Christians alert to the quality of the modern age cannot escape the obligation of assessing the spirit of revolution. And when they examine the structures of revolution, they are likely to feel a strange fascination for the revolutionary movement. Revolutionaries have long claimed Jesus of Nazareth as one of their comrades and have insisted that his contemporary significance is found in the “revolutionary” aspects of his message and life. And Christians cannot help noticing too that there are similarities, on a formal level at least, between the revolutionary life style and that of Christians during the first few decades after Pentecost.
On a deeper level, more and more Christians, especially young ones, are developing authentically biblical sensitivities that make them extremely uncomfortable with the same evils that have driven revolutionaries to reject the establishment. Racial injustice, the hideous ambiguity of contemporary conflict, and the deficiencies of prevailing economic systems generate in many Christians today extreme disenchantment with the present state of affairs. Those who have no vested interest in the status quo can easily develop near-revolutionary attitudes.
There is indeed a coincidence between revolutionary concerns and genuinely Christian interests. For one thing, the revolution repudiates the tyranny of the technocracy, and in this connection, there is much in Herbert Marcuse’s analysis of “true and false” needs with which many Christians will agree (One Dimensional Man, Beacon, 1969, p. 5). On the political level, the revolution is cynical; it considers present political events largely illusory. Revolutionaries feel that few real issues are faced and virtually no really significant changes are introduced by the political instruments now being employed. On the ethical level, revolutionaries offer a harsh critique of all that has engendered apathy and detachment. The mass communications media, especially television, have been subjected to unusually devastating evaluation. Those who live out of the Bible admit that in each of these areas the revolutionary position has much validity.
In addition, a Christian’s sympathy toward the spirit of revolution is bound to be fortified by the pervasive effectiveness of the revolutionary model in our age. This effectiveness preconditions many of us to take the culture of protest seriously. Because the revolutionary style of life has taken Western culture by storm, it is now nearly impossible to disentangle oneself from one’s environment enough to view the spirit of revolution wholly objectively. This nourishes Christian fascination with the idea of revolution. The young, who have grown up in a world singularly uncritical of the revolution, feel this fascination most, and have the greatest difficulty treating revolutionary options objectively.
It should be no great surprise, then, that many within the Christian community are eager not only to underscore the positive elements within revolutionary movements but to appropriate them within a program of Christian action. At the 1966 Conference on the Church and Society in Geneva, several speakers went so far as to suggest that violence would not be inappropriate for Christians bent on producing change in society. There is, in addition, a growing recklessness among some of the most sensitive Christian young people—they want to see both society and the Church turned upside down so that new creations can emerge. Their wanton attack upon just about everything that moves strongly suggests that the similarity of their attitude to the spirit of revolution is not accidental.
Now, there can be little question that radical change is the need of the hour. Those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, as Christians must, may not fail to be involved in programs geared to change—change in the direction of the Kingdom of God. Yet certain elements of the revolutionary world view should caution Christ’s people against appropriating the revolutionary model as they try to accomplish needed change. Indeed, a Christian theory of change, or theology of change, should include a repudiation of the spirit of revolution on the grounds that the revolutionary posture is incompatible with biblical Christianity.
One element of the revolutionary model that disqualifies it as a Christian option is the close alliance between the spirit of revolution and atheism. While the relation is not simple, it is direct enough so as to taint all revolutionary options that there is no possibility for Christian salvage. It would be the height of naïveté to fail to understand that the cry of the French Revolution—“No God, no master!”—is dominant in the revolutionary approach today. At the heart of every revolutionary manifesto there is a rejection of Christ’s Lordship, and this disqualifies the revolutionary model as an option for those whose view of reality is defined by the Bible.
Moreover, when Christians assess the results the revolution has had wherever it has achieved dominance, they can hardly be enthusiastic about this approach. On the one hand, revolutionary success has led to totalitarianism and enslavement of vast populations. This has been accompanied by a sterile rigidity in culture as art has become propaganda and learning has become a specialized expression of the police function of government. On the other hand, and more generally, the spirit of revolution has had a devastating effect on Western culture when it has led to the tyranny of whim and fantasy in music, painting, and drama. But in either case, whether the revolutionary spirit leads to the flatness of modern totalitarianism or to the monstrous “put on” of a cultural quirk like the Andy Warhol school of art, the results are unacceptable and essentially uninteresting for men of God.
