“There are some people [that] tell us that they are tremendously interested in the gospel as a point of view, as a Christian philosophy…Christianity is to them a matter of tremendous interest and they believe and proclaim that if only this Christian point of view could be applied in politics, in industry and in every other circle all our troubles would be solved…These are the people who decide to take up Christianity instead of being taken up by Christianity.”
D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones uttered these words in the sermon series which became the book Spiritual Depression. Spiritual depression is a melancholy disquiet of the soul, alternating between angst and stupor, that affects the souls of people and nations. A cause that Lloyd-Jones catalogs here is the utilitarian approach to the Christian faith, of valuing Christ’s kingdom as a means to an end. Now, of course no American church or Christian would ever say such a thing. Instead they will talk about the relevance and application of the gospel to their lives: what good is God to me and my interests? This is the way of spiritual depression.
The American church at this moment is in something of a spiritual malaise. This is nothing new; Lloyd-Jones preaching in 1960s London was no stranger to those whose interest in Christianity was focused on its worldview and its applications. There have always been those who view the faith pragmatically and have pressured their leaders and flocks to emphasize the usefulness of the religion. Yet, there is a particularly sharp uptick in the American church of those who see the church’s role as speaking prophetically (that is, mimicking the talking points of political parties with the same level of decorum) to faddish issues and the pressing concerns of that particular congregation’s constituency.
Our debates, discussions, splits and schisms, our tribal identities are being driven by differences over the utility of the gospel.
People crave punditry and activism from their pastors: “[Our old church] did not speak a single word about politics. Not on a single issue…When we got to FloodGate, it confirmed for us what we’d been missing.” Too many Christians are deeply dissatisfied with the witness of the church because it “fails” to speak to the issues of the day. Of course the full counsel of God should be brought to bear upon his people – but that is not what these people are after. For them, God’s counsel is useful only insofar as it scratches the political tickling of their ears.
This is the spiritual depression enveloping the church. When the Christian gospel is pursued for its effect rather than its savior it results in a church whose witness rests first on its actions instead of its God. Whatever a culture emphasizes becomes its real message. A congregation can recite the Apostles’ Creed week in and week out, but whatever animates the church and its people will become its real identity and testimony. Interest in Christianity for its social efficacy leads to only an approximate relationship to orthodoxy. Yes, perhaps Christian nationalism or BLM and CRT or some enlightened, winsome thirdwayism can lead to social good. But when these subjects predominate in the church’s hearts, blogs, and pulpits—when the function of Jesus becomes the means to a social end—“orthodox” or “biblical” are no longer good ways of describing the work of the church.
Orthodoxy is principally about God and what he has done, namely that God in Christ is reconciling the world to himself, not counting the world’s trespasses against them. This is the message first and foremost entrusted to the church.
It’s often commented that “Just preach the gospel” isn’t an effective means to address the injustices, social ills, and political and cultural sea change around us. And it’s true that the preaching of the gospel is inadequate to redeem the world.
It is not the preaching of the gospel, but the gospel itself which is the power of salvation to everyone who believes.
What then is the role of the church in contending against systemic injustice and corruption? We must start with what Christ has done. Lesslie Newbigin in The Gospel in a Pluralist Society observes that the New Testament speaks of the systemic corruption of power that oppose Christ and his church. Principalities, powers, dominions, and authorities are the elemental, unseen spiritual realities behind the embodiments of injustice in the world.
These powers operate in the heavenly places, a biblical spatial metaphor for the spiritual reality behind, within, and above human beings. Christ has already ascended to the throne in the heavenly places, and the church is seated there with him now. We both live in this world and the heavenly places with Christ now, which is where we wrestle with the principalities and powers. So as the church lives in the world now, it contends against the systems of evil, the principalities and powers that have twisted the systems and structures of God’s world against him.
But “the happenings on earth are only understood in terms of the spiritual battle between the victorious Christ who is seated on the throne in the heavenly places, and the spiritual powers that challenge his rule.” Christ has been victoriously seated on his throne in the heavenly places, with opposing powers under his feet. For the work of Jesus is a victory over all the systems of evil, because God “disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him.” God disarmed the powers of evil, past tense. We contend against the powers of evil. But it is God in Christ who has triumphed over them. Has. Not will, but has.
This is the content of the gospel, the power of salvation: the victory of Jesus. It is not the proclamation of the gospel that redeems the world, but the achievement of Christ.
Newbigin is simply following Athanasius on this point. Athanasius in On the Incarnation of the Word argues that the incarnation of Christ profoundly altered the world. His incarnation brought the divine into the created and broke the power of spiritual blindness upon the world. Jesus as the conquering word is not only defeating spiritual evil in the present and future, but has defeated it already by his advent. “But now, since Christ is announced everywhere, their madness has also ceased, and no longer is there anyone among them giving oracles. Formerly demons deceived human fancy…but now, after the divine manifestation of the Word has taken place, their illusion has ceased.”
In the cross of Christ, the systems of exploitation, infant murder, poverty, racism, abuse, and debauchery have been defeated. Obviously all these and more are still present and at work in our evil age. But the illusions have been shattered, and the devil-casted blindness over the world is being lifted because Jesus is and has been victorious. So, we do contend against principalities and powers, but we cannot be the victors. We plead for God to bring his kingdom, for it is the power of salvation for those who believe. Christian winning comes through resting by faith alone in Christ’s victory alone.
