Thursday, October 2, 2008

Laying the Foundation for Sin


This morning in my weekly Bible study time with one of my elders we were in Acts 21.  We  talked about the suggestion by James that Paul go to the temple and offer the sacrifices, go through the purification rites, etc. so that the Jewish Christians would know that he was still faithful to his Hebrew heritage.

Take these men, join in their purification rites and pay their expenses, so that they can have their heads shaved. Then everyone will know there is no truth in these reports about you, but that you yourself are living in obedience to the law. (Acts 21:24)

We talked about whether this was accommodation or expedience.  We concluded that the larger conversation was that Paul wanted to be able to speak into the culture in which he existed.  It was morally neutral whether or not he needed to offer the sacrifices, but he did so in order to gain a hearing for the gospel. 

The application for us can be that in an increasingly post-modern world, we must ask, which things are morally neutral but which we have not done before or which we might even not do in another culture.

I understand the emphasis of those who say our preaching should be solely about God.  That is a reaction to the "felt need" emphasis of the 80's & 90's.  And yet if we pay no attention to how our listeners hear or how they will receive what we are saying, we are doing the gospel injustice.

Zach Eswine (Preaching to a Post-Everything World) states

We want to learn how to "begin our message where the Bible begins--with the dignity and high calling of all human beings because they are created in the image of God." [Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from It's Cultural Captivity]

We desire to learn this skill because if we as preachers always and only start with the message of sin, without placing our sin into the context of our having been created, we discard vital aspects of the beauty of redemption. In churched contexts, we may unwittingly foster a dualism that treats creation without importance, focuses only on the soul, and only then on the sinner's need for forgiveness before God. Human identity becomes attached more to sin than to God's handiwork.  Likewise in unchurched and in-between cultural contexts:

  • We may come across to nonbelievers as merely negative and judgmental
  • We may render the rest of our message incoherent.  Secular persons often have no background in biblical teaching--which means that the concept of sin makes no sense to them.  So beginning with sin instead of creation is like trying to read a book by opening it in the middle: they don't know the characters and can't make sense of the plot.
  • We will not be able to explain redemption--because its goal is  precisely to restore us to our original, created status.

The common theme between both of these is cultural sensitivity.  A sermon can be (must be) about God and not humans.  But (and this is a big but) how we get to God and how we take our listeners from where they are to God will vary highly. 

What are your thoughts?

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