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Guest Column: Society and the Christian ethic

April 1999 | by Graham Harrison

When I was a boy my father used to take me twice a year to Newport. The object of the exercise was hopefully to see Cardiff RFC tank our near neighbours and rivals which usually, but not as frequently as I would have liked, they did. (Little did he or I suspect that I would subsequently spend most of my life in that town!)

In those days we had no difficulty in standing in the middle of a bunch of the opposing team’s supporters and sharing in the mutually provocative but good-natured banter that went on. I doubt if you could do it today! Rival fans – at least in soccer matches – have to be penned in separate enclosures lest they set on each other like the animals some of the players on the pitch seem to be.

Spiritual capital

Now let me make it quite clear that this column is not about nostalgia. What I have just described is but one symptom illustrating the degree to which our own country has moved decisively away from the Christian consensus that once existed here. I labour under no delusion that in those far-off days the land was populated with earnest and devout Christians. Far from it! But what was different was the general acceptance of a set of biblical moral values underlying society, indeed constituting the very presuppositions on which society was deemed possible.

If it is true in the relatively trivial area of crowds and football matches, how much more is it so of the whole moral and spiritual climate that prevails today. Britain has changed – and not for the better. The spiritual capital accumulated in past centuries has been spent. In Britain today we face a presumptive hostility to Christian claims and the Christian ethic. We are not where we used to be, and it is quite pathetic if Christians of all people refuse to face up to this.

On our doorstep

No doubt it is partly this change in society’s attitudes and presuppositions that has added strength – and maybe given some plausibility – to the case that is being argued with increasing vigour, namely, that we need to question some of the assumptions that we have taken for granted in the realm of evangelical theology. The result is that questions are being raised and debated in evangelical circles that once were ruled out of court. Or, to change the illustration, evangelicalism increasingly seems to be taking on the nature of one of those large golfing umbrellas that can provide shelter for far more than could have squeezed under the old sort.

To be fair, a number of factors have been influential in bringing about this change. Take just one, for instance. The ‘heathen’ used to be far away. Now they are on our doorstep. Of course, the reality is that they have always been on our doorstep, but we were far too polite to use such a term to describe our nice, white, respectable neighbours who would turn out dutifully at our Christmas and Easter services.

Now, however, especially in our industrial and commercial urban areas, there are whole districts populated by immigrants who make no pretence of being Christians. In many cases they are increasingly belligerent for their own religion, be it Islam, Hinduism, or whatever. Often their standard of family care and capacity for hard work puts native-born Britons to shame.

Christ the only way to God

So are they really going to hell unless they believe on the Lord Jesus Christ? The question is no longer the abstract one you could argue about in the adult Bible class, with a measure of spiritual detachment because it was all happening on the other side of the world. It is here and it is here to stay. Can we claim any longer that Jesus is the only way to God? After all, it was not so many years ago that an Archbishop of Canterbury affirmed that there might well be atheists in heaven! Presumably he was talking about former atheists. But, you see, the last thing that you must be guilty of these days is to have convictions which are definite and which carry (as part of their logic) an insistence that views which are diametrically opposed to them are wrong. ‘Fundamentalists’ might believe such things, but not intelligent, thinking people. Which is all rather awkward for what passes as the historic faith of the church.

Becoming a Christian

Just how do we communicate the gospel effectively to a generation that has long since thrown overboard the very principles on which that gospel rests? The absolutes have gone. How strangely negative of God to have tied up morality and much else in terms of ten (mostly restrictive) commandments! He clearly could not have had twentieth, still less, twenty-first, century society in view when he did so.

Is it any wonder that successive Parliaments have set about rewriting just about every one of them and putting the rewritten versions on the national statute book? Not quite Sinaitic tablets of stone, but more meaningful to contemporary man! I suppose you could argue that it simply amounts to saying that man now does live by bread alone – although like Marie Antoinette of sad memory, we do seem to be more familiar with cake than with bread. Rethink seems to be the order of the day.

