Know Your Challenges (II): Secularization
Based on a sermon by Aun Quek Chin—Singapore
“Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 Jn 2:15).
The Lord Jesus Christ paid a very hefty price to save and transform us from a worldly to a holy people. Sadly, however, many believers today have allowed themselves to be carried away by the wave of secularization sweeping through the Christian world. It is indeed tragic to see people reverting from their holy status to a worldly one. So how can we recognize and protect ourselves against secularization[i]?
SECULARIZATION OF THE GOSPEL
When Christians no longer esteem a gospel that emphasizes the things of heaven, but prefer one that focuses on social issues, they have become secularized.
Contemporary theologians have declared:
“The significance of evangelism today is no longer merely a passive call to repentance. Instead, the new gospel is about working amongst the poor and active participation in social work. We must be the voice of the people, and the champion of their rights.”
“The question is not about how I can find a good God, but about how I can find a good neighbor.”
To these theologians, finding a Good Samaritan is more important than finding a good church; providing food is better than giving someone the gospel. To them, the crux of the gospel is no longer salvation in the kingdom of heaven, but rather things of the world. How can such a gospel still be the pure gospel of Christ?
The Lord Jesus provides an excellent example for us in staying focused on the right ultimate goal. When news of how Jesus had cast out demons and healed the sick spread, many flocked to Jesus. But what did Jesus do? He retreated to a solitary place to pray! When the disciples finally found Him, they exclaimed, “Everyone is looking for you, this is a fantastic opportunity! This is the time for us to work because everyone needs you.” Surprisingly, Jesus said, “Let us go into the next towns, that I may preach there also, because for this purpose I have come.”
The disciples were puzzled: Did the Lord not realize that many were trying to follow and believe in Him? These multitudes clearly needed healing and peace, which He could grant. So why was He not healing them?
In fact, the disciples had failed to see that Jesus’ miracles were not the ends, but simply the means. The ultimate purpose of these wonders was to enable people to know and believe that Jesus is the Savior; that He is God who had come to this world as man in order to save mankind. Unfortunately, the people only wanted to receive physical peace and healing, not the gospel of salvation.
Jesus came to save our souls, not our bodies. He came not to establish a social organization, but the kingdom of God, i.e., the church, so that we can be saved. Thus, He had to reserve His energy and time for His key priorities, even if it made Him appear to be lacking in compassion. Similarly, it is not that Christians are not concerned about matters in society, for there are many Christians who are involved in social work. But the main aim of the church is to save souls, and it must stay true to this aim.[ii]
Some people claim that the church’s involvement in social work facilitates evangelism. But we must be careful not to end up drawing people to the baskets of bread rather than Christ. The phenomenal growth of the apostolic church did not arise from a focus on social work, but an unflagging reliance on the Holy Spirit. The door of the gospel was opened through the power of the Holy Spirit.
SECULARIZATION OF THEOLOGY
When Christians no longer place emphasis on the theology of the cross, but on the theology of success, they have become secularized.
“For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2).
Although apostle Paul was more highly educated than many of his peers, he had come to realize that his great learning could not bring him (or those around him) forgiveness of sins and eternal life. So he decided to forego all his previous knowledge, understanding that Christ is far more precious and important than anything else. Paul preached Jesus Christ and how He was crucified for our sakes so that we could emulate and follow Jesus. But what does following Jesus really entail?
“Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me’” (Mt 16:24).
The theology of the cross emphasizes that we have to suffer with Christ. Even in the face of severe persecution or great difficulty, we must never give up our faith because it is a faith that will save for eternity. We must be willing to pay the price and endure all pain.
However, there are Christian leaders today who espouse the theology of success, teaching that believers can use any means – including prayer – to obtain success. They base their claim on the fact that our God wants us to succeed, not suffer; to enjoy, not endure! Unfortunately for these Christians, their idea of success and enjoyment is narrowly rooted in this present life.
For instance, they say that God created the universe for man’s pleasure. Good health is a prerequisite for deriving maximum worldly pleasure. Moreover, believers who are physically unwell would not be glorifying to God. Hence, ailing believers should ask Him to perform a miracle and heal them so that they can enjoy this world and glorify Him. Under these types of New-Age theological philosophies, believers do not pray to ask God to grant them faith and endurance in trials. Instead, they demand that God take the trials away to enable them to enjoy His material providence. The emphasis is on miracles, signs and wonders, and healing, not on endurance or suffering.
It is not wrong to pray to God to take away the bitter cup of our sickness but we must remember the important proviso—“nevertheless not my will, but Yours, be done”. To be prepared to suffer is not indicative of a passive or negative faith; instead it reflects an active and steadfast conviction that God’s way is the best way.
These theologians also believe that health without wealth is inadequate. Healthy but poor believers cannot enjoy the world. Poor and poorly dressed believers cannot glorify God. Our poverty would embarrass God; how can the children of the Lord of the universe be poorer than those of the world?
