthians 1:27, Hebrews 11:38, and in many places in John.

So why bring this up? It is important to know what Scripture says about the world when it comes to your interactions with the things of this world. Should we flee from culture, live in the mountains, and await the Lord’s return? Or, should we wisely live in the world, on mission for Christ, redeeming the culture, creating culture, and avoiding those things that are in hardened opposition to God? The second option seems more fitting for Christians. Why? Because God loves the world, even lost humanity in the fallen world. He created a beautiful world, and one in which humanity can also creatively create! Remember, the Father sent his Son in the world in order to save it, as John 3:16 and 12:47 teach. In other words, texts such as 1 John 2:15-17 and James 1:27 do teach that we should be in opposition toward the “world” whose prince is Satan and stand against his schemes — that world will pass away — but we should conversely love God’s creation, and its people in the same way God does as well.

What does this mean for culture, then? How does an understanding of what the Bible means by “world” in texts like 1 John 2:15-17 help us when it comes to popular culture? Well, let me give you a couple of things to think about. One, “world in opposition to God” is not simply another way to say “culture” or “popular culture.” It’s not that simple. There are things in culture that are in opposition to God. And there are things which please God. To dismiss culture in one broad stroke as to say that it’s all anti-God or polluted is to forget that there are some aspects of culture that are good, sometimes beautiful.

Therefore, we need wisdom — and here are some practical helps. First, when it comes to moral legalism and license (which we discussed in part 2), think about this: don’t focus so much on what you must not do. Rather, focus on what you get to do when you are following Christ! It is a joyous privilege to follow Christ! Remember, a heart after Jesus is key to understanding what the Christian life is all about (see part 3). Consider your freedom to find joy in Jesus a greater freedom than your freedom to enjoy a movie — even if you do both at the same time! As one who enjoys watching movies, listening to music, watching TV, playing video games, and using social media, this is something I must take to task on a daily basis.

Second, God does give us real beauty and good things in the world, even from non-Christians. Still, even if some elements of popular culture are good, they must never become our gods (see part 4). Proverbs 24:13 and 25:16 are helpful here: honey is sweet, but if you eat too much of it you will get sick and vomit.

And third, for all of these things, we need to be asking the question about whether we should/can accept it, whether we must reject it, and whether we can redeem it. Or, as Bruce Ashford says, “we must consider how we, as Christians, can live faithfully, critically, and redemptively in the world in which we find ourselves.”

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Christianity ought to radically change the way that we see people and relate to them. As I am currently working through the parables of Jesus, I have been struck by how many of them address our relationships with people. In the parable of the good Samaritan, Jesus intimates that all people are our neighbors–even the person we are most frustrated with (for the Jew that was the Samaritan). Further, Jesus is more concerned with us living like neighbors than determining who fits that bill. In the parable of the wedding feast, Jesus indicates that we should be reaching out in love to all people. Living in a kingdom that is upon us and yet awaits fulfillment (already/not yet) should open our eyes to see the poor, the downtrodden, and the needy in our midst.

The gospelradically changes the way we see ourselves and other people and how we relate to them.  Using the four gospel truths of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Consummation, here is a basic guide to poeple:

  1. Creation:  God created the world and he made it good–everything in it, including you and me, belongs to him. Every breath is a gift.
  2. Fall:  God’s good creation has subjected itself to corruption. We have sinned and what God made good has been broken.
  3. Redemption: God promises to fix his broken creation through the death and resurrection of His Son, the God-man Jesus Christ.  People who trust Christ are healed of their corrupt nature.
  4. Consummation: God will send Jesus back to finally redeem those who trusted him and he will finally and decisively make all that is wrong in the world right.

Seeing ourselves in the right light:

  1. 1. We are created beings. We have value.
  2. We are broken. There is much about us that isn’t good–we need to be familiar with this aspect about ourselves. Our nature has been corrupted in a way that we cannot fix by ourselves.
  3. We can be redeemed through Christ. Our corrupt nature can be done away with and replaced with a new one. We don’t deserve this–its the most marvelous gift.
  4. We are not yet what we will be.

Seeing other people in the right light:

  1. They are created beings. They have value. Not one is worth more than another.
  2. They are broken. We should expect them to fail and even hurt us at times.
  3. They can be redeemed by grace. No one deserves this–that is why everyone should hear about it.
  4. Those God saves he will perfect.

Seeing ourselves in relation to other people:

  1. You are created and therefore have value to offer other people.
  2. You are broken and thus have the potential to do great harm to people made in God’s image.
  3. You are saved by God’s grace. You don’t deserve this–its a gift so you are no better than anyone else.  This salvation does grant you a unique potential to bless others.
  4. You are saved, you are being saved, and you will be saved. God isn’t done with you yet.

