Between Pearls And Privatization

We should be wary about the rhetoric of cultural “transformation” in this life

Over against transformationalism, I am arguing that we need to recover the older Reformed conviction that there is a distinction between the sacred and the secular. Calvin used these categories without embarrassment. The common is not “neutral” and the secular is not dirty. We recognize this very distinction every time we administer holy communion. Reformed liturgical forms regularly speak about setting about common (secular) bread for a sacred use. That language only makes sense in light of a distinction between the sacred and the secular.


One of the most pressing problems faced by Christians in the late-modern world is how to relate our profession and conduct of the Christian faith to a culture that seems increasingly hostile to Christian faith and practice. This is not a theoretical question. Under the Obama administration various governmental entities have become overtly hostile to Christian faith and practice. The IRS is now question churches about theirprayers. Legitimate questions are being raised about how the IRS audits churches (seethis also). Bakers and florists in Colorado, Oregon, and Washington State have been heavily fined for refusing to compromise their religious convictions by catering homosexual weddings. The city of Houston attempted to silence pastors who objected to their move to implement the LGBTQ bathroom agenda. The State of Iowa has what amounts to a metaphorical gun pointed at the metaphorical heads of churches in Iowa. This became evident when a pamphlet was publicized that required churches to open restrooms to so-called transgender persons. The brochure has since been revised but the potential legal threat remains in place. Such a list could go on. The HB has beendocumenting these challenges to religious freedom.

For Christians this is question of how to relate Christ and culture, or how to relate nature and grace. This is an ancient problem. The apostolic and early post-apostolic Christians faced this problem acutely. Our Lord commanded us to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Matt 22:21). The assumption behind the our Lord’s teaching is, of course, that some things are legitimately Casesar’s and some things are not. Our Lord drew a line in the sand when he informed Pilate that his “kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). The apostles faced this problem acutely when they were commanded to stop preaching the gospel. The Apostle Peter spoke for all of us when he replied, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

Throughout the history of the church there have been three general approaches to relating nature and grace:

  • Grace perfects nature per se (e.g., Aquinas)
  • Grace obliterates nature (e.g., Anabaptists)
  • Grace renews fallen nature (e.g., Calvin)

For Aquinas (c. 1224–74), nature, as nature, is inherently corrupt. It lacks divinity and that is what grace supplies. For the Anabaptists (c. 1520s), nature is inherently evil and needs to be wiped out by divinity. For the Reformed churches, however, nature was regarded as inherently good but human nature particularly is said to have been profoundly corrupted by the fall. Grace is said to renew fallen human nature. Since the late 19th and early 20th centuries, among Reformed Christians there has arisen an alternative approach to nature and grace that tends to reject the very distinction. Its corollary, the distinction between sacred and secular, has also come under suspicion as a remnant of medieval theology.

With the Fathers and against the Gnostics we should confess that nature was created good (Gen 1). With the Reformation we affirm that human nature was profoundly corrupted by the fall and that God not only graciously justifies sinners but by grace he also renews them. With the Reformation we should say that cosmic renewal awaits the consummation. According to the sola Scriptura principle we have a right to question the transformationalist approach to Christ and culture and I have done it here for instance.

Given those basics we should be wary about the rhetoric of cultural “transformation” in this life. Surely Christians are being transformed but, until the consummation, we live, under God’s sovereign providence, in two spheres: the sacred and the secular. Last weekI suggested that the prayers and benedictions offered at the Republican convention provided us with an opportunity to reconsider the apparently widespread rejection of the distinction between the sacred and the secular. The “benediction” offered last night at the Democratic National Convention was equally problematic.

One critic of last week’s essay suggested that I was promoting “privatization” of Christianity. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

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