Introduction: 'Shouldn't we just do evangelism?'
Someone asked me a while back, "Why does this church talk so much about public issues? Shouldn't we just do evangelism?" So I asked him what he meant by 'public issues', and he said things like marriage and divorce, education, abortion and so on. So I said, "How would you define evangelism?" And he said, "Telling people about Jesus." So I said, "Telling them what, exactly?" And he said, "That Jesus is their rightful Lord and that they need to be forgiven and come back under his Lordship", which was a good answer. So I said, OK, let's imagine we just do evangelism. And someone puts their faith in Jesus. And let's say he's got children. And he learns that having Jesus as Lord includes the command in Ephesians 6.4 to:
"bring [his children] up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord."
But then I said, let's also say he's a governor at the children's school. And he hears about a new sex education course being proposed. And he gets hold of a copy and sees that it goes utterly against 'the discipline and instruction of the Lord' – it would be corrupting for his children. And I said to this person, "What would you say to that dad? 'Just do evangelism'? 'Don't get side-tracked with issues like that'?" And he got the point: he saw that having Jesus as Lord would mean that dad having to get involved in that issue – and not just for his own children's sake, but for other children's sake, and for the teachers' sake, as well – so they don't have to teach stuff they might not want to.
The point is: you can't 'just evangelise' – because the gospel is that Jesus is God and the rightful Lord of every human being and every area of human life. So if you're living with Jesus as Lord, you'll have to take a stand for him on public issues. Or, to quote our church mission statement, you'll have to contend for truth.
In this sermon series, we've aimed to:
- Introduce our church mission statement (if you don't know it already)
- Show how it comes from the Bible
- Explain what it means for each of us in practice
So our church mission statement says we're to:
- Live godly lives
- Grow the church
- Change our nation
And tonight we're moving on to 'Change our nation'. And what we're saying there is that God wants us to influence our society for the better. And that involves two main things:
- Contending for truth
- Caring for needs
And those two things ideally go hand in hand. So, for example, some of you volunteer with the Tyneside Pregnancy and Advice Centre – TPAC for short. It was set up by a Christian doctor who'd become more and more aware of the abortion culture in his hospital – of how people were being encouraged wholesale in that direction. And he'd contended for truth – he'd taken the stand that an unborn child isn't just part of the mother's body over which she has the right; but is a genetically unique human being with his or her own right to live. But he saw there was also a job to do of caring for needs – of offering pregnant mums both the chance to hear alternative advice, and support for going ahead with the pregnancy, if they chose to. Which led to TPAC. Now, we'll look at caring for needs in two weeks' time. But for tonight, we'll just do contending for truth.
What is 'contending for truth' –and where does it come from in the Bible?
Now sometimes that might be at the political level of supporting a campaign – like the Christian Institute's campaigns to influence decisions in Government. Most recently they were instrumental in the defeat of the Assisted Dying Bill. And if you don't know, the Christian Institute is based here in Newcastle and aims to help Christians influence our society. And if you are a Christian but don't yet know about it, can I stick my neck out and say I think it's essential that you do. And you can find out about it either from the Christian Institute information in our resources area; or by visiting their website, 'christian.org.uk'.
So contending for truth might be at the political level. But most often, it's at the personal, conversational level. For example, a Christian accountant I know has been told several times by her boss to sign off accounts when she's known they've not been above board on some things. And she has had to say, 'No, I can't.'
So where in the Bible does this part of our church mission statement come from? Well, it's implied throughout the Bible, but we're going to look at a passage where it's pretty explicit. So would you turn to Matthew chapter 5, and look down to verses 1-2:
"Seeing the crowds, [Jesus] went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying…"
So crowds were following Jesus. But the end of Matthew 4 says they were superficial followers – only on the 'Jesus bandwagon' in the hope that he'd heal them or their sick friends or relatives. But Jesus also had a small, inner circle of more committed disciples. They'd been with him a while, and here he takes them aside and challenges them as to whether they're just superficial as well – or genuine disciples. And he does that by painting this portrait of what someone looks like who's really living under his Lordship. So look on to verse 3:
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
So the foundational thing is that genuine disciples are 'poor in spirit'. In other words, just like the homeless person who knows he has nothing and depends on charity, they know they have nothing to bring to God that can earn his acceptance, and that they're always only sinners who depend for his acceptance on his forgiveness. And that's crucial in contending for truth. Because it's so easy to come over as judgemental and superior and hard. But you're less likely to do that if you know that you're as much a sinner as anyone, and that you're just as capable of doing the things you're contending against – and may even have done them. That will make all the difference to your manner. But then look on to verse 6:
"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied."
