We have one and only one source of undiluted truth, and that’s God’s Word. We do not look elsewhere in order to gain our bearings. We are committed from the beginning to preach the truth, and that means biblical truth, including all the Bible has to say in the proper proportion and context in which the Bible addresses truth.
In First Peter 1, beginning in verse 1, Peter wrote: “Peter, an apostle of Christ Jesus, to those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with His blood: May grace and peace be multiplied to you.”
Growing up in Polk County, Fla., just about everyone I knew went church. They went to some church, or thought they ought to go to some church, or said they went to some church. Religious pluralism on Garden Drive in Lakeland was made of having some Methodist and Presbyterians in the otherwise orthodox mix. That was religious pluralism. Almost everybody was a Baptist of one sort or another. They were evangelical—or evangelicalish—or something similar.
That was 55 years ago, but it was a whole civilization ago.
As a 13-year-old, my Sunday School teacher impressed upon me that I should read the Bible through from beginning to end. My parents saw to it that I read the Bible daily, but I’d never read the Bible through in its entirety. I didn’t know anything else to do but to open it as Genesis 1:1 and read through to the very end of the Book of Revelation, which was a revelation for a 13-year-old boy.
I remember thinking at several points as I was reading the Scripture, “I know this is the Word of God, but it’s about somebody else; this is for someone else. I was 13 years old; I read about marriage…I was thankful for it, but it wasn’t about me yet. That was for somebody else. I read about persecution. I wasn’t being persecuted. That was for somebody else. I read about all kinds of things I didn’t understand, and I thought it must be for someone else.
One thing we need to admit as preachers, as well as the preached at, is there are times when we have to admit we have been reading Scripture as if it’s for somebody else. In the opening verses of Peter’s first epistle, I think we need to acknowledge we have been reading as if the text were about somebody else.
Aristotle, the classical philosopher of ancient Greece, once told a parable that’s been retold many times. He said that if you want to know what it is to be wet, do not ask a fish because that’s all he knows; by the time he knows anything different, it’s too late. Have you noticed that when we start talking about our responsibility to the culture, we didn’t talk about it until the culture started kicking at us? When we were the culture, we didn’t have to talk from the pulpit to the culture because we didn’t know culture was a problem. We didn’t know culture was a challenge.
When I was growing up, I lived in a culture that was shaped by cultural Christianity. If people weren’t regenerate, confessing believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, they at least had the sense to act as if they were. We played along by thinking they were, or at least hoping they were. It was a false assumption, an assumption that betrays the Great Commission to which we are pledged, the commission Christ assigned to His church. We were bought off with an illusion that we were the culture, and that the culture would be friendly to us. In the span of less than one generation, we now are witnessing the evaporation of cultural Christianity—a morning mist almost instantly gone—so you hardly can imagine it was once there. Yet it was, and we didn’t see it for the problem that it was.
One thing we have to keep in mind about cultural Christianity is that it held to a very different gospel. The false gospel of cultural Christianity was moralism. The false gospel of cultural Christianity is that what Christianity basically is about is behaving. One thing we need to admit as we are confronted by Scripture is that we conspired with culture to help others embrace the false gospel of moralism.
The message the world got from evangelical, gospel-minded churches for a long time was not so much, “Trust Christ,” as, “Behave.” Jesus did not say, “Go ye into all the nations and tell them to behave.” He said, “Make disciples, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” However, we shouldn’t expect those who are not disciples to obey all that Christ has commanded.
It was a safe world—or at least seemed to be safe when I was growing up. When my parents sent me to school—and I went to the public school from the first grade until I graduated from high school—my parents weren’t sending me into what they believed was an alien hostile environment. Almost every one of the school teachers we knew went to our church, a similar church or some church. The worldview that was taught in those classrooms wasn’t in any way oppositional to what was being taught in the church or what was being taught by my parents.
In the larger culture, my parents did not feel as if they were sending me out into a hostile world. They knew there would be challenges, but the world seemed to be a world that operated, regardless of its heart, pretty much by similar expectations as those of the church.
However, no Scripture text is for somebody else. Every single word of Scripture not only is the fully inspired and inerrant word of God, but is addressed to us—every single one of us in every church in every place in every hour. Peter began writing by identifying himself as an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ. That is his statement of authority. Peter did not speak as Peter but as one whom Christ had sent, and he spoke by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit of God.
To whom was he speaking? To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontius, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia. He was speaking to exiles, those who were not at home anywhere. Their home had been taken away from them. He was speaking to those who had been dispersed. He was speaking to those (as the text makes clear) who had been chosen and elected to be exiles. We don’t think about that a great deal. We haven’t thought of ourselves as exiles because we thought exile referred to somebody else.
