Applying the Doctrine of the Remnant in a Pagan World
A Faithful Remnant in an Unfaithful World - Part 5
Over the past four weeks, we’ve been looking at a rather grim doctrine taught in the Bible: the truth that God’s people have always been, and can on this side of glory always expect to be, an embattled remnant in the midst of a fallen world, surrounded by an often hostile majority.
Over the past couple hundred years, living as an evangelical Christian in the West has been relatively easy, compared to the experience of many of our brothers and sisters throughout history, or even in other parts of the world. However, indications in our culture suggest that this time of respite for the Church in the West may be coming to an end. Therefore, my motivation in laying out this doctrine is to prepare us for an increasingly likely future as a despised and harassed minority in a pagan culture. Having laid out the truth of the doctrine from Scripture, then, it’s time to turn in earnest to application.
1. Christendom is dead—but that’s okay, because it never really existed anyway.
We’ve become accustomed to cultural respect for Christian convictions in the West. Indeed, several powerful and persistent myths have become popular in Christian circles as a result of this respect. One of the most prominent is the idea that the Founding Fathers of the United States were Christians, and that their aim was to start a basically Christian nation. Actually, while there were Chritsians among them, most of those Fathers were actually deists – those who believe in a creator God but believe he basically wound up the machine of the universe and then stepped away, not bothering to be involved in any practical sense since that point. Scattered, pro-forma references to an ill-defined “God” or “Creator” in documents like the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, or the U.S. Declaration of Independence, do not a Christian civilization make. Indeed, it’s more reminiscent of the kind of thing James was talking about when he rather sarcastically observed, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!” (James 2:19).
The fact is that Christendom—the idea that Western civilization is a “Christian” culture and is united under Christian convictions about morality—is dead. The culture has been ignoring the horrific slaughter of tens of millions of unborn children across the West, and many more in China and elsewhere, for decades; persistent polls that indicate the majority is uncomfortable with abortion have resulted in no significant change, thus betraying that this discomfort is not a matter of deep conviction for most. The culture is embracing homosexuality as not just legitimate but somehow “good.” Now both informal cultural disapproval and formal judicial sanctions are being turned on Christians who seek to live and speak consistently with God’s Word.
This shouldn’t surprise us. God only once instituted a divinely-dictated order for civil society, in the case of national Israel in the Old Testament, and even with inerrant, God-given laws and God-inspired prophets to guide them, Israel failed to keep its covenant with God. Gentile cultures have fared no better. As for the Church, despite many attempts throughout history to ignore the fact that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, its mission and proper concern has always been the salvation of sinners through the means of the Gospel, not the task of building a Christian culture. Not that it hasn’t been tried, in Rome, Byzantium, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and elsewhere; but even though these attempts have resulted in much temporal good, none has stood the test of time. Christendom has never really existed, because God’s true people have always been a remnant, a minority.
One day, however, Christendom will exist—when Jesus returns in power to judge the earth. One day, every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess. I don’t see a consistent case to be made from Scripture, however, that any lasting approximation of Christendom will be established before that day. Until then, therefore, we need to stand prepared to fight the good fight outnumbered.
2. Get used to being the minority.
So if Christendom is dead and never really existed, and if the doctrine of the remnant is true, we’d best get used to being a minority in the culture.
Canadian society, North American culture, Western civilization, indeed human nature does not bend the knee to Christ at present. The number of those who would rather work their way up the ladder to heaven will always be greater than those who have been brought to despair of human effort and trust Jesus instead. The number of those who believe that sex is okay outside of the covenant of marriage between one man and one woman will always outnumber us, this side of glory. The number of those who treasure gold and silver and stocks and bonds, or even relationships and experiences and worldly knowledge, above all else will always outweigh the number of those who have been brought by divine grace to value God’s glory over all. The number of those who would be just fine if we were pressured into silence and prevented from speaking publicly is already growing, and we can expect it to surpass our own numbers.
Jesus himself warned us: “the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to eternal life, and few find it.” If few find it, many will be those who oppose us. That’s one reason why the way will be hard for us.
3. Be wary, even distrustful, of culture.
So if our society is not Christian, cannot reasonably be expected to be Christian, and indeed outnumbers us, we need to cast a wary eye upon it.