As Newbigin points out, Christ has at this stage of redemption disarmed, not destroyed, the systems and powers of evil. We do then contend against principalities and powers, not as kingdom builders or extenders, but as more than conquerors. For the church to be more than a conqueror does not mean we are conquerors par excellence, but that something greater is meant for us: to be united to God as his children and heirs. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ, not even the principalities and powers, the systems of sin and oppression; to be more than conquerors is to be the spoils and plunder of Christ’s victory. He acted, we are received. So, we contend, not to achieve victory, but because it has already been won.
The systems of evil were “disarmed, not destroyed.” Injustice continues on. But it is the gospel which is the power of salvation, not our wrestling. “If we in our own strength confide, our striving will be losing.” And when we commandeer the church and the gospel for the service of our own striving, for its usefulness for our conquests, we are setting ourselves and our congregations up for defeat.
The church is called to display the manifold wisdom of God in the heavenly places through its witness to the redemptive victory of Christ. Christ “was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the nations, believed on in the world.” As Newbigin puts it “[This] is why it is the business of the Church to make manifest to [the powers opposed to Christ] the wisdom of God…What was done in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus confronts the powers before it is preached among the nations.”
The church is to make known the power of the gospel. The church proclaims to the world what Christ accomplished. In other words, “Just preach the gospel” is, in fact, the call of the church. Now, of course that necessitates preaching the full counsel of God’s word, with all of its implications. Abraham Kuyper in his article “Christ and the Needy” forcefully pronounces woes upon the pastor who preaches “half a gospel” urging repentance for sin while neglecting “the divine mercy of God in Christ for the socially oppressed.” The gospel of the “full Christ” impacts social life; it is a gospel not just for the spiritual, but also for the physical and social. Christ’s kingship is good news for all the heavenly places, behind, within, and above our world.
The church then preaches what Christ has done for all of life and creation. Esau McCaulley in Reading While Black notes that the church proclaims the kingdom; it does not extend or build it. The church “lives as a witness to the kingdom and voices our words of protest when the present evil age oversteps its bounds.” The church should promote and encourage social and civil action, but the order of priority needs to be firmly and clearly established: The church is first devoted to leading with the gospel and its proclamation, then gratefully responds in action. For instance, the conclusion that businesses and nonprofits are “churchier than churches” can only occur when the supremacy of God acting is supplanted by human action in the church’s identity.
The church cannot afford to be pragmatic in its orientation. It is God who makes his kingdom come and his will to be done on earth as it is heaven. The kingdom is brought by God; we therefore gratefully live as kingdom citizens and pilgrims in our world. The church needs to be caught up in the primacy of God’s gracious action in redemption and in making that known. If your congregation disappeared from your neighborhood would anyone notice? I hope so – I hope that the neighborhood would first miss the faithful proclamation of the gospel. That is how the church makes manifest to the principalities and powers in your community the manifold wisdom of God.
Spiritual malaise comes from functionally subordinating the gospel to social and political action. The life of the church needs to be motivated by faith in the person and work of Christ. When Jesus’ work is practically reduced as a means to an end (God is reconciling the world to himself so that now we can bless the world/contend with the world through our social-political action, and this is the good news), depression is inevitable. When the measure of Jesus’ usefulness is how he motivates our action, the church will end up trusting in its own strength and savvy, and those are awfully limited. The failures, the resistance, the slow progress, the regressions will lead—and has led—people to despair.
By all means, work towards the common and greater good. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. If this is not the foregrounded message and raison d’etre of the church and its members, we have lost our way. When the measure of a church or pastor’s faithfulness is their speaking persistently to the news cycle or the social injustice and upheavals around us, an inversion has occurred. It is no longer Christ and his kingdom that drive the agenda, but the principalities and powers of the now and the urgent and the expedient. This way is both spiritually bankrupt and a pragmatic dead-end. It is the preaching of Christ crucified and the faithful administration of God’s worship and sacraments which is the biblical measure of church faithfulness.
Malaise comes from getting the order wrong. Right now, a lot of Christians are excited and energized for the social and political applications of faith, particularly recovering the political tradition of the church or galvanizing a movement for speaking truth to power in social issues. This is insufficient fuel for the life of the church and a crash is coming. By all means seek the good of the city—or neighborhood or nation—but seek the kingdom first. The crash will come for the church when those in the pews who took up and held onto Christianity for its social and psychological utility find that apart from faith in Christ as the one who reconciles them to God, the faith is not all that useful. Those who seek pundits and activists instead of pastors may be emotionally satisfied for a season, but the long-term result of the church embracing this approach is encroaching gloom that obscures the hope of God saving sinners. It destabilizes the witness of the church. When those outside its doors evaluate the faith, if the social and civil utility is the tip of the spear of the church’s testimony, they will be left in despondency at the state of the world and the apparent weakness of the gospel to do anything about it. The gospel is good news to those who are perishing because it is the good news of the definitive redemption of Jesus. It is not the good news of the social and civil triumph of the church now.
Don’t take up Christianity. Be taken up by Christ first.