In roughly the past 18 months, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship groups have been kicked off the campuses of the California State University System where they’d been meeting. That is the largest public university system in America, and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship—one of the longest, strongest, most respected Christian ministries in the evangelical world—has been kicked off, derecognized. Don’t you love that term? This organization has been derecognized as an official student group because it holds to a radical proposal: That is, the student leaders of the Christian ministry ought to be Christian.
As you might expect, the real issue is not so much universalism as it is the moral revolution, and the fact that those leaders are expected to hold to a biblical standard of sexual morality. So now you are derecognized and kicked off campus. You effectively are now exiles from the California State University System.
One of the most chilling things I’ve seen in in recent years took place in a major American city when a fire chief was fired for holding to a biblical understanding of sexual morality and then having the audacity to articulate his stance by writing a book. If that were to happen in Seattle or in Manhattan, we would say it’s getting rather close to home, but this incident took place recently in Atlanta, Georgia. I previously was a member of an Atlanta church, and I didn’t know I was an exile, didn’t feel exiled, but the citizens are feeling it now. You now are in a vulnerable position to hold any kind of public office and it be public knowledge that you hold to what the church consistently has taught for 2,000 years on the basis of the authority the Word of God about on how human sexuality is to be ordered.
Now, the California Supreme Court has handed down an edict that judges in the California state judicial system cannot maintain fidelity with the judicial code of ethics and be a volunteer leader in the Boy Scouts of America. Why? Because although the Boy Scouts changed its policy to embrace openly gay scouts, it is not open to openly gay scout leaders. Thus, it is a discriminatory organization, which violates the judicial code of the State of California. The press release indicated there is one final exception recognized by the court in terms of judges in the California system who belong to discriminatory organizations: “religious organizations,” which means church. It’s the only exception left now.
So, how long is it going to be before we find out we can’t be members of our churches and hold our jobs? How long is it going to be before we find out the culture considers us rightly exiled? As long as we thought we were the culture, we didn’t worry about this. As long as we thought we basically could shape or greatly influence the culture, this wasn’t a pressing concern. As long as we thought the culture was at least friendly to us, we didn’t worry a great deal about this; but now we suffer under no illusion that that’s actually what is taking place.
Furthermore, to our humiliation or at least our humbling, we have to recognize we already were told this. That’s what Peter wrote about in chapter 1. This, more than the cultural Christianity we recognized in America during the past several decades, is the biblical expectation and the apostolic norm.
We look at the trend toward secularization and understand we were wrong, while thinking secularization happened somewhere else rather than here. We spoke about American exceptionalism as Europe was secularizing at warp speed. The Wall Street Journal reported on the crisis of real estate in Western Europe, which includes church buildings that are now being abandoned. That’s just a parable, a symbol of what’s going on in terms of the deChristianization and secularization of those cultures. We recognize it’s been happening at approximately the same rate across our northern border in Canada.
However, we didn’t think it was a great threat here. Instead, we kept talking about what sociologists called “American exceptionalism.” By incredibly high percentages, Americans say they believe in God. More than 90 percent of Americans, until very recently, said they believe in God. The vast majority of Americans said they identify as Christian of one sort or another, and we bought it.
Peter Berger is one of most influential sociologists in America. He’s in his 90s and still writing major books. He’s lived long enough to have to correct his theories. He’s lived long enough for his theories to be proven wrong by himself. He’s intellectually and rigorously honest enough to tell us all about it. Back in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, he was arguing that when secularization took place, it would follow the European model, in which a very small percentage of people actually go to church—or like Britain, where although they have a state church, the majority of people seem not to understand what Christianity is about.
He said that would happen in the United States, when you’d see radically increased overt declarations of agnosticism and atheism. By the way, we’re seeing a little of that in the rise of the nones. The nones are those who say they have no religious preference whatsoever. About one-fifth of Americans or about one-third of Americans under the age of 30. Peter Berger said he thought that was going to happen in the United States; he thought slowly but surely that kind of secularization would take place. Yet, now he says it didn’t happen, so we thought secularization wasn’t happening when it actually was happening a different way than it did in Europe.
In America, secularization takes place when people use the words but reduce their meaning. In Europe, by incredible percentages people say they don’t believe in God; agnosticism and atheism now are woven into the modern or postmodern worldview there. The vast majority of Americans still say they believe in God, but if you ask them who they think God is, they’ll say, “I believe God’s this,” or, “I believe God’s that.” In other words, they still say they believe in God, but their definition of God, their concept of God bears no resemblance whatsoever to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the great I AM, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. You see, it’s really problematic to be an exile, but it’s worse not knowing you’re lost.
