Contrary to what some have concluded, a transformational approach to culture does not assume an unrealistic optimism about what’s possible in our fallen world. Because the world will remain sinful until Christ returns, we know we can never achieve any utopia here and now. “Heaven on earth” will become a universal reality only when Christ comes back.
In this regard, it’s been helpful for me to understand the distinction Abraham Kuyper made between “persuasion” and “coercion.” For Kuyper, persuasion is the Christian’s role and responsibility toward culture here and now-seeking to influence every sphere of society (such as the family, government, education) for Christ and bringing the standards of God’s Word to bear on every dimension of human culture. Coercion, on the other hand, is the role and responsibility of Christ, not Christians. Jesus alone possesses the right and power to “coerce,” or force, culture in a Godward direction, and this is a right he will fully exercise only when he returns to make “all things new” (Revelation 21:5). It’s helpful to remember that as far as our role is concerned, Christianity has historically spread best through fascination, not force. Understanding the difference between persuasion and coercion-between our role and Christ’s role-helps us serve God with realistic expectations.
Of course there has always been considerable (and somewhat distracting) debate on whether, before Christ returns, things will get markedly worse, get markedly better, or just go on about the same. The answer to that is God’s business, not ours. We’re told to plant and water; God alone controls the results.
Our task as faithful disciples is proclaimed by the Welsh poet Ethelwyn Wetherald:
My orders are to fight;
Then if I bleed, or fail,
Or strongly win, what matters it?
God only doth prevail.
The servant craveth naught
Except to serve with might.
I was not told to win or lose-
My orders are to fight.
What we do know is that many Christians throughout the ages have sought cultural transformation, and in so doing they’ve had a huge impact on the world. One of them was the English politician William Wilberforce, whose conversion to Christianity impelled him to fight against the slave trade throughout the British Empire. He did this for decades, paving the way for the abolition of slavery and the reformation of morals in England. He was truly a man who changed his times. When Christians take the cultural mandate seriously, real change for the better can and has happened. No Christian has ever “turned earth into heaven, or the world into the church,” says John Frame. “And sometimes they have made tragic mistakes. But they have also done a great deal of good.”
The good news is that Christ not only began the process but also will complete it. And by his Spirit, he now empowers us to carry on his work. Led by Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit, we thus have all we need for our present task. In saving us, God has fully equipped us to carry out the cultural mandate he originally entrusted to us.