Christian Boldness in an Age of Tolerance
I would like to thank the Moody Married Students Fellowship for the invitation to address you this morning. As much as I am glad to be here—even on Friday the 13th—I am much more thankful for the topic assigned to me. When Denise asked if I would come, she suggested that I speak on the following topic: Christian boldness in an age of toleration.
If ever a topic is timely, this is it. It describes the problem—an age of toleration—and the solution—Christian boldness—in one simple sentence.
I’d like to begin with an observation made by Josh McDowell about the changing definition of tolerance in our society. The dictionary defines tolerance as “respecting the nature, beliefs, or behavior or others.” To tolerate someone means to respect another person’s opinion without necessarily agreeing with them. In that sense tolerance is a noble virtue because it allows us to live amicably with people who may be quite different from us. Indeed, without tolerance no society (or community or church or family, for that matter) could long endure.
Tolerance in the classical sense requires that we hold our convictions firmly while at the same time respecting those who may disagree. Sometimes tolerance will mean enduring foolish comments and overlooking offensive behavior by others.
But there is another, darker definition of tolerance emerging. Josh McDowell argues that toleration has replaced justice as the primary American virtue. Tolerance today means that every view of truth and morality is equal to every other view. This view of toleration differs from the classic view in that it says that there is no such thing as absolute truth. If you dare to tell someone else that what they are doing is wrong, you are going to branded as an intolerant bigot. In that view everything is right and nothing is wrong. Some educators now argue that the public schools must teach students to be intolerant of intolerance. And who is the most intolerant of all in the eyes of the world? Christians are, because we believe in a Creator who established absolute standards of right and wrong. It may well be that in just a few years we will see a major cultural shift in which anyone who dares to speak out for God or against evil will risk being ostracized and publicly humiliated.
If that is true, then we will face some tough decisions in the days ahead. Satan’s strategy has always been to stir up opposition to the church so we will be intimidated into silence and compromise. It was true in the first century and it is still true today.
You may face opposition at work or from a critical colleague or from a classmate, a friend, a teacher, a neighbor, a relative, or even from your children or your spouse. Satan’s primary strategy against the church is to discourage us by stirring up opposition so that we will stop spreading the gospel.
In the years following World War II the Quaker philosopher Elton Trueblood observed that America has become a “cut-flower” society where the bloom of Christian values has been cut off from its roots in the truth of God’s Word. So much that passes for accepted truth is “accepted” simply because enough people have naively “accepted” it. But we as Christians do not determine our view of the world by reading the latest Gallup Poll or by silently acquiescing to the views of what the majority currently happens to hold. As a matter of fact, the majority has usually been wrong throughout history, especially on matters of morality and spiritual truth.
How should we respond? It’s easy to say “Be Bold!” - but what does that really mean?
Have you ever heard of “The 2% Rule"? I think I first heard of it during my seminary days when I spoke with the director of Campus Crusade for Christ at Louisiana State University. He told me that their goal was to enlist 2% of the campus in their programs because they had discovered that with 2% (which seems like a tiny minority), they could change the moral climate of the campus.
2% Can Change the World
Robert Bellah is a sociologist at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton University. These are his words: “We should not underestimate the significance of the small group of people who have a vision of a just and gentle world… . The governing values of a whole culture may be changed when 2% of its people have a new vision.” Think of it. All you need is 2% and you can change an entire culture.
I found this confirmed recently when I listened to a certain nationally-syndicated afternoon radio talk show. At one point the host commented that their research showed that only 2% of the audience ever attempted to call the show. Yet one caller can speak to a potential audience of millions of people.
Similarly, politicians tell us that on certain issues one letter equals 1000 voters and on some issues one letter might equal 10,000 voters.
The point is clear: It’s doesn’t take many people to impact a culture. That means you can make a difference right where you are.
A Few people united for any cause can change the world
With that we turn to our text. It is the justly-famous story of Abraham pleading for Sodom to be spared. Most of us know it in general outline. When God inspected the city, he found its sin so great that he determined to destroy it. Abraham intercedes with God, asking him to spare the city on behalf of the righteous who still live there.
What transpires is a rather funny exchange between Abraham and God as Abraham uses all his persuasive powers to induce God to spare the city. He asks God to spare the city for the sake of 50 righteous people there. When God agrees, Abraham senses an opening and lowers the number to 45. God agrees and Abraham begins to work him down to 40 … 30 … 20 and finally to 10. Would God spare Sodom for the sake of only 10 righteous people? The answer is yes. At that point, either God indicated he would go no lower or Abraham decided not to press his luck.
