In the deeply immoral and anti-Christian environment found in Europe and North America today concerned Christians leaders and communities are offering very different responses.
Some seek to engage unbelieving societal leaders in ongoing conversation with an ambition to redirect cultural mores and values through personal presence and winsome reason. Others move in the opposite direction by isolating themselves—aiming to remain pure by separation—while abandoning fallen society to its evil. Still others seek to overmatch and convert unbelievers through academically driven efforts that trumpet truth and expose all that is false and unacceptable.
We can label these approaches as the Engagers, the Entrenchers, and the Embattled. To a sympathetic eye—in sharing a common longing to see God’s kingdom lived out on earth—each approach seems reasonable. But by both Bible and pragmatic standards each is misguided and ineffective.
Ineffective in that the world is unmoved by the versions of faith being offered. And, even more, a cursory review finds Engagers liable to accommodation and syncretism; Entrenchers tend toward cult-like isolation and personality-driven enclaves; and the Embattlers regularly drive off all but a narrow and compliant segment of society. Each is unbiblical in that their approaches are not to be found in Christ’s ministry or in the book of Acts.
The movement leaders themselves are certainly sincere and devoted—and their basic orthodoxy is almost never in question if we track their doctrinal checklists. And each operates with an impressive moral earnestness. But something very important is missing in each case: Christ’s love. The focus, instead, is on human initiatives and values while Christ is moved into the background.
When we look at Christ himself we find that his earthly ministry displayed the Father’s love to a fallen creation. The Father’s ambition was to honor the Son for revealing that love by his redeeming death on the cross. The Spirit’s ministry is to pour that love out in the hearts of all who are drawn by the Father and captured by the Son. The church, in turn, offers this relational continuum to the world.
Paul spoke of this more than once with one of the clearest expressions found in 2 Corinthians 2:14-16—“For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, and to the other a fragrance from life to life.” The remarkable phrasing—“aroma of Christ to God”—speaks of the bond between the Father and the Son. This bond is the mutual delight, glory, and joy of the Godhead that the Spirit places in the souls of all believers—an aroma of divine love—that is the proof of God’s continuing presence on earth.
It is the fragrance of this love that discriminates empty scholarship from living relationship—as in John 5:42 when Jesus dismissed his audience of Bible teachers for missing the love of God while they delighted in their own academic glories. It also reveals genuine faith—as in Christ’s declaration in John 13:35 that authentic disciples are revealed by their mutual love.
The aroma of God’s own intrinsic love is the ultimate source of division among all humans: it creates animosity in some and desire in others. The elect are displayed as they are drawn to salvation by the Christ-to-God fragrance present among his followers: a life-to-Life attraction.
The binary division of death-to-death and life-to-life responses to the aroma of God’s presence in authentic believers reflects a binary spiritual reality: a malignant spirit rules the hearts of all of Adam’s offspring (as in Ephesians 2:1-3), but the Spirit of God creates new hearts among those he draws away from his enemy’s enslaving desires.
So by ignoring the distinctiveness of the Christ-to-God bond in believers the Engagers miss how offensive the aroma of God’s love is to all who are perishing—for those it offends rather than invites. Instead the Engagers press ahead with public relation skills that may actually reduce or dismiss Christ’s distinctive fragrance.
Among the Entrenched the option of becoming the fragrance of God to nonbelievers is dismissed outright. The compassion that characterized Christ and his followers is missing among them—and so is the biblical prospect that some in the world will be drawn to Christ by the sweet smell of real life and love among true Christians. Jesus and his followers were always in the world, but never of the world. Their hearts guarded them, not their social barriers.
And the Embattled seem not to grasp the role of hearts and love—qualities they view as too subjective and unreliable—while missing the reality that God presents himself as the one who “is love” (1 John 4: 8, 16). That is, God’s mutual devotion defines what love is, and not some sort of longing for emotional impulses. But his love is certainly not less than emotional.
What, then, is a proper faith—a faith that will attract many in the world to come to Christ? As Paul put it so well, it is a life of “faith working through love” and that love is the overflow of God’s spreading, fragrant, delightful presence to his people. It is a heartfelt delight rather than a disaffected duty. It is found among those who have tasted and seen that God is good.
For all who have tasted his loving kindness here’s the Bible’s invitation: share it freely and share it often wherever you go! Only this sort of faith can change the world.