Bottom-Up, Inside-Out: Internal Change First

As we clearly observe deterioration of freedom as well as traditional understandings of marriage, family, biblical morality, and sound economic principles, we sense a necessary call to action—and respond we must! While responding, it is critically important to understand the essential principles of divine design. These problems have been created by ignoring truth that goes beyond a single culture’s ideas on organizing society. We can’t just “fix” things without God-given wisdom. Judging that the problem relates to ignorance of—or depreciation of—divine principles, we seek to reinstate them in the structures that shape society. We may work to define and clarify them relative to our current situation, and then look for leaders in influential spheres who will espouse them—all the while believing that when societal structures align with principles of divine order, life will be better for all.

This seems like a loving thing to do. After all, we want the people (including ourselves) to have the greatest opportunity possible to have a happy and meaningful life. And since helping others makes us feel better, this seems like a win/win strategy. So, is there a problem? I think so—at least from the perspective of the Christian who has been commissioned to make the gospel central to everything he or she says or does. The strategy mentioned above can be executed without the gospel, but it will not be fully successful. The principles that make life work better can be discovered and applied by anyone wise enough to observe and learn. But the problem lies with the one trying to apply them. Inevitably the principle will be misused, abused, and maligned by the self-obsessed heart of the individual trying to survive in what it perceives as a threatening environment.

It is not possible outside the gospel to balance the competing interests of human flourishing. Free market principles help create increasing economic growth that makes all of society wealthier and better off, but often those who are greatly benefited appear to overlook the plight of the poor. At the same time, compassion can lead to an inappropriate approach to ending poverty and promoting more equal distribution, but at the cost of limiting opportunities for all. There’s a problem in human access of the principles themselves. They require an “invisible hand” of divine love governing them just as the free market requires the “invisible hand” of self-interest.

Remember! Jesus called a man a fool because in observing the principle of sowing and reaping he was consumed with gathering more and more for his own interests alone. The same kind of misuse will be true of all the principles found in creation. The principles are valid. The human heart is defective.

The culprit is not the socialist’s philosophy that seeks to displace democratic capitalism and debunk American exceptionalism. It is the inability of untransformed people to live by the principles of divine order. Apart from the radical application of the gospel of Christ, the human heart will not/cannot live by even the simplest principle without perverting it for its own benefit. This means that reinstating good principles into societal structures is at best a temporary solution. In a society where the vast majority of people are unfamiliar with the transforming power of the gospel or at least the ethical effects rippling from it, the reforms will be like the 18th amendment and prohibition. They will be repealed either by legislation or covert revolution.

As Christians concerned about our civic responsibilities, we have discovered a principle higher than all others and one that is necessary to implement the principles of divine order without abuse. We cannot neglect this nor assume others can successfully operate in divine principles without it. In the gospel of Jesus Christ we encounter a kind of love that is otherworldly and transforming. God loved us when we were undeserving and uncaring. He did for us what we couldn’t do for ourselves and included us in his plan to bless the world through the loving sacrifice of Jesus his Son. We are the proclaimers of this great love story. When others hear it in their hearts, they too are changed and empowered to live without enslaving fear.

Once captured by this Godly love, we are empowered to operate in it. We can love without depending upon those being loved to give back.  The problem with trying to change society with human love is that it will inevitably lead to disillusionment. Those who should appreciate the sacrifice made to help them have a better life will instead reject the divine principles, concluding they require too much responsibility. Often they will resent the reformer for interfering with their lives. When love is not returned, it dies. In its place will grow seeds of bitterness and skepticism. The reformer becomes a cynic.

Most Christians will readily admit that internal transformation precedes external change, but the emphasis is put on the external because it is most obvious and measurable. (In our culture, if it can’t be measured, it doesn’t count.) There are crises of lost religious freedom, mounting debt, governmental encroachment, unjust taxation, etc. These cry for attention and they are serious. But they are simply the results of eroding civil government due to the lack of the influence of a gospel mandate to subdue the earth by making disciples of all peoples. When we assume the gospel we are presuming on reality. If we are going to assume, let’s assume that when the heart is changed by God’s love, the society will change, first at home, then in the community, the state, the nation, and the world. Those who treat the gospel as optional don’t understand its totality. It is a faulty gospel that deals only with the eternal destiny of the soul, and leaves the world in which we sojourn unaffected.

I don’t know if the early church strategized to transform Rome. We have scant evidence of such. They were obviously enamored with being a part of a new nation that came from heaven, filled them with the love of God and empowered them with the same Spirit that raised Jesus from death. This nation infiltrated Rome and affected the known world like leaven invades the whole lump of dough. It was and is the Kingdom of God. It is still the only nation with a heavenly mandate. It is the only nation that can affect all other nations. It is “Lord” Jesus who sits on the throne. It is his message that gives meaning to existence. His victory will be culminated on earth. Why would we labor outside of this mission? If this is the key to the solution, why would we settle for less?

Many who profess faith fail to trust in the power of the gospel. We have every reason to doubt any gospel that doesn’t move a person from his/her fascination with self; from thinking that spirituality is only about going to heaven; from bondage to emotional and behavioral addictions; from individualistic preoccupation. But the true gospel that captured the early Christians empowered them to so exalt Jesus in their daily lives that a by-product was the transformation of whatever culture they were in. They were truly salt and light wherever they went. Societal rot and darkness was dramatically affected by the very presence of these passionate disciples who were abiding in the love of God. They somehow knew that the love they had received was more powerful than political kingdoms, tyrants, and death.

It still is. It is the only power that can and will defeat all forms of evil. Why would we ignore it when we want to see evil defeated in our generation?

Could we be victims of our need to be significant? We are problem-solvers. We can find a measure of significance if we lead out in finding a solution to the immediate problems that face us. The problem with “world-changers” is their temptation to compete with the one who has already come to change the world. He did it not by becoming a hero to his culture, but by cutting the root of human bondage. His followers who changed their world (like Paul) did it by telling a simple story that seemed silly to the thinkers, and foolish to the religious. Their concerns were not first the economic and political conditions of their day. They proclaimed a new Lord, and a new nation that would confront and offer the blessings of change to all nations. They were not obsessed with being world-changers. They were obsessed by the name and message of their Lord.  They were committed to enhancing his reputation. Cultures changed. The leaven works unnoticed until the whole lump is penetrated.

When we see deplorable conditions in our society, we cannot be content to offer a temporary fix. Internal transformation MUST precede external change. Only the New Testament gospel does that. “It is the power of God unto salvation (deliverance).”[1] Believers are commanded by Christ to be bold witnesses, releasing the power of transforming truth.

Many will resonate with the essence of this message but are unsure how they are to respond as “salt and light” kind of people in the present circumstances. In coming articles we will be looking at ways we can apply the gospel that has conquered us in a world that needs to be conquered by the love of God. Like Adam and Eve we have all been given a “garden” to tend with diligent love and oversight. We will continue to share specific ways for believers to stand together against the gates of hellish deception and destruction.

If we who know right allow that light to always be hidden in the security of our own domain, then we will have contributed to the darkness of the day.

[1] Romans 1:16

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