This paradigm has the power to radically change the way we see people and relate to them. As C.S. Lewis said–humans are immortal beings–that changes everything. Christians ought to be the humblest of all people.

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“How should an artist begin to do his work as an artist? I would insist that he begin his work as an artist by setting out to make a work of art.” (Francis Schaeffer, 1912-1984)

Do you have God-given talents? Use them! I remember talking with Drew Maust, who is with Wycliffe Bible Translators, a while back on Bible translation. I asked him why do YOU do Bible translation, of all things? He is a gifted linguist, a sharp mind, and a follower of Jesus. What that basically comes down to is what he said to me in response: “This is what I was made for.” God as our Creator made us uniquely creative in many ways. In culture, we have culture-makers. Artists are culture-makers. Musicians are culture-makers. Scientists are culture-makers. Authors are culture-makers. Theologians are culture-makers. And the list goes on and on.

Because God made you, you are made in the image of God. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). The ways in which you bear the image of God are where you, as a person, create, reason, live in community, work, and rule in ways that point to the Creator. God is the best gift-giver. He is the best culture-creator. He does the best work. He is in perfect community with himself within the Trinity. In every way, God is big “C” Creator. As for people, we are uniquely gifted as little “c” under-creators. This is evident in what is said in Genesis 1-2, for example, “Be fruitful and multiply,” and “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” One Old Testament scholar, John Sailhamer, believes the mandate of Genesis 2:15 is simply, “Worship and obey,” which sounds very similar to the Westminster Shorter Catechism’s answer to the question: “What is the chief end of man?” Answer: “To glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

In view of the present subject, Genesis 2:15 then links worship and obedience with what we were created to actually do, and that isn’t completely lost in the Fall. Indeed the Fall was terrible, and we continue to see its pervasive effects on community, culture, the arts, the sciences, everyday life, and everything else. Without Christ as our Savior, we would be without hope and without God in the world. However, the Fall did not destroy the image of God that we carry. It effaced it, damaged it. But it is still there; and, therefore, every human being can still create, work, live in community, and make culture that points to the Creator who made us. The Fall distorts, damages, and hinders culture-making. And as fallen creatures, much of what is made in culture is in opposition to God; but I must make this point: Genesis 3:1-7 does not completely destroy Genesis 2:15 and the rest. And our imperfection even now does not either. This isn’t a question of whether the world is lost and unreconciled to God. Instead, it’s a question of whether human beings, as God’s image-bearers, can point to their Creator.

With that said, Christians are uniquely being restored by God’s re-creative work in total salvation. “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; old things have passed away, and look, new things have come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17) What we need to learn is to hold this verse, and the pre-Fall verses as well, in view of a Romans 7 humility. And in that, we should discerningly and faithfully determine in what ways we as Christians can be culture-creators who point the world to the Creator. Every human being is uniquely gifted and bears the image of God. Yes. And Christians are regenerate image-bearers, and uniquely gifted. As Christians, then, we should be engaged in the best culture-making! We should, in whatever we do as God’s regenerate image bearers, point the world to the Creator! Why? Because God cares about culture: the arts, the sciences, the academy, politics, “everyday” theology, community. He cares about high culture and popular culture alike, because they are part of the world God has made.

You may be incredibly gifted musically. Use your gifts! You may be imaginative with a gift for writing. Use your gifts! You may have a sharp brain, being gifted to work through complex issues and interpreting meaning in arguments. Use your gifts! Work on your gifts. Learn to use them even better. Do what you were made to do (like Drew Maust) to the best of your ability as God’s image bearers. Create culture, including popular culture, in a way that is creative, reasonable, workable, and that foreshadows our community together as a re-created people in Christ on a new heavens and earth.

Does that mean that you, as Christians, must make culture in a way that points the world to their Creator? Yes! Does that mean that you, for example, as a musician must only write hymns? No, although hymns are nice. Does that mean that you, for example, as an artist, must paint nativity scenes? No, that’s not it. What it means is that you were put here in the world as an image-bearer of God; now, as one who knows and follows Jesus, do what you were created to do. As a created being made by the Creator of all things, point to him in whatever you do.

In our next post, we will turn to consider what it means to live in the world while not becoming polluted by those things in the world which are in opposition to God. It will require some exegesis, so come ready!

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“Let’s just be honest and admit right up front that the Bible pulls no punches and leaves no room for a public relations effort to clean up the dust storm.” (Al Mohler)

One objection to the previous post is that the Bible contains history. Real history. It doesn’t sweep sin under the carpet. In the Bible real people commit heinous sins. There is crime, racial prejudice, sexual immorality, lies, and the list goes on. And so someone might object,

“Isn’t it better to watch movies or listen to songs that are more in touch with reality, that show what the Bible actually teaches about human depravity, or the redemptive qualities of authentic heroes in movies? Aren’t these more worthwhile examples of art and culture?”

