Simplicity Series #38

The Elements and Ingredients of Culture and the Revolutionary Power of the Gospel


What is Culture?

“For as [a man] he thinks in his heart, so is he.” Proverbs 23:7

Culture is the outward expression of inward beliefs and convictions. The word “culture” comes from the Latin cultura, which means “to cultivate.” It can be used for the cultivation of the soil to make it fruitful. It can also refer to the cultivation of people, a family, clan, tribe, or nation, through education and training, to make them more cohesive through the bond of a common heritage. A nation holding to common beliefs and practices will always be stronger and more productive than a nation with mixed and conflicting beliefs and traditions.

The more a peoples’ beliefs are grounded in truth, the greater will be the individual and national character. Conviction molds character, and character determines conduct. The more a nation’s heritage is built on truth, the stronger and freer the people of that nation will be.

“And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” John 8:32

These words have been inscribed on the walls of colleges and universities around the world. They are used to convey the idea that education is the key to true freedom. However, these words are taken out of context and, therefore, the point is missed.

“Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, ‘If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free … Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.’” John 8:31–32, 36

The ultimate expression of absolute truth is Jesus Christ. Only when we believe the “Good News” about who He is and what He has done for us, do we have the power to “abide” in His Word. We now begin to understand that it is not the Gospel message, per se, that changes the culture of a people or a nation. Rather, it is the transformed lives of those who are true disciples and the impact they have on those around them. Jesus began with eleven true disciples, who by their influence on society transformed the Roman world. It is not evangelism that changes nations, but “making disciples,” which is the commission Jesus gave to the eleven in Matthew 28:18–20.

No other book chronicles the power of the Gospel message, working through committed disciples to change the culture of a people or a nation, like the book of Romans. Paul was a devout and zealous Pharisee, from a long and distinguished lineage of those who loved and honored the law of Moses (Phil. 3:5). Yet it was not until he surrendered in faith to the Lord Jesus Christ, and became a dedicated disciple, that he became the primary force for the transformation of the Roman world. Let’s consider the world in which Paul lived.

The Culture of the Greco-Roman World

In the first three chapters of Romans, Paul addresses the cultural mix of his generation. Having declared himself to be “a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to wise and to unwise” (Rom. 1:14), he proclaims the Gospel message—not only as the means of individual salvation, but also of cultural transformation.

When we understand that everything Paul taught was contrary to the culture of his day, and what he presented as absolute truth was held in contempt in the ancient world, we see how counter-to- the-culture-of-his-day he was. We see something of this in the response of the people of Athens to his preaching (Acts 17:22–32). As said earlier, what people believe determines what they do. Paul struck a mighty blow to the culture of Athens when he pointed out their worship of many gods, and their ignorance of the One true God (Acts 17:22–23).

When we read through Romans 1:18–32, we are given a broad view of the culture of the Greco-Roman world. Here, Paul shows that their ignorance of the true God was not innocent, but was rather willful (vv. 18–21). By replacing the true God with many false gods, they opened the door to the conduct outlined in vv. 22–32. He describes the culture of his day as declining and degenerating by repeating the phrase, “God … gave them up …” (vv. 24, 26, 28). Whereas any culture based on truth will be elevating and ennobling, all cultures rejecting the truth will be degenerating and degrading. They will all follow a downward spiral.

To sum up what Paul reveals in this section, there was no integrity, no morality, and no honor in the world of his day. There was no sense of the sacredness of the soul, much less of the body, in ancient Rome. Life had no real value except self-gratification. Sexual perversion of every type was known and openly practiced. Again, Paul is being very polite in his description here. Bestiality, pedophilia, and incest were openly encouraged. The slaughter of unwanted infants was common. Early Christians used to roam the streets at night to find and care for unwanted infants tossed into the gutters. Arrogance, suspicion, and hatred ruled all social interaction. How could a simple message impact and change such a society? It did—by transforming individuals whose lives shined as beacons in the darkness of their world (Phil. 2:15).

In Romans 2:1–16, Paul then addresses the “cultured” people of his day. These would include the “Greeks” and the “wise” mentioned earlier. He shows that their outward polish is only a cloak for inward corruption. They stand in judgment of “the dregs of society” but are no better than those they judge. They stand condemned by their own self-righteous standard. By condemning others, they store up wrath for themselves. The very fact that they accuse others while excusing themselves reveals their own conscience at work, in the conviction that judgment is coming. Ultimately, God will judge all men equally and impartially on the basis of how they respond to the Gospel message. Either we accept the penalty Christ paid on our behalf on the cross, or we bear our own guilt.

The Culture of Israel

In Romans 2:17–3:20, Paul moves on to address his own culture—that of religious Israel. Israel was intended to be a beacon of light pointing the pagan world to the one true God, Jehovah. The law of Moses was given, not as a means to salvation, but as a revelation of God’s holiness and man’s sinfulness. Salvation, in the sense of personal justification before God, has always been a matter of simple faith in the promised Redeemer (Gen. 15:6; 22:18; Gal. 3:16; Job 19:25–26).

Believing Jews who lived “by faith” (Hab. 2:4; Rom. 1:17) demonstrated by their obedience to the sacrificial system that redemption from judgment came at a cost: the blood of the Lamb (Exod. 12:1–14), which they knew pointed to the coming Savior (John 1:29, 36; 1 Cor. 5:7).

