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Russell Moore Christian Blog and Commentary

Russell Moore

Dean of Theology, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
The most important aspect of our mission, as it relates to human dignity, isn’t our social action or our responsibilities as citizens or as culture-makers. The most important aspect of our mission for human dignity is the gospel itself.
When we recognize that human dignity is contested by spiritual warfare, we understand that politics is indeed downstream from culture, and that culture is downstream from conscience, and that conscience is downstream from the kingdom of God. We cannot combat a culture of death merely with appeals to abstract human dignity based on natural law (not that there’s anything wrong with that). In every assault on human life, there’s not only a life left for dead but also a conscience left for hell. The gospel addresses both.
On the abortion question, for instance, the sheer numbers of children aborted each year ought to prompt us to realize that perhaps as many as one out of every three women in our congregations has aborted. With her is typically a man who approved of or paid for or pressured her to this act. Many of them sit silently, in the fear that God can forgive any sin but this one. They try to forget it, and secretly wonder if they are included in the “whosoever will” of our gospel invitations. When we preach both of justice and of justification, God breaks the power of condemnation. He uncovers sin and judgment. The cries of the oppressed, the orphaned, the murdered, are heard, and their Redeemer is strong. The gospel doesn’t wave away such judgment.
The gospel says that those found in Christ are joined to the judgment he endured to the cross, and they stand with him in the new creation of an empty tomb. The repentant woman who had an abortion, the repentant man who empowered an abortion, and indeed the repentant abortionist who committed the abortion, are not beyond the grace of God. Every accusation against them, and against you and me, is true. But in Christ, we have been through the scrutiny of the tribunal of God. We have already been through the justice of hell. And in Christ, God declares what he thinks of us, “You are my beloved child, and in you I am well-pleased.” We warn of justice, but we always, this side of the grave, offer mercy.
This gospel, then, grounds human dignity since in it Christ Jesus offers himself not to spirits or angels but to the sons and daughters of Adam. We have to be reminded of that or else we will always be pulled back to seeing ourselves in terms of “the flesh”—who we think we are apart from our union by the Spirit to Christ. We start then to divide ourselves against one another as Jew and Gentile, black and white, rich and poor, First World and Third World, healthy and disabled, young or elderly, documented or undocumented, born or unborn. But the gospel cuts across the boundaries, and indeed crucifies them all. If we come to God, it will be through one Jewish mediator-king, or it will not be at all. Our call to remember human dignity is, before anything else, a call to remember who we are.
The pro-life movement of the present, like the abolitionist and civil-rights movements, is not, and never was, a “moral majority” issue. Left to ourselves, the majority will always protect the powerful, and forget the weak. That’s especially true when the weak at issue are not only powerless but invisible.
As technology advances, our advocacy for human life has become in many cases stranger and stranger to the world around us, as we advocate not only for late-term infants in the womb but for those “embryos” who are sacrificed for medical research or for fertility treatments. We argue not only against abortion “for birth control,” but for the sacrificing of human life for what seem to be heroic causes: the curing of diseases, the providing of children to infertile families, the advance of the human race into new vistas of evolutionary progress. But as Walker Percy put it a generation ago to the abortion-rights movement of his day: “According the opinion polls, it looks as if you might get your way. But you’re not going to have it both ways. You’re going to be told what you’re doing.” That’s called bearing witness, and it’s not a matter of politics or power but of gospel and of mission.
The kingdom tells us what matters—and it’s not raw power and force of will. The kingdom tells us who matters—and that’s not defined by power and force of will. The church is to embody these realities, and the mission sets out to teach and persuade the outside world of a gospel that honors and protects life. To deny human dignity then is to kick against Christ himself, since he brings with him nothing of the sort of power or wisdom the present age craves. When we care for the vulnerable—the unborn, the aged, the poor, the diseased, the disabled, the abused, the orphaned—such is not “charity.
These are not “the disadvantaged,” at least not in the long run. These are the sorts of people God delights in exalting as the future rulers of the universe. It takes more than American values to see that.
This article is adapted from my new book Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel
Publication date: Oct. 9, 2015
As a child, I remember being in church and seeing a man sitting in front of me, with his arm resting on the pew. The arm was covered with a large tattoo of a woman who was, well, let’s just say she didn’t fit what we would consider biblical standards of modesty in her attire. This was not in a “relevant” urban church, mind you, but in the most stereotypically “hellfire and brimstone,” King James Version-quoting, gospel hymn-singing southern revivalist church you could imagine. I couldn’t believe I was seeing this, in my church. I was simultaneously thrilled (when else does one get to see naked women in church?) and outraged (how dare anyone do that in my church?). So I nudged my grandmother and pointed, as if to say, “Can you believe this?”
My grandmother leaned down and whispered. I expected her to share my outrage (though not my secret titillation). She was, after all, a pastor’s widow with strict moral standards who had once washed my mouth out with soap because I had said “Gosh,” which was, of course, to her just a rebranded way to take the Lord’s name in vain. But that side of her didn’t show up in that moment. She whispered, “Yes, honey, He doesn’t know the Lord yet, and he’s had a hard life, with drink and drugs and all. But his wife had been trying to get him to come to church for a long time, and we’ve all been praying for him. He’s not trying to be ugly to anybody. He just doesn’t know Jesus yet.”