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Let me illustrate that in three pretty crucial areas. How does a person become a Christian? You can hardly get more basic than that. The answer of the Protestant Reformers was very clear and precise. It is by the grace of God and through the instrumentality of faith exercised by the sinner. That resulted in his being justified, which in turn meant that he was accepted as righteous in God’s sight; not as the result of anything that he had done but entirely because of what Christ had done for him. His sins had been accounted to the Saviour and his righteousness credited to the believer. The Christian’s righteousness was ‘an alien righteousness’, said Martin Luther, and in putting it like that he was simply restating what Paul had already put very plainly in the New Testament.

A word seldom heard

But today ‘justification’ is a word seldom heard and even less frequently understood in many evangelical circles. Consequently, the old objections to the Protestant doctrine raised by the theologians of the Counter Reformation are being given credence again. It is a ‘legal fiction’ and will produce ‘antinomianism’, we are told, unless some safeguards are built into the concept.

The error is as old as the opening verses of Romans 6. What Paul does there and in his other epistles is to rigorously distinguish between justification and sanctification. Faith works by love, but faith is not love. As Spurgeon used to say, the gospel is not ‘Love the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved’, but ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved’.

An unfeeling place

But move on with me to the next point. This world is full of need and, generally speaking, it is a very unfeeling place. Perhaps that has been true of no generation so much as our own. Pot-bellied, starving children with flies crawling all over their faces are a TV image that has long since lost its power to move us to compassion. It is the same with the ravages of war. People in Sierra Leone may be having their hands or feet amputated with machetes by the rebels; genocide on a massive scale may be happening in various parts of the world; but when the cameras zoom in on the scene, we’ve seen it all before. So we flick the button to see if there’s something more interesting on the other channel. How callous we have become!

To a lesser extent we are familiar with suffering and a measure of deprivation in our own country. Homelessness, abuse of children, and long-term unemployment, all present real needs in society. At the beginning of the century there were many well-intentioned theologians who advocated what became known as ‘the social gospel’ and many a Christian’s heart-strings were tugged by it.

But it didn’t work then and it doesn’t work now. Is it really the case that sinners are not interested in the gospel until their material needs have been met by those bringing that gospel to them? If so, the New Testament is strangely silent on the issue. The way to a man’s soul is not through his stomach.

‘Right wing reactionary’ do I hear you saying? Hardly! Historically it would be simple to show that social action comes in the wake of the powerful and God-blessed presentation of the gospel – witness the great reform programme of the last century that came in on the back of the Methodist Revival of the previous one. Certainly the gospel does not need the prop of social action to gain authenticity or credibility. Nor is that social action the second wing of the bird that enables it to fly rather than plunge to the ground.

Unmentionable subject

Then finally, just a word about hell – a subject that is not mentioned too frequently in polite company these days. Any man in his right senses, Christian or otherwise, would shy away from the very idea. How pathetic that men joke about it! But it does seem to be something about which the Bible has quite a bit to say.

And let me remind you that, contrary to popular opinion, it is Jesus, not Paul, who makes the most offensive statements about that state and condition; offensive, that is, to the natural man. Lose sight of it and you are on the high road to post-mortem salvation, atheists in heaven and even full-blown universalism. Try as hard as you might, you simply cannot reduce our Lord’s terrifying descriptions to the level of vacuous imagery that corresponds to no awful reality.

Mrs Alexander in her inimitable simple style penned some very profound truths when she wrote: ‘He died that we might be forgiven, He died to make us good, That we might go at last to heaven, Saved by his precious blood’.

If you wanted to sound erudite I suppose you could say that she was dealing with justification, sanctification, glorification and the atonement – and all in four lines! But she was really, and unwittingly, putting her finger on areas of controversy that would erupt when her evangelical successors were hovering on the brink of the next millennium. These truths may not be the whole of the gospel, but they surely make up a very considerable chunk of it.