Reformed Quarterly Volume 9, Issue 1
During the summer of 1963, a small group of men met to pray about a new seminary — a seminary that would be totally committed to the inerrant, authoritative Bible. God blessed that vision mightily and, amid much prayer and faith, RTS was born. Now, twenty-six years later, after remarkable growth and development, God called RTS to another historic decision — to give birth to a second campus in Orlando, Florida.
The first RTS Orlando convocation was held in the fall of 1989, and approximately one hundred students enrolled in classes this first year. Although Florida is the fourth most populous state, sporting a healthy growth rate and unprecedented opportunities for evangelism and church planting, it had no fully accredited Protestant seminary until RTS opened last fall.
Renowned theologian and author Dr. Carl F.H. Henry delivered the first convocation address, challenging students to exhibit courage in a troubled age because Christ has overcome the world. A portion of his address follows.
If there were any reason to doubt that world-missions ought to be the mindset of every evangelical campus, John 16:33 dispels it: “In the world you shall have trouble, but take heart, I have overcome the world” (NIV).
Four Greek words are important in this passage: kosmos — world; thlipsis — trouble; Christos — Christ; and tharsos — courage. Our mission is global; it is in the world. Its context is trouble, tribulation if you will. But its outcome is clear; Christ has overcome the world.
WE ARE IN THE WORLD
The disciples may have been preoccupied with Judea and Galilee, but Jesus speaks of them as being “in the world.” Does your heart and will stretch beyond the borders of America and the Anglo-American West to Africa, Asia, and Australasia?
We have a mission to a world that God the Creator made and sustains. We sing “This is myFather’s world” and well we may. Day after day it mirrors the Creator’s glory universally in general revelation, in nature and history, and in the conscience and mind of man. Skewed though God’s creation may now be, that deflection is neither the first word nor the last to be said about history and the cosmos.
We glory in God’s sovereign rule over the universe, in His redemptive purpose in human affairs, in His covenant with Abraham and Moses, and in His incarnation in Jesus of Nazareth. We herald the achievements of Christian culture in the Middle Ages, the spiritual renewal wrought through the Protestant reformers, the great nineteenth century world missionary expansion, the present resurgence of evangelical orthodoxy in America, and the current awakening of Third World churches to their global missionary imperative. And we anticipate further dramatic triumphs of Christian mission.
Above all else, we are assured that Christ’s approaching Second Coming will decisively subdue evil and will inaugurate the consummatory victory of what is good and what is just. This is our Father’s world; He had the first word and will have the last word as well. You and I are in it with a global mandate and mission.
THE REALITY OF SIN IN OUR WORLD
Yet, the world also intrudes with a ghastly reality. One may even be inclined to shudder at the apostle John’s reminder that “the whole world is under the control of the evil one” (1 Jn. 5:19) and that we are not “to love the world or anything in it” (1 Jn. 2:15). Jesus Himself cautioned that while “in the world” we are not to be “of it.” We may sing that God’s “got the whole world in His hands,” but we recall also Luther’s words about “the prince of darkness grim.” We agree with Browning that “God’s in His heaven,” but we are far less sure that “all’s right with the world.”
Does not the hideous specter of totalitarian Communist tyranny scar Eastern Europe, mainland China, and North Korea, not to mention nearby Cuba? Do we not see, played out before our eyes, the maneuvers of the Communist party in Poland to maintain power despite the victories of Solidarity? Are we not aware of the tightrope that Gorbachev walks in Russia between reform and repudiation? Are we unaware of the ongoing tensions in China between the house churches and the Three Self Patriotic movement amid the bloody resistance of mainland rulers to democratic change? In Yugoslavia the present inflation rate is 790 per cent, and 1.2 million people are unemployed. In Romania, the hospitalized often lie two to a bed in uncomfortably cold rooms; medicines and even food must be provided by relatives or friends (a single aspirin can cost one dollar).
But the so-called Free World is also in far deeper trouble than it thinks or admits, despite its positive self-evaluation mainly in economic and political terms. It is no secret that many of our political leaders, emphasizing as they do the superiority of the Free World, bristle at negative moral and spiritual judgments about the Anglo-American West. Of course, we rightly extol the prized freedoms we enjoy; I myself serve on the Institute on Religion and Democracy, which champions religious liberty and political self-determination in a global context of religious repression and political imposition.
Nonetheless, we should also note and concede that the philosophical props for human rights are collapsing all around because humanity is severed from God and from divinely-given duties. Human survival becomes trivialized because of confused secular notions of justice and peace, right and wrong. Exalted words like life and love are in definitional trouble. One vice after another –abortion, alcoholism, drugs, homosexuality–is considered only a matter of one’s private choice. The deviant behavior of a rebel minority increasingly burdens all of society with costs of many kinds that benefit an aberrant sector of society at the expense of others.
