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David Platt: Countering Culture With Grace

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It’s quite a trajectory—from academia to pastorate to global mission executive—yet different facets of the same call: Make disciples. And the progression in his thinking is documented in the best-selling books he has written: Follow Me: A Call to Die, A Call to Live; Radical: Taking Back Your Faith From the American Dream; and A Compassionate Call to Counter Culture. It is that recently released third title that gives focus to this discussion.

David Platt, the former pastor of The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Ala., and current president of the Southern Baptist International Mission Board, has a thing about convictions: If Scripture speaks it, it should not be regarded as optional. We can’t pick and choose what we adhere to, what we stand up for. So he writes of poverty and same-sex marriage; racism and sex slavery; abortion and pornography. But this is not just another volley in the culture war, for we counter culture with grace. Surely we point to another way, but it’s a redemptive path blazed by the one who loves us and pursues us relentlessly, with kindness on his mind.

You’ve written Radical and now Counter Culture urging us to take the implications of our faith seriously. How did that journey unfold for you personally?

By God’s grace, I grew up in a Christian home and came to faith in Christ at an early age. My life is a product of men who have invested God’s Word and God’s grace into my life—a handful of men who have had a huge impact on my life. They encouraged me with the Word to see God for who he is and to realize the implications of what God’s Word means for life.. If God’s Word is true, then it has huge ramifications for the way we live. There’s just no casual way to go about applying the truths of God’s Word in the world we live in, a world full of massive, urgent spiritual and physical need.

And there was one point in my journey with Christ where I remember seeing in God’s Word for the first time his desire to make his goodness and greatness, his grace and his gospel known among all the peoples of the earth.

I remember seeing that in the Word with my jaw on the ground, thinking, This changes everything. Christianity is not about me and what fits my preferences and my comforts. It’s about him. It’s about making his glory known in the world no matter what that costs, because I know that his reward is greater than anything this world has to offer.

That conviction from the Scriptures was confirmed in your own experiences abroad, wasn’t it?

Yes, there was a moment actually a couple years later when I found myself overseas on a mission trip in a place of urgent physical need and realizing again one of those jaw-on-the-ground moments as I got on a plane to come back to New Orleans where I was living at the time and realizing, OK, my life has got to be about making a difference in the world beyond New Orleans, that the world doesn’t look like what I see around me here in America—by God’s grace one of the wealthiest places ever to exist on planet Earth.

God has given much grace, but he’s given it for a purpose—for his glory to be known in all nations. So I’ve got to think through how my life is going to be a part of his global plan to make his praise known among all the peoples of the world, especially a world where there’s such urgent physical need on top of urgent spiritual need. .

It was that intersection, that collision between Word and world in my life that left me saying, OK, what does this mean for the way I live?

Your experience reminds us that how commitment is expressed changes over time, circumstance and opportunity.

Yes. For a time that meant teaching at a seminary, which was a great opportunity to pour my life into church leaders who would be traveling the world in ministry. I thought this was a great job. In addition to spending time teaching, I could go overseas three or four times a year and take students into a global context to see disciple-making around the world and to see how their lives and the church can be a part of that. At the time, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

Well, then the Lord used a variety of circumstances, including Hurricane Katrina, to redirect me to pastor The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Ala. That was a little over eight years ago. With so many people around the world who are unreached by the gospel, the last place I thought I would end up was Birmingham, Ala., which, by God’s grace, is one of the most reached places in the world. But God gave me a desire to shepherd the reached for the sake of the unreached, and to lead the church for the spread of the gospel. Yes, in Birmingham, but then far beyond the city to people who have never heard the gospel.

It was along the way, early on in that journey that the collision of Word and world came back around in a fresh way. Within a year of pastoring this church, I found myself at a pretty comfortable place—not that all comfort is bad, but my wife and I bought a bigger house than we ever imagined before. In the eyes of the world, including the church world, I was living the dream. But inside I had that same feeling that I was missing the point. I was losing sight of that collision between Word and world. That was the impetus behind Radical—the sermon series and eventually the book.

If the Bible is true, that means over 4.5 billion people in the world right now are lost and apart from Christ and on the road that leads to eternal hell. A couple billion of those have never even heard the gospel. This is not tolerable. We can’t coast through a nice Christian American dream here. We were created for so much more—for the spread of his gospel to the ends of the earth. That calls us to live more simply, give sacrificially. And if we’re really following Christ, we are going to find ourselves going against the grain of the culture around us in many different ways.

So we walked through that as a church. In my own life and family we started asking some hard questions and making different decisions about how we were going to live in this culture.

And that led ultimately to the book Counter Culture.

