“In” with the World (Kevin Vollema )

Over the last few weeks, former pastor and Christian author Josh Harris has made a public resurgence through his shocking Instagram announcement. This is sad news, and we should mourn over it. When any supposed brother or sister in the faith announces they have fallen away–whether publicly or privately–our response ought to be prayerful, gentle, and soaked with tears. 

However, his particular announcement also serves as a reminder of the sneaking temptation to seek affirmation outside of Christ. Even as Josh broadcasts falling away from the Christian faith, he goes on to offer an apology to the LGBTQ community, writing,

“I want to say that I am sorry for the views that I taught in my books and as a pastor regarding sexuality. I regret standing against marriage equality, for not affirming you and your place in the church, and for any ways that my writing and speaking contributed to a culture of exclusion and bigotry.” 

No doubt Josh’s apology is motivated by a sincere desire to extend love. He is acting on desires and themes he learned, believed, and preached as both a pastor and a Christian. Christ himself came to love the unlovable, to extend grace to those desperately needing it, to shine light where only darkness once reigned. Though we’re not always great at it, humans feel deep in their bones the desire to be loved and accepted, and to extend the same to others. And there may be real places where apology to the individuals in the LGTBQ community is necessary. Every human should be valued and respected as a fellow image-bearer of God. 

With that said, Josh’s apology brings up a timely and relevant issue: Misconstrued righteousness. As Reformed Christians, we are taught and believe that true righteousness comes only through Christ. We affirm that, in our mysterious union with Christ, his righteousness becomes our righteousness. As Paul writes, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). We who could do no good on our own must cling to Christ; only then will we have the righteousness needed to stand confidently before God. Christ is our affirmation and commendation before the Father. Righteousness is found only in the Person of Christ; we need not pursue affirmation from any other than Christ alone. 

In today’s culture, however, there is another supposed means of righteousness–what I will call “worldly righteousness.” I understand that the term “worldly” gets thrown around, so allow me to attempt a definition: By worldly, I have in mind the whole of the philosophies and ideas that coalesce in order to form a particular godless and humanistic worldview. In short, I mean the Zeitgeist, or spirit of the age. For instance, Christians believe that joy is found only in glorifying God through making him Lord and obeying his Word. The Zeitgeist claims that joy is found only in self-independence, self-affirmation, and self-love (these are the actual words used). This is a righteousness wholly distinct from Christian righteousness, acquired in whatever way the current age deems to be right and good and honorable.

Here is where Josh’s recent post is helpful. He articulates this worldly righteousness regarding the very complex and difficult issue of LGBTQ tolerance and acceptance. According to the Zeitgeist, real righteousness, robust wisdom, and authentic love are found in the total acceptance and praise of another’s lifestyle. To remain “in” with the world, one must adhere to and affirm what the world adheres to and affirms. And Josh has decided to do this, trading the truth of God’s Word for the philosophy of the age. He has traded Scripture’s definition of holiness and goodness for the holiness and goodness of the world. Specifically, he has traded Scripture’s clear teaching regarding the sin of homosexuality for the teaching of the world which deems this perfectly good, holy, and beneficial. 

For this decision, he has gained, in a sense, the whole world. He has earned the world’s respect for his authenticity and honest struggle against old confines. He will have new friends affirming, encouraging, and welcoming him with open arms. And these new friends will declare him righteous. 

Josh’s story matters for Christians, because his temptation to worldly righteousness will become the ever-increasing temptation for every believer. The decision lies between two ways of righteousness: The biblical way finds the alien righteousness of Christ accounted unto the believer as a gift; the worldly way finds the self-declared and mutually-affirmed righteousness of the world… at the cost of forsaking biblical truth. And in the eyes of the world, that cost just a few archaic and intolerant ideas. 

The pressure to accept this cost is already mounting; whether in journalism, social media, or entertainment, there is an ever-ballooning pressure to become a friend of the world. If you do, you gain the world’s affirmation, its welcome, and access to its table. You get to be on the inside. Most people want to be “in,” something that C.S. Lewis wrote about in his essay, “The Inner Ring.” In this case, accepting the worldly righteousness is the way to become (what Lewis calls) an “inner ringer,” reassured that you are “in” with the world. And that will be your reward.

Jesus had something to say about this decision in Matthew’s Gospel. After telling his disciples that the cost of following him would mean bearing their own crosses, he turns and asks a rhetorical question:

“For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” (Matt. 16:26).

We know this is a rhetorical question because the answer for Jesus is obvious: There is zero profit in gaining the whole world. For Jesus, the profit at stake is eternal life with himself, enjoying eternal fullness of love with God. Earlier in Matthew, Jesus made the point that for their hollow good works, the Pharisees “have received their reward” (6:2). That reward was the praise of people. The profit for gaining the whole world works the same way. For joining hands with the world, a person gains the fickle praise of other people, and that’s all. It is just as Chaucer illustrated in The House of Fame: The praise of people amounts to nothing more than having your name etched in a wall of ice. 

For his apology, Joshua Harris gets his name added to that wall of ice. A similar offer stands open to us all. In whose affirmation and commendation will you rest your soul? In whose righteousness will you stake your profit? These are the questions before us. May we consider well our answer. 


Kevin Vollema is pursuing his Master of Divinity at Reformed Theological Seminary. He is also an intern at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi.


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