And you shall remember the Lord your God, for it is He who gives you power to get wealth, that He may establish His covenant which He swore to your fathers, as it is this day.
The theme of Deuteronomy 8 is “Remember the LORD your God.” It sets out a range of things to remember the Lord for, but proponents of Success Theology love to zoom in on this verse. They believe that since God had promised to make Abraham a great nation, grant him peace and great wealth, Christians today ought to pray to God to “claim” this power to be successful in the world.
Prosperity theologians draw many by preaching that God wants to give us abundant material wealth. Poor Christians should pray that God gives them the power to earn money. God will hearken to such prayers because God wants us to be rich and successful. But does God really want us to be successful in this manner? Is the power of God manifested in us so that we can gain wealth in this world?
See what Jesus taught through the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. The rich man was clearly more successful. Every day, he wore purple (designer clothing in those times) and ate sumptuously. Despite the gluttony, he remained healthy. With all this luxury, he appears to be the one who truly “glorified” God. In stark contrast, Lazarus was pathetic. So poor he had to beg and wait for scraps; he could not move on his own and even had sores all over his body. And the great irony was that the name Lazarus meant… “God helps”! How had God helped him? According to Success Theology, Lazarus should be considered an utter failure, the most pitiful man who enjoyed the least grace in life.
While recounting the parable, Jesus astonished his listeners with a twist in the tale. After Lazarus died, he was taken back to Paradise. When the rich man died, he went to Hades. Therein lies an important lesson from the Lord Jesus—the crux of the gospel is not worldly success or material blessings! Treasures on earth are as transient and fragile as a flower. What we should pursue is the imperishable glory. This is found in heaven and is eternal.
Understanding that we are but sojourners in this world helps us endure worldly suffering. All things, whether good or bad, will pass away; we shall pass away. The most critical issue is what will happen to us after we pass away.
SECULARIZATION OF OUR LIFE
When Christians start to love the world more than God and emulate the world instead of Christ, their lives have been secularized.
Adulterers and adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.
We live, work and play in the world. Naturally, we have many friends in the world. Does that automatically render us enemies of God?
It is not a sin to conform to local practices, i.e., “when in Rome, do as the Romans do”. However, there are certain cultures and traditions that are against the teachings of Christ. Being determined to keep the teachings of Jesus Christ may bring believers into direct conflict with these practices and the people who practice them. Some believers are unwilling to sacrifice their ties with their friends and thus decide to conform to worldly practices that are detrimental to their faith. At this very instant, such Christians have been secularized in their life. They have become enemies of Christ.
We remember the church of Philippi as one that brought Paul much joy. But certain believers made him weep by their blatant lack of concern with and contravention of the teachings of Christ. Interested solely in their own bellies, they gave scant thought to whether their actions would glorify and please God. As long as they felt glorious and satisfied, they were happy.
So we need to keep asking ourselves: Are our priorities rooted in earthly or in heavenly matters? Is our aim a comfortable life today or glorious life eternal? Do our lifestyles radiate secularity or reflect the image of Christ?[iii]
SECULARIZATION OF PRAYER
When we constantly pray for earthly but not heavenly things, our prayers have been secularized.
Prayer ought to be used to worship and thank God, to acknowledge our sins and seek forgiveness. It is the channel for us to seek the kingdom of God and His righteousness. Prayer is actually a very holy matter. However, it is so simple to pray that we sometimes forget about how sacred it actually is.
To believers in Old Testamental times, the sacredness of prayer was constantly reinforced. They could not directly enter into the sanctuary to worship God; they could only worship from the outside. Entering was restricted to the priests. Yet, even the priests could not enter the Holy of Holies. In the sanctuary, a veil divided the holy place and the Holy of Holies. Only the high priest was permitted to enter it once a year on the Day of Atonement.
When Jesus Christ died on the cross for us, the veil was ripped in two. The author of Hebrews tells us that the Lord Jesus Christ used His blood to tear this veil so that all who believed in Him and whose sins were cleansed through the blood of Christ could directly meet God and truly worship Him. Today, we are able to worship God directly, whenever we kneel down and pray in the name of Jesus.
However, do we treasure this access to the Almighty? Every time we kneel down and pray, do we believe that we are worshipping God? Or have we lost the sense of its sacredness as a means to come into the presence of the Holiest One?
We secularize prayer when we are no longer awed or grateful for this sacred grace, and treat prayer as a mere means for us to call for physical blessings because of our pre-occupation with secular matters and concern for material possessions.
Blessed is the man whose strength is in You, whose heart is set on pilgrimage. As they pass through the Valley of Baca, they make it a spring; the rain also covers it with pools. They go from strength to strength; each one appears before God in Zion.
