Perhaps the most difficult problem in dealing with a postmodern culture is defining our terms. I doubt that a generation has ever been so flexible with language as this one. One hundred years ago W.H. Griffith Thomas, combating German Rationalism, said, “We cannot in any degree be sure of the thought unless we can be sure of the word.”1 Unfortunately that battle for context is all but lost on this generation. Consider the familiar proverb, “A rolling stone gathers no moss.” It doesn’t occur to us today that such a truth is not meant to be a good thing, but rather a warning! Notice G.K. Chesterton’s comment from a past generation:
In the heated idleness of youth we were all rather inclined to quarrel with the implication of that proverb which says that a rolling stone gathers no moss. We were inclined to ask, ‘Who wants to gather moss, except silly old ladies?’ But for all that we begin to perceive that the proverb is right. The rolling stone rolls echoing from rock to rock; but the rolling stone is dead. The moss is silent because the moss is alive.2
What had always been accepted as a bad thing: to be a rolling stone with continual motion but no purpose or life, has now become a good thing: to be continually moving so as not to become stale and grow roots. But as Chesterton noted, what some consider to be alive (because it is always moving) is only a misconception of what is really dead, and what some consider to be dead (because it is stationary) is actually the thing that is alive.
The Scripture always confronts the world’s thinking in similar ways. What the world considers weakness, God says is strength; what the world believes is the way up is actually the way down and the way down is actually the way up; what the world concludes as folly is actually the wisdom and power of God. We always have to be on our guard not to read a popular concept into a text and thereby come up with an almost opposite meaning.
We have read and studied the book of First John all of our lives in church. We do it because it is short and to the point and speaks to a number of important issues such as love and assurance. But the longer we read it or even translate it, the deeper it becomes and we wonder if we will ever get to the bottom of it (which, of course, we never will). Chapter two gives the reader four tests for the sincerity of his faith. At first these seem simple enough, but the more we read and reread them the more they take our thinking in the opposite direction from the thinking of the world.
The worldling would rather be a spiritual rolling stone, landing nowhere in particular than a stone with Biblical moss on it, planted in a solid place, amid the raging stream of culture (so he thinks). What he considers to be moveable and flexible God says is permanent, and what he considers to be accepted and factual God says will change with the power of His Word and Spirit. What the worldling believes is new and fresh is actually as old as mankind and void of any spiritual life.
The Postmodern Mindset is Old
John’s first test of spiritual life and vitality is whether we keep God’s commandments (1 John 2:3-8). But whoso keepeth his word, in him verily is the love of God perfected: hereby know we that we are in him. He that saith he abideth in him ought himself also so to walk, even as he walked (vs 5-6). Though love is one of the commandments, it is not all of the commandments of God. The Living Word has come to us in the form of the Written Word and the believer that claims to be walking in the Light will be seeking to live as He lived and also to be abiding by every precept that he finds in the Scripture.
The new mindset toward the commandments of God is as old as John and probably as old as Adam. The DaVinci Code/Jesus Seminar mentality of our day or the Rationalism of a hundred years ago, that God’s commands are not definite nor perceptible, leaves one in the old world and bars him from discovering new life in Christ.
Many Evangelicals (and some Fundamentalists) are flirting with the lure of being free from all of God’s commands. They do this in many ways including creating unscriptural dichotomies between belief and practice; by claiming individual vision from God leading to para-biblical ministry; even exalting technological capabilities over textual priorities.
Douglas Groothuis insightfully observed, “Because postmodernists decry the tyranny of the author over the reader, they rejoice in these technologies.”3 He also quoted Benjamin Woolley saying, “Artificial reality is the authentic postmodern condition, and virtual reality its definitive technological expression….The artificial is the authentic.”4 This is to say that the old attempt (by Gnostics of John’s day) to separate the commandments of God from the life of the believer is nothing new nor refreshing.
The New Generation is Old
John’s second test of spiritual life and vitality is whether we love the brethren (1 John 2:9-14). He that saith he is in the light and hateth his brother, is in darkness even until now. He that loveth his brother abideth in the light and there is none occasion of stumbling in him (vs 9-10). We have let a new generation totally steal John’s words from their meaning. Today we are told that the ones remaining in church, the ones retaining their convictions, the ones going on doing what they have always done by God’s Word, are the ones not loving the brethren! And why? Because they, supposedly, are not accepting the change that the new generation is demanding. But John obviously means (throughout this book and others) the opposite! Those who do not like what godly Christians do in church (and argue for a less demanding path) are the ones who do not love the “brethren.”
