Not too long ago I was engaged in conversation with a man who uttered the all too common refrain, “It is hard to believe that anyone could actually think the world is getting better.” He spoke rather emphatically as if assured that he was talking to someone in full agreement. He then went on to detail the tragedies and catastrophes of the last century.
This topic of conversation is fairly common, if not chronic, within the Christian community. We promulgate declarations of the world going to hell in a hand basket while boastfully chiding the foolishness of those who cannot discern the current downward spiral of history. Their laments are colored with more than resign over the current state and they seem to take a tiny bit of pleasure in the demise of civilization. Now, don’t get me wrong. There is certain demise for any civilization that refuses to subject itself to the laws of God. That said, is it foreordained that such civilizations will snuff out the light of the Church over time? Or, if not snuff out, will the church be limited to a barricaded redemptive enclave that cannot overtake a culture gone mad?
Stick with me as we answer all of this with a simple train of thought, which clearly demonstrates the concept of a victorious Church in history. I will do this with the help of the most quoted theologian of the reformed world – Calvin. A quote from his Institutes is a beautiful description of the messiness, but certainty of a Christian’s sanctification. Listen to Calvin on remaining optimistic about the progress of the Christian’s life.
But no one in this earthly prison of the body has sufficient strength to press on with due eagerness, and weakness so weighs down the greater number that, with wavering and limping and even creeping along the ground they move at a feeble rate. Let each one of us, then, proceed according to the measure of his puny capacity and set out upon the journey we have begun. No one shall set out so inauspiciously as not daily to make some headway, though it be slight. Therefore, let us not cease so to act that we may make some unceasing progress in the way of the Lord. And let us not despair at the slightness of our success; for even though attainment may not correspond to desire, when today outstrips yesterday the effort is not lost. Only let us look toward our mark with sincere simplicity and aspire to our goal; not fondly flattering ourselves, nor excusing our own evil deeds, but with continuous effort striving toward this end: that we may surpass ourselves in goodness until we attain to goodness itself. It is this, indeed, which through the whole course of life we seek and follow. But we shall attain it only when we have cast off the weakness of the body, and are received into full fellowship with him. ((John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion (ed. John T. McNeill; trans. Ford Lewis Battles; 2 vols.; LCC; Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), Book 3, Chapter 6, Section 5.))
Now, here is where I would like to use some creative license, by taking Calvin’s quote to the logical and biblical next step. If a Christian sees progress, albeit not straight-line and most certainly difficult or messy, what necessarily happens to a group of these Christians as a covenant body? Would such a body not also see the same character of progress? And would it not follow that the culture in which they are thriving would surely see the same? The following is an adaptation of Calvin’s quote that may help clarify the answers to these questions.
But no people in this earthly prison of the depraved world has sufficient strength to maintain confidence in success, and corruption and tragedy so weighs down all nations that, with slow, almost imperceptible progress the world improves at a feeble rate. Let the church then, proceed according to our puny capacity and set out upon the journey that began with the definitive victory at the cross. There is no way that, understanding the power of the Holy Spirit, we would not expect progress, however slight. Therefore, let us not cease to apply God’s word to every area of life so that we may witness some unceasing progress in the way of the Lord. And let us not despair in the current events that seem so contrary to God’s plan for victory in time on earth. For even when periods of history seem devoid of God’s rule, and things are not progressing in culture as we would desire – when there is long-term progress, the effort is not lost. History is not as dark as it has been in past ages. Let us only believe that the Holy Spirit is not impotent in history and keep our eyes fixed on God’s promised victory through his people; not believing that we are making more progress than we ought, nor excusing the laziness of the church, but with continuous effort striving toward this end: that we may keep salting the culture until the church fully defines culture itself. It is this, indeed, which through the whole course of life we seek and follow. But we shall attain it only when we have cast off the unwillingness to permeate all of culture, and God’s rule has been extended and enjoyed throughout the earth, following which time the holy matrimony will be consummated between His church and her perfect Bridegroom, Jesus Christ.
The sanctification of individual Christians will certainly result in cultural impact. To argue otherwise would be like protesting that I can pour cream in my coffee and not alter its black hue. Be encouraged that the power of the Holy Spirit is real. The same power used to sanctify individuals does not have an imaginary stopping point when it comes to changing the culture around us. So, next time you are engaged in a conversation about the proverbial “hell in a hand basket” view of the future of our culture, take solace in Calvin’s picture of progress. “And let us not despair at the slightness of our success; for even though attainment may not correspond to desire, when today outstrips yesterday the effort is not lost.”