It’s so tempting for Christians to look with envy upon worldly success and think that perhaps the way to success in ministry would be easier by adopting their methods. We’re tempted to adopt the cultural mentality that “the consumer is always right” and apply that wisdom to our outreach, forgetting that the entire point of our outreach is to make people aware that they are actually wrong and need to repent and trust someone else. We’re tempted to seek cultural approval and praise by emphasizing “social justice” activities like poverty mitigation and disaster relief at the expense of unpopular evangelism and proclamation, rather than putting the Gospel first and allowing such loving kindness flow out from changed hearts as a result.
Remember that the culture does not share our most foundational beliefs, that Jesus Christ is Lord, that God’s Word is perfect and stands forever, that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, that there will be a judgment of the living and the dead. And since the culture rejects those foundational beliefs, it does not share our values, and its ways are not our ways. This is why Jesus describes us being in the world but not “of the world” (John 17:6). This is why Paul warns us to “not be conformed to this world” (Rom. 12:2).
Don’t trust the culture. Don’t try to “give them what they want”; give them what they need.
4. Put your trust in the power of the Gospel, not community organization or political action.
If the ways of the world are not our ways, if we are to be in the world but not of it, then this has implications for how we live in the world and work for change in the world.
Paul reminds us that “the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but have divine power to destroy strongholds” (2 Cor. 10:4). In context, this is done by demolishing arguments and lofty opinions against the knowledge of God (v. 5). Our weapons, our warfare, then, are verbal, what Paul elsewhere in writing to the same people calls “the folly of what is preached” (1 Cor. 1:21-23).
Our answer to the problems of this world, from cultural dissolution, to societal breakdown, from political corruption, to racial disharmony, is the Gospel. The root cause of all the world’s problems, the root cause of all the problems in any individual’s life, is sin—my sin, your sin, the sin of others, the sin of those who have come before, and first and foremost the sin of Adam that condemned us all. Political action committees can’t solve sin. Judicial inquiries can’t recommend a way out of sin. Laissez-faire economics and command economies alike can’t overcome sin. Only the Gospel promises a solution. Only in Jesus Christ can these issues be resolved.
So the Gospel, not petitions or votes or parties or campaigns, is the only lasting and effective answer to the problems of our world.
This does not, however, mean we don’t fight the culture war. The culture war is an expression and manifestation of the even more real spiritual war going on in this world, and Christians are not noncombatants in either. There are legitimate causes to support, real needs that must be spoken for, God-dishonoring injustices that must be opposed. We adorn the Gospel when we feed the hungry. We reflect the Gospel when we oppose abortion. The culture war offers many opportunities to preach the Gospel and to explain how the Gospel answers very practical human problems.
But when we fight this culture war, we don’t fight it expecting to win. Ours is a delaying action, a rearguard action. Our role is to hold the line as long as possible to get the Gospel to as many people as possible for as long as possible. We preach and teach and evangelize not with the expectation that we will win and culture will be Christianized, but with the conviction that even if everyone rejects our words and everything we have is taken away it was still the right thing to do.
5. Don’t despair.
Another motivation I have had in writing this series is my fear that many Christians, who are too wedded to a romantic idea of Christendom, will see the culture turning on us, forget that this is actually what the Bible tells us is normal, and despair.
If the doctrine of the remnant is true, though, then despair is precisely the wrong response. Indeed, what we see is exactly what the Bible predicts. What we see is what God has ordained. And so the success of our ministry, the impact of our witness, cannot be accurately assessed or measured or gauged from our point of view here on earth. Rather, when we suffer, we are to rejoice as those accounted worthy (Acts 5:41).
We must not despair, even when we see defeats in this life. We must fight on with grim determination, knowing our stand, even if it winds up being a “last stand” in our particular case, gives glory to God and adorns the Gospel of Christ. To live is Christ and to die is gain, so what have we to lose?
We often pray for opportunities to share the Gospel—well, they will be provided in abundance. We will not lack for people to give the Good News. Gospel applications and illustrations will be everywhere for us to point out and explain. We will have a “target-rich environment” for our preaching! It may be legendary, but a communication attributed to Allied supreme commander Ferdinand Foch during World War I provides a great analogy for a Christian response to overwhelming cultural pressure: “My centre is yielding. My right is retreating. Situation excellent. I am attacking.”
Don’t despair. Stand fast. Guard your doctrine. Look to Christ. Be ready with an answer for the hope you have. And rejoice.