The Problem with Practical Christianity
Many consider the great test of the Christian faith to be what it produces. This issue was first raised in America by liberalism that wanted to replace “doctrinal Christianity” with “practical Christianity.” The problem for liberals was that they had come to doubt much of the history of the Bible (especially the miraculous) and then to doubt the Biblical interpretation of that history we call doctrine. Liberals doubted that such events as the virgin birth and bodily resurrection really happened. They also doubted that doctrines such as the substitutionary atonement, which explained the death of Christ, and the inspiration of the Scriptures, which explained how we could have a reliable record of past divine interventions in history, were true. Rather than divinely revealed doctrines these teachings came to be seen as human “theories.”
In order justify itself to itself and to commend itself to modern man, Christianity had to do something other than proclaim these events and doctrines. Christianity had to produce. Specifically it had to do something to make life better, so that “Christ’s great kingdom shall come to earth, the kingdom of love and light.” Christianity had to labor in society to make families more stable, to decrease divorce, to relieve poverty, to improve education, to fight just wars, to make government better, to stop the liquor trade, to promote patriotism, etc. Much of this may seem laughable to liberals today, but these were the concerns of their forefathers who insisted on a practical religion and invented a social gospel.
What of “evangelical Christianity”? Here it is important to define our terms. By “evangelical” (a word which comes from the Greek word for “Gospel”) we can mean Protestant Christianity coming from both the Lutheran and Calvinistic streams of the Reformation. This Evangelicalism is roughly equivalent to the great “solas” – Christ alone, grace alone, faith alone, the Bible alone.
But by “evangelical Christianity” we can also mean that kind of American Protestantism that descended from the First and Second Great Awakenings and the pietism those revivals introduced. This form of Christianity is intensely personal, individualistic, and experiential.
It diminishes the importance of worship, ordained pastors, confessions, and sacraments. It blurs the distinction between the sacred and the secular, worship and life, the church and the world, and this world and the world to come. It is a-, if not anti-churchly.
But after a “pietistic other-worldly” phase, this second type of evangelicalism developed a surprising kinship with liberalism in its practical orientation. It wanted to retain the unique inspiration of the Bible, the historicity of the events recorded in the Bible, and at least the “essential doctrines.” But doctrine’s importance was diminished in favor of personal experience and practical results.
Evangelicalism, like the earlier liberalism believed it had to justify itself by pointing to what it produced. The practical outcomes pointed to by evangelicalism to show its utility and relevance originally were not so different from those of liberalism. Today the main difference is that evangelicalism in the main seeks mostly conservative societal and political outcomes (not a whole lot different from the liberal agenda of an earlier era) while liberalism has fallen off the left edge and become the lunatic fringe on these matters. But both evangelicalism and liberalism share the same “practical” and “this worldly” orientation.
There are high expectations among evangelicals of what Christianity should produce. Among the expectations are that Christianity will give you a romantic marriage and great sex life, help you lose weight, and enable you to obtain optimum health. Young people should expect all the chills and thrills of a rock concert now and mate-matching service later. The church should get Christ back in Christmas, God back in the public schools, and balance back in the national budget. Some think Christianity should make you successful, secure your finances, teach you to be your own best friend, relieve all psychic pain, and cure every illness.
What is Christianity supposed to do? Two principal things: Worship God and get sinners to heaven. One of the great and destructive myths of today is that worship is supposed to have a product other than worship. For many worship is like a sales meeting where the most God-centered thing that happens is that Christians get motivated to “go out there and win one for God.” Worship should seem as seamless as possible with ordinary experience so that you feel as comfortable as possible. You should find, as one slogan put it, that the church is “making the good life better.”
But, in worship, we come by a living way, Jesus Christ, into the Holy of Holies where God, ‘the Judge of all men” and “a consuming fire,” dwells. As we worship we are united with the “innumerable angels in festal gathering,” “the assembly, of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven,” and “the spirits of the righteous made perfect.” Worship is an awesome and other-worldly event and experience. The first thing in worship is that God is worshiped. A parishioner once told me he was asked, “What did you learn in worship?” He replied, “I’m not sure I learned a thing.” But (and this is my inference) he worshiped!
What does Christianity “produce” for people? The church has and administers the means by which God’s grace flows into our lives. In church we get preaching in which we hear the living voice of the Good Shepherd calling us. We get baptism, which is much more than our promise to be “good parents,” for it is God speaking His covenant promises to us. We get the Lord’s Supper in which by faith we feed upon the crucified body and shed blood of Jesus.
What do these means do? They create the faith by which we are united to Christ in the power of His life, death, and resurrection. What does union with Christ do? It gives us justification, adoption, sanctification, and perseverance. I am increasingly amazed that Christians can think this is not very much or not enough for Christianity to “produce.”
But the Faith also gives us an other-worldly hope – the hope of resurrection and freedom from sin and all its effects. We are promised life as whole persons with perfect harmony of soul and body- sinless souls, immortal bodies - in a renewed universe where heaven and earth are one. Can anything else “produce” such a hope? Christ, who is our life, is in heaven from which He will come again. That is why our affections now should be set on heaven and not on the things of the earth.
What is the practical effect of all this? It will make all the difference in what you expect of a church, how you choose a church, how you bring up your children, how you live your life in this world, and how you find hope in the middle of political, cultural, and moral chaos in this present evil age.