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Are we living in difficult times?

Paul wrote a letter toward the end of his life that in places sounds ominous. Read the following verses and imagine a wind hardened face with kind eyes, an old man who looks frail. But then he speaks, not with eloquence necessarily, but with undeniable authority.

2 Timothy 3:1-5: 1 But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come. 2 For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good,4 treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, 5 holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power; Avoid such men as these.

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What does he mean “In the last days difficult times will come?” That’s just paranoid rambling, right? Well, the difficult times are here y’all. They’ve been here for quite a while even though it’s hard to pinpoint the start date. Regardless, we all eat, breathe, work jobs, and raise families in the last days. We know this because of verse 5, “[men will be…] holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power.”  

American Progressivism

I know we live in the difficult, last days because of men like Walter Rauschenbusch and Richard Ely. Both of them were born in the mid-1800s and died at the time of the World Wars. They both are associated with American Progressivism of the early 20th Century. Rauschenbusch represents the more religious part of the movement. Ely the more secular, governmental side. Let me explain.

Make the World A Better Place?

Despite what Paul wrote in the New Testament, Rauschenbusch did not understand Jesus' death as an act of substitutionary atonement; rather, he came to believe that Jesus died "to substitute love for selfishness as the basis of human society." Rauschenbusch wrote that "Christianity is in its nature revolutionary" and tried to remind society of that. He taught that the Kingdom of God "is not a matter of getting individuals to heaven, but of transforming the life on earth into the harmony of heaven.”

I admit some of that sounds good, making a better world. But the underlying assumption is what Paul warned us against, “holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power.” You see Rauschenbusch formulated something called the Social Gospel and within that is an idea called God’s immanence. God’s immanence to Rauschenbusch and the religious Progressives meant that God’s presence and power exist in the works of humans and society. It is the mirror image of the idea of God’s providence where God is given credit for the actions of mankind. God’ immanence starts to strip out the belief that God is involved in what happens on earth and starts to build the belief that human action gets the credit for accomplishing God’s will on earth.

Further, in the gospel of Paul, Peter, and John, the most important thing was Jesus’ dying on the cross to supernaturally pay for the sins and bodily resurrecting on the third day (1 Corinthians 15:1-5)God by grace through faith miraculously saves individuals.

That gospel wasn’t so important to Rauschenbusch.  In his Social Gospel, evil or sin wasn’t a problem so much on a personal level, but in "suprapersonal entities." He even identified what those “suprapersonal” or social entities were: militarism, individualism, capitalism, and nationalism. Furthermore, he identified their solution. Belief in Jesus? Repenting of sin? God making you more holy by His power? No. Pacifism, collectivism, socialism, and internationalism. That is a far cry from Jesus telling Nicodemus “you must be born again!” It is a world apart from Jesus giving sight and eternal life to a poor, blind man in John 9. Walter Rauschenbusch might not have completely denied the power of God, but his line of thought progressed. His friend, Richard Ely said some illuminating things.

Government is King?

“God works through the State in carrying out His purposes more universally than through any other institution.”

“Now, it may rationally be maintained that, if there is anything divine on earth it is the State, the product of the same God-given instincts which led to the establishment of the Church and the Family.”

The State. Bureaucratic government is the most divine thing on the Earth.  God in Genesis 2 set up the family. Jesus leaves behind a group of followers which are the church.  Those things aren’t so divine as is the State. Rome. Prussia. England. Russia. America. Saying that it is an earthly kingdoms’ job to build God’s kingdom sounds to me like, “holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power.”

Before you think this article is strictly a criticism of American Progressivism, I recognize that their goals for the world were good in many ways. They wanted women to have more equality. They sought to end the disease of alcoholism and its harmful effect on families. They wanted workers to have a safe environment. They created organizations devoted to serving the poor, the young, and the marginalized. These are all things we in the Church should be involved in.

Godliness is impossible without God's Power

The difference is that from the perspective of the Biblical gospel, godliness isn’t possible without God’s power working in a person. The world is to be transformed as part of God’s work of transforming individuals. Then transformed individuals tell others about the gospel and work to make the world better reflecting God’s goodness.

Paul wrote to Timothy at the end of his life about this kind of transformation. He struggled his whole ministry to bring it to life. Even though he lived his last days during difficult times, he ended the letter on a hopeful note trusting that God is powerful and is transforming us and His world by His power. “7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; 8 in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing (2 Timothy 4:7-8).”

Therefore as we live in the last days, during difficult times we can have the same hope in the same powerful God.