Radical Islam, which relies on violence to extend Koranic power, has struck terror into the heart of the West. Islam perceives itself as the foe both of Israeli claims to Palestinian sovereignty and of the West’s accommodation to a lascivious lifestyle. The great conflict of the next century, some social commentators believe, may well rage between Islam and the neo-pagan West, whose declension to secular humanism — and beyond that to naked naturalism — is increasingly likely to disown Christianity.
Liberal Western intellectual elitism has no serious notion of what blasphemy is and routinely takes the name of Christ in vain. It allows God no public importance and tolerates Him only as a private option. It cheapens moral absolutes into pragmatic alternatives. Nobody should be surprised that world religions long cataloged as pagan by Christian standards sense in this vacuum of belief a new missionary opportunity for themselves and hasten to offer something presumably more satisfying to a generation snared by the lust for money, power, and sex.
Charles Colson’s latest book, Against the Night, has as its subtitle Living in the New Dark Ages. In it he writes of “a growing sense of storm clouds gathering on the horizon,” of “the crisis…in the character of our culture.” This crisis, he notes, “presents the greatest threat to civilization since the barbarians invaded Rome.” He says, “The times…smell of sunset.”
According to Colson, the secular tide has now so deeply invaded Christians and their churches that, if Western culture were to sink into oblivion, it is extremely difficult to say whether the present evangelical churches would rise phoenix-like in triumph from the ashes.
In summary, not only is the world in dire trouble, as it has been ever since humanity’s fall into sin, but the West that Christianity long lifted from its pagan mires is today a part of that trouble. Churches in America, as elsewhere in the Anglo-Saxon world, are in real peril of being battered, stunned by the backlash of a secular milieu with which they are too intimately meshed.
Yet, it would fail the Gospels and the New Testament to equate the tribulation of which they speak simply with the social agonies of countries struggling for world survival and to concern ourselves primarily with cultural perpetuation.
In America, where believers seldom have had to suffer persecution or torture or adversity for their faith in Christ, it is easy to generalize the notion of trouble and to speak of the mounting ailments of society. Guaranteed freedom of religious expression and subject to little suffering for faith other than the derision of assorted secular media rebels, American churchgoers do not easily grasp the suffering that Jesus and the apostles spoke of and endured.
Rather, today we think of such tribulation in relation to reports of the harassed underground house churches of China and Russia; or of converts from Islam threatened by family rejection, maiming, or even murder; or of courageous frontier missionaries among hidden peoples in remote and erstwhile closed countries; or of believers in Communist lands who, because of their faith, lose access to university studies or forfeit any hope of vocational advancement.
It is amid a theology of suffering and martyrdom, not where the luxury of a heretical theology of wealth and health often prevails (as in our land), that Christian workers routinely endure the tensions and trials biblically in view. Recent American Christianity, with its liberties and special privileges, has little in common with normative evangelical experience through the centuries; it is very much a historical exception.
Now, however, the situation even in the United States has begun to change. The influx of Two-Thirds-World refugees and immigrants with their diversity of faiths, some of whose home countries have denied missionary opportunities to Christians abroad, are now our townspeople and neighbors. The theologically ignorant secular Western media publicize these Oriental faiths as enchanting frontier novelties. Even on government-supported public radio, evangelical Christianity -the inherited religion of the West and still espoused by fifty-five million Americans — gets less constructive exposure than it is due or is even depicted adversely.
But the major change in the American condition is not simply a matter of public perception. The major change, rather, is that the present worsening declension of secular humanism to raw naturalism involves a deliberate neo-pagan repudiation of the Christian heritage. Unless the prevalent stance of the secular universities, the mass media, and the political arena is altered, we will expend our lives and implement our ministries in a cultural context that discounts Christianity to an option unacceptable to the thinking man or woman of the 1990s; it will be perceived as an alternative that has already had its day, one whose erstwhile exclusive claim for faith in Christ as the only way to redemption will be despised as a mark of cultural illiteracy.
Such a development could signal new possibilities of evangelical rejection — of affliction and torture and imprisonment in which the threat and power of death may be at work. The New Testament views trials that imperil life as a test of the believer’s essential commitment to Christ and the gospel, of one’s readiness to offer one’s life to God as his providential giver and preserver in the midst of ministry. Here we recall the words of the apostle Paul:
For we would not, brethren, have you ignorant of our trouble which came to us in Asia, that we were pressed out of measure, above strength, insomuch that we despaired of life. But we had the sentence of death in ourselves that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God which raises the dead. (2 Cor. 1:8f, KJV).
