Resisting the Spirit of the Age by Matthew P.W. Roberts
We live in an age that believes it has outgrown religion. Today’s secularists believe that they have set themselves free from the delusions of invented deities, and that the march of human freedom is now unstoppable. Such is the spirit of our age. And many Christians are baffled over how to respond, for the Bible shows us how to grapple with false religion but is silent on how to engage the threat of “no religion.”
But the Bible’s refusal to see “no religion” as a threat, or even as a possibility, is in fact the key to this. For if, as Paul says in Romans 1:25, sin is indistinguishable from idolatry, then secularism must be the worship of false gods as well.
According to Paul’s speech to the Athenian pagans in Acts 17, the foolishness of idolatry is that it worships gods “formed by the art and imagination of man” (v. 29). And on that score, there is a huge irony in the belief of our age, in which human freedom to determine our own law, morality, and destiny is revered as the ultimate good, that it has left religion behind. Because this idea of “freedom” as an ultimate value is itself a product of “the art and imagination of man.” In short, “freedom” has become, in our secular world, just another deity, one invented, as all idols are, as a means to justify our rejection of the living God. Secularism is nothing so novel as the rejection of religion. It is simply a repetition of the same old human impulse to invent a new one.
The trouble is that the tame gods we invent to serve us never stay tame for long. We hoped they would serve us, but we end up serving them. And so it is with the idolizing of “freedom.” As time has gone on, it has demanded greater and greater sacrifices of those who worship it. It has demanded the end of moral norms on sexual behavior, the right to kill our children, and the destruction of marriage. It demands the silencing of those who don’t agree with its demands. Right now, it is demanding the freedom to define who we are even in the face of the scientific realities of male and female, thus demanding that we give up on the very possibility of objective truth. And, of course, it will not stop there.
The story of now is the story of the risen Christ calling people to turn from idols to serve the living and true God.
But doesn’t “freedom” enable us as Christians to believe what we want without persecution? Not when it is treated as an ultimate good. For then it only grants permission for Christians to worship our God provided we accept that “freedom” is the truly fundamental thing, that the worship of the Holy Trinity is optional while adherence to the doctrines of “freedom” are not. In other words, it will protect Christianity only so long as we accord our God second place in the divine pantheon. “Freedom” lays claim to the first.
For that reason, it is only a matter of time before this secular religion, far from guaranteeing the right to worship the Christian God, will in the end forbid it. For “freedom” requires what God forbids and vice versa. Faithfulness to Jesus Christ means defying this deity when it demands that we sign up ourselves and our children for its morality and its mantras. Idols, in the end, can tolerate subordinates but not rivals. The deity of “freedom” will no more be an exception than was Caesar in the days of the New Testament.
So, then, this is the spirit of our age. How are we to respond? In the same way, of course, that Christians in every age are called to respond to the reigning idols of their day. Let’s go back to Paul in Acts 17.
First, we must get God right (vv. 24–25, 29). The God of the Bible is the only, the true, the ultimate God. There are no fundamentals of human civilization deeper than Him. We must see the secular version of “freedom” not as our friend or a safeguard for our private religion, but as a false, invented deity to be decried and to be denied the worship it desires. There will be no defeating of identity politics and all the horrors of our secular age in any other way.
Second, we must get history right. The “progress” of “freedom” assumed by our age is an illusion and a lie. Rather, history is leading unstoppably from the resurrection of Christ to His return to judge the world (v. 31). The story of now is the story of the risen Christ calling people to turn from idols to serve the living and true God (1 Thess. 1:9–10). We live waiting for that day. We therefore need to lose our fear of persecution. It is to be expected for those who refuse to worship the idols of this age. But it will be temporary, and at its end is a crown of glory.
Third, we must get the gospel right. For too long, conservative Christians have presented the gospel as if it were an option, one of the ways in which those who hear us may exercise their (unquestioned) service of the god “freedom.” But the Bible never speaks in this way. Rather, God “commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30). We don’t ask the world to give people permission to worship the Christian God; we proclaim to the world the imperative to worship the Christian God. And attached to that imperative is the promise of mercy to all who come to do so through Christ.
We resist the spirit of the age by refusing to worship the idols of the age. And we do this by trusting, obeying, and worshiping the one true God of this and every age, who has called us to know Him forever through His Son and by His Spirit.
(Dr. Matthew P.W. Roberts is minister of Trinity Church York in York, England, and former moderator of the British Presbytery of the International Presbyterian Church.)