Aquinas and Culture Part 2: How Do I Teach the Church about Culture?

My post, Aquinas and Culture, drew not a few readers. If you haven’t read it, I basically argued that the epistemology of Immanuel Kant created a division between the sacred and the secular that the evangelical church is still reeling from. I was asked by a fellow student if I would ever give a rather philosophical explanation of this topic to a church. The following was my response. Keep in mind that this was posted on a discussion board, not in a term paper.

The only places I would mention Plato, Aristotle or Kant by name are places like Manhattan or Boston. Mentioning the philosophers in these places may actually help the listeners be more open to the gospel presentation. It may show them an effort on the part of the speaker to understand their culture. I currently serve at a church in Charlotte, NC; a city full of bankers. For my context, and I believe most US contexts, I wouldn’t explain the relationship between Christ and culture in the way I did here.

There are three common kinds of texts I go to when teaching the topic of culture: creation, the miracle narratives of Jesus, and the resurrection of Jesus.

We were made for the garden of God. That was our home. It was a place that fit us and suited us. All of our deepest needs were met there. And there, in the garden, we see a divine mandate to humanity to have dominion and subdue the earth; to work and produce culture from nature. Man was created in the image of a supremely creative God, and therefore, when we are creative we are like God. The initial chapters of Genesis show us a people who are called to display the glory of God by creatively engaging the natural world and produce culture, and we create culture (art, music, education, justice systems etc.) best when it mirrors and reflects the true reality about God, humanity, and our world.

Secondly, the miracle narratives are all given to us in the context of Jesus’ kingdom proclamation. In other words, the miracles display to us what God’s kingdom is like. According to the miracles, God’s kingdom is a place where hungry people are fed, justice is restored, people join at marriage banquet celebrations, sick people are healed. In other words, the kingdom is a place where humans flourish and culture is created. The miracles point us back to our original intent, and propel us forward, as N.T. Wright says, “to sketch out in pencil, what God will one day paint in ink.” The miracles are signs, but they are more than that. They are actually models for us to follow. We should see Jesus feed the hungry and do the same, knowing that we were hungry and God fed us. We should see Jesus heal sick people and raise the dead, and so, pour ourselves into the staving off of sickness and death. In creating a culture where hungry people are fed and sick people are cared for we act out signs of the gospel and the kingdom. These are not the gospel– but a rightly ordered culture of food and medicine point people to the one who hates hunger and sickness and who will ultimately abolish them from the world. This is what I meant when I said that culture prepares people for the gospel. When we, who care for the sick neighbor, tell them of the great physician who can heal their true sickness they can respond, “I have seen you act this out.”

Finally, the bodily resurrection of Jesus is a powerful statement that this world isn’t inherently evil, and will be redeemed albeit through fire. The resurrection tells us that God will redeem all of his creation. God would not allow his Holy One to see corruption. He raised the skin and bone of Jesus. I believe this to be a powerful sign to us that our business is not just to work towards the redemption of embodied souls, but to preach the redemption of the cosmos, including culture. Our final state of existence isn’t on a cloud as disembodied spirit. It’s ruling and reigning bodily in the city of God. Christ is the firstborn from the dead. He has broken through the wall of death, into life, and we follow after him into new life and new culture.

Some of you will notice my appropriation of language from Tim Keller. I am indebted to him and, in many ways, find myself unable to be as originally expressive as he is. Therefore, I copy him.

Gospel Contextualization

Using the hermeneutical spiral, evangelicals have been seeking to avoid either extreme on a spectrum described by Richard Lints in his book The Fabric of Theology. At one end of his spectrum is a cultural fundamentalism that believes we can read the Bible and express its theology in culture-free, universal terms; at the other end is a cultural relativism that holds “that the Scripture can have no other meaning than that which is permitted by the conceptuality of the present-day situation.” Tim Keller, Center Church. p. 105

Ultimately, those of us who are trying to find the sweet spot on this spectrum have to accept and reject certain forms and artifacts of culture. It would be wise, as we do so, to continually, and explicitly state two truths: God’s Word is authoritative (as the spiral metaphor suggests), and the gospel challenges even the forms we deem appropriate.