I’ll never forget that word “yet.” With that one word she turned my imagination on its head. She put before me the possibility that this hardened ex-military man with the naked woman tattoo might one day be my brother-in-Christ. And, in time, he was. I suppose as time went on this new Christian started to see that his tattoo was potentially a stumbling block to others, because I started to see it less and less as he started to wear long sleeves to church. Some of the other kids in the church said that (since tattoo removal technology wasn’t much of a thing then) that he had added a bikini to her, and then later a one-piece bathing suit. For all I know, he may have died with her in a plaid pantsuit and a briefcase. I guess this man started to see that tattoo as emblematic of an old life he’d left behind. He didn’t need a tattooed pastor (and in that church, he never had one). But he did need a church that didn’t see his tattoo as evidence of a life gone too far, of someone too rowdy to be loved with the call to repentance and faith.
I don’t like tattoos, and I can’t emphasize this enough (especially if you’re one of my children, one day, reading this). But if the Spirit starts moving with velocity in this country, our churches will see more people in our pews and in our pulpits with tattoos, and that ought to change our public witness. Now, what I do not mean by this is that we need more Christians to tattoo crosses or the Apostles Creed or the sinner’s prayer across their arms and necks. That’s not a sign of gospel awakening. It’s just, at best personal fashion, and, at worst, more marketing in an already over-marketed American Christian subculture.
Tattoos don’t mean what they used to. They don’t signify necessarily, by a long shot, the kind of “tough” image they used to. But sometimes they do. There are people around us with markings of blood-drenched skulls, or of profane sexual boasts or of threats to violence. Some demonstrate fearsomeness. Some are pagan, or even occult. As I see them in the streets around me I am chastened by how rarely my first thoughts are rooted in my grandmother’s wisdom. Again, not everyone with tattoos is an unbeliever or has lived a hard life. But I wonder how many people don’t listen to our gospel message because they assume they don’t “look” like the kind of people who would be Christians—namely shiny, happy Republicans. And, shamefully, how many times to we filter out our gospel preaching and our social witness to people who would , upon baptism, be able to pose nicely for our ministry advertisements? How often do we assume the good news of Christ is a message just like a political campaign or a commercial brand, targeted toward a demographic of a certain kind of buyer?
That was precisely Jesus’ point in his story of the two sons. He turned to the religious establishment and said, shockingly, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes will go into the kingdom of God before you” (Matt. 21:31). That was Jesus’ point from his sermon in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth, throughout his public ministry, and right to his dying moments, pardoning a repentant terrorist. Jesus was building his church with those who seemed to have wrecked their lives forever: prostitutes, Roman collaborators, outcasts with infectious diseases, demon-possessed grave-dwellers, and on and on. If we’re really carrying forward his message, this means there are going to be people listening whose very bodies may carry messages contradictory of the Word of God. So did our hearts and psyches. The young woman with the “Legal Abortion Without Apology” tattoo or the old man with the Hell’s Angel marking, they may wonder, as they feel the pull of the gospel, “How can I enter with this visible reminder on me of my past?” That’s not a new question. That’s the question we all had to ask, regardless of how “respectable” we looked when we came to Christ: “Deep is the stain that we cannot hide? What can avail to wash it away?”
Jesus will build his church, with us or without us. But if we are going to be faithful to him, we must share his mission. This means we don’t just talk about lost people; we talk to them. And we don’t talk to them as enlightened life-coaches promising an improved future, but as crucified sinners offering a new birth. The hope for the future is not that Christianity will be seen as more respectable or more influential in the sectors of American power. The hope for the future is churches filled with people who never thought they fit the image of “Christian.” We’ll see that the markings on the flesh, whatever they are, count for nothing, but that what counts is a new creation (Gal. 6:15). We’ve come not to call just those who look like whatever Christians are supposed to look like, but the whole world. If the church is powered by the gospel, then the Body of Christ has tattoos.
That reality ought to crucify our dour, gloomy, curmudgeonly pessimism. Our fretfulness is evidence of defeatism, a sign of wavering belief in the promises of Jesus himself. That’s what the elderly theologian taught me, as I stood there and wrung my hands over the pragmatism, the hucksterism, the liberalizing tendencies I saw in the Christianity around me, and wondered, “Does gospel Christianity have a future in this this country at all?” He looked at me as though I were crazy. Of course gospel Christianity had, and has, a future. But the gospel Christians who will lead it may well still be pagans. He was right. Christianity is not like politics, rife with the dynasties of ruling families. God builds his church a different way.
