Should Christians be Countercultural?

April 27, 2018

by David E. Briones

One of the things I love most about Paul is the way he frequently brings out a particularly simple truth in his writings: because the gospel is countercultural, Christians ought to be a countercultural people. After all, the gospel is not just something that we think about. It’s something we live out. We are conformed to the message of the gospel. More specifically, we are conformed to the person of Jesus Christ in the gospel (Rom. 8:29). This gospel message is at odds with the messages of the world. The way of the cross diametrically opposes the way of this world. Why? Because the very content of the gospel of the cross goes against the grain of culture.

But this raises a question: The message of the gospel may be countercultural, but are God’s people? The answer to this question must be, “Yes, but not always.” By virtue of believing in and confessing the glorious truth of our crucified and risen Savior, the church is innately countercultural. It is contra mundum (against the world). But, at times, the church is sadly nunc contra mundum (sometimes against the world). We sometimes embrace the way of the world over against the way of the cross, or at least we’re tempted to do so.

I think of the sinful tendencies of my own heart. I recently came back from an annual conference where theologians and biblical scholars, both conservative and liberal, come together for a week of listening to papers, buying books at terrific prices, meeting with publishers about future projects, and reuniting with old friends. Every year, I’m overjoyed by the work of the academic guild, especially the work done in the service of the church. But I’m also saddened by the worldly pride that accompanies such academic festivities—the posturing of the elite, the claims of institutional pride, the competitive quests for academic glory.

Because the gospel is countercultural, Christians ought to be a countercultural people.

This academic culture can easily creep into the church, but it’s not just a problem I see in others. I see it in myself, in the depths of my own soul. Like those misled scholars, I am tempted to take pride in a degree I received, a university I attended, the letters that come after my name, or the books that have my name on them or in them. I, too, am tempted to forget my former existence in Adam where I was a nobody, and that “God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor. 1:28–29). I, too, am tempted to find my worth and identity in culturally acceptable practices rather than embracing a countercultural worth in the gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s not just a problem I see in others. I see it in myself.

We must always be on guard against the way of the world. We must persistently fight against finding our self-worth, status, honor, power, or prestige in something other than Jesus. We might try to find our worth and identity in a girlfriend, a wife, a job, a car, educational accomplishments, or a host of other good things. But nothing compares to Christ. If we look to anything other than Jesus for our self-worth and identity, we look to something that is here today and gone tomorrow. We place our hope in a fleeting moment. But if we look to Christ in the gospel for our self-worth and identity, we look to something that can never be taken from us. We place our hope on the sure foundation. And we find in the countercultural message of the gospel a countercultural worth. In Christ, we are God’s children, and, therefore, we are of great worth. When we grasp that truth, finding our identity in the things of this world will become increasingly deplorable. As Martin Luther so clearly articulates:

If someone could believe with a certain and constant faith and could understand the magnitude of it all, that he is the son and heir of God, he could regard all the power and wealth of all the kingdoms of the world as filth and refuse in comparison with his heavenly inheritance. Whatever the world has that is sublime and glorious would make him sick . . . If we could grasp and believe for a certainty that God is our Father and that we are his sons and heirs, the world would immediately seem vile to us, with everything that it regards as precious, such as righteousness, wisdom, kingdoms, power, crowns, gold, glory, riches, pleasure, and the like . . . We would not attach our hearts so firmly to physical things that their presence would give us confidence and their removal would produce dejection and even despair. (LW 26:392–94)

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The Context of the Early Church

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by David E. Briones