The humble and obedient among the nation of Israel lived out their lives in the simplicity of the faith (Exod. 33:27; Micah 6:8). To them, the law was not a crushing burden, but rather a delight (Psalm 1:2; 37:4; 40:8; 119:16, 24, 47, 77; Isa. 58:13–14). They were fully aware of their shortcomings, confessed their sins through the sacrificial system, and sought growth and sanctification through instruction in the Word of God, prayer, giving, and acts of kindness. The Old Testament is filled with the stories of these faithful men and women.

However, the majority in Israel were not this type. Instead of humility came arrogance, a sense of superiority was attached to mere outward observances. The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7) is primarily aimed at exposing the emptiness and hollowness of ritual observance without any real inner, spiritual light. The scribes and Pharisees led the parade of religious one-upmanship. Every day was an opportunity for a greater display of one’s superior devotion to rote and ritual.

Paul, therefore, shows that the intended privileges and advantages of Israel therefore heaped greater wrath on them because of their unbelief (Rom. 2:4–5; 3:1–20). “To whom much is given, … much will be required” (Luke 12:48). In their self-justification, they considered it unjust that God should judge them (Rom. 3:1–6). Paul is setting the stage for the prolonged discussion of Israel’s blindness, loss of privilege, and temporary dispossession by the Church in Romans 9–11. He concludes by declaring that the law they took pride in, and so scrupulously sought to follow, actually proclaimed them all as guilty as the Gentiles they despised (Rom. 3:9–20).

The conclusion is that the culture of Israel, far from being the light to the Gentiles it should have been, had become a cause for the Gentiles to blaspheme the name of God (Rom. 2:24). In many ways, the modern Church has fallen into the same snare, because the common man on the street sees smug and self-righteous believers who heap scorn and contempt on the world and, yet, show no compassion for the multitudes around them. In this regard, the superficial but hollow mega-churches of our day are also treasuring up wrath for themselves.

The Culture-Transforming Power of the Gospel

As we move on through the great epistle to the Romans, we find Paul analyzing the stages of cultural transformation that begin with the proclamation of the Gospel message. There are four stages involved in the process: evangelism and justification (chapters 4–5), personal inner sanctification (chapters 6–8), the mystery of the ingrafting of the Church into the root of Israel (chapters 9–11) and, finally, the impact of Christ-centered and Spirit-filled discipleship (chapters 12–16).

For the Gospel message to transform any society, there must first be a true, spiritual remnant living among them. This company of men and women, who are justified by faith alone in Christ alone, must also understand the implications of their regeneration. This is the point of Romans 4–5.

It is wonderful to be justified by grace through faith, to have peace with God, but that is only the beginning—not the end of God’s purpose. Faith must lead to hope, and hope to love, in the development of Christian character if there is any true spiritual progress (Rom. 5:1–5). Gratitude for our “so great … salvation” (Rom. 5:6–11; Heb. 2:3) translates the gifts of grace into a life where Christ reigns in and through us (Rom. 5:12–21).

Our justification before God on the basis of faith then develops through genuine discipleship into a life of increasing sanctification (Romans 6–8). This can be summarized simply as the Spirit-filled and Spirit-led life (Rom. 6:8, 17, 22; 8:12–17). The Spirit will always lead us into the Word of God and will empower us to live it out (see Eph. 1:15–23; 3:14–21). A company of believers. who increasingly bear the “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22–23) as they are conformed to Christ (Romans 12–16), will exert a powerful effect on society and culture.

The two-fold objective of the Church during this “mystery” dispensation (see Rom. 16:25; Eph. 3:1–9; Col.1:26–27) is to make disciples of all nations and to provoke Israel to return to God in faith (Matt. 28:18–30; Rom. 10:19; 11:11–14). The Gospel’s impact, both on history and culture, comes not from the preaching of the Gospel alone, but from dedicated disciples who live “in the world but are not of the world” (see John 17:6–19), presenting a biblical counter-culture of “love and good deeds” (Heb. 10:24, nasb) to the world at large.

The Gospel—the Basis for Western Civilization

Throughout modern history, Christianity has taken the good elements of the world, sanctified and purified them through the love of Christ, and used them for the blessing, benefit, and enjoyment of all men.

The contribution of the Christian faith in building hospitals and orphanages, establishing public schools and universities, producing great scientists, influencing architecture and art, orchestrating music and song, and providing for the poor and needy cannot be fully estimated.

I do not have time or space here to even begin to enumerate the quiet but steady influence of the Christian faith on the modern world. I would highly recommend for those wanting more information on this topic to get a copy of three books: How Should We Then Live by Francis A. Schaeffer, How Christianity Changed the World by Alvin J. Schmidt, and Unimaginable—What our World Would Be Like Without Christianity by Jeremiah J. Johnston.

As the title of Dr. Johnston’s book suggests, what our world would be apart from the impact of the Gospel, lived out in the lives of serious disciples, is simply “unimaginable.”

My hope and prayer are that each one of us will take up the challenge to be an instrument in the hands of God to rightly influence our world. It is a daily battle that requires both devotion to God and discipline in life. A good start is to be a loyal friend, an honorable workman, a faithful husband or wife.

Socrates, the warrior/philosopher, according to the light he had at the time, stated, “I desire only to know the truth, and to live as well as I can and to the utmost of my power. I exhort all others to do the same. I exhort you also to take part in the great combat, which is the combat of life, and is greater than every other earthly conflict.”

The Roman legionnaires had a saying, “Life is being a soldier.” These ideas, like so many others of this world, are taken up and sanctified by the Apostle Paul, who said to young Timothy, “You therefore must endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ” (2 Tim. 2:3).

May the Spirit of God infuse us with that spiritual-warrior spirit that never ceases to seek the enlightenment of souls and the blessing of lives for those around us!


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