Such tribulation is not merely a byproduct of general social problems; it is an affliction borne by the righteous in the course of their obedient service to God. Israel’s election as the chosen people elicited reactionary threats to her historical existence. Similarly, under the new covenant, Christ’s disciples, the apostles, the early church, and the people of God throughout the Christian centuries inherit this tribulation.
The term thlipsis –trouble – occurs forty-five times in the New Testament, more than half of them in Paul’s writings. The risen Christ, whose redemptive suffering for sinners was borne and completed on the cross, is seen as entering into the sufferings of His saints; indeed, says Paul, the body is to fill up the sufferings in which the head of the body continues to share. The martyrs in the book of Revelation come to God’s throne through great tribulation. Suffering for Christ is a normal aspect of Christian living in this world; into that suffering the risen Lord enters as head of the body. As the eschatological end-time approaches, that suffering, already underway since the resurrection of the crucified Messiah, becomes more intense and will continue until the full dawning of the kingdom of God.
In the world you shall have trouble, Christ reminds us. To know Jesus truly and intimately does not render us impervious to trouble. In experiencing suffering as believers, we are not to be identified with the world which “lies in the lap of the evil one,” but with Christ who has overcome the world. Our message is not primarily the eventual, and perhaps imminent, collapse of Western culture or whether American evangelicalism can escape disaster. It is, rather, that the world per se has no future: but for the people of God, the outcome is sure.
CHRIST HAS OVERCOME THE WORLD
Our mission, then, is earth-encircling; it is in the world, and it is tinged with trouble. But the victory is unqualified; Christ has overcome the world! Therefore, be of “good cheer” (KJV); “take heart” (NIV); “take courage” (NAS); “be courageous” (Williams). The Greek term tharsos conveys much more than “good morning,” “chin up,” or a cordial “cheers.” Jesus used the verb form to exhort others in crisis situations and often couples it with the negative “Stop fearing.”
Every humanities student knows that courage was among the stellar virtues in Graeco-Roman civilization. Plato lists it after wisdom in his summary of the moral life. Greek philosophy anchored courage in the supposition that human beings have an intrinsically divine nature, an indestructible spirit, and a psychic element that is essentially immortal.
Christianity repudiates that speculation. Jesus anchors courage in His victory over the world, a victory achieved by His resurrection as the crucified one, a decisive historical event that sets Christian realities uniquely apart from pagan mythology. Not self-reliance, but Christ the overcomer is the hinge of history. Our lives and mission are in the nail-scarred hands of the victor who vanquished the threatening postures of world powers. Christian courage centers in and around the Messiah Who, by His sinless life and bodily resurrection, won and guarantees victory over all the powers of evil, oppression, and even death.
The evangelical movement in America is concluding a spectacular century of faith in which it has sponsored evangelists and missionaries worldwide, built schools and colleges and seminaries, founded major movements, produced books and magazines, trained a vanguard of scholars and workers, and produced important Bible translations. Now the time is at hand for more than faith. The time has come for Christian courage.
The Old Testament prophets defied trouble even when life was at risk; they stood tall for Yahweh in the midst of it.
The Christian apostles did not escape trouble; amid the hostility of pagan rulers and of religious bureaucrats they trumpeted Christ’s victory.
Augustine in his day did not go underground to circumvent pagan philosophers; he confronted them intellectually and exhibited the superior credentials of biblical faith.
The Protestant Reformers were not intimidated by Rome’s ecclesiastical power but proclaimed sola fide and sola scriptura when church leaders on every hand blurred the foundational tenets of Christianity.
William Carey, despite poverty and deprivation, learned Latin, Greek, and Hebrew and sailed as a pioneer missionary to India. There, alone or with others, he translated the Bible in whole or part into twenty-six languages.
It is a time for courage, to dare to be a Daniel, to stand alone if necessary, to do things in the biblical way and not as the world does them. We have a mission in a world awash in trouble, a mission that calls for courage grounded in Christ Who has overcome the world.
It takes courage to be an evangelist when others declare that the age of mass evangelism is over.
It takes courage to expend one’s life in missions when others prioritize material goals.
It takes courage to witness to non-Christian immigrants and refugees when sociologists espouse and curry religious pluralism.
It takes courage to live virtuously in a licentious age.
It takes courage to serve God when adversity challenges trust in God’s love.
It takes courage to live in a world that still crucifies Jesus and boldly declare that “God works all things together for good to them that love Him, who are the called according to His purpose…” (Rom.8:28) and that neither thlipsis (trouble) nor hardship nor persecution nor famine nor wickedness nor danger nor sword can separate the believer from Christ’s firm love for us. We are “more than conquerors;” we are devoted disciples of the overcomer, the risen Lord, and the coming king.