There are only two ways to live: one leads to death, the other to eternal life. However, Christians share with non-Christians a great desire to find a third way.
The non-Christians want to have a third way for a variety of reasons. They don’t want to follow the amoral Atheists in their godless meaninglessness. They want a bit of God and God’s way but they also want to live in rebellion against God. They do not understand sin as relational rebellion against God but think of it as doing something immoral. So they do not believe that they are sinners, deserving condemnation. Thus, the idea of living wholly for Christ sounds like ‘religious extremism’ – and in our culture ‘religious extremism’ is, by definition, wrong.
Our society refuses to differentiate between religions; all religions are to be tolerated; all religions are simply a matter of opinion. The Prince of Wales wants to change the title “Defender of the Faith” to “Defender of Faith”. We don’t want to be questioned about which religion is right or which one is wrong – they are all right or they are all wrong, or they are all matters of opinion – but there is not one that is true or any particular religion that is wrong.
So with this failure to differentiate between the religions, our society has accepted any religion, provided it is not really believed or taken seriously by its followers. Devotion, zeal, passion is most undesirable in religious life today. Thus ‘religious extremism’ is the unforgiveable sin. The religious extremists are assumed to be the brainwashed cult members gullibly accepting any superstition and going to war to defend their bizarre views of the world.
So non-Christians want a third way between the extremes of the New Atheists and the passionate evangelicals: some third way between rebellion against God and submission to the Lordship of Jesus.
Christians also want a third way to live. We know and accept that Jesus is the Lord of heaven and earth for that is a core part of the gospel message. Accepting him as Lord and Saviour in our conversion is one thing, but living for him as our Lord and King seems to be a step too far.
Being zealous for good works (Titus 2:14), devoting ourselves as living sacrifices to God (Romans 12:1) sounds a little excessive. “Zealots”, “sacrifice” are not words of our culture, but of religious extremism. It makes us rather weird in the eyes of our society. We wind up with a life that is so different to those around us that we become alienated from our culture. Evangelistically we fear losing contact with our neighbours and our society thus making it hard to have enough in common to share the saving news of Jesus. Less nobly, we are afraid of being rejected, put down, discriminated against, ridiculed, or marginalised because of our beliefs.
So Christians are often tempted, by the fear of persecution and the sweetness of seduction, to compromise their service of Jesus. We look for a way to be Christian and worldly at the same time; to hang on to those parts of the world’s ways that are not sinful but not Christian either. We do not bring all under the Lordship of Jesus but retain some parts of our lives without him.
Some have lighted on the command of Jeremiah 29:7 to “seek the welfare (Hebrew “peace”) of the city” as a basis for living for our present world – and city. But the prosperity gospel is never consistent with the blessing of the poor who will inherit the kingdom of God (Luke 6:20) for it is only the miracle of the God of the impossible that the rich person can enter the kingdom (Luke 18:25f) and there are not many of noble birth, wisdom or power who are called into God’s kingdom (1 Corinthians 1:26f).
Jeremiah has some relevance for the subject of working in the fallen world which is under the impending judgement of God. However, it is hardly the paradigm for a doctrine of work and ‘career’ or state-church relationships or how to engage in the world of commerce and finance today. It says nothing of our responsibility for the needs of the world and the poor of other nations. It doesn’t have world evangelism in sight and can only be a small part of the discussion of the relationship of world mission and social action.
Jeremiah wrote this command, not as some grand scheme for Babylon’s peace, welfare or salvation, but for the benefit of the exiles. Babylon was wicked and, while used by God to punish Judah, was itself so evil as to deserve and receive the judgement of God. Babylon was not going to be saved by having its enslaved Jews living for its welfare and was not going to find God’s peace except in as much as it would be helpful for the exiles.
The passage is about false prophets promising the exiles a false hope of immediate release. Jeremiah’s message was that there would be no rescue for 70 years, so, settle down and create a life for yourselves in Babylon as you wait for the rescue (and the destruction of Babylon). The welfare of Babylon was not the point but simply a matter of self-interest for the Jews. Babylon’s welfare would help them endure the 70 years and prepare a people ready to return to rebuild Jerusalem. Surprisingly, the future of God’s people did not lie in those left behind by the Babylonians in Judea but in the slaves who were taken captive in Babylon.
We need to look into the Bible to rightly understand our way of living in this world, as we await our Lord and Saviour who rescues us from the wrath to come. For, there are only two ways – the broad road of destruction and the narrow road of life. So we must be wary of our own sinful desire and the world’s pressure to find a third way to live. Our work and our community activity is not a third way. God’s way to live is through zealous submission to our Lord.