How to Live as a Christian in a Pagan World
Pastor Rolf David Preus
Fort Collins, Colorado
January 3, 2020
How do we live as Christians in a pagan world? A good place for us to begin is by considering the words of the Psalm, “Your word I have hidden in my heart, that I might not sin against You.” (Psalm 119:11) To hide something in your heart is to know it by heart. We memorize the simple summary of the six chief parts of Christian teaching that we find in the Catechism. They are: the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, Holy Baptism, the Keys and Confession, and the Lord’s Supper. Memorize Luther’s Small Catechism. This hides God’s word in your heart.
Go to church. Go to church every Sunday. Go to church and pay attention. Go to church to hear God’s word. Don’t go to a church that teaches false doctrine. If you find yourself in a church that doesn’t teach God’s word purely and faithfully, don’t go back. Memorize the Catechism. Keep the words in your heart. Attend church faithfully. You will memorize the liturgy and some hymns. You will be fed with the words of life.
When I went to the seminary in 1975, my wife got a job as a teller at Lincoln National Bank in downtown Springfield, Illinois. When they taught her how to spot a counterfeit bill they didn’t show her a counterfeit. They showed her the real thing and pointed out where counterfeits would deviate from authentic bills. This is how we learn to identify false versions of Christianity. Until we recognize what authentic Christianity is, we can hardly be equipped to contend with threats to it. When we are familiar with the basic topics of the Christian religion, we can then confront popular challenges to it. While there is nothing new under the sun, the threats to the true faith will vary from time to time as intellectual fashions change with the times.
The most severe, constant, and dangerous threat to the faith is always the assault on the gospel itself by which sinners are forgiven of all their sins and saved from death and hell. When Martin Luther and the reformers of the 16th century identified the topic of justification as the central topic of the Christian religion, they were not only addressing the errors they faced in their day, they were speaking for the church of every generation. Justification is the forgiveness of sins. God justifies us, he declares us to be righteous not by our works but through faith alone in Jesus Christ who is our righteousness before God. Here is now St. Paul explains this in Romans 3,
For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? No, but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law. (Romans 3:22b-28)
This will always be the heart of the faith. If you know you are righteous before God for Christ’s sake, by God’s grace alone through faith alone, you can live a Christian life in an unchristian world. If you don’t know you are righteous, you can’t begin to live a righteous life. Before anything else, you must be justified by God. You will have the forgiveness of all your sins. First, you must be a saint. Only God can make you a saint. When you are a saint, and only then, can you begin to live a holy life.
This is one reason why you shouldn’t get in the habit of skipping church. The denial that you are righteous before God through faith alone in Christ comes from three sources that are constantly yapping at you to convince you that the gospel is a lie. These sources are the devil, the world, and your own sinful flesh. The devil denies you are righteous because he’s a liar who wants to destroy your faith. The world denies you are righteous because those who are of the world are all trying to justify themselves. Your sinful flesh denies you are righteous because he’s an unbeliever. He cannot believe the gospel. This is why he must be drowned, and die every single day. This is why you must go to church and take your refuge in the word of God.
The central topic of the faith will always be the justification of the sinner through faith alone by grace alone on account of Christ’s redemption of the world. Don’t forget this. Don’t ally yourself spiritually with those who deny it. Don’t think that there are bigger fish to fry, so let’s worry about justification another day, for now we can join together in common moral and religious action to defend life, traditional marriage, public morality, and the Ten Commandments. There are never bigger fish to fry, brothers and sisters. The justification of the ungodly is more important than any social, cultural, or political agenda. The church is more precious to God than is the United States of America. The blood and righteousness of Jesus matters more than the civil righteousness our nation so sorely lacks and that will spell her destruction in the years to come.
This is not an argument to be become quietists – ignoring civil affairs, and separating from the larger culture. It certainly is not an argument to ignore attacks on Christianity from whatever source they come. The point is that when we examine the Christian lives God has called us to live in this world we must make sure that we are indeed Christian. Our identity as Christians comes from God’s gospel proclamation that for Christ’s sake our sins are forgiven and God regards us as saints. Should we leave this foundation we will be on our own in our spiritual battles. We will surely fail.
