From Your Pastor: Wisdom and Discernment in Cultural Engagement

“As even some of your own poets have said . . .” – Acts 17:28

As Christians, let us seek to distinguish good from evil. As God’s children, we desire to seek and acknowledge truth wherever we may find it, but we desire to do so with discernment and wisdom. In fact, a mark of a truly mature Christian is the ability to use one’s “powers of discernment” by constant practice to distinguish rightly between good and evil (Heb. 5:14). With a new school year coming, and another wonderful season of Locust Street Film Night, where we will have the privilege of learning new truths from both believers and unbelievers, let us pause for a moment to consider how we should desire to practice biblically distinguishing between good and evil in what we read, hear, and view as Christians in a fallen world that is yet drenched and saturated in God’s good and true revelation.

No one should ever discount the truth that the Holy Spirit reveals in creation, and especially in Holy Scripture, the special revelation of God. Common grace teaches us that God is good and clearly reveals Himself in creation and in and through all of His creatures (Psa. 145:9-12). Special grace teaches us that because of sin, and because sinful man does not acknowledge the truth of God in creation and in himself that he sees most clearly, but exchanges this truth for a lie, there is a need for special revelation from God, revealed through the Holy Scriptures (Rom. 1:17-32). Whenever considering how to grow in wisdom and discernment, we desire to make an important distinction between the common grace that the Spirit of Truth reveals to all mankind (Psa. 19:1-6; Rom. 2:14-16), and the special grace that the Spirit of Truth reveals specifically to His own in Jesus Christ (Psa. 19:7-14; Acts 17:23b).

As our forefather in the faith John Calvin taught, biblically truth is God’s truth wherever it is found. Calvin wrote: “If we recognize the Spirit of God as the unique Source of Truth, we will never despise it wherever we find it” (Institutes, 2.2.15). As Christians, let us acknowledge truth from the Holy Spirit wherever we find it. As we read good books, study philosophy, hear music performed, watch important and engaging films, let us always remember that there are truths and good learning to be had because of image-bearers who are reflecting the glory of God in their createdness to a certain degree. This is an opportunity to acknowledge truth wherever we find it, and as the Apostle Paul teaches us to do in Acts 17:24-31 to find truths through which we can use that are recognized by all people in our culture that at the same time gives us an opportunity of speaking more truth, and calling sinners to repentance.

Let us take notes from the Apostle Paul when He engages the Athenians at the Areopagus or Mars Hill in Acts 17. Note three important things he does in engaging culture: 1. Commitment: He demonstrates a commitment to God’s truth, and a zealousness for the glory of God; 2. Connecting: He connects with the culture. That is, the Apostle Paul recognizes certain truths that are revealed because of God’s common grace, because men are made in God’s image; 3. Correcting: He corrects the culture, knowing that the curse of sin has caused those who know some of the truth, not to live consistently in submission to that truth, and has caused them to exchange the truth for a lie.

Commitment to the Glory of God: “Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols.” While the Apostle Paul did indeed engage the culture at Athens, his heart was zealous for God to be glorified. He was “provoked” or deeply stirred and full of righteous anger at what those made in God’s image had done with the truth that they had revealed to them: they had exchanged the truth of God for a lie (cf. Rom. 1:19-25). Let us seek to do all things for the glory of God, giving thanks through the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 10:31; Col. 3:17; cf. Psa. 115:1).

Connecting to the Truths Common Grace Reveals: In connecting with the culture at Athens, the Apostle Paul appeals to their sense of the divine, or that they are image bearers and to some degree know the truth of who they are as those made in God’s image. He acknowledges that each of them are religious, even though they might not consider themselves anything more than philosophers, they are religious, that is, they are image-bearers of the true and living God and were made for worship. “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:22-25). This is important key of cultural engagement: All men are made in God’s image and all men are therefore religious and made to worship the true and living God. The sense of divine (“sensus divinitatis” as it is known in Latin) remains in all mankind, but sinful man exploits it for idolatry, self-justification, will worship, mythologies, and superstition.

Additionally, the Apostle Paul told the Athenians that God had placed these truths within them that they might find the Truth of all Truths: “…That they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us…” He then connects with the poetry, or what we might call the popular music or songs of the days: “…For “‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, “‘ For we are indeed his offspring.’” (Acts 17:28). “As even some of your own poets have said”. Here Paul is connecting with the truth that is revealed rightly in the culture, where God’s common grace in the revelation of truth by the Holy Spirit shines the brightest.

Correcting with Biblical Revelation and a Call to Repentance: But the Apostle Paul does not stop there! He acknowledges the truth: “Yes!” but then there is the important “but” that we must keep in mind. “Yes…but…” and then go on to correct with the truth of Special revelation: “…This I proclaim to you…”, Acts 17:23b). Though he connected with the Athenians, and even commends them for the truth that they did know, he nevertheless sought to correct them, using God’s Word, then speaking the full truth so that they might be saved: “Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. 30 The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:29-31).