Maybe. It kind of depends.

Indeed there are movies, songs, TV shows not made by Christians that are genuine works of art, portraying redemptive themes in plots, characters, stories, and lyrics. They contain heroic characters that point to God. Honestly, such examples are few and far between; but they do exist. But let me say this: the Bible is better! It is true, the Bible does not gloss over sin in its overall message of creation, fall, redemption and restoration. And without human history depicting the realness of the fall, we wouldn’t get a complete picture of the importance of each part of the story.

Nevertheless, the Bible, in the wisdom of God, protects us from temptations to sin in ways that most uninspired movies or songs probably won’t. When David commits adultery with Bathsheba, I don’t know of anyone who is tempted to lust as a result. When I read and learn from other parts of the Bible, it’s the same thing. Simply put, God’s Word will not tempt you to sin. It is a greater revelation of truth than anything you will find in popular culture. It teaches you. And it protects you.

Does that mean you should completely disengage from popular culture? I don’t think so. That is certainly not what I’m saying. Instead I’m saying that your heart for Jesus is more important than your love for entertainment. Your time spent in the Word is safer and more valuable than trying to learn all you know about God, man and salvation from popular culture.

In the next post, we will briefly discuss culture-creating.

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“Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfector of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.” (Hebrews 12:1-3)

There is no simpler answer to the question of the Christian life than to say, “Follow Jesus.” What does a heart after Jesus look like? Jesus is the supreme example of one who lived to please God the Father. He never stopped running the race until he was done. The author of Hebrews says that we should consider Jesus “so that you may not grow weary and fainthearted.” The same can be applied to your life. “Follow Jesus.” It could also be stated differently. For instance, consider the singular aim of Jesus to set his sight on the joy set before him “so that you may not get distracted” while you live in the world. Following Jesus is what it means to live the Christian life.

Yet that simple answer does not let you off the hook when it comes to your life in culture. You need to work hard to understand exactly what following after Jesus looks like in your cultural context. Jesus would not let wrong assumptions by the religious leaders of his day take a pass. And I don’t think he would let you do that when it comes to culture either.

Here an illustration helps. This will require us to return to our definitions of extreme moral legalism and extreme license. Picture your Christian life as an adventurous journey in the world down a narrow way. On either side you find dangers. To one side you notice a hot-wire fence labeled “extreme moral legalism.” When you look beyond the fence you see what appears to be a safe house. (You know, something to attract/distract you from the way.) The fence is dangerous, of course. It is a hot-wire fence.

To the other side you notice a grave danger. Just off the narrow road is a steep ravine with jagged rocks at the bottom, and you notice it is labeled “extreme license.” Yet along the way you notice a colorful hang glider. You think to yourself, “What freedom! What thrills I would feel flying that hang glider.” But, you don’t know how to use the hang glider. You don’t have a first clue! Getting off the narrow way for a thrilling ride on that hang glider would be a terrifying and stupid mistake!

I realize this is not a perfect illustration. You may object, “What if I know how to use a hang glider?” You would be missing the point. What I want you to picture is that the way of the Christian life is narrow in the world. It is following Jesus. As Jesus set his sight on the joy that was set before him, which led him to the cross, to endure hostility from sinners, we must fix our eyes on Jesus, and follow him. The Christian journey indeed is not to be a worldly one. But, it is a journey in the world. Therefore, knowing precisely how we are to live as Jesus followers in the world in reference to culture will require still more work on our part.

However, there are some key lessons that we can draw out thus far. First, though there is freedom in Christ for Christians, and there is freedom of conscience when it comes to questionable issues, extreme license can be incredibly destructive for the Christian life. We must ask, what does a heart after Jesus look like? Second, Scripture calls on us to guard our hearts, and this is a serious task! “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life!” (Proverbs 4:23)

In the next post we will consider examples of what extreme moral legalism is not.

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“There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!'” (Abraham Kuyper, 1837-1920)

Dr. Bruce Ashford argues that the Christian has a daily life mission in the world. He writes, “As I see it, we as Christians should live faithfully, critically, and redemptively in the midst of the cultural contexts in which we find ourselves.” In this post I want to apply that statement to the questions we have already asked about popular culture, and I will begin to illustrate it toward the end.

The terms need to be defined before moving on. What does it mean to live faithfully in the world? In these posts, we take faithfully to refer to a heart attitude toward pleasing God by submitting to his rules. What then does it mean to live critically in the world? We apply the term critically in these posts as intelligently discerning whether a given example of popular culture should be accepted or rejected. And, what is meant by living redemptively in the world? In these posts, we take this to mean that Christians should consider how they can live in the world in such a way as to foreshadow God’s restoration of creation and culture in the new heavens and earth.