The biblical word for Christian is the word saint. When God justifies us, he says we are righteous. He reckons to us the righteousness of Jesus. If God says we are righteous we are righteous. Righteous and holy don’t mean exactly the same thing. Righteousness leads into holiness. God declares us to be righteous and so we are. When God calls us by the gospel he justifies us. He also calls us to be saints. Righteous people live holy lives. To be holy means to be set apart from sin. It means to be separate from what is unholy.
This appears to be impossible. Our topic is how to live as a Christian in a pagan world. We cannot separate ourselves from the world in which we live. What we can do, however, is to identify some of the more popular lies that have insinuated themselves into the Christian culture. We call them pagan. The word “pagan” refers to unchristian religions that teach the worship of many gods and goddesses. You’d have to look far and wide to find a formal religion of this kind here in America, so perhaps the title of my topic is wrong. But no, it is spot on. The central error of pagan religions is the failure to distinguish between the Creator and the creation. What they think is pious worship is its very opposite: idolatry. Worshipping the creation instead of the Creator is the essence of paganism. A pagan substitute has been passed off for authentic Christianity for quite some time now. It has influenced how many Christians think. It has rendered them helpless in the spiritual battles that the devil wages against their souls. To identify this fake Christianity and to see the extent to which it has influenced the church, let us review a bit of recent history.
During the nineteenth century, three famous thinkers promoted ideas that were antithetical to Christianity, but took such a strong hold in the formerly Christian west, that many Christians in the west have come to believe these antichristian teachings are compatible with, if not supportive of, Christianity. This unholy trinity attacked the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. They were Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud.
Charles Darwin attacked the Father with his theory of macroevolution that sought to explain the existence of the vast variety of life on this planet in a manner that excludes a Creator. This theory is called scientific because it is imposed on the natural sciences, but it is not grounded in science inasmuch as it cannot be tested by the scientific method. It is an essentially theological opinion. It says that if there is a god, he has not, does not, and will not relate to the material universe in such a way that we can confirm empirically that he did. All of the evidence that shows God’s creative intelligence and power must be explained in such a way that excludes God completely. Darwinian evolution doesn’t require the denial of God’s existence. It denies that he has ever done anything that proves he exists. The cosmological proof of God’s existence is expressed in the Epistle to the Hebrews 3:4, “For every house is built by someone, but He who built all things is God.” The existence of the creation points to the Creator. The psalmist writes,
The heavens declare the glory of God;
And the firmament shows His handiwork. (Psalm 19:1)
Darwin’s teaching on the origin of species is incompatible with the Christian religion. In Genesis we read that God made plants and animals according to their kind. He did not create a single celled organism which, by mutation after mutation over billions of years, evolved into a human being. He created us as Moses recounts in the Bible. We don’t need to get bogged down in questions about how much of the Christian religion one may deny without denying the Christian religion. Instead, we must identify teachings that are either compatible with or antithetical to the Christian faith. The notion that we evolved from the animal world is incompatible with the clear teaching of the Holy Scriptures. It is an attack on God the Father.
Karl Marx attacked the Son by attacking his office. The ancient heretics focused their attacks against Christ’s person, denying that he was true God and true man. Marx focused his attack on Christ’s kingdom. He sought to replace the kingdom of Christ with a Christless kingdom in which the source of all evil will have been eliminated. For Marx, sin wasn’t a personal violation of an unchangeable, divinely given, standard of conduct. It was systemic. The sin arises from the unjust system. Change the system. The capitalist system is to blame for the bad behavior that enslaves people in poverty and oppression. Overthrow the system. People will change. Human nature is malleable. What Darwin did to science, Marx did to politics. Marxism is the political expression of macroevolution. It reflects the evolutionary dogma that everything is getting better and better. To oppose Marxism is to oppose progress. There is no divine Redeemer. Redemption is when each gives according to his ability and receives according to his needs. When the classless society has been established, the kingdom has come. Since, despite Marxist dogma, the classless society doesn’t happen without a bit of persuasion, the state becomes the catalyst to bring it about. The heart of Marxism is not an economic system. It is a religious claim. It is atheistic. The doctrine called dialectical materialism says that there is no god to bring about peace and justice. The promise of Christ’s kingdom is a myth. It’s an opiate to dull the senses of the masses. The kingdom is not spiritual. It is material. Marxism is incompatible with the clear teaching of the Holy Scriptures. It is an attack on God the Son.