The Apostle Paul shows that the Athenians’ reflections on truth that are truly true, are inconsistent with their conclusions, and the sinful, blinded lives that they are living. The reality that Paul points out is that sin has tainted the good minds and hearts that they were created with. He reasonably and in submission to Scripture teaches them that God’s image bearers should not make images and call them God, that mankind is a result of the true God’s imagination, not the other way around! And then he teaches the truth and calls them to repentance. We must never forget that our ultimate mission in this world as Christians, is not only to enjoy the truth that we can discover in the realm of common grace, but to remember as God’s people, we are also to use these opportunities to call unbelievers to repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus (Matt. 5:14-16; 45).

What can we learn from this in summary when seeking to find truth wherever we can find it in our culture today while remaining first and foremost faithful to our God and His Truth revealed in Holy Scripture?

  • Common Grace/Common Curse: Common grace is true; truth is true wherever it is found, and more particularly truth is always God’s truth from His good Spirit. But common curse is also true. All mankind has fallen short of the glory of God and tends toward exchanging the truth of God with a lie, and refusing to see the clear truth of God and its implications for all mankind. As we are learning to develop our powers of discernment in reading good literature, poetry, listening to music of our culture, and viewing good cinema, let us take into consideration both common grace and common curse. Not only ask: “What is true?” about this piece of writing, poetry, song, film, etc. But also, “Where is there error and idolatry and a refusal to see the truth?”

  • Commitment to the Glory of God: Let us be righteously angered and “provoked” by idolatry and unbelief in our culture. Let us, with the Psalmist, have such a zealous commitment to God’s truth, that we will can say: “My eyes shed streams of tears, because people do not keep your law” (Psalm 119:136). Let us cause this commitment to engage not withdraw from our cultural moment. Let us pray for discerning minds, and gentle, compassionate hearts that are nevertheless like Christ in His zeal for truth.
  • Connection with Image-Bearers: Let us connect with the truth as we read it in literature and poetry, as we hear it in song, as we see it visualized in cinema: “Yes!”. Let us recognize the truth as it is God’s truth, because all truth is God’s truth and from His Spirit ultimately. We can see truths about God and mankind in every aspect of culture, but not necessarily THE TRUTH. We desire to affirm and connect with others through the “truths”, but we must also be submitted in our hearts and minds to the Truth as God’s has specially revealed in Holy Scripture: “…But!”. For instance, in wonderful mythologies, like the Norse Mythologies, we see truths such as the need to worship-Yes!, the difficulty of the pilgrimage-Yes!, the need for the wisdom of mentors-Yes!, the dragon that must be slain-Yes!, the propitiation needed because of man’s foolish behavior-Yes!, the enjoyment of songs-Yes!, the importance of remembrance of our family/clan’s story/history-Yes!, the appreciation of courage and bravery-Yes!, some of the attributes of the true God even in false worship-Yes!. These are all truths to connect with, but not THE TRUTH. These are places where we can see that all mankind are indeed made in God’s image (common grace), and yet all mankind are sinners refusing to believe (special grace of the common curse).
  • Correction and Call to Repentance: Let us correct what we read, hear, and see with the further biblical revelation and what it says, and let us call all men to repentance and faith in the good and forgiving Lord Jesus Christ. Let us be reminded that even those who have the most common grace, and are at their cultural best are still at their best sinners who fall short of the glory of God and are in need of repentance (Rom. 3:23; Acts 17:29-31). Though there are many good writers, musicians and film makers in our day, and have been throughout history—thankfully!!–they have a desperate need for the salvation and forgiveness of Jesus Christ.
  • Neither Withdrawing nor Worldly: There must be balance in understanding the biblical teaching of both common grace and common curse. On the one hand, too much emphasis on the common curse can tend toward making Christians withdraw from the culture, often out of fear of becoming worldly. On the other hand, too much emphasis on the common grace can tend toward making Christians worldly without discernment. Both of these are wrong. When Christians withdraw in an unhealthy manner from cultural involvement it is often because they rightly are focusing on the way that sinful men corrupt the truths that they do know, and exchange them for a lie. This is a real problem. When Christians take in too much culture without good discernment, it is often in because they are rightly desiring to emphasize common grace. This is a truth. But both must be held in holy tension: We are not to withdraw but to engage, but to do so with a balanced understanding that there is truth to be found (common grace), and sin to be avoided—not only in others—but also in our own sinful hearts (common curse).
  • Humility and Gratitude: Live humble lives, seeking to listen and learn all you can in the culture, not thinking you know more than you actually do in pride, but thinking of yourself with sober judgment (Rom. 12:3). Live grateful lives, knowing that if you know the truth it has indeed set you free, and that it was all because of the kindness and gift of God in Christ by His Spirit! True and sound wisdom consists of two parts, knowledge of God and of ourselves and our need of Him, and this is all of His grace to sinners. Amen.

In Christ’s love,

Pastor Biggs