For ten people the great city of Sodom could be spared. Archaeologists tell us that Sodom may be been a city of almost a quarter of a million people in Abraham’s day. Yet it could have been spared if there had been only 10 righteous people.
Let’s look at three lessons from this ancient story.
I. The Character of God
No doubt the central lesson of our passage deals with the character of God. It tells us, in the first place, about his knowledge. He knows all about the sin of Sodom. He has heard the “outcry” of the city. God sees and God knows! He sees every injustice in this evil world. James Montgomery Boice catches this truth well:
Listen! Can’t you hear those cries in your imagination? I think I hear the cry of a child—wretched, hurt, and terrified—being beaten by a drunken father. There is another cry. It is the cry of an old man assaulted by a gang of tough street youths. I hear his painful cry as they beat him around the face and shoulders. There is the cry of a teenage girl being raped in an abandoned car. And there … the cry of a wife abandoned by her husband. I hear the cry of a man so trapped by our dehumanizing welfare system that he has given up. I hear the cry of sinful pleasures: the raucous cries in the thousands of bars that scar the faces of our cities, the cries of prostitutes and those who patronize them, the soft cries of drug addicts, the arrogant cries of those who have been able to defeat their enemies or ruin their competitors. But wait! Those cries are only a fraction of those millions of cries that are rising every moment of every day from every street in every city and village of our land—cries that are all heard by God, felt by God. Must God’s judgment not fall on us too, and quickly? How shall we excuse ourselves when the only righteous God comes down to see if what we have done is as bad as the accusation that has reached Him? (Genesis, Vol 2, p. 160)
The passage also teaches us about God’s justice. He will not wink at sin or say, “Boys will be boys” or “Live and let live.” He will always do what is right. Abraham’s whole prayer is based on the question in verse 25, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” In the word of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “The arm of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
But from this story we also learn a powerful lesson about God’s mercy. When he heard the outcry of Sodom’s sin, he personally came down to investigate the case to see if things were as bad as he had heard (v. 20). Furthermore, he allowed Abraham to intercede when he could have destroyed the city from the very beginning. But we see God’s mercy most clearly in this one fact: he would have spared the city for only 10 righteous people.
It is often said that “Prayer changes things.” Indeed it does. But we need to think clearly about this. Since God knows all things from beginning until the end, prayer doesn’t change God’s mind. But it may change our mind. In this case, prayer changed Abraham’s mind about God. He knew he was just, but was he also merciful? After the prayer, he could say with confidence that God is merciful not only for hearing his prayer but also for agreeing to spare the city for the sake of ten righteous people.
II. The Marks of Effective Intercession
In our series on Abraham I have from time to time pointed out some of the “firsts” we encounter in this section of Genesis. Here we come to yet another “first.” When Abraham prays for Sodom it is the first intercessory prayer in all the Bible. To “intercede” is to plead the case of another person. When a friend speaks up on behalf of a student about to be punished, that friend is interceding. Likewise, when Abraham asked God to spare Sodom he was interceding in the highest court of the universe.
But that raises an interesting question. Why did God allow Abraham to intercede for Sodom? After all, God already knew the facts and he already knew what he was going to do? Doesn’t that render Abraham’s request useless? To say it that way is to come up against the greatest mystery of prayer. If God already knows what he is going to do, why pray?
Some of the answers to that question may be seen in our text. First, he allowed Abraham to intercede in order to reveal his mercy. Second, he did it so that we would know that he (God) takes no pleasure in destroying the wicked. Third, Abraham’s prayer shows us the power righteous people can have. Fourth, in a larger sense, it teaches us the value of intercession. This is what prayer is all about. So we may say confidently that Abraham’s intercession teaches us something about God and something about prayer.
It’s important to realize that Abraham doesn’t question God’s right to judge, nor his decision to judge the wicked. He’s not saying, “Who do you think you are?” or “What right do you have to destroy Sodom?” Unlike modern man, Abraham understands that a holy God has the right to judge his own creation. In all that he says, he implicitly recognizes the sovereignty of God.
Why, then, does he pray? The answer is found in verse 23 when he asks, “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” How can a righteous God treat righteous people the same way he treats the unrighteous? The answer is, he can’t. God values righteousness even more than he hates unrighteousness. This is the basis of Abraham’s prayer.
As I study this text I find four characteristics of biblical prayer:
1. Modesty—He didn’t know what God would do
2. Humility—He didn’t demand anything from God
3. Persistence—He came back again and again—6 times in all
4. Persuasive—He based everything he said on God’s character
And for all that, his prayer wasn’t answered. Sodom was destroyed. Sometimes our prayers won’t be answered yes either. But it wasn’t Abraham’s fault. Nor is it always our fault. And with that truth in mind we return again to the must fundamental truth about prayer, which is that we must always say “Thy will be done.”