Sigmund Freud attacked the Holy Spirit by eliminating sin as a category. We Christians know that we are born in sin and need a Savior from sin. The forgiveness of sin is how God releases us from sin’s oppressive power. The peace of God that surpasses all understanding comes from the forgiveness of sins. Freud saw things differently. He acknowledged a conflict within the human heart and he sought to bring peace to the alienated ego. How? We need to eliminate the conflict between the id and the superego. The id is what you desire. The superego is your conscience. When what you want and what you think is right are at odds, the ego suffers. The therapeutic task is to bring them into harmony. While the superego is identified as the conscience, it does not point to a divine law. What the superego thinks is right and wrong can change. The therapist cannot bring the change about. The patient must harmonize the desires of the id and the standards of the superego. The solution to his alienation lies within him. Bringing the id and the superego into harmony would be impossible if the superego’s standards were unchangeable. This means that there can be no morally binding standards that lie outside of the individual. If there were, the entire psychotherapeutic enterprise would be in vain. The purpose of therapy is to aid the individual in controlling the id and adapting the superego. There is no sin, there is no redemption, there is no forgiveness of sins, and there is no faith. That Christians are trained in such therapeutic methods no more makes these methods Christian than the fact that some Roman Catholic politicians favor legal abortion means that the Roman Catholic Church favors legal abortion. Freud and his spawn are irredeemably unchristian. Freudianism in all its forms is contrary to the Holy Scriptures. It is an attack on God the Holy Spirit.
Darwinism, Marxism, and Freudianism have poisoned the well from which Christians draw their spiritual sustenance. The Holy Scriptures alone are the source and standard of what we teach, but none of us goes to the Scriptures alone. We rely on what pastors, teachers, congregations, synods, book publishers, parents, friends, and others have said about what the Bible teaches. While Christ established a teaching office in his church, ordering his ministers to teach the baptized everything he had commanded them, they, like those they serve, don’t always do what they are told to do. So we are left vulnerable to attacks. If we are to live Christian lives in a pagan world, we need to know what we are up against. The unholy trinity has invaded the church and pawned off its pagan notions as if they are Christian.
The Roman Catholic Church and the mainstream Protestant church bodies have made their peace with evolution, insisting that we can Christianize an essentially materialistic worldview. Just put God into it. The reason so many churches preach politics from the pulpit instead of Christ crucified for sinners is because they have adopted a Marxian view of redemption, usually without knowing it. So called Christian counselors learn their trade from people devoted to some form of the Freudian paradigm. The assault on the church by the unholy trinity has been going on for quite some time. If you want to live as a Christian in this pagan world you need to fight back.
St. Paul describes the armor of the Christian in Ephesians 6:14-17,
Stand therefore, having girded your waist with truth, having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; above all, taking the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
Paul talks about truth as if truth can be known. He speaks of righteousness as something that is real and constant. The gospel of peace empowers us. Faith isn’t mere religious sentiment. It’s a shield against devilish attacks. Salvation is not a possibility but is secure. The word of God is the only offensive weapon listed because it is the only offensive weapon we need when doing battle against the evil forces arrayed against us.
The attack on the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit is an attack on the God in whose name we are baptized. It’s an attack on us. We are who God says we are. God’s name is joined to ours. We gain our identity from the Holy Trinity, not from the unholy trinity. God is our Creator. He created us as the written word of God says he did. We are not animals driven by instinctual urges. We are male and female by God’s own design and by his choosing. We don’t choose our own sex (or gender as they call it) any more than we choose to exist. God makes that choice when he makes us. We confess in the Catechism, in the explanation to the first article of the Creed, “I believe that God has made me.” When we think of how God went about doing that, we learn how to behave as a man or a woman created by God.
