Yesterday, we looked at the why the answer to the question “Does Christianity affirm or deny the world?” must be “yes!” Today, I want to follow up on the paradox of world-affirming and world-denying Christianity by inviting Mike Wittmer to answer a few questions about his new book, Becoming Worldly Saints: Can You Serve Jesus and Still Enjoy Your Life? Mike teaches at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary and is the author of Christ Alone: An Evangelical Response to Rob Bell’s Love Wins (my review), Don’t Stop Believing, and Heaven is a Place on Earth (see my previous interview with Mike).
Trevin Wax: Your title is provocative. Becoming Worldly Saints is the last thing we want for people, unless we recognize the proper sense of “worldly” versus the improper sense. Can you explain why your title is a good summary for the main point of your book?
Mike Wittmer: The Puritans were called “Worldly Saints” in Leland Ryken’s book by that name, so it may not be as provocative as it sounds. It might just be old-fashioned!
“Worldly Saints” may seem like an oxymoron, but it’s the perfect title for what God calls Christians to be. We must be worldly—enjoying creation, loving friends and family, and excelling in our cultural tasks. All things being equal, Christians should make the best humans. We also must be saints—loving God, fighting sin and making disciples of all nations. Being a saint is more important than being worldly, but we can’t have one without the other.
Consider the connection between creation and redemption. Redemption is more than creation, but it is not less. Without a good creation, we can’t have an incarnation (John 1:14), resurrection, or the forgiveness of sin (1 Cor. 15:12-17). Redemption is more important than creation, but it can’t get started without it. The Christian faith is inherently worldly, or it isn’t even Christian.
Trevin Wax: One of the questions you ask in the first part of your book is this: “Have you felt the tension between heaven and earth, between what you should do because you’re a Christian and what you want to do because you’re human?” Many Christians (and non-Christians) assume that the “shoulds” and “wants” are necessarily opposed, that following Jesus results in less joy. Why do we have this misperception?
Mike Wittmer: The main reason is we don’t trust God. As a parent, I know my teenagers will enjoy life more if they follow the few rules I have for them. They may suspect that curfews and limits on media is a conspiracy to hold them down, but actually my rules are for their good. Similarly, I will gladly obey my heavenly Father when I believe He is on my side.
We will find it easier to trust God when we remember that He is both our Creator and Redeemer.
As Creator, every good pleasure we enjoy comes from Him. Sex was His idea. And chocolate. And strawberries. And strawberries dipped in chocolate. Why would anyone think He is opposed to fun?
As Redeemer, He died so we might live, forever enjoying the bounty of the new earth. “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave Him up for us all—how will He not also, along with Him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32). If Eve was dumb for doubting that God was for her, what should we make of ourselves, who re-enact the Fall several times each day?
Trevin Wax: Because God has created a good world, everything matters. And yet “some things matter more than others.” How does recognizing the tension between the “natural” and “supernatural” or “creation and redemption” help us live in a balanced way?
Mike Wittmer: I don’t want balance. I’d much rather grasp both extremes with both hands.
I want to love God with all my strength and enjoy His world as much as possible. I want to both celebrate creation and praise redemption.
The unified story of creation, fall, and redemption teaches us that all things matter. But the priority of redemption means that some things matter more. Jesus said, “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?” (Matthew 16:26).
Finite creatures will always feel the tension between creation and redemption, our human life and our Christian life. The time and money I gave to church are resources I can’t give to my work or family, and vice versa. If we ever stop feeling the tension, we’ve probably fallen off one side or the other: We’ve either forgotten the earthly pleasures of creation or the higher purpose of heaven. We need both.
There is an undeniable and persistent tension here, yet it is a productive tension. The best advertisement for the gospel is a flourishing human life. When we thrive in our families, friendships, and vocations, we model a life that non-Christians may want.