We were singing “This World Is Not My Home,” but we didn’t mean it. The hostility of the culture around us now is making an emphatic point. Just ask the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, former fire chief of Atlanta, evangelical Christian judges in California or bakers, who’ve been told they have to bake cakes for same-sex weddings and effectively celebrate what they believe is morally wrong or else undergo diversity training, be fined or face criminal charges.
In other ways, it’s not just the wedding photographers, florists and bakers. It’s the teachers and schools. What happens when they can’t say what they are told to say without forfeiting the faith? We’re not talking about something way out there in the fuzzy future. We’re talking about what could happen Monday morning. What happens when the chaplains in our armed forces are told they can’t discriminate on the basis of their own theological or biblical understanding of human sexuality, including when counseling couples in the military? What happens when they say you can’t have a Christian college or Christian university that’s going to discriminate on this basis without being exiled in every possible cultural, legal way imaginable?
Well, here’s what’s for certain. We can’t say we weren’t warned. Look at what the Holy Spirit led Peter to write. He said, “To those who are elect exiles.” In other words, those words go together. We were meant to be exiles. We weren’t meant to be at home here. We are singing the song, but we better get more than the tune in our hearts. We better own that message; if we think this world is our home, then we are lying to ourselves and eventually will betray the gospel. The cities cited in this text are mostly in Asia Minor: Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia. Peter was writing to those who didn’t have an address except as exiles. We’ve not felt ourselves that way, but we are. It’s not an accident. It’s according to the foreknowledge of God the Father. He didn’t call the church to a comfortable existence and then got disappointed when He saw the world hated His own. In John 15, Jesus said to the disciples: “The world hated Me, and if it hates Me, it’s going to hate you.”
“In the sanctification of the Spirit…” Wow. Here’s something: Have you ever thought about the fact the church is most at risk of being worldly when it thinks it’s at home in the world? We are resident aliens. We are sojourners. We are exiles. One thing is immediately clear to us: This is not our home. One thing that comes in terms of that recognition is a dependence on Christ, dependence on the gospel, dependence on the Word of God that has a sanctifying influence, because the opposition of the world—if the church is truly the church—leads to the sanctification of God’s people by the Holy Spirit. How does that become visible for obedience to Christ Jesus?
We not only have misread the Bible—as if some of these texts were intended for someone else and some other time—we have only read half of the Great Commission. We know the go part: “Go into all the world and make disciples.” What’s that second part? “Teaching them to obey all I have commanded you.” It turns out that is when Christ’s people become visible, in particular visible as these exiles were visible, by “obedience to Jesus Christ.” However, that’s not where the period falls, “and for sprinkling with His blood.” That means suffering, and ultimately this is an undeniable, explicit reference to martyrdom.
As a boy first reading Scripture, when I read about martyrdom I thought that was a long time ago. Eventually, I began to understand it was not only a long time ago, but is right now in places far, far away. I read about great missionary martyrs such as Bill Wallace of China whom I learned about in my church. I learned about those who were the martyrs of the faith in the Soviet Union and in communist China, and hints of the kind of horrifying atrocities that were taking place in what was then the evil kingdom of North Korea.
Only later I came to understand that martyrdom wasn’t just a long time ago and a long way off. It’s woven into the fabric of the entire presentation of the church right down to the apostle Paul writing to Timothy about being ready to be poured out as a drink offering, a sacrifice. We have to be very careful at this point because being exiled from a California State University campus, losing one’s position as fire chief of Atlanta, or being told you can’t volunteer for the Boy Scouts, that is opposition, but not really persecution—not when you define it against the persecution found in Scripture. Further, we dare not use that word when we compare it with those who right now in much of the Middle East are in danger of losing their heads, not their jobs. Yet we understand that it is not about what some people in some places at some times rarely experience. Rather, it is the normative experience of the church wherever it’s found, that Christ’s people are despised by the world because Jesus said, “If they hated Me they will hate you.”
Fast forward to look at chapter 2, beginning in verse 9: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.”
In 1 Peter: 1:1, we were told that we are exiles. In verse 2:11, we are addressed as sojourners and exiles. It was said of the earliest Christians that they were at home nowhere and everywhere. That should be true of us also: at home nowhere and everywhere; ready to be at home anywhere for now, but really we are passing through. What of the false assumption of our ability to dominate the culture and establish Christendom? That is now stripped from us. We didn’t wake up one morning and realize it was wrong. The world woke us up one morning and took it away.