The sexual intimacy that God placed within the marital bond is the means by which God joins the sperm to the egg and fertilization occurs. God then implants the embryo on the wall of the uterus and about nine months later we were born. We confess, “I believe that God has made me.” This is how he did it. God made me. This is what we confess in the first article of the Creed. We believe this. What does believing this have to do with the way we live? It means we will honor the fourth commandment that protects the home. We will honor the fifth commandment that protects all human life. We will honor the sixth commandment that protects marriage. We will reject the standards of sexual conduct of the popular culture and embrace God’s teaching in the fourth, fifth, and sixth commandments. We will engage in sexual intimacy only within the bond of marriage, marriage being the lifelong union of one man and one woman.
There is a close connection between the denial of God the Father as Creator and the acceptance of and participation in sexual immorality. Sexual activity is the means that our Creator uses to bring new life into this world. If there is no Creator, he cannot establish standards governing under which circumstances sexual intimacy may occur. Within the pagan religions popular in the nations surrounding God’s people of both the old and the new testaments, sexual immorality was a feature of the worship of idols. These people knew where babies came from, but they did not know who made the babies that came. They did not know the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. They did not understand that sexual intimacy belonged to marriage. Sexual immorality is a feature of idolatry.
What this means is that if you have sex with someone to whom you are not married you are denying God the Father. You are committing idolatry. If you are particularly attracted to or have great affection for the one with whom you are having sexual relations this has no bearing at all on the matter. The standards of conduct that apply to you are not those that you work out within yourself as you try to get your superego and your id to jibe. The standards that apply to you are written down in God’s law. God’s law is God’s immutable will. It won’t change according to how you feel.
When church-going Christians go off to college, run into challenges to their faith, and begin to question the God in whom they were taught to trust, you might think perhaps that the atheists got to them with rational arguments that caused them to question the things they had learned about God. You would most likely be wrong. The reason they abandon the God of their youth is not on account of any rational arguments, but it is because they begin to practice the idolatrous, pagan religion that prevails on the college campus. This religion entails participation in fornication. Christians engage in pagan practices that are incompatible with the Christian faith. They adopt the religion whose practices they are following. They abandon the Christian faith. They may not admit that that’s what they’re doing. They’ll parrot the popular clichés about “organized “religion” and claim that they have their own spirituality. In fact, by obeying their own sinful flesh they are adopting the religion of the flesh. This disallows the God of creation.
The sexual activity that God has designed as a means to bring babies into this world is not only a way for God to make babies. It is also an expression of the love of the husband for his wife and the wife for her husband. Procreation is not the only purpose of sexual intimacy. It is not the only purpose of marriage. Marriage is also a picture of Christ’s love for his church and the church’s humble reception of that love. Marriage is not a sacrament. It doesn’t bestow grace, but it is a sign of God’s grace. The marriage between a Christian man and a Christian woman is a picture of the marriage between Christ and his church. Listen to the words of St. Paul recorded in Ephesians 5:22-33:
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body. Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish. So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church. For we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church. Nevertheless let each one of you in particular so love his own wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.
What is entirely lacking in this explanation of the relationship between husband and wife? There is no hint of politics. This is not a political relationship. Oh yes, marriage is always codified in civil law. But while we acknowledge the authority of the state to regulate marriage, we certainly don’t grant it the right to define it for us. No fault divorce is in direct conflict with the Holy Scriptures. Same sex “marriage” is not marriage. We live at a time when the civil authorities have made a real mess of marriage. Yes, the state may regulate it. It may not define it. We must resist the temptation to define the relationship of a husband and a wife in political terms.
