Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins, so that he might deliver us from this present, evil age according to the will of our God and Father, to him be glory forever and ever, Amen.
Doom and GloomMany moons ago, I was a teenager in a small church located in the rural southern United States. I remember how the older members of the congregation used to lament the decay of American society. They talked often about how evil the world was—and about how it was getting worse every day.
Even then, this kind of talk made me uncomfortable. Somehow, I understood that it was the often ill-informed complaint of one generation against another. I am much older now, and I realize that it was also a coping mechanism for people who just could not adapt to the rapid social change that was sweeping across the American landscape.
Nevertheless, I find myself in the same position as my forbearers these days. I regularly complain about the sorry state of American political and social institutions, and I just as regularly prophesy doom upon the country if things do not change for the better.
Seeing Things the Way They Really Are
So was I wrong about those old saints? Did they see something that I did not? Or have I given into the dark side and forgotten the wisdom of my youth? I think that we find an answer in Paul’s greeting to his Galatian churches. The fact is that the present age is, in fact, “evil.”
One of the really interesting things about turning our attention to Christ is that it helps us to see things the way that they really are. Notice that Paul’s appraisal of “the age” comes explicitly in the context of a summary of Christ’s saving work. Focusing on who Jesus is and what he does helps us see that we need him, and it helps us to see why.
As Paul went on to say in Romans 5, people are normally not even willing to sacrifice themselves for someone who deserves it. Instead, they sacrifice others for their own, unjustified gain. This is the operating principle that governs the “powers” Paul talks about in Galatians 4, and, even though we help to create these powers by the ways in which we act, we find ourselves oppressed by the very powers that we helped to create.
Changing the Equation
The context in which Paul gives us this reality check is important, for from it we learn that the way things are is not Paul’s main point. Nor should it be. Jesus “gave himself” in order to “deliver” us from “the present, evil age.” Our sins put us in this mess. Christ bailed us out—at a very high cost. And Paul spends the rest of the letter unpacking how we should respond to this good news.
N. T. Wright would correctly warn us not to think about the deliverance that Christ has won for us in terms of a cosmic jail break. Deliverance is from “the present, evil age,” not from “the world.” Paul’s eschatological framework helps us to see his point. Christ did what he did so that we might be rescued from the power that dominates human life as it currently is. The argument of the letter implies that we are to imitate Christ’s example by giving ourselves sacrificially to one another and for the good of those around us. The “powers” may persecute us; they may even kill us. But they have no power over us. We don’t have to do what they say, and they cannot deprive us of the inheritance that is ours through Christ.
Overcoming Evil with Good
In Romans 12:21, Paul writes, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” That is precisely what we should do as we reflect upon all that Christ has done for us. So many people seem to be acting out of prejudice motivated by the color of a person’s skin or the color of their uniform. It can be tempting to fight their prejudices with our own. Free and easy sex is so readily available. We can watch it happen on our devices, or we can use those devices to bring it to our door. It can be tempting to just give in, to just indulge our curiosity and satisfy our desire.
But these are not the responses to which Christ calls us. Our job is to confront the powers that seduce and enslave humanity and to expose them for what they really are. Of course, the powers will not just sit by and let us liberate their prey. They killed Jesus; they will kill us, too, if they can. But, in so doing, they will show their true nature, and our message will be all the more effective.
- How do we acknowledge the inherent dignity that humans possess while at the same time doing justice to the extent of sin’s control over people and their institutions? Does the Reformed concept of “total depravity” help us do this, or has this concept led to an imbalanced understanding of the human predicament?
- How do we bear effective witness to the fraudulent nature of “the powers” when we ourselves are tempted by what they have to offer?
- How can the church heed N. T. Wright’s call for a comprehensive gospel without devolving into just one more pressure group vying for power in the political arena?