Just imagine the challenges that are coming for the next generation, our current young people. What in the world are they going to face? It’s a challenge. Well here’s something that’s certain. It’s going to be different than anything my generation and the generations before me experienced, but it isn’t going to be different than anything Christians have experienced. God is still on his throne. Christ reigns.
We’re going to have to raise up a generation ready to acknowledge Christ reigns, including when everything else apparently is taken away. What’s our assurance? We are a chosen race.
You recognize at least portions of this passage as coming from Hosea: a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession. We belong to Christ. We are a holy nation. We may not belong in any earthly nation, but we are a nation. We are a nation made up of those who are bought by the blood of the Lamb. Not only that, we are a kingdom of priests, those who are called out of darkness into His marvelous light. Then again, there’s the refrain from Hosea in verse 10, “Once you were not a people, now you are God’s people. Once you had not received mercy, now you have received mercy.”
Let me give you four words to ponder as you think about this. The responsibility of the pulpit to this culture is first: conviction. The preacher better know what he believes. Those beliefs had better be established on the very clear teaching of God’s inerrant and infallible Word; because if it is anything else, it’s not only going to be false, but also deadly. If the pulpit is uncertain, what do you expect from the pew?
It has to begin with conviction. God’s people must be taught. We no longer can suffer under the illusion that anyone’s going to get any kind of support from the larger culture in terms of how one may live in a way that honors God and leads to human flourishing. The only way they’re going to hear it is if it comes from Christians, and it has to start in the pulpit. So, preachers, begin with conviction, the full measure of conviction.
Be ready to preach in season and out of season; in particular, be ready to preach the stuff that will get you in trouble. Furthermore, be prepared to preach the stuff that will get you in trouble with your own people, who don’t want to be told what they have to be taught in order to live faithfully in the world we’re facing. Get ready to be called a troublemaker. Get ready to be called all kinds of things. Get ready to be told you can’t talk about that “because I have a nephew…” Just look at the debris of mainline liberal Protestantism, where they washed out conviction. They did so because they said, “Here’s the winning strategy. Here’s the survival strategy for the church. If the world hates what we teach, teach something else.”
Rudolph Bultmann was one of the most famous of the theological liberals, going back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Bultmann said, “People who use electric razors don’t believe in men riding in the cloud.” So you have people who say: “The virgin birth—out. Miracles—out. The Person of Christ as fully divine and fully human—out. Everything—out. The inerrancy of Scripture—out, out, out." The only way you can live with Scripture by that worldview is to live with the tiny portion of Scripture that is not offensive to someone, which is getting smaller and smaller all the time.
That was their church-growth strategy. They said, “We’ve got to survive in a more intellectually, culturally hostile environment by accommodating the gospel to exactly what a secular world in its secular worldview wants us to believe.” What did that win them? The prize was empty churches and declining denominations. Now, don’t let that be merely a pragmatic argument. Let it be an argument that moves from action to consequence. It turns out when you don’t believe anything, the world doesn’t need you anymore. It turns out that if you take the supernatural out of Christianity, nobody needs to pay for your pretty building and stained glass. Then it’s just debacle upon debacle, disaster upon disaster.
The sad thing is there are some who would claim the name evangelical who will counsel a similar approach, a similar methodology, but they’re liberals arriving late. They missed the bus in the beginning of the 20th century, so they’re trying to put us all on it in the beginning of the 21st. Preachers, it begins with conviction. Without conviction, nothing else will follow.
The second word: Compassion. Jesus wept over Jerusalem. In Acts 17 when Paul saw a city filled with idols, he didn’t get arrogantly indignant. He had a paroxysm. He had something similar to a heart attack. His soul was grieved. He didn’t say to the Athenians, “You’re not worth my time.” He said, “I see you’re a very religious people. You’re so religious you also have a temple to the unknown God, whom you worship in ignorance and I preach to you.” We need to admit it’s a lot easier to be indignant than brokenhearted. That’s where we realize that false gospel of moralism that said to people what we really expect of them is not so much that they’ll believe but so they’ll behave.