Political ideology replaces Christian theology at the expense of the Christian faith. Marxist categories replace the Christian categories of sin, redemption, and the kingdom. These godless political substitutes are essentially coercive. There is no original sin. There is a system that must be overthrown. Since there is no sin, redemption does not entail the forgiveness of sins. Redemption is the replacement of the exploitative system with the classless system. The new and progressive humanity must break with the shackles of tradition. Political ideology has no use for revealed or natural law. It has no room for a loving and Christ-centered patriarchy. Ephesians chapter five is sacrificed on the altar of this progressive ideology. The state replaces the husband.
This is modern feminism. It has nothing to do with the liberation of women and everything to do with the politicization of marriage and the family. The notion that a husband would love his wife as his own body means that God almighty is the one who joined the two to make them one. The notion that a wife submits to her husband as to the Lord Jesus means that submission is not degrading, but ennobling. The argument about rights upends God’s moral law. The law of love focuses on the need of the other. My “rights” focuses on me and what I am entitled to. God works love in hearts that have been enlivened by the Holy Spirit to receive God’s love in Christ. The husband learns how to love his wife by looking at what Jesus did for his bride. He gave himself for her. The wife learns how to submit to her husband by looking at how the church submits to Christ. We follow Christ because he laid down his life for us. His life is ours. We claim it.
Enter politics. Ideology replaces love. Power replaces affection. American women are being lied to and most of them are buying the lie. The lie is that the state with its coercive power is a better husband than a real live man who seeks to live a Christian life. A woman who looks to the state to empower and protect women who have been neglected and abused is looking for a false savior. The politicization of every human relationship comes from the materialism inherent in all political ideologies. In other words, ladies, in your search for the good life, you will be far better treated by a Christian man who believes what St. Paul writes in Ephesians 5 than you will be by the soulless state. Feminism promises what it cannot deliver.
Sigmund Freud and his therapeutic model has found resiliency among us many years later, not only because it is impossible to disprove but also because it is a form of a spiritual poison that has existed since the beginning of time. Martin Luther called it enthusiasm. Enthusiasm seeks guidance from within. God provides us guidance from without. If you want to know what God wants you to do look at what God says in his law. It is summarized in the Ten Commandments. If you want to know what God wants you to believe look at what God says in the gospel. This is revealed very clearly in the Lord’s Supper with Jesus’ words, “Given and shed for you, for the forgiveness of sins.” The answers to your troubles, hopes, ambitions, and desires lie outside of you. Listen to God.
The answer does not lie within. The so called spirituality of those who despise the church and her teaching is not spiritual at all. It is carnal. Authority lies outside of us. This means both the law and the gospel are true and authoritative whether we believe it or feel it or even know it. To make our feelings authoritative is spiritual suicide. When God leads us to repent of our sin he is showing us his love. But do you enjoy acknowledging your sin? Is this what you like to do? When God reveals his gospel to us he is telling us what our hearts will deny. Why should God forgive you when you are completely to blame for what you did and have no excuse to offer? How can you believe that God really does reckon you to be righteous when you’ve done nothing to achieve it? This isn’t the way the world works.
To live a Christian life in a pagan world sets you at odds with the prevailing culture. It’s gotten very bad, you know. A man who claims to be married to another man is running for president, lecturing Bible believing Christians for adhering to the teaching of God’s word. If you say he’s not a Christian you will invite fierce opposition and the accusation you’re a bigot. I talk to Christians my age that tell me they are glad they aren’t raising children in the world today. I heard that sort of thing when I was a young man. I totally disagree with them. One of the greatest joys in my life is that God has blessed my wife and me with sixty three grandchildren. I know what’s out there in the world. I know what my grandchildren are up against. I also know the inspired words of St. John,
You are of God, little children, and have overcome them, because He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. (1 John 4:4)
How do we live a Christian life in a pagan world? We go to the source of all spiritual life. We learn our Catechism. We go to church faithfully. We hide God’s word in our hearts. We return to our baptism every day, drowning the old Adam and rising to new and eternal life, washed in the blood of the Lamb. We rejoice that our sins are forgiven. We confess the true faith, contend for it, and take our stand on it. We dismiss as of no value the approval of those who worship the popular idols of our day. We glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, and if God should put a cross upon us, we bear it with patience, thanking God for his mercy.