Some of you have been loosely discussing relevance around here over the past several days. Well, in listening to the sermon recommended to me by Michael Riley, Let Your Passion Be Single by John Piper, I heard something that made me think of these conversations. First let me observe that it seems like those who advocate “relevance” really want Christians to be like the world in every way we can sans sin in order to win the world. Well, Paul’s view of “gospel relevance” had a wholly different flavor. For him, it seems as if he avoided mixing the gospel with anything at all that would make it more easily accepted by the people who heard him and thereby deprive the power of God. Instead, he presented as purely as possible “Jesus Christ and him crucified.” He says in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5,
And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
As I said a few days ago, I think the heightened awareness concerning “contextualization” is helpful, not to help us figure out how better to “dress up” the gospel to make it somehow more “intelligible” to the world, but to show us where we have gone too far. For those who would raise Paul’s being “all things to all men” (1 Cor 9:19-24), what Paul says there at very least is that he still was under the Law of Christ, even when “without the Law.” Do we even know what the “law of Christ” is anymore? That passage is not about acting like sinners for the sake of evangelism, but the very opposite–denying ourselves for that end. It’s not about adding things the message in order to make the gospel somehow relevant, but denying yourself certain liberties which could become a moral distraction from your message. The Apostle says in the paragraph following,
Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified (1 Cor 9:24-27).
In this context hear John Piper on a different subject, here defending his idea of living for delight against the counter that the Christian is to deny himself. He introduces the parable in Matthew 13:44, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” To which he explains,
The point of the parable is denying yourself everything–except the Kingdom. There is self-denial, but not ultimate self-denial. Oh, no! Ultimate self-denial is atheism. Deny yourself everything that stands between you and the living water. Become a real Christian hedonist, not the kind of two-bit half-hearted hedonists that live in the world today that suck on these broken cisterns until they yield disease. I just read on the plane in Ezekiel a little farther on, and it said “they are sick with their harlotries.” And I thought, “Oh, are they ever!” The world is sick with its harlotries, which means, it says to its husband, God, “Just give me enough money so that I can pay my paramour down at the store.” And they are sick with their harlotries. And we should deny ourselves these harlotries that we may marry the all-satisfying God of the universe. Oh, I believe in self-denial. Deny yourself tin so that you can have the gold of God’s fellowship, and when I say the gold of God’s fellowship, I don’t mean a posh hotel, nice clothes or a big meal, or a health, wealth, and prosperity gospel, and I’m sure I’m speaking with you and not against you here. We know that kind of gospel is not the gospel. We’re called to live stream-lined lives in this broken age so that the money that’s in this room flows in gospel channels in tremendous measure and we keep a cap on our life-styles so that we’re not viewed by the world, “Oh, they have the same values we do so what good is their faith?” Be ready to give an answer if anybody asks a reason for the hope that is in you. Has anybody asked you a reason for the hope that is in you recently? And the reason they don’t is because it looks like we’re hoping in the same things they do. You know, it’s one thing to have an answer ready, and it’s another thing to live a lifestyle that causes people to ask you for it. And that’s a suffering lifestyle. You go to a hard place, you go through a divided pancreas, and you keep a certain demeanor about yourself, rooted in God and people begin to wonder: “Life doesn’t seem to be his ultimate value.” What then is your hope in? At those points we may be asked. I believe in self-denial in order to get the best.
There’s a real, almost beautiful, relevance in other-wordliness.