After Darkness, Light
The motto of the Protestant Reformation was post tenebras lux, a Latin phrase which means, "after darkness, light." Indeed, it seems as if Providence engineered it so that all of history operates in this pattern. Just as the late medieval period was home to quite a few dark heretics and heresies, so it also birthed the light of the great Reformers and their Reformation. While we should detest any medieval heresies, we must also recognize that there was something inherent in that cultural setting that ensured the rapid growth of Protestant doctrine. Darkness cannot last forever, and, when it appears, it only invites the resurrection of light. The beauty of a sunrise is often only realized if there is a preceding darkness.
So it is with culture and redemption. We all have our idealistic dreams of how a restored Christian culture would look. However, the fact that this is twenty-first century America, a land steeped in a new form of barbarism, should not make us despair if we have faith in the Redeemer of the world. That the world is over its head in a sea of sin should only make us hold our breath to see what plan God has implemented to save it, and how He will display His power for all humanity to behold. After the fullness of time, that plan was set in motion. The Son of God came to earth in human form, and the rulers of the age shook in terror.
It would be an inexcusable mistake to assume that the course of history remained unaltered after this redemption of Christ. Albert Wolters wrote in his concise book, Creation Regained, that the redemption of Christ is "cosmic in the sense that it restores the whole creation." During the ages prior to the Incarnation, the light of redemption was contained to a tiny strip of land along the Mediterranean Sea. The nation of Israel was relatively small in size and, although during David's and Solomon's reigns it had achieved great power and prosperity, its history was generally marked by sorrow, persecution, and, often, unfaithfulness to God. Yet, God promised that our age — the New Covenant — would be different. Creation as a whole would indeed be Creation Regained.
In Jeremiah 31, the New Covenant is described as an age in which Israel would never forget its Lord (v. 32), an age in which the law of God would be written on the heart (v. 33), and an age in which the knowledge of the Lord would be universal (v. 34). The sun had risen and would never set. It is this image of expansion and universality that characterizes the whole of New Testament Scripture. Whereas before the tiny remnant of Israel was the recipient of salvation, now, as we have seen, the world is saved (Jn. 3:17).
Defining The "World"
So now the inevitable question arises: How do we define "world"? Being good American individualists, we might be tempted to say that it is defined as every single person who lives on the third planet from the sun. Therefore, the salvation of the world would mean that all individuals who live during the New Covenant are saved the position also known as universalism. Yet, we know from other Scripture passages that this is blatantly untrue. So in order to avoid this heresy, we do a back-step and argue that when Christ said He came to save the world, "save" — didn't really mean "save" only a chance at salvation. The problem with these explanations is that they both operate on supposition of individualism — i.e., that everything revolves around individual self, and not the covenantal assembly. In effect, they presuppose that the Bible is founded on Enlightenment thinking.
Yet Scripture is primarily a great redemptive history, beginning with the account of Eden and progressing to the end of time. If we fail to take this into account, we will inevitably fall into whatever faddish worldview currently holds sway. We must view our culture through a redemptive and covenantal lens. We should look to see how "the world" has been defined throughout redemptive history. If we do so, we will find that the "world" has fallen into misery because of the curse. We find that the created "world" groans for redemption (Rom. 8:22). In the New Covenant, we see the realization of the salvation of the "world" — that is, the created order.
It must be noted that this view of the world as spiritual Creation does not dissolve all visible and individual realities into a thin vapor. The effects of the world's salvation are quite real. In 2 Corinthians 3, Paul teaches us that prior to the New Covenant, the glory of God and His salvation were "veiled." The glory was present, but not seen in its fullness. Yet now the veil is taken away (vv. 14-16). How can the unveiled glory of God not make its presence known?
The New Covenant Age
To bring this matter down to a practical and historical level, it is this age of the New Covenant that has seen the greatest progress in cultural knowledge and excellence. To a significant extent, this progress has been spurred onward by Christendom. Of course, God's common grace allows even the heathen to increase their cultural knowledge for the good of the elect. Yet it is a plain fact of history that those regions touched by the truths of heaven are the same regions touched by cultural greatness. Heaven called the tribes of Britannia, Caledonia, Germania, and Gaul and they answered with repentance. They laid aside their gods of the forest to embrace the God of the world. And having received their inheritance as co-heirs of Christ, they were free to labor in His garden. And up grew the harvest of culture.
The very nature of redemption forces salvation to extend throughout the earth — it cannot be stopped. But its extension is not only in breadth, but in depth. That is, as the gospel of our Lord spreads throughout the world conquering pagan tribes, it also must penetrate paganism to its very root. Culture based on paganism must be transformed into culture based on the Word of God. If a pagan tribe is skilled in the crafting of wooden idols, their skill must be transformed into the crafting of magnificent cathedrals. If a pagan is known for his fierce shrieks when he rushes to battle, his voice must be trained to sing the praises of God.
It would be an insult to God's power to say that His redemption is not as effective as the curse wrought by the serpent. It would be contradicting the Word of God to hold that the victory of the second Adam was not as comprehensive as the defeat of the first (Rom. 5:12-21). As the hymn says,
No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found.
Through one man death reigned, not only in the soul, but in all of life. So also through one Man life was once more given to all. If sin touches the realms of art, government, and literature, cannot Christ's redemption do so as well? In His resurrection, Christ showed that He had power over death, and also power to give lasting life. If, as one social commentator said, ours is a culture of death, then we, as Christ's ambassadors, represent the culture of life. We can have faith that just as the sun always rises, so our labors will not be in vain. The dawn of redemption will come.