A few years ago (October 2001) I wrote an article titled, “Why Those Old People Won’t Change.” I made the point that the older folks are rightly offended by a younger generation accusing them of not changing. The fact is that the older generation DID change when they came to Christ and they have remained changed ever since. The irony is that the new generation, which is demanding change, has never changed from their worldly ways and has no intention of changing even within the church. The old truth is that such a new generation does not love the “brethren” (i.e. what Christians really are) and recoils at their very life of faith!
John’s example of this truth is in chapter three with Abel and Cain (3:10-16). Cain is the one who did not love Abel and in fact killed him because his own works were evil and his brother’s righteous (12). So John adds, Marvel not, my brethren, if the world hate you (13). Today we still have the Cains not loving the Abels because the Abels have lived and done righteously, and the Cains have no intention of making the same sacrifice.
Isn’t it interesting that we start out instructing “children” (2:13-14) to be like Christ, pointing them to a life of maturity and wisdom, praying that godliness will grow with the years, but at the same time we dishonor the “fathers” (2:13-14) in the church when they arrive at that very goal! One church father wrote, “This, then, is undoubtedly the genuine, legitimate rule of progress, the established and most beautiful order of growth: mature age always develops a person’s part and forms that which the wise Creator already framed in the infant.”5 How tragic then is the old truth that the new generation’s attitude is unloving toward “the brethren.”
The Contemporary Technique is Old
John’s third test of spiritual life and vitality is whether we do not love the world (1 John 2:15-17). Love not the world, neither the things in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world (15-16). The black and white nature of John’s statement is shocking to our generation. We have let the abnormal Christian life become the normal. Love of the world has become an accepted spiritual plateau, perhaps even an accepted theological position! By a verbal sleight of hand we have replaced the Biblical word “world” with the non-Biblical word “culture” and have even (against history) made culture morally neutral.
The new technique is to draw people into church with “culture” and to embrace it ourselves as an artist embraces his work. We hear, for example, things like, “there is no such thing as Christian music” and “God made all music” as if man has never put his sinful hand to anything and “made” it. The fact is God doesn’t make art, man makes art! And it is an expression of our natures which we rightfully call “culture.” It has always been a godly man’s duty to change and improve the culture of the world, not embrace it. Donald Whitney wrote, “The world finds the church and the things of God the most boring things imaginable. At best it finds them much less meaningful than other things. And the people of the world can’t understand why we don’t get as excited as they do about the things that turn them on.”6
The Ecumenical Spirit is Old
John’s fourth test of spiritual life and vitality is whether we do not love the antichrists (1 John 2:18-27). Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist will come, even now are there many antichrists (18). Anything that neutralizes our doctrine is aiding and abetting the flow of the age into the final antichristian religion and person. Doctrine is being down-played in favor of cooperation. Separation has become a nadir of the faith rather than a badge of courage. Denominating your faith honestly with an honest title has become hateful and prideful.
Pergamos and Thyatira have become the models for Christian ministry, active and busy in works while allowing things which God hates. These things still bring success with the world and in our pragmatic day we have learned to ignore the leaven and enjoy the growth. In chapter four John demands that we “try the spirits” (4:1) not “try them out.” He said of the false messengers, They are of the world, therefore speak they of the world, and the world heareth them. We are of God: he that heareth God heareth us; he that is not of God heareth not us (4:5-6).
And So . . . .
Guess what has not changed? The world has not changed! Whether outside the church or inside, it will not and cannot live by the Spirit. Even carnal believers will continue to walk after the flesh, desiring only milk but carrying the baggage of the old life like strong men!
Guess what has changed? The church of Jesus Christ has changed! She is as a bride adorned for her Husband, as a chaste virgin to Christ, waiting to be removed from her present surroundings and transported in the skies to her Father’s house, where she will reflect the glory of her Lord forever! She is not of them that turn back!Notes: 1. W.H. Griffith Thomas, “Old Testament Criticism and New Testament Christianity” R.A. Torrey, A.C. Dixon & others, eds., The Fundamentals (Grand Rapids: Baker Books) 144. 2. G.K. Chesterton, Heretics (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000) 23. 3. Douglas Groothuis, The Soul In Cyberspace (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1997) 69. 4. Quoted by Groothuis, 27. 5. Vincent of Lerins, “Spiritual Maturity,” Sharrer & Vanker, eds. Day by Day With the Early Church Fathers (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999) 243. 6. Donald Whitney, How Can I Be Sure I’m A Christian? (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1994) 56.