In these posts there will be no grand aspirations to wrestle our topic into a Rick Flair figure four™. However, we should be able to lay the groundwork for conversing with culture in real life. We will begin here with a series of questions, with the first question taking up the remainder of this post.

The first question is: which is more dangerous: legalism or license? Speaking on the danger of sexual immorality Paul counsels: “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be enslaved by anything” (1 Corinthians 6:12). These words are timely today as well.

This first question concerning legalism and license is a sticky issue, in part, because of confusion over the terms. Because of this, we need to define these terms carefully in order to answer the question.

First, what is meant here by legalism? For the purpose of our discussion, what I mean by legalism is strictly in reference to morality. Therefore it will appear here as moral legalism from this point forward. What is moral legalism then? This will serve to indicate an extreme position where one rules that given questionable components of popular culture are dangerous and should therefore be avoided at all costs. This becomes especially unhealthy when used to bind the consciences of others. We will discuss what moral legalism is not later on (in order to [hopefully] avoid being indifferent about questionable components of pop culture).

Second, what is meant here by license? No, we are not talking about your driver’s license! Here we are talking about an extreme heart attitude toward boundaries where one might believe one has a warrant to imbibe anything and everything in the world in the name of Christian liberty.

I don’t like either extreme. However, I would argue that license to an extreme is more dangerous than moral legalism. The majority of Christians I know (at least at this stage of life) already have well-developed allergies toward moral legalism’s extremes. They find it to be joy robbing and erroneous.

With that in mind, the majority of Christians bounce around somewhere in between these two extremes. It’s an uneasy relationship. In the next post we will develop a middle road with principles gleaned from the Bible. What we will end up with serves to answer the most important question for the Christian life: what does a heart after Jesus look like? The answer to that question helps form what exactly it means to live according to Dr. Ashford’s statement above.

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If you haven’t heard, the Dove World Outreach Center (DWOC) of Gainsville, FL, a church of about 50 people, plans to burn several hundred copies of the Qur’an on the anniversary of 9/11. Their Pastor, Terry Jones, told  ABC’s “Nightline” on Tuesday “Jesus would not run around burning books, but I think he would burn this one.”

I don’t know what is more infuriating—the astronomical amount coverage that has been given to a nutty, disgruntled pastor in Florida or the fact that said Pastor thinks it wise and pleasing to God to burn Qur’ans.  When folks in Jakarta, Indonesia found out about this small church in Florida planning to burn Qur’ans, thousands rioted outside the U.S. Embassy.  In Kabul, Afghanistan, thousands protested and burned an effigy of Pastor Jones!  That seems a bit of a strong reaction to the burning of your holy book.  Its incredible that this sort of nonsense is not getting the same media attention as some crack pot who leads a church of 50 people is planning to burn a few thousand copies of the Qur’an.  Nevertheless, we as Christians need to remember that not all the Muslims in the world are rioting and again that our aim is always first and foremost the proclaimation of the gospel to all people.

I think it goes without saying that this action is not the sort of thing that Christian churches ought to be doing.  We are, after all, called to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matt. 5:44).  Further the purpose of the church is to make disciples to the glory of God (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 1:8), and we are do so with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15-16).  It is difficult for me to understand how burning another world religion’s sacred book would aid us in fulfilling the great commission.

This act is nothing more than disrespect.  Such statements do not represent what Biblical Christianity is about. Such statements do not promote Muslim/Christian dialogue—in fact such acts serve to cut off such dialogue and erect unnecessary walls to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

So what do we do when professing Christians act foolishly in public like this?

I have three suggestions:

  1. Ignore them—Pastor Jones and his church are looking for attention.  This is a publicity stunt—so the best thing we can do in response is ignore them.  If the media in our country had half a brain, they would have ignored it too, but instead its been made a national spectacle and Hillary Clinton and General Petraeus are somehow involved.
  2. Major on the Majors—what bothers me most is the unnecessary walls to the gospel that are being erected because of this.  This ought to remind us of the Biblical call to take the gospel to all nations—including Islamic nations.
  3. Live above them.  When people misrepresent Christ, we must strive all the more faithfully to represent Him as He truly is.  When Jesus said we are to shine as lights in the world, I am not sure he had in mind Christians lighting other religious books on fire in protest.  Don’t mishear me—I think the Qu’ran is a false book, I think it has led many people to Hell, but again the goal of the church is to make disciples of all nations.

Interestingly enough, Pastor Jones said, “We expect Muslims that are here in America to respect, honor, obey, submit to our Constitution.”  It is that very same constitution that gives Muslims the right to read the Qu’ran and Christian’s the right to share the gospel with such Muslims.

What a crazy world we live in—I think the best thing we can do with this whole fiasco is to ignore it and press on to preach the gospel to all tribes, tongues, and people

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