Now 'righteousness' means living life the right way in God's eyes. So that's what genuine disciples 'hunger and thirst for' in their own lives. But unless you're on a desert island, that's not just going to be a private affair, because sooner or later you're going to have to tell others that you can't sign the accounts, or can't sign an abortion consent form – and explain why. But actually, verse 6 isn't just about wanting your own life to be right in God's eyes. Because in the very next chapter of Matthew, chapter 6, verse 10, Jesus teaches us to pray,
"your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."
So 'hunger and thirst for righteousness' also means wanting the life of your children's school to be right in God's eyes. Or the life of your hospital or your workplace or the nation as a whole. At least, as right as it can be; at least, more right in God's eyes than it is now. But then look on to verse 10 (this is a topical talk so we're just following this theme of 'righteousness'):
"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
Now that assumes that genuine disciples will stand publically for righteousness. After all, if you privatise your faith and leave it at home, no-one's going to object – because it's never going to surface in places like work and say things like, 'I can't sign these accounts.' You only get negative reactions – persecution – if you stand publically for righteousness – which Jesus clearly assumes the genuine disciple will. And assuming the negative reaction isn't because we've been tactless and foolish, the negative reaction will be because our stand has exposed the sin of others and implicitly judges it. So my accountant friend didn't climb on her soapbox and say to her boss, 'You're a crook – you should be put behind bars.' She just said, 'I can't sign these accounts.' But just saying that exposes sin and implicitly judges it – and consequently doesn't go down well. So Jesus carries on in verses 11-12 to encourage us:
"Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you."
And that parallel with the prophets shows that Jesus assumes we won't just try to do the right thing, but that we'll speak out as well. Because that's what the prophets did: they didn't just try to live right; they said publically, 'This is what's right in God's eyes – whereas you're doing that, which isn't.' And because that generally doesn't go down well, we're all tempted to conform and not contend, which is why Jesus said what he said next, in verse 13:
"You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people's feet."
Now Jesus doesn't say exactly what he means by that. The most common use of salt in his day was for preserving meat – to combat decay. But whether or not that was in his mind, he's clearly saying he means genuine disciples to be a distinctive, active ingredient in society, to influence it for the better. And not just by trying to live right; but by speaking out as well.
So that's one part of the Bible where this 'contend for truth' bit of our mission statement comes from. It wasn't cooked up in a planning meeting – it comes from Jesus and the Bible. So let's move on to:
What does this mean for each of us in practice?
And the first thing to say is that I doubt any of us finds contending for truth easy or pleasant. Not least because of the mood in our society that says, 'You can't say you've got the Truth (with a capital 'T'), you're not allowed to say this is Right and this is Wrong. All you can say is that those are your beliefs – but you have to accept that other peoples' beliefs are equally valid.' That's the mood, isn't it? And it sets us several challenges:
Challenge #1: Can we really say something is 'true' or 'right' or 'best'?
Well, look back to Matthew 5, verse 6, again:
"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness"
Which I said means living life the right way in God's eyes. And God has revealed for us what's right and wrong, true and false, in the Bible. Now someone who's not a Christian might say, 'But that's just your belief – it's just your personal opinion that the God the Bible talks about is real.' To which I want to say: no, it's not just that. For example, it's not 'just my belief' that Jesus existed – as if that's on a par with me believing in fairies – because he really did exist – which, I think, no serious secular historian would deny. And it's not 'just my belief' that Jesus said and did what the four Gospels record (for example, what we're looking at tonight). I've investigated their reliability and credibility and have good reason to believe them. And it's not 'just my belief' that he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and that his body was gone from the tomb three days later, and that eye-witnesses claimed to see him risen from the dead, and that they therefore became fully and finally convinced that he was God. There's solid, historical, factual reason for believing that's all true.