The Kingdom of Fullness and the Emptied Lord

Last Sunday our church gathered and remembered the Lord’s death by observing Communion. Over the past few years I have seen a trend towards making Communion as efficient and quick as possible. We have songs to sing, and sermons to preach and Communion eats up valuable time. Communion is rigid and inflexible; completely the opposite of our modern and mobile church goer. Communion is solemn, and sitting quietly makes the people in our busy culture squirm and fidget.

As I met with our worship pastor, Brandon, to plan the service I told him that I wanted to slow down. Jesus commanded that the church observe two ordinances: baptism and Communion. The observance of these two ordinances are a visible representation of Christ’s presence with his bride, and we should never treat either of these with words like efficiency or speed.

I believe that baptism and Communion, when held in esteem and practiced with wonder, deliver a kind of spiritual power and vigor to the church. They tie us to our history, to the apostles. They challenge our culture of assertive, go-getter philosophies by reminding us that salvation is accomplished for us, not by us. Communion is rigid; as rigid as the justice of God. And, yet, nothing more visibly demonstrates the pouring out of grace.

The sermon I preached was from John 6, the miracle of the loaves and fishes. My goal was to demonstrate that God’s kingdom is a place where hungry people are fed, and where dead people come to life. Jesus feeds the multitude, and offers them eternal life. He shows them how the hunger in their bellies demonstrates the need for a new kingdom. This world is starving and dying, and only those who look to the Son of God will experience eternal life. But how does that kingdom of fullness and life come to us? It only comes, Jesus says, through his broken body and blood poured out.

BreadFor my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.

I have posted my unedited sermon manuscript below, and I would love to hear your thoughts on Communion and the kingdom of God.

John 6 Sermon Manuscript

The Gospel Always Challenges Our Context

Churches should be contextualized, I agree. But the gospel always challenges context. There must be a healthy balance between embracing and exploding context. A church should never be a church for only one kind of person. The gospel isn’t anti-culture, but neither does it enthrone any single culture. The gospel transforms culture.

It is one thing to begin a church with members from a single culture, but if that church never preaches a gospel that challenges the culture then it isn’t really preaching the gospel.

People groups were God’s idea, but God is also about having one People with One Shepherd. I just read a chapter by a church planter who veers dangerously close to giving the idea that God likes segregation. He argues that people groups were God’s idea from the passage about Babel in Genesis 11. While it is true that God confounded the people who had become idolaters of their own culture, all of the scriptures from that moment on move towards the re-establishment of one people under one shepherd. The structure and message of all of the prophetic books is seen in woes pronounced on Israel, woes pronounced on the nations, followed by a restoration in which the nations are brought back into a single flock with Israel. Jesus, himself, quoted from Ezekiel in John 10 when he talked about other sheep who were not a part of the flock of Israel who he had to bring into the fold.

I want to be balanced and fair to those who are writing about context, but if your theory about how we should contextualize begins and ends in Genesis, start over. A better example would be Acts 16 in which Paul starts the church in Philippi with a woman (Lydia), a possessed slave girl, and a Roman jail keeper. The model that Acts gives us is that while we may contextualize the gospel based on continent, or even region the truth is that the kingdom of God is a migrant kingdom made up of every tribe and tongue.

Blessed Trinity- How Understanding this Doctrine Makes us Better Worshipers and Missionaries

Last night I taught at my church’s monthly Equip event. It’s an event that we use to study the Bible and train ourselves for ministry. This means that any topic we teach on has result in training for the ministry. When I was tasked with teaching about the doctrine of the trinity I realized that I had placed that doctrine in the “Good to know, but I can’t do much with it” category.

Shame on me.

As I began to study, however, I was entranced. Observing the only wise God reveal himself through Father, Son, and Holy Spirit gave me a new sense of his majesty and power. I began to see his greatness, and felt small.