We see the rapidly shifting moral landscape around us in the culture, even just over the past few years. On one hand, I’ve been encouraged to see evangelicals of all stripes, of all ages, standing up and speaking out on social issues, like poverty and sex trafficking, and saying we can’t be indifferent in the church with these massive issues in the world. But at the same time, I have felt burdened because oftentimes I’ve seen a lot less passion for other controversial social issues in our culture, like marriage or abortion. Instead of being passionate on some of those issues, we are passive.

But the same gospel that compels us to respond to one social issue compels us to respond to other social issues. The same gospel that compels us to combat poverty also compels us to defend marriage. The same gospel that compels us to war against sex trafficking calls us to war against sexual immorality in all its forms. To pick and choose between the two is not an option.

Maybe our supposed social justice is actually more like selective social injustice: picking and choosing which issues we’re going to speak out on based on what’s most comfortable in light of the culture around us.

I’m not saying it’s easier to reach out to the poor or to address sex trafficking. But when we work to address poverty and sex trafficking, we will be applauded and encouraged. But when we start to speak about marriage, sexual morality, abortion, we’re going to find ourselves face-to-face with the trends in culture and it’s going to be a lot less comfortable, a lot more costly. We just don’t have the option of picking and choosing based on what’s least costly or most comfortable.

What’s at the root of selective compassion and pick-and-choose conviction?

In some cases, a lack of confidence and trust in God’s Word. So when we see the Word talk about God’s care for the oppressed, for the orphan, for the widow, for the poor, we resonate with that. We say, Yes, we need to act on this. But when we see what God’s Word says about homosexuality or marriage then we’re inclined to wonder, Can we trust God’s Word on this? Is this antiquated? Is this open to interpretation now when maybe it wasn’t 100 or 1000 years ago? We start to question the authority of God’s Word, the timeliness of God’s Word. Our confidence in God’s Word begins to wane. We see this, unfortunately, all over the church today. And that leads to a real fear and hesitance to speak and proclaim God’s Word, whether it’s in public ways or even just in personal conversations.

Even for those who have confidence in God’s Word, there’s a lot of fear when it comes to personal conversations. We ask ourselves, Am I going to share what God’s Word says about this knowing that it will make me look crazy to some of the people around me—or offensive or even hateful?

If we don’t have rock-solid confidence in God’s Word then we’re certainly not going to speak up in those kinds of settings. Even if we do, there’s often a fear that breeds reluctance.

Which is not really a new phenomenon.

Right. Think about that prayer in Acts 4 in the face of resistance to the gospel, “Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness” (29). There was hesitancy even then, in the early church, to speak God’s Word, knowing it was going to be costly. So when I think about the root of picking and choosing, I think it’s probably a lack of confidence in God’s Word and a fear of speaking and applying it to these cultural issues for fear of how it will affect our reputation. Nobody wants to come across as hateful. Nobody wants to come across as arrogant, as narrow-minded.

How has your international ministry informed your perspective on the clash of faith and culture?

I’ve spent a good bit of time in northern India—home to 600 million people, almost none of them followers of Christ. Who am I to say to Hindus, Muslims, Sihks that if they don’t believe in Jesus for their salvation that they would spend an eternity in hell? That seems pretty narrow-minded, pretty arrogant, even hateful. And it would be all those things if it weren’t true. If it’s true, then it’s not arrogant at all. It’s not hateful; it’s the most loving thing to say, if it’s true.

We’re deceived into questioning the authority of God’s Word and then we’re deceived into being quiet with it because we think that’s actually more loving. The reality is, the most loving thing we can do is to share God’s Word, but to do so with his compassion—not beating people over the head with the Bible. It’s because we love the people around us that we don’t stay silent. It’s because we care that we take God’s Word and apply it to the pressing issues in our day.

I think God is using this rapidly shifting moral landscape for the good of the church—it’s helping us realize what Scripture is saying. We adhere to it not because it’s a belief we hold in common with the culture, but because it’s the truth of Scripture in front of us.

You talk a lot about how the main issue is being focused on Christ, which certainly resonates with the New Testament. Do we have a New Testament pattern for engaging specific cultural issues? Did the New Testament church directly fight prevailing cultural values they felt were at variance with Christianity in their cultural setting?

We definitely have a New Testament pattern for engaging culture with the gospel, which is where the greatest offense lies—the news that there is one God who is all-authoritative, who has created us, who owns us, to whom we’re accountable.

Think about it: Claiming there is one God who created all and has authority of all is in contradiction with the world—with atheism as well as Hinduism and Buddhism. Then you get the reality that we’ve sinned against him—that because of our rebellion we deserve eternal punishment.

Then there’s the reality that God became a man, Christ, to make a way for our salvation. Now you’ve offended 1.5 billion Muslims—who would say God would never debase himself by becoming a man. And then, Jesus Christ—God in the flesh—is the only way to be reconciled to him through his death on the cross, his resurrection from the grave; there is no other way.

This is why Paul talks about the offense of the cross.