The ancient saints rejoiced when they could enter the temple to worship God. Although they had to first pass through the Valley of Baca (Weeping), they did not mind. Any difficulty or grief they had to bear paled in comparison with the joy of knowing they were going up the mountain of God to meet God. They rejoiced because God was their help and they were His people. These people could not even enter the sanctuary and had to remain outside. Yet they were overflowing with joy and hope.
In contrast, believers today have direct access to God. This is a precious and sacred grace that we must never let go of; we must regain our joy of and hope in prayer.
Jesus taught us not to worry over our food and clothing. In contrast, these are the very reasons why the Gentiles worship their deities. They seek material blessings. There are also secular Christians who pray only for earthly things. If they can find some other means of obtaining material blessing, they are quite prepared to forsake God! We, on the other hand, know that the heavenly Father will add “all these things” to us—if we keep ourselves holy and pursue after the kingdom of God and His righteousness.
To reiterate, prayer is our communication with God – our time to repent and acknowledge sins, look to God, trust Him and build a closer relationship with Him. Never secularize prayer and lose such grace.
SECULARIZATION OF THE TEMPLE
Now the Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. And He found in the temple those who sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers doing business. When He had made a whip of cords, He drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen, and poured out the changers’ money and overturned the tables. And He said to those who sold doves, “Take these things away! Do not make My Father’s house a house of merchandise!” Then His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for Your house has eaten Me up.”
The temple ought to have been a place of prayer and worship, but had become a place of profit-making! The sounds of devout prayer had been drowned by the sounds of bargaining, the bleating of sheep and lowing of oxen. The holy temple was no longer holy. The holy people had become common people. What should have been an abnormal scenario had become normalized because of its daily recurrence! They did not even realize that this temple had already been secularized.
Jesus was usually meek, gentle, loving and compassionate. He healed the leprous and enabled the lame to walk. Once, worried that those who had come to listen to His word would be hungry on the way home, He made bread for them to eat. But in this incident at the temple, we see a completely different Jesus.
He was furious. He made a whip out of cords, overturned the tables and rebuked the merchants harshly, “Take all these things away! How can you turn my Father’s house into a den of thieves?”
Selling such merchandise in the temple started as a service to facilitate offering. Those coming to Jerusalem from far-off places would find it much easier to bring money to purchase sacrificial animals than to drag the animals across hills and vales! However, behind the seemingly thoughtful attempt to provide convenience was greed and thievery. The temple priests were in cahoots with the merchants. Priests were supposed to examine the animal, certify that it was without blemish and thus suitable for sacrifice. But dishonest priests would keep rejecting the animal so that the people would be forced to buy another one. In addition, the pilgrims would also be aggrieved at being forced to pay the higher prices within the temple ground. This was literally daylight robbery! For this reason, Jesus said that the covetous priests had turned the house of God into a den of thieves. There was no justice. Consequently, the people’s joy in worship was significantly reduced.
When Jesus took action to cleanse the temple of these robbers, He was filled with wrath. He did not care how many people were coming into the temple or to sacrifice. Instead, He wanted to know how many people were truly happy to worship God, held truly to their faith, and truly prayed and worshipped with a heart of reverence.
The Bible says that we are the temple of God. So have our temples become secularized? Have we become a den of thieves? If Jesus were to come today and see this temple, would He take a whip? Would He rebuke us and tell us to take all these things away? Jesus has already warned us. He wants us to cleanse our own temple so that we can draw near to God to worship Him, in spirit and in truth, in holiness and in reverence.
God Himself gave His life so that we who were sinners could regain our status as sons of God. Wouldn’t it be a tragedy if we were to cast aside such amazing grace and marvelous love in favor of the world’s iridescent but ultimately ephemeral glory?
[i] SECULARIZATION DEFINED
Encyclopedias provide a range of definitions on secularization. In the sociology of religion, secularization broadly refers to the “declining levels of religiosity” in modern society. This article adopts a simple definition – the transformation of what is holy into what is worldly.
[ii] MORE PRECIOUS THAN GOLD
When Peter and John went to the temple to pray, a lame man at the Beautiful Gate sought alms from them. Peter said to him, “Silver and gold I do not have, but I will give to you whatever I have.” What Peter had was the gospel of Christ, the power of the Holy Spirit and a clear understanding of his commission. Peter knew he could not change society, could not solve the woes of all the poor. But he had something far more precious—the gospel, which gives eternal life. Thus Peter gave the beggar the gospel of Christ so that, upon believing, the latter would have his sins forgiven and be saved.
[iii] FIVE WARNING SIGNS:
You look forward more to Saturday golf than Saturday with God.
You update and read your Facebook more often than you uplift your faith through reading God’s Book.
You spend more time asking God to bless your stock portfolio (or career, studies, etc.) than entreating Him to heal your sick brethren or help you grow in spirituality and His service.
You dismiss your skipping of services and low frequency of prayers and Bible-reading as “only human”.
You do not think backsliding is a big problem.