And that same Jesus endorsed the message of the whole Bible. So if I'm convinced he's God, that's my ground, my reason, for believing that the Bible reveals for us what's right and wrong, true and false.
By contrast, if you push the average secular person, they'll usually end up saying they don't really believe that all beliefs are equally valid and should be equally affirmed and accepted. Mention things like paedophilia or murder and you soon find they believe in some absolutes. But ask what's their ground, their reason, for believing those absolutes, and they're found wanting. Because here's the catch: people don't want God, but do still need absolutes. But you can't have one without the other.
Let me use the example of marriage. As you know, there's been a lot of contending about marriage in our society recently, and legally, it's been drastically redefined to include same-sex relationships. 'And who are we to say otherwise?' you might think. Certainly, others may say to us, 'Who are you to say otherwise?' Well, personally, I don't think I'm anybody to say otherwise. But the question is: is there a definition of marriage, a norm for marriage, which is actually to be found outside the opinion of all of us? Well, turn back in the Bible to Genesis chapter 2, which tells us that God created the original man and woman equal – but profoundly different and yet complementary to one another. So now look at Genesis 2.24:
"Therefore [i.e. because of the very way we're created] a man [i.e. any man, anywhere, anytime in history] shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife [that's the permanent commitment of marriage], and they shall become one flesh [that's the union God creates through marriage, which is only broken by death]."
So the logic is that it's because of the very way we're created that human beings have this built-in desire for life-long partnership, for which marriage fits us like a glove fits a hand. I know for some people, because of the fall, that that desire has shifted to the same sex. And it's a big thing to come to terms with the fact that acting on that same-sex desire isn't God's will – and that's a whole other sermon in itself. But the point here is: that marriage isn't just a human institution. It's a God-created institution, designed to suit the way men and women have been created, and to serve the desire for life-long partnership that God has hard-wired us with. So it is God who defines what marriage is. So we can say that this definition in Genesis 2 is right; and that our Government's definition is wrong.
But this isn't just a matter of what's right. It's a matter of what's good for people. Because it stands to reason that since God is our loving and wise Creator, what's right in his eyes is simultaneously what's best for us – whatever area of his will for our lives you're talking about. And in the case of male-female relationships, the social sciences have shown that marriage, as defined by God, is the best arrangement for people who want a life-long partnership, and for any children they have. So, can we really say things like the Biblical definition of marriage are 'true' or 'right' or 'best'? Yes we can, and we should.
And, sticking with the marriage example, if the Bible's definition is true and best for all people, then contending for it is actually a form of loving my neighbour. Because if I'm saying I believe the Bible's teaching on marriage, then I'm really saying I believe my co-habiting neighbours would be better off married; and that it would be better if we lived in a society which, by its laws and its atmosphere, encouraged and protected marriage. And that's not just fighting my little corner because I want to be right, or want society to be my way. That's called loving my neighbour. Which is why, during the Christian Institute's Campaign For Marriage I did a lot of letter-writing to MP's and so on. Now if my literal next door neighbours, across the fence, asked me what I thought of their co-habiting and whether I thought marriage was better than co-habitation, then how I'd say things would be very different – because that's conversation. But as gently and positively as I could, I'd be trying to say the same thing.
Here, then, is another challenge when it comes to contending for truth. People often say:
Challenge #2: 'You have no right to impose your views on others'
And the first thing I'd say to that is that, in conversation, that issue simply just doesn't arise. For example, if I answer my neighbour's question about co-habitation versus marriage, I'm not imposing my view. I'm just putting it out there. The next step up from just putting my view out there is to argue for it – to give reasons. But again, that's not imposing anything (although our culture, where people are hyper-sensitive to not being 'affirmed', may accuse us of doing so).