However, the atheistic contamination of the spirit of revolution and its unappealing results are not the basic reasons why Christians should not fraternize with it. Fortunately, those who desperately desire cultural change have Christian alternatives to the revolution, and these are extremely promising. It would be a mistake to call the Christian alternatives simply a Christian revolution, for the term revolution is not really usable for Christians anymore, nor does it do the Christian vision justice. Christians can speak of a new order and a new life through the operation of Christ’s Spirit. These possibilities suggest that we may expect radical renewal of both social and individual life through Christ. And those who understand the dynamic of this majestic Christian possibility will not easily use revolutionary terminology to describe their goals. The possibilities for change comprehended in the concept “new life in Christ” are in fact anti-revolutionary.
A biblical description of radical change is found in Second Corinthians 5:17: “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.”
The biblical alternative to revolution is a new creation. The redundancy in the phrase new creation (for a creation is, by definition, new) underscores the mind-bursting quality of this magnificent idea. God’s new creation is an all-embracing change in status or condition that is caused by an incursion of divine grace. Revolutionary change can be only a rearrangement of society or a redistribution of whatever is already present in human life. In contrast, the change characteristic of the Christian vision is caused by God’s miraculous intervention into human affairs so that new forces are set in motion and new directions are taken. The new creation is God’s achievement, and it occurs when God enters his fallen creation and begins the great process of reclamation through his infinite power.
The path along which the new creation comes is totally different from the path of revolutionary change. There is a tedious similarity in the programs for social revision advanced by classical Marxists, Maoists, and the New Left. In each case the revolution advances under the norm of violence and the new order is born through the destruction of the old. But whatever new state of affairs is introduced is doomed to become as corrupt as the former, as George Orwell saw so clearly in his disarmingly simple allegory, Animal Farm. In startling contrast, the Bible’s new creation is intimately tied up with a person—“if any man be in Christ.” Men become new creatures when they are in Christ, who is the new man par excellence. Though the union with Christ transcends our understanding, it is real nonetheless. True Christians are united with Christ in his death and his resurrection.
Although the union with Christ that stands at the center of the Christian view of change is mystical, it is not an abstraction. For it was realized through a specific event, Pentecost, and is real in the life of believers today through the work of the Holy Spirit within them. The new creatures are the Spirit-filled people of God. For the early Christians, the Holy Spirit was Christ himself come back, and to be “in Christ” was to be influenced by Christ’s Spirit first of all and all the time. The influence of the Spirit was not vague and undefined; it occurred as the people of God lived according to the instruction of the apostles. The Bible, the inscripturated teaching of the apostles, was received in the early Church as the work of the Spirit to equip people for the good works that are the mark of the new order (2 Tim. 3:16).
Second Corinthians 5:17 speaks of change on the individual level, simply because the Bible knows of no change that is not rooted in changed men, no redemption by groups. But those who are new creatures are not meant to exist in isolation from one another. They are swept together into a new nation of God that displays a rich variety of spiritual gifts. Romans 12, First Corinthians 12 and 14, and Ephesians 2 are records of a Spirit-filled people of God who existed within the established non-Christian order as a foreign force. They were the beginning of Christ’s new creation within the world.
Christians, of all people, may not be reactionary or establishmentarian. Yet their vision of the possibility for change in human life bears little resemblance to that of revolutionaries. They envision men changed by the Holy Spirit, joined together in a fellowship of the Spirit, and exerting a radical dynamic for change in the direction of the Kingdom of God. The people of God know their citizenship is in heaven, and their view of reality is determined by the Bible, the Word of God. They receive their orders from heaven. And wherever such obedience is expressed, the Kingdom of God comes, and where that Kingdom comes, the new order becomes a reality.
The Christian concept of change includes, therefore, in addition to a repudiation of the revolutionary model an emphasis on certain characteristically Christian modes of conduct.
Obviously, individual Christians will have to cultivate faithfulness in the exercise of basic piety. Since there can be no change of the kind the Christian faith envisions unless there are new men full of the Spirit, the family and personal devotional life is extremely important. The instituted church is of great importance also, for it remains the place where faith is fortified through the proclamation of the apostolic witness. And the sacramental ministry of the Church is also instrumental in making the faith of the people of God robust and effective. Any ridicule or disdain of basic Christian practices and institutions caused by preoccupation with the great, society-changing perspectives will necessarily sabotage Kingdom-establishing action. For only those who are “in Christ” can function as new creatures, and unity with Christ is initiated and fortified by attention to the basic details of spiritual development.
