by John Frame
[Originally published in Christian Culture (Sept., 2004), and posted at the web site for the Center for Cultural Leadership, https://www.christianculture.com/cgi-local/npublisher/viewnews.cgi?category=3&id=1095447380, Sept. 17, 2004. Edited by Andrew Sandlin.]
Historical change is an important part of our ethical situation. As we apply the law of God, we must understand how it applies to each situation that comes before us. That work never ends. We may not assume that the Reformers or the Puritans, for example, finished the task, no matter how great our respect for these great ministers of the Word. The Puritans did not have to evaluate nuclear warfare, genetic engineering, modern science, or the “new age” from Scripture; but we cannot avoid those tasks in our own time.
I must warn you against taking certain popular shortcuts.
For example, it is not scriptural to approach ethics with a mere traditionalism, a desire merely to emulate the Christianity of a past age. Whether or not we believe that past ages were “better” than this one, our mandate is not to repristinate or recreate a past situation; it is to apply the scriptures to the situation of today. I fear that some churches seek to be mere museum pieces: historical artifacts where people can go to hear old-fashioned talk and experience older forms of church life; spiritual versions of Colonial Williamsburg. On the contrary, Christian worship is to be contemporary, because it must be intelligible (1 Cor. 14), and the church’s preaching must adapt (insofar as Scripture permits) to the language and habits of the target population (1 Cor. 9).
Mistaken View of Divine Sovereignty
People who pit divine sovereignty against human responsibility and therefore refuse to make use of modern technology, demographic studies, etc. also avoid the task illegitimately. All modern tools must be evaluated by the Scripture as to what we should use and how we should use them. But the fact that God is sovereign in salvation does not invalidate human study, strategy, plans, techniques, or efforts. Otherwise there would be no point in seeking even to communicate effectively; we could walk into a crowd, say any dumb thing we please, and wait for God to act. We all know that is not right. We all see the importance of studying the languages and cultures of our target audiences, and in preaching classes we learn to speak effectively. In doing so we have no thought that such human preparation violates divine sovereignty. Why should we not extend this logic to demographic studies and modern communicative techniques?
The Case for Godly Change
If we avoid these shortcuts, we will have to face the fact that ethics in our time, theology as well, to say nothing of church life and evangelistic strategy, should be different today, in important ways, from all past ages of church history, including the New Testament period. We face situations (both difficulties and opportunities) that were not faced by Machen, Kuyper, Hodge, Edwards, Owen, Calvin, Augustine, and Paul. The Word must be applied to those new situations. Of course, I grant that we are in the same warfare as the older saints, and that we must use the same spiritual weapons. But in its specifics that war is different now.
The Lazy and the Shortcutters
Those who take the lazy way, the way of shortcuts, will be left behind. They may be instructive historical artifacts, but they will not be powerful instruments to bring people to Christ. God can, of course, use the feeblest instruments; but He typically honors the work of believers who count the costs and seize the opportunities.
Besides laziness, there is a certain selfishness about the shortcut mentality. Shortcutters are those who feel comfortable with certain “tried and true” forms of life and witness, forms that God has used in the past. Then they seek to produce a theological rationale for keeping those forms even when times have changed. They talk as if they are fighting for Biblical principle, though in fact they are merely arguing for a certain application of Scripture that was appropriate to a past situation.
Confusing the Debate
The debate is confused, of course, by words like “conservative,” which are applied both to defenders of scriptural principle and to those who merely defend past ways of doing things without scriptural justification. But defending authentic Biblical principle is one thing; defending the continuance of past applications into our own time is something very different. Both shortcutters and critics of shortcutters need to be more aware of this distinction.
But what masquerades as a battle for Biblical principle is often at bottom a mere rationalization of selfish impulses, a desire to stay comfortable, to avoid having to change familiar patterns. Often, however, Scripture itself is on the side of change! 1 Corinthians 9 is an important text in this respect. Paul was willing to be a Jew among the Jews, a Gentile among the Gentiles, that some might be saved. He did not seek his own comfort, even his own rights. Indeed, he allowed his body to be buffeted, lest while preaching to others he himself should be a castaway. He tried “to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good, but the good of many, that they might be saved” (1 Cor. 10:33). And note: Immediately after this verse, he urges, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (11:1).
This means that in our evangelistic methodology, indeed in our worship (for that too has an evangelistic element, 14:24f), our goal must not be to please ourselves, but to bend and stretch, to accept discomfort and the trauma of change, in order to speak the Christian Faith into the contemporary world.