III. How the Righteous Can Save a City
Finally, this passages teaches us something crucial about how the righteous can save a city. When Abraham and God finished their discussion, the bottom line had come to this: ten righteous would have saved Sodom. That’s all. Just ten righteous people to save a city of a quarter-million people.
As you ponder that truth and think about the great cities of today, recall the words of Proverbs 14:24, “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.” Proverbs 28:12 reminds us that “When the righteous triumph, there is great elation; but when the wicked rise to power, men go into hiding.”
That’s what happened in Sodom. Wicked men had risen to power and the righteous had gone into hiding. Whatever influence they once had for good had been dissipated by the overwhelming power of evil.
How does this principle work? First, the righteous must be in the city. Only people in Sodom could save Sodom. Second, the righteous must be righteous. Third, the righteous must speak out. That is, they must make their presence felt in the affairs of life.
Taking Politics Out of the Sanctuary
Not long ago I read an article in Christianity Today by the pastor of a large church. In it he argued that evangelicals have become too enamored of politics at the expense of our calling to preach the gospel. We need to “take politics out of the sanctuary.”
I always struggle a bit when I read an article like that. After all, he’s certainly right in his basic argument that only the gospel has the power to change the human heart. And it’s also true that some believers have inadvertently turned the local church into a wing of the Republican or Democratic parties.
Furthermore, there is always a risk that by focusing on moral issues you may offend the very people you are trying to reach with the gospel. And you may end up with an unnecessarily negative reputation in the community. It’s certainly not worth it to win a referendum drive only to lose the battle for souls.
A Time to Stand
That much we all agree on. But how much should Christians speak out on moral issues? Would Sodom have been a better place if Lot had spoken out instead of apparently going along with the moral debauchery?
I do believe there are times when faithfulness demands that Christians as individuals and churches as institutions must speak out for good and against evil. Was Martin Niemoller wrong to speak out against Hitler in the 1930s? Was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrong to protest segregation in the 1960s? Are prolifers wrong to speak out against abortion in the 1990s?
In these days of moral decline, are we not obligated to speak the truth? If we don’t, who will? As the salt of the earth, our words may sting at first but then they will bring healing.
I do think it’s important that we speak to issues, not personalities or politics. It’s not our job as evangelicals to put the next president in the White House. Our God will raise up the right man at the right moment. Or at least, he will give us the leader we deserve, if not always the leader we want.
United with others who share our concern, we can have great impact for good in our nation. And when great moral issues are at stake, silence is treason. By speaking out, we can show how the gospel applies the gospel to every area of life. And when the testimony is given with a winsome spirit, it can be a great encouragement to others.
Let me share a few principles we follow at Calvary with regard to speaking out on moral issues:
1. Focus on issues, not personalities
2. Choose your battles carefully
3. Do it occasionally—not all the time
4. Keep a local focus first
5. Give others the right to disagree
I’m sure you’ve heard it said that “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” Therefore A) we focus on the gospel and B) we speak out on moral issues when necessary.
Courage and Prayer
Our great need today lies in two areas:
1. Moral Courage
2. Commitment to Prayer
We need to the courage to speak out and stand up for God whatever the cost and we need the commitment to prayer because our words and actions will come to nothing with the help of heaven.
On the basis of this passage, I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is really good. You can make a difference. A few people united for any cause can change the world
What is the bad news? This passage makes it clear that it is not the presence of evil but the absence of good that brings God’s judgment. Ten people could have saved Sodom. No matter what we may think of the sin of Sodom, this much is beyond debate: God wanted to spare that wicked city.
What does God see when he looks at your family? Your school? Your place of work? Your neighborhood? Your village? Your city? Where are the righteous men and women who can make a impact for eternity?
What is Your Sodom?
When all is said and done, your prayers matter more than your politics. God would have spared Sodom not because of Abraham’s protest (there was none), but because of his prayer. If we take this passage seriously, it forces us to consider one question above all others: Who are you praying for?
Don’t stop! Don’t stop! Don’t stop!
Charles Spurgeon said, “If sinners will not hear you speak, they cannot prevent your praying.” He’s right. You can reach people through prayer who won’t listen to your words or even look you in the eye. They can stop you from speaking, but they can’t stop you from praying. Sinners have no defense against the mighty weapon of prayer.
What is your Sodom? Is it your school? Your neighborhood? Your office? Your workplace? Your family? Go back and be salt. Who knows? You may end up saving an entire city.