The next Billy Graham might be drunk right now. The next Jonathan Edwards might be the man driving in front of you with the Darwin Fish bumper decal. The next Charles Wesley might currently be a misogynistic, profanity-spewing hip-hop artist. The next Charles Spurgeon might be managing an abortion clinic today. The next Mother Teresa might be a heroin-addicted porn star this week. The next Augustine of Hippo might be a sexually promiscuous cult member right now, just like, come to think of it, the first Augustine of Hippo was.
But the Spirit of God can turn all that around. And seems to delight to do so. The new birth doesn’t just transform lives, creating repentance and faith; it also provides new leadership to the church, and fulfills Jesus’ promise to gift his church with everything needed for her onward march through space and time (Eph. 4:8-16). After all, while Phillip was leading the Ethiopian eunuch to Christ, Saul of Tarsus was still a murderer. And that happens over and over again, as God raises up leaders who seem to come out of nowhere, with shady pasts and uncertain futures. And none of us would be here, apart from them.
This article is adapted from my new book Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel.
Publication date: October 5, 2015
For the last several weeks many of us have been tuned into the latest reports from NASA about Mars. Technology has allowed scientists access to the red planet in ways unfathomable even just a decade ago. From details about Mars’ climate to evidence of water on the planet surface, a number of questions have been raised about the worlds that neighbor our own.
Perhaps for many of us, the images and descriptions of environments literally years away from earth might cause a little anxiety. What all is out there? How much of it? If our little galaxy is just a pin-point in a vast, swirling universe, then why would we think that what happens on this microscopic rock matters all that much? In the sweep of cosmic space, why would your life and my life have much purpose at all?
Secular philosophers and scientists have tried answering this question. Some, like the late Christopher Hitchens, say there is nothing special about humanity and it is immoral to think otherwise. Others, such as Neil deGrasse Tyson, say that because humanity is nothing more or less than a part of the physical world (through evolution), what’s true about the cosmos is the true about people. That’s a slightly more romantic answer than the one offered by Hitchens, but in truth, both explanations lead to the same ultimate conclusion: The universe is huge, and we are small, just because.
But the Bible has a different answer. Scripture understands that human beings have a tendency to feel small in light of the universe around us, but the biblical explanation begins where the materialistic explanations end. After all, a material connection with stardust doesn’t a personal connection make. The universe doesn’t know I am here, and doesn’t care where I’m going, if the universe is just stuff.
In a Christian vision of the cosmos, the vastness of the universe around us isn’t incidental. God is designing the universe this way to reveal something (Rom. 1:20), something about himself, something about his gospel. David, king of Israel, felt small when he looked into the expanse of the night sky, a reaction the Scripture considers to be reasonable (Ps. 8:3). The starry scene above made him wonder, “What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (Ps. 8:4). And David didn’t even see a pinprick of what we now see is out there. Conversely, we see only a pinprick of what our descendants may know about what’s out there.
The universe is meant to prompt such a response precisely so that this can be met by a revealed word: that humanity is “crowned with glory and honor,” and that God has set all things “under your feet” (Ps.8:5-6). That reality cannot be seen through the natural order alone. Sure, we can see the dignity of humanity over against the beasts and the birds. We recognize our intellect, our moral sense. But what about us seems “crowned with glory and honor” in light of the star systems and black holes light years away from us? We don’t yet see all things under our feet, the book of Hebrews tells us, and that’s the point.
“But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (Heb. 2:9). The central point of the cosmos is Christology. All things are summed up in this man, Christ Jesus (Eph. 1:10). Even from the perspective of the territory of Israel, much less the Roman Empire, the background of this man was surprising. God chose the Light of the cosmos to dawn not out of Rome or Athens, or even Jerusalem, but from Galilee.
The natural universe is not merely a mute accessory to our lives. In Christ, the very mud of the earth is joined to the eternal nature of God so that the material creation is joined—without conflation or separation—to the Person who is the center and purpose of all of history. This means that nature is, in fact, permanent—more permanent than any naturalistic account could conceive. “God has much more in mind and at stake in nature than a backdrop for man’s comfort and
convenience, or even a stage for the drama of human salvation,” evangelical theologian Carl F. H. Henry asserted. “His purpose includes the redemption of the cosmos that man implicated in the fall.” In other words, Jesus came not to bury the earth, but to raise it.
The vastness and beauty of the Milky Way should elicit a response from us. That response should be neither one of pagan nature worship nor greedy utility, but of wonder and awe at Christ Jesus in his infinite vastness and immeasurable beauty. We should likewise marvel at the truth that a God in charge of galactic orbits chooses to live with and in us. We are not adopted into Christ despite our smallness, but indeed on account of it. If the unveiling of Christ was met with a dismissed, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (Jn. 1:46), should we really be surprised that God, at even the cosmic level, chooses what seems insignificant and tiny to display the paradox of the wisdom and power of God in Christ (1 Cor. 1:20-31)?
The universe is meant to make us feel small, to stand in silenced awe. The gospel, though, tells us that we have purpose and meaning, not by our strength or our power, but because we’re hidden in the One who was dead, and is now alive forever, the One for whom every galaxy, seen and unseen, was made as an inheritance.
Publication date: September 30, 2015