Below you can find a PDF of my teaching notes. The structure of my lecture was three pronged: 1. The Scripture Presents God’s Oneness 2. The Scripture Presents God’s Diversity 3. How Knowing and Trusting in the Trinity Makes Us Better Worshipers and Missionaries.

Blessed Trinity

Thankfulness for God’s Work

We have made a bad habit of rushing through the introductions to the epistles. If all of the scriptures are profitable to us, then even the introductions can teach us about God, how he is working, and how we should respond. Take Colossians 1.3 for example:

We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you,

Paul always thanked God when he prayed for the Colossians. Don’t rush past that. Ask yourself, “When was the last time I thought about another believer and was drawn into worship at the thought?” That’s what Paul did. God had accomplished the Colossians salvation. Paul wasn’t able to rescue anyone. God was the strong man who lifted the Colossian believers from death into life.


As I think about the 2-3 close believers that I have been ministering to I get excited about what God is accomplishing in them. I see them hoping in his grace, and trusting in his power. And that excites me. They aren’t trusting in me. I hope they never do. And as I think of them I want my thoughts of them to turn into praise of God and his goodness. I want to immediately move into worship of a saving God when I think of those who have been rescued.

Faithfulness and Fruitfulness, Growth and Decline

In the introduction to his book, Church in the Making, Ben Arment asks a bold question,

How did church planting become such a spiritual crapshoot?

He points out that when asked why their plant is growing most planters respond by saying, “God is just blessing.” Conversely, when asked why their church is dying most planters say, “God is teaching me a lot right now.” His point is that most planters don’t have a good idea why church plants grow or decline.Faithfulness and Fruitfulness, Growth and Decline

I would argue that the same is true of most pastors, regardless of whether or not they are planters. Trying to pinpoint what is causing growth or decline isn’t easy, but it’s not because we don’t have any ideas. In reality, you can probably pick out 10-20 reasons, but none feel any more influential than the rest. Trying to figure out what is making a church tick is like trying to understand another human being. It has a life of it’s own, and it’s complicated. It has a history. There have been long strings of decisions made that have shaped the church into something today that it wasn’t even a year ago.

Have you ever felt that in your own ministry? Have you ever drove yourself crazy trying to understand the church you serve?

Discipleship by Faith

Over the last 2 years I have experienced something of a transformation of the heart. The transformation didn’t begin with the following scripture passage, but it is summarized by it:

O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith—just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”?

I grew up knowing that God saved me by grace through faith. Salvation is God’s business. That always seemed evident enough, and I believed that the corollary to that statement was this: sanctification is my business. Lost people need the gospel, and saved people need good works. I’m not sure exactly why I thought that way, but two years ago the weight of Paul’s words finally began to crush me. Salvation is by faith. So it is with discipleship. Read Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase:

You crazy Galatians! Did someone put a hex on you? Have you taken leave of your senses? Something crazy has happened, for it’s obvious that you no longer have the crucified Jesus in clear focus in your lives. His sacrifice on the cross was certainly set before you clearly enough.

2-4 Let me put this question to you: How did your new life begin? Was it by working your heads off to please God? Or was it by responding to God’s Message to you? Are you going to continue this craziness? For only crazy people would think they could complete by their own efforts what was begun by God. If you weren’t smart enough or strong enough to begin it, how do you suppose you could perfect it?

As I read those words I felt like a biologist who was drowning. All of his study has told him that humans need air to survive, but the sting of saltwater filling his lungs confirms that truth more than any study. I had known that obeying God was impossible outside of Christ, but none of my obedience had brought pleasure, only a heightened sense of guilt.


I had been paying what C. S. Lewis calls the tax of the moral conscience. Every devotion was duty. Every missed devotion was condemnation. But, Paul says the transfer of the gospel isn’t from death into limbo, but from death into life. Death brings captivity, life brings freedom. Christ didn’t just accomplish my salvation. He also accomplished my sanctification, my discipleship, and only as I press into him and find myself in him do I become his disciple.