In addition to the practice of Christian piety, those who are interested in reclaiming this world for Christ must emphasize evangelism as never before. In contrast to the programmatic approach to change found in revolutionary ideology, the Christian nation grows as the Holy Spirit strengthens those who are “in Christ” and adds to them those who are being saved (Acts 2:47). Christians know that helpful change will not be initiated solely through new forms of government nor solely by the rearrangement of economic structures; such change will occur to the degree that new creatures live in the fullness of the new covenant, out of God’s Word, and in the obedience that must characterize kingdom life. The Bible declares that such new creatures are born as the Word of the Gospel is proclaimed to all the world.
Thus a major priority within any Christian theory of social change must be the incessant, broad-scale announcement of the way of salvation. It should not be considered accidental that just now, when the need for new men has never been greater, far-reaching tools for communicating the Gospel are available. Certainly radio is one and television, too. The material wealth of the Christian community, especially in the Western world, must be channeled in a much greater way into new tools for confronting the whole world with Christ and his cross.
The evangelism that must mark Christians who are conscious of the revolutionary alternatives to the Gospel cannot be an unholy waiting upon men to see if they will be pleased to brighten God’s day by turning to him. Rather, it must breathe the fire of the Reformation theology that rejoices in the sovereignty of God’s grace, must advance in the poised confidence that God will accomplish his purposes even in this world. This evangelism consists of a serious call to all men to repent and join themselves to the victorious movement of the Lord through history.
Evangelism in the revolutionary age must also have the depth and cultural awareness that will establish connections between Christ’s salvation and Lordship and the grand cultural enterprises of men. Communities of evangelical scientists, social workers, philosophers, artists, educators, and others who will create Christian alternatives to the revolution are needed today. Surely some who are already within the Christian community can contribute to this cultural enterprise. But it is particularly effective when those who already have such skills become new men in Christ and begin to function within their vocations as Christians. Evangelism is, among other things, the process whereby new talent enters the community of God’s men.
The task before the Christian community as it responds to the challenge of the revolution is staggering. Our assessment of hope for success is naturally colored by our knowledge of the deficiencies of contemporary Christian performance. In some instances Christians have been content with expressing a cultural religion that provided the status quo with its religious foundation. Such conduct is grossly disappointing. It arises out of a total failure to recognize that the people of God are called to be a critical entity within society. Moreover, relatively few Christians seem to sense the tragic quality of the present moment in history, and thus many do not feel a compulsion to live and think in the name of the Lord. Far too many are content with forms of faith that are exclusively emotional—intellectually poverty-stricken and socially paralyzed.
In the face of our pessimism, the Bible’s message remains: There are possibilities for change that transcend the limitations of our imagination and our power. These possibilities become real as men become “new men in Christ.” Is it too much to expect that those who are really new creatures will recognize that they are indeed a unique community in the world? Surely we must believe (and I say believe, for this too is a part of our faith) that the people of God can and will function in the name of the Lord when the real issues of our times are sufficiently crystallized. Perhaps the cause of the present apathy within the Christian community is that the contrast between the Christian way of life and the non-Christian way of death has not yet been made sharp enough. But it will be made sharper, there can be no doubt of that. Perhaps some Christians have not yet broken away from the vagaries of revolutionary thought. But we may expect the time to come when those who are really Christ’s men will recognize the hopelessness of every man-made salvation and will be driven into the work of establishing his great Kingdom.
The change envisioned by Christ and his Word can never be adequately comprehended in any program for change that originates among men. The revolution, therefore, must be rejected. In its place, the faithful people of God, rejoicing in their redemption as new men and women in Christ, must pursue their own vision of the Kingdom that is eternal.
Joel H. Nederhood is the speaker on the “Back to God Hour,” the radio broadcast of the Christian Reformed Church. He has the Th.D. from the Free University of Amsterdam and was a Fulbright Scholar in 1957. This article is taken from a speech to the International Association for Reformed Faith and Action; the full text is in the January issue of the “International Reformed Bulletin.”
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