It’s been a few weeks since I posted part 1 of this discussion. Since that time I have had the opportunity to listen to others, dig deeply, and gather a bit more insight into the concept of “redeeming the culture.” I even stumbled across a website where a guy had posted recordings of a video game he was playing. At different points in the game he overlayed Bible verses on the screen that highlighted the redemptive aspects of his gaming habits. You can’t make this stuff up.
Today I’d like to address some of the objections I received to my last post. So grab the popcorn, it’s gonna be good! After dealing with these objections, I want to bring us back to why this all matters. I want to bring us back to the gospel.
- You don’t know what you’re talking about. I do admit I have a limited perspective on this topic. I also need to point out, however, that blogging is not the best medium for extensive, in-depth discussion. My last blog post more than doubled the length of what I should write. And I’m sure a lot of people didn’t read it for that reason. So why write about this now?
I tackled this concept because I wanted to hear back from people and learn more. But I also wanted to make a theological point that seems to be missing from the discussion. And, as it turns out, I’m not alone. After I wrote part 1 of this series, I discovered a theologian none other than D.A. Carson wrote a book several years ago entitled “Christ and Culture Revisited.” Apparently Carson doesn’t like the phrase “redeeming the culture” either. It turns out Tim Keller is in the same boat. I merely mention these men to point out I’m not alone.
There is a lot more to read and discuss. But for now I am purposefully focusing these posts on the theological concept of redemption. I hope it provides you with some food for thought.
- You have misunderstood what the phrase “redeeming the culture” means.Last time I stated that redemption in the Old Testament is relational in nature. Even if property is involved, the role of kinsman redeemer was always filled by a particular person. And I made the argument that the only Redeemer in the New Testament is Jesus Christ. We are not in the position to redeem anything, especially culture.
But—some have objected—we are commanded to redeem some things. We are told to “redeem the time” in Ephesians 5:16 and Colossians 4:5 (KJV). It’s true, the Greek word in those passages literally means to “buy up” something. But Paul is using a metaphor. It’s very much like our modern phrase, “buying time.” We all know you can’t actually buy time. What we are really saying is a person is trying to make the best use of their time.
So some proponents say that “redeeming the culture” simply means “making best use of the culture.” It’s not a term loaded with any theological meaning. It’s simply a metaphor, so don’t bring theology into this.
But here’s my problem with that argument. If you read the modern translations, the vast majority of them no longer use the word “redeeming” in Ephesians 5:16 or Colossians 4:5 as in the KJV. Why? Because it’s clearly a metaphor. We do not want to confuse a New Testament concept as crucial as redemption. So, for clarity and accuracy, the translations say something like “making the best use of the time.” Even BDAG, the best Greek lexicon, makes it clear these verses use the word metaphorically (“to gain something, especially advantage or opportunity, make the most of“). The command is that we make the best use of something, not redeem it.
IF (and that’s a big “if”) proponents of “redeeming the culture” intend to use the word “redeeming” or the concept of redemption metaphorically, I’d suggest they follow the lead of Bible translators and stop using the words “redeeming” or “redemption.” It gives the false impression that “redeeming the culture” is rooted in a theological argument, when in reality it is only a metaphor.
But the bigger problem is proponents of “redeeming the culture” do in fact have a theological motivation for their view. “Redeeming the culture” is more than a simple metaphor. So they have hijacked redemption terminology to serve their theological view. What is that theological view?
- Redeeming the culture is a biblical mandate.
I was not surprised to discover proponents of “redeeming the culture” use Genesis 1:28 to support their view. It says,And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
Many Christians believe this passage provides a mandate for all of humanity. We have obligations to fulfill before God, “to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” Some Christians take that logic a step further and teach that part of exercising this dominion over the earth includes “redeeming the culture.”
However, not everyone agrees with that assessment. Kevin Bauder has a helpful short article challenging the notion of a cultural mandate in Genesis 1:28. He makes the point that God is blessing Adam and Eve rather than commanding them (as God says at the very beginning of the verse). I would encourage you to read the article. Through my own personal study of blessing terminology in the Old Testament I can say Bauder is definitely on to something here. I believe Genesis 1:28 teaches we are the blessed, crown-jewel of God’s creation. This is who we are (an ontological reality); we are blessed image-bearers of God.
While we were made in the image of God, we were also created for a purpose. And, I believe, that purpose in our age is to preach the gospel. When we set our focus on “redeeming the culture” instead of (or in addition to) preaching the gospel, we damage the gospel in two crucial ways.
The Gospel Mandate
First, there is a Redeemer, and I am not it. This world needs so much more than any “cultural transformation” I can offer. They need Christ! I dare not substitute my works, which are filthy rags apart from faith in Christ, for the finished work of the Messiah. It’s not just a poor trade—it’s a destructive one that robs God of His glory. Redemption is not something Christ has called us to accomplish, because He’s already done it.
Second, instead of focusing on making disciples of all nations, we may easily settle for something far less. Make no mistake—Christians should make a difference in this world. I am seriously committed to abolishing abortion in America and have given of my time and talents to help our nation to that end. But my image-bearing actions ought to shine as salt and light to point people to the one Redeemer Jesus Christ! As is so often true in Christianity, what we don’t say is as important as what we do say. I fear some have exchanged the gospel of our Redeemer, Jesus Christ, with a man-centered view of cultural redemption. What good is a culturally reformed nation that will still die condemned to hell apart from Christ?
What it boils down to is two competing systems. One system says the cultural mandate is our first priority, while the other says the gospel is our first priority. One view hijacks the idea of redemption to serve a theological system, the other view lifts up Jesus Christ as the only Redeemer for the sins of mankind. I know that some of my good brothers and sisters in Christ may disagree. I only ask that you carefully consider what I say in light of Scripture. We need to be careful, lest we rob God of the glory that is due His name.