The fact is it’s a lot more convenient for us, because we don’t have to deal with a lot of mess with which misbehavior fosters. However, true compassion is understanding, as the apostle Paul understood, these are people who need the gospel. These are people who need Jesus. When I see the brokenness, pathologies, headlines, statistics, divorces, moral confusion, what they call marriage, when I see all this and their hostility toward us and the ensuing marginalization of the church, what I see are people who don’t right now need to be told to behave, but who need be told to believe—to believe and be saved. If we merely are looking at all these things as statistics and pathologies, woe unto us, because Jesus never saw a pathology. Jesus never saw a statistic. He saw Zacchaeus. He saw a woman with an issue. He saw a father with a dead daughter. He saw Mary Magdalene, and so we should see.
First conviction, then compassion and third: credibility. It begins with those who preach. If we are not living credible lives in faithfulness to what we teach, then we are going to destroy any credibility to be able to speak to these things. The world simply will laugh. It’s not worth being exiled unless we’re going to live as exiles. It’s not worth losing everything unless we are going to lose it for the sake of Christ.
Notice exactly what Peter writes here. It’s bizarre language and only makes sense if God is God and Jesus is Savior and the Holy Spirit indwells this church. “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and as exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.” We can’t talk about the gospel if what the world sees is sin. We’re to live before the world in such a way that if they asked, “Why would people live that way? Why won’t they join the parade? Why can’t they join the revolution? Why do they stay married? Why do they raise their children this way? Why do they suffer loss for the sake of righteousness?” Which is why, “I urge you as sojourners in exile to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your reputation”? Yes, but notice what it says, “against your soul.”
Then verse 12, one of the strangest verses in Scripture if you understand it. “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” What? The Holy Spirit has Peter write, “Behave righteously. Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles. Treat them with honor when they dishonor you. Treat them with respect when they disrespect you. Maintain credibility so that you are living as you teach among those who have exiled you and are opposing you, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good works, your good deeds, and glorify God on the day of visitation.”
This is the strangest form of Christian witness: to be found disliked for the right reasons in such a way that the things they hold against us end up testifying to the glory of God on the Day of Judgment. What does that mean? That means we are not as Christians living from headline to headline. We’re reading the headlines, knowing we’re waiting for a divine deadline. There is a judgment day coming, here declared is a day of visitation. It’s the visitation of the presence, judgment and wrath of God. There is that day coming.
When that day comes, let the slanders against the church be those that point to the glory and righteousness of God and worthiness of Christ. On that day, may the right things be said about us, including when they charge us with doing wrong by not joining their programs, not joining their revolutions. When they make that charge against us, may it point to the glory of God so they have to acknowledge it on the Day of Judgment. Yet notice this: You can’t count on it happening until then.
We want to be vindicated now or least tomorrow. It may not come until the day of visitation, and Peter didn’t write that by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit at midnight this morning. He wrote it more than 2,000 years ago. It was true then; it’s true now.
Conviction, compassion, credibility and finally: confidence. What is our confidence? In other words, if the pulpits of our churches are addressing this culture with confidence, where would that confidence be? It’s not in us. It’s certainly not in culture. It’s not in all those things we thought we could trust or all those foundations that appeared to be so solid. No, as a matter of fact, our confidence only can be in what the Holy Spirit declared Peter must say to the church: You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession. We don’t belong to ourselves. We don’t only belong to the church. We belong to Christ. You know what? If we belong to Christ, we’re fine. We’re safe. We’re His own personal possession in order that we may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called us out of darkness into His marvelous light.
Notice what he says back in chapter 1. Where’s our confidence? Look at verse 3: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to His great mercy, He has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled and unfading, kept in heaven for you.”
Brothers and sisters, we are safe. We’re not home, but we have a home. To our shame, for too long we thought it was here. Now, we know it’s not. We have a home that is ours because we belong to Christ. We are His own possession, and the salvation God accomplished for us in Christ is imperishable. So, what do we do now? We preach the Word in season and out of season to get the church ready to face a culture very different than what we expected, “In order that we may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light.”
It’s really true. Our task is to tell people about Jesus so there will be more people on the day of visitation about whom the right things are said. Evangelism is not to tell people to join us in order to come home to us, but rather to have a home in heaven. Right now, our task is to go to the ends of the earth and preach the gospel so there will be fellow sojourners and fellow exiles who are as we are—safe—because we’re His personal possession.
I’ll admit every time I come home or close to home, I become nostalgic. I sense the loss of the world I once knew and thought was home. I’d be dishonest if I didn’t tell you I thought it was loss; and in some sense, it is loss. Yet what does the Scripture say? “Count it all loss.” That’d be really sad if it were the end of the story, except the other side of loss is gain.
Conviction, compassion, credibility, confidence: That’s what the pew must offer, not so much to the culture, but to the church to get the church ready for whatever culture may come.
R. Albert Mohler is president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.