But then what about something like the Campaign For Marriage which is being run by the Christian Institute and other organisations? Surely that's trying to impose something on others isn't it? Well, no. Because the only body with power to impose things on us at a legislative level is Parliament. And when it comes to marriage, it has done: it's imposed this radical redefinition of marriage on us in a thoroughly undemocratic way. But the point is: in a democracy everyone has the right to try to influence that body. Because there's no question that they will impose things on us – after all, the people in there got there because they want power. The question is: will those things be more or less in line with righteousness, to use Jesus's word? Which is another way of saying: will they be more or less good for people? And not just some people, but all people. Because plenty of groups try to influence Government just to protect their little corner and their rights (or what they see as their rights). What's different (or should be) about Christians is that we try to influence Government to do what's good for everyone. Because here's an absolutely vital thing to get: the morality we find in the Bible isn't just 'Christian morality' – it's human morality. It's the Creator's morality for all his creatures – whether they acknowledge his existence or not.
And let me say that the crucial thing that's good for everyone, which we must contend for, is freedom of religion. Because although I said at the start that we can't just evangelise, we must evangelise – because actually the highest form of loving my neighbour is to tell him or her about Jesus. Because talking to my neighbours about marriage may alter the destiny of their relationship and how long it lasts in this life. But only talking to them about Jesus will affect their eternal destiny, which is a much bigger matter. And for talking to them about Jesus, we need not just freedom to believe the gospel, but two other freedoms that are often lacking in other societies (for example, Muslim-influenced ones): freedom to speak the gospel and freedom for people to convert to Christ without fear of consequences. And that's why, in your lifetime, you must above all contend for religious liberty.
Let me end with three quick questions about contending for truth. Each answer could be a whole talk; I'll just say a word.
Q1: How do I argue something I believe from the Bible, when the other person doesn't accept the Bible?
Well part of the answer is to look for arguments that they should be willing to accept – whatever they think about the Bible. For example, when it comes to marriage, one line of arguing is to say that throughout history and across cultures, the Bible's definition has been more or less universally recognised. And you can ask, 'Why is that? Could it be that that definition of marriage is somehow built in to human beings?'
Another line of arguing is from the social sciences – which do show that, on average, marriage does make for the best outcomes for the couple involved, and for any children they have. And again you can ask, 'Why is that? Does that point to there being something intrinsically right about marriage for human beings?'
Q2: How can I avoid coming across as judgmental, superior and hard?
That's a massively important question, which definitely deserves another sermon. But all I can say for now is this. Part of the answer is to show the qualities of the genuine disciple in Matthew 5 – 'poor in spirit', 'meek', 'merciful', 'peacemaker' – any time that we're contending for truth. Part of the answer is to listen really well, and put yourself as best you can in the shoes of the person or people arguing against you, and try to understand them. But part of the answer is that it's not in our power to avoid being perceived in that way, however careful and Christ-like we're being. After all, Jesus lived this area of life (like all areas of life) perfectly right – and was crucified for it.
Q3: Can we really change our nation?
It's easy to doubt that, when there does seem to be a backlash against the Christian influence that's shaped our country – and, among some, a relish at seeing it go. But even recently we've seen Christian influence change our nation – in helping to defeat that Assisted Dying Bill. And we can look further back to the social reform that came through Christians after the 18th century revival – Christians like William Wilberforce who led the campaign against slavery. Which shows that, by God's grace, it can happen even when a nation is in a bad way – which it was back in Wilberforce's day, and is now.
And the thing about this last question is that Jesus didn't say, 'Try to influence your society if you can, but if you think it's a lost cause, just keep your head down.' No, talking about genuine disciples he said (and says), Matthew 5, verse 13:
"You are the salt of the earth…"
And that's not something you choose to do or not do, depending on what you think are your chances of success, or of getting it in the neck for your efforts. That's something you are. Genuine disciples who are being changed by God from the inside out simply are distinctive, active ingredients in society, who influence it for the better. And what does Jesus say if we turn out not to be like that? He says, verse 13:
"… but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people's feet."
What he's saying is that it's of the very nature of salt to be salty. And if it's not, it's not real salt; Tesco's sold you a dud – take it back and get a refund! And he's saying: in the same way, it's of the very nature of a genuine disciple to be socially and morally salty – to be that distinctive, active ingredient that influences society for the better. And if I'm not being that, it calls into question whether I'm really a genuine disciple in the first place. And so this 'Contend for truth' part of our mission statement – along with the other five parts – is not just telling us what each of us as disciples should be doing. It's also asking each of us the question whether we're real disciples, yet, at all.