Trevin Wax: There has been some conversation in recent years about the extent of the church’s mission. Some say our mission is broad (encompassing the good deeds we do in the world) while others view the mission as more limited (focused on the proclamation of the gospel verbally)? How would you define the church’s mission?
Mike Wittmer: I like how Abraham Kuyper put this together. The gathered church’s main task is to promote redemption by worshiping God, proclaiming the gospel in both Word and Sacrament, and edifying one another in the body of Christ. This gathered church then takes the kingdom with them as they scatter into the world to serve creation. As they do their various callings for the Lord Jesus, individual Christians will have opportunity to talk about Jesus and invite friends to church. These worship services emphasize redemption and send believers back into creation, and the virtuous cycle continues.
We get into trouble when we lose the distinctive priorities for both the gathered and scattered church. When the gathered church loses its focus on redemption, it adopts a social gospel that merely repeats the cultural wisdom of the age. When scattered Christians forget that the primary purpose of their callings is to serve creation, they may feel false guilt for their lack of evangelistic opportunities. Or they might spend more time witnessing than working, producing shoddy results that are a terrible testimony for Jesus.
Trevin Wax: A longstanding point of debate among Christians concerns the nature of God’s kingdom. Is there one kingdom of God that governs both the church and the world, or does God have two kingdoms, one for the world and another for the church? Your answer takes into consideration the concerns from both these perspectives. Why?
Mike Wittmer: I think that the Kuyperians and Two Kingdoms view have corresponding strengths and weaknesses. I combine both so that the strength of one fills the hole in the other, and vice versa.
The one kingdom of the Kuyperians easily explains why Jesus is Lord of both our human and Christian life and why everything we do matters to God. However, some Kuyperians tend to run creation and redemption together. They know why everything in creation matters, but they can’t tell you why redemption matters more. They think it’s enough for missionaries to dig wells, open hospitals, and run schools. They forget that living water is more important than clean water and knowing Jesus is more important than learning conversational English. To paraphrase John Piper, they have forgotten that God is opposed to all suffering, especially the eternal kind.
The Two Kingdoms view corrects this weakness. It has no problem giving priority to redemption. However, it tends to perpetuate the sacred-secular divide. If the kingdom is only found in the church, it’s easy to devalue cultural work in the world. Why study chemistry and business when you could be serving the kingdom instead? The Two Kingdoms approach may also hamstring the church’s witness. A church that must stay in its own lane and not interfere with the world cannot easily speak out for social justice. This is a problem.
I’m glad to see both sides moving closer together (e.g., see Tim Keller’s Center Church). They may speak with a different accent, but increasingly they seem to be speaking the same language. I hope that my chapter in the book might help the dialogue along.
Trevin Wax: Many pastors probably feel like their congregants are too focused on pleasure in this world and not focused enough on eternity. Do you think they are wrong? Why or why not?
Mike Wittmer: I think pastors have already lost when they frame the question this way. When the person who speaks for God tells people that they are too focused on pleasure, they leave the impression that God is somehow against pleasure. This perpetuates the felt need that I address throughout the book, “Can I serve Jesus and still enjoy my life?” If the pastor and God think I already have too much pleasure, then the answer is almost certainly No.
We’d be much better off, and biblical, if we told people that God is for their pleasure, and for that reason He opposes all idolatry (Idolatry is the sin that pastors are attempting to identify when they speak about too much pleasure). We must cleanly separate God’s good gifts of creation from our fallen perversion of them. God wants us to enjoy the pleasures of creation, and for that reason He doesn’t want us to put any of our hope and trust in them. That would be idolatry, the foundational sin that destroys us and all of our pleasures.
The solution isn’t to stop pursuing pleasure, but as John Piper would say, to find our pleasure in God. When we give ourselves entirely to Jesus, we find that just as certainly as redemption restores creation, so we are free to fully enjoy the pleasures of this world, now as gifts of our heavenly Father. Redemption may be more than creation, but it aims at it too.