Strengthen What Remains!
by Erwin Lutzer
How much of the culture should we embrace in order to redeem it? That’s a question that has been endlessly discussed throughout the history of the church. There are some aspects of the culture we can embrace, but there is much that must be opposed. Our ability to discern what we can and cannot embrace is critical to the continuation of our witness as a church.
My concern is that we are submitting to culture’s most enticing temptations and justifying this in the name of compassion, love, and cultural relevance. We are willingly being deceived. And too often, we are feeling self-righteously good about it.
Many years ago, my wife, Rebecca, and I toured the sites of the seven churches of Revelation chapters 2–3. Among them was the church at Sardis, the one to whom Jesus wrote a letter and warned, “You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God” (Revelation 3:1-2).
Wake up! Strengthen what remains!
What concerned Jesus about this church? The answer isn’t explicitly stated in the letter, but it’s not too difficult to figure out where the deception lay. This church that had a reputation of being alive was now dead because the people had submitted to the culture surrounding it.
When our tour group visited ancient Sardis, we discovered that right next to the ruins of a third-century church building were the ruins of temples dedicated to pagan sexuality. Even though these buildings dated to two or three centuries after New Testament times, still, the juxtaposition of these ruins are a commentary on the history of the church in Sardis.
The church evidently felt comfortable next to these sexually permissive temples. It succumbed to the temptations offered by the surrounding culture and failed to stand against them. Perhaps some of its members worshipped in both locations. For them, the sexual permissiveness was too attractive to resist.
Thankfully, not everyone in the church succumbed. Jesus went on to say, “Yet you have still a few…who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy” (verse 4).
There are some today who argue that Christianity must be remade if it’s to survive. The argument is that historic Christianity is out of touch with our culture and the shifting values of our society. They say the church needs to cultivate a more compassionate, inclusive, and culturally relevant form of Christianity. Thus they surrender ground to culture under the banner of progress.
Thanks to technology and the media, we have access to a pagan culture that is much closer to us than it was to the Christians of the first century. Pagan temples can be accessed through our computers, cell phones, or tablets. And the temptations are even stronger because so many of our homes are in disarray, with children who are searching for love and affirmation with no regard as to where they find it.
The pressure to compromise and redefine the gospel by finding “a middle way” is great
Many tsunamis are coming against the church today. The pressure to compromise and redefine the gospel by finding “a middle way” is great. As contemporary culture grows more intolerant of historic Christianity, the church is lured into becoming weaker and ends up being absorbed by the world. The lamp flickers, and then goes out.
Recently, I spoke to a Christian leader who, for at least 30 years, has been involved in a mission organization known for its emphasis on evangelism in America and around the world. But that has changed. He told me that at their last conference, “You would have thought that you were at a conference on social justice.” Gone was the urgency of getting the gospel to as many people as possible. Missing were discussions on how to motivate churches and pastors to not lose sight of the larger vision that “the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few” (Matthew 9:37).
This is a tragic loss. If we lose our passion for making the gospel known, if we abandon the biblical teaching about heaven and hell and Christ as the only way, if we work to make life better in this world and ignore the reality of the life to come, we are sacrificing the eternal on the altar of the temporal. We are trading heaven for earth and eternity for time.
We are commanded to live radically like Christ, committing ourselves to the needs of others: body, soul, and spirit. We must realize that the gospel comes not only in words, but through authentic, caring Christians who are willing to sacrifice their all for others. We must serve with a redemptive mindset, always seeking opportunities to build bridges that will lead people to eternal life. If we don’t see the singular importance of the message of the gospel, we substitute a temporal body for an eternal soul.
We as evangelicals need to return to our biblical roots. We need to talk about heaven and warn against hell. We need gospel-driven social work that serves people because they are needy and, yes, of course we should continue to serve them whether they believe in Christ or not. But our heart’s cry should be for them to believe the gospel and be saved. If compassion motivates us to help alleviate the suffering in this present world, how much more should compassion motivate us to share the good news to alleviate their suffering in the world to come.
We must serve with a redemptive mindset, always seeking opportunities to build bridges that will lead people to eternal life
Let us resolve as a church that we will not bow to cultural intimidation. As we persevere, let us always be ready to graciously give a defense to anyone who asks for the reason for the hope within us (see 1 Peter 3:15).
Let us heed what Jesus said to the church in Sardis: “Strengthen what remains!” CRA
Excerpted from Erwin W. Lutzer, We Will Not Be Silenced (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2020), select portions of chapter 10. CRA