by Bruce Ashford
Because God is the Creator and King over all that exists, Christians seek actively to demonstrate his kingship in every dimension of human culture and across the fabric of human existence. If we do not “embody our faith in the shapes of everyday life,” we limit our witness. Therefore, we endeavor to proclaim and embody the gospel, and allow it to guide our thinking and acting, in every station in society and culture.
Vocatio: Mission and stations of life.
One significant way Christians apply God’s Word to God’s world is through honoring him in the various and manifold situations in which we find ourselves. We make manifest the implications of our faith in every station of life: family, church, workplace, and community. Martin Luther spoke of this in terms of vocatio (calling). For him, these stations of life are not peripheral to faithful living, but central.
Luther’s contention was that wherever we find ourselves, in whatever station of life, this life situation (if we are being obedient) is the one to which God has called us. This can be seen readily when God calls us to a workplace. God instituted work before the fall; God takes pleasure in the work of his image-bearers. Their work is not merely for financial gain. It is also God’s way of providing for his world.
When God wants to feed a hungry child, usually he does not do so by sending manna from heaven. Instead, he does so through the farmer who grows the food, the trucker who transports it, the carpenter who constructs the grocery store, and the grocery clerk who shelves it. All four of these workers (farmer, trucker, carpenter, clerk) can labor either with great significance or no significance, either with an eye toward loving God and their neighbor or with no thought toward such things. Christians in the workplace share life with and work alongside of unbelievers, and their obedience to Christ in that arena is of no small significance.
The same can be said for the Christian’s other callings, such as his calling to a family, a church, and a community. In fact, as Gene Veith argues, these callings are “comprehensive and day-by-day, involving almost every facet of our lives, the whole texture of relationships, responsibilities, and focuses of attention that take up nearly every moment of our lives.” The Christian who takes seriously his callings determines not to limit his faith to the four walls of a church building but to apply it to all of life. He views himself as sent by God into these various arenas, and his calling becomes part of his mission.
Possessio: Mission and dimensions of culture.
Another significant way to apply God’s Word to his world is by thinking and acting “Christianly” in the various dimensions of human society and culture, including the arts, the sciences, and the public square. In so doing, the Christian allows Christ to take possession of non-Christian societies and cultures. J. H. Bavinck referred to this process as possessio. If God is the Creator of man, the one who gives man the ability to create human culture, then he also has the right to be glorified in those same dimensions. No realm of creation or culture may be excluded. This is Abraham Kuyper’s point when he writes,
“The Son [of God] is not to be excluded from anything. You cannot point to any natural realm or star or comet or even descend into the depth of the earth, but it is related to Christ, not in some unimportant tangential way, but directly.”
If all things are created by Christ, and indeed subsist in him, then the ministry of the Word to the world includes the application of the Word to all areas of life. “Faith seeking understanding” applies not only to the study of Scripture, but also to the study of creation and human culture.
It is incumbent upon believers, first of all, to learn to think “Christianly” in all of their cultural endeavors. Human cultures are underlain by worldviews which are in turn connected to various religions and philosophies. To the extent that the culture’s underlying worldview-religion-philosophy amalgamation is dissonant with a Christian theistic worldview, it is distorted, fragmented, and adverse to the gospel. Human sinfulness inevitably issues forth in cultural disobedience, resulting in a degradation of the cultural activity for which God created humans.
The battle raging between competing worldviews, religions, and philosophies is often fought in the arts, the sciences, education, the political arena, and other dimensions of human society and culture. Therefore, faithful Christians seek to be a redemptive influence in those same dimensions, and such influence involves critical engagement with culture rather than passive consumption, on the one hand, or cultural withdrawal, on the other.
This critical engagement issues forth in two practices: the church must learn both to read and to write culture. We must learn to read the culture, to understand our socio-cultural context and its attendant works of philosophy, art, science, and popular culture. But we must also learn to write culture, to create and construct works of culture within those same arenas. The church should encourage her younger members to take their studies and vocations seriously, and her more established members to take their professions seriously, realizing that such things are a calling from God and hold forth potential for his glory.
The founders of Harvard College understood this. In a pamphlet published in 1643, they set forth their mission statement:
“Let every student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed, to consider well [that] the maine end of his life and studies is to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life, John 17:3, and therefore to lay Christ in the bottome, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and learning.”
The whole world is the sphere of God’s sovereignty and, therefore, the whole world is the sphere of the church’s activity to glorify him. In the Christian life, no room exists for cultural indifference.
Editor’s note: This is an adapted excerpt from Theology and Practice of Mission: God, the church, and the Nations.
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