We always have to be on guard in the church against trying to remove the offense of the cross. We absolutely work to remove other obstacles to the gospel, to help people understand the gospel, but we never remove the offense of the gospel.

That why, on the deepest level, I’m concerned that a lack to trust in the authority of God’s Word on various social issues really goes back to a lack of trust in the authority of his Word when it comes to the essence of the gospel.

Are there situations where our zeal for certain cultural issues can detract from our central message? How do we balance that?

The key is grounding the way we address these different issues in the truths of the gospel. Take the debate about marriage. It’s most helpful when we tie the discussion back to God and his plan. A good God created marriage as a reflection of his love for his people. God designed marriage to be a picture of Christ’s love for the church, how a husband should lay down his life for his wife in serving her. And that’s a picture of the way Christ has laid down his life, because he loves us and he wants to save us from our sins.

Likewise with other issues, the conviction that we are created in the image of God makes a difference. A good God forms babies in his image, by his goodness, for his glory. Being made in the image of God has implications for religious liberty or immigration or sex trafficking. Who Christ is, how he came to a sinful world to live among us, to save us from our sin and ourselves and from all of our propensities for evil and injustice—these elemental truths make a difference in how we view our culture and our world. The more we relate these core truths to social issues, the more we will have an opportunity to share the beauty of God and the grace of the gospel.

But these are controversial issues. How do we keep from being sidetracked on important but peripheral battles as we seek to drive home the central point of the cross?

The first word that comes to my mind is humility. We’re submitting our lives to who God is, what God has said, and then that comes across in the way we communicate these things. Yes, we want to be bold, but there’s a contrite courage, a humble boldness, that I think the Word warrants. So we share humbly.

And we share personally. We can’t address these social issues and keep an arm’s distance from real people who are involved in these social issues—whether it’s the poor and the enslaved, or our homosexual neighbor, or the illegal immigrant living down the street. All of these issues represent real people who all desire the same things—to be loved, to love, to have meaning and identity. So we address these issues personally—we are compelled to provide for those who are poor or to care for the orphan or the widow. There are actions that flow from our convictions.

So we speak, but we also act—humbly and personally and courageously. We will be tempted to try to remove the offense of the gospel, and to avoid the primary issue of who God is and what it means to follow him. So it takes courage. We’ve got to move forward prayerfully—and I think that’s why the New Testament church was always praying for boldness. It wasn’t easy for them to make the gospel known in their culture; it’s never going to be easy to make the gospel known in any culture. So we depend on the Spirit of God and the power and confidence that comes only from him. But at the same time, trusting in the Word of God, that it’s not just true, but that it’s good.

In the book you link social justice with divine justice. How do we balance the idea of God’s justice with his grace?

We have this natural inclination, this desire for justice in the world. That passion for justice doesn’t just pop up out of nowhere. God has put a moral law on our hearts. This desire for justice is a product of being created in the image of a just God. So, we fight for justice for the persecuted, justice for the unborn, justice for the enslaved, freedom for the oppressed. These things are rooted in the character of God.

Now at the same time—take sex trafficking, for example. Having seen this face-to-face and being heartbroken, crushed by the realities of sex trafficking in the world around us, I feel a longing for justice, particularly when it comes to the traffickers. In this pervasive industry where it seems so many traffickers are getting away with injustice, there’s a confidence that justice belongs to the Lord and nobody’s getting away with anything.

At the same time, there is a desire to see traffickers come to know the grace of God. They need their hearts changed by the gospel. So I want to be a part of spreading a gospel—this is what the Bible compels us to do—to share the gospel that says God is just and he will hold all people to account before him. But he is also gracious. He provides the way to be saved from our sinful and selfish nature that has a propensity to do such evil. And that’s the greatest news in all the world, and it’s news that must be proclaimed. So there you see the twin realities of the justice and the grace of God in the gospel that compels us to act when it comes to an issue like sex trafficking.

So the challenge of what it means to live like Christ in our culture is played out in three arenas. Our individual, personal convictions—we ought to know what the gospel compels us to think and to feel about these things. The teaching of the church—as part of our discipleship mandate, how do we help people of faith understand what it means to live in the culture? The third level, I think, is where we, as the church, speak to the culture at large, how we engage on those issues in the most productive and redemptive way.

Obviously all of those are extremely important. That middle piece, the teaching of the church, is where I have been burdened to equip the saints, the members of the church that I pastored, to know how to understand and apply and speak God’s Word when it comes to these issues. We’ve got to be intentional about equipping the body with the Word of Christ—in the process, not just equipping them so they’ll have information, but for the sake of proclamation.

God is sovereign over all things, including every single detail of the culture, and he’s put us in this time, in this place for a reason. He wants his gospel proclaimed, he wants his glory known, and he’s designed us to be salt and light. So this is not just for the building up of the church, it’s for the spread of the gospel and leading people to see the beauty of God and trust him more than they trust cultural trends.