Romans 1:16, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”
The Age of Authenticity
There is a growing and troubling trend in the Christian community. This trend encourages its followers to be true to themselves, to shed friends who don’t embrace what they embrace, and to celebrate their flaws. Additionally, followers of this view of the Christian life are taught to count all of these traits as virtues, to shun absolutes and cling to whatever gives immediate gratification, no matter the lasting consequences to them or their families. Such an age is one of authenticity for seemingly authenticity sake.
The desire for authenticity is not in and of itself immoral; in fact, the opposite is true. Authentic, in its base definition, means to be genuine. Therefore, to be an authentic Christian is to be a genuine Christian which is good. We should strive to make our calling and election sure, as Peter writes in 1 Peter 2:10.
Most movements, this one included, originate as a response to something else. It seems this age originated in the desire not to hold false piety, not to be hypocritical, but to be genuine in faith.
This movement saw the Christian faith not as a religion, but as a relationship. There is deep truth in that. We worship a personal God, not a force. This took the shape of pastors, mainly youth pastors, telling students that “Jesus is my Friend,” which later changed to a “Jesus is my Homeboy” T-shirts being sold at Christian concerts.
A Shift in What it Means to be Authentic
This movement toward living an authentic life began well enough: a response against false piety, namely, a false sense of superiority. It saw through the façade of superficial holiness and peered into the ugly lives of people who lived with false holiness and wanted none of it.
However, it has since degraded into conflating false piety with true holiness, shunning both where it should have shunned the former and embraced the latter.
This age of authenticity sees any form of holiness, of realizing sin in their own lives, repenting, and working, by the Spirit, to live a godly, righteous, and sober life, as anathema to being an authentic Christian.
This has come about by a subtle shift in the cultural definition of authentic. To be authentic now means to “be true to yourself.” I remember sitting in youth group growing up. We met in the second story of a downtown antique store. We called it affectionately, “The Loft.” On certain Wednesday nights, instead of delivering a short sermon, our Youth Minister would turn down the lights and the gathered group would quiet with anticipation. The latest Nooma video was about to be played. Rob Bell would tell us that God’s love for us in the cross sets the “forgiver” free, rather than the “forgiven.” He would tell us Peter started sinking in the sea, not because he lost faith in Christ, but he lost faith in Christ’s faith in him. It was very man-centered, but we ate it up. It was great production value, and Bell had, and still does, have a way with communication. But what is implied in this teaching is to be true to yourself and make no apologies or repentance for your sin.
That is the subtle and dangerous alteration to the definition that infects many in the church today. Like an infection that seeps in through the cracks of a person, this age has seeped into the church through the cracks of a diminished focus on adhering to sound doctrine, an overemphasis on emotion, and most notably, the downplaying of living a holy and righteous life in the midst of this world.
This infection spread through those weaknesses and has affected this generation, who grew up being taught that a simple five- to fifteen-minute time reading Scripture and praying was sufficient to grow in their relationship with God. Additionally, such Christians were taught words in worship songs didn’t matter as much as the emotional experience that was evoked, and that an emotional experience was most to be desired – if emotions were stirred, the soul was alive.
The Lonely Fruit of the Age of Authenticity
We are witnessing the fruit of this type of teaching and preaching in Protestant churches. If emotions matter more than doctrine, when the world makes an emotional appeal against sound doctrine, against God’s good created order, those without the solid foundation of sound doctrine soon veer off to align with the world against the church, for whom Christ died.
Youths who grew up in these types of churches were ill-equipped to respond rightly to the new definition of authentic, which is why we see an embrace, mainly by those who have moved to identify with the “progressive” church, to anything the culture deems as good.
Denying oneself is one of the central themes of the Christian walk (Matthew 16:24), but embracing yourself is the central theme of this age of authenticity. This age says that even to say you struggle with any sexual sin at all is an admission that you are not being “true to yourself.” You are not being authentic. If you are authentic, you would not simply confess your sexual sin, you would embrace it as an integral part of who you are.
But living an authentic life should not trump living a holy one. Confessing our sins should not lead to celebrating them.
The strangeness of this age comes not from the desire to live under a new definition of authenticity, rather, because of its cognitive dissonance. It preaches empowerment, but the message itself is defeatist. With one side of its mouth, it tells people they can be whoever they want to be: male, female, and anything in-between, love who they want to love: again, male, female, and anything in-between; but with the other side it proclaims people can’t change who they are: humans are, “born this way.”
It is at once gnostic and sensual, dogmatic and pragmatic: you can’t change who you are, but you can become whatever you want you want to be.
Why is this age antithetical to the gospel? Because it denies the power, the gospel brings (2 Timothy 3:5). It says Christ died for our sins, but our sins are no longer sins because we were born with them and can’t change them. Christ can raise us from the dead, but He can’t make us sinless. Therefore, to continue in these seemingly unchangeable sins is to be desired, because the real aim of being a Christian is to be authentic.
It also contradicts a central command in Scripture to “Be Holy as I am Holy” (1 Peter 1:16). If holiness is to be shunned in this new age, any Christian who seeks to adhere to it stands in direct contrast to God’s express command.
Christ died on the cross to reconcile us to God and each other (Ephesians 2:11-15), so to deny the power of the cross denies the reconciliation Christ brought with it. This denial leads only to loneliness and despair. Unity cannot be arrived at without the power of Christ. So when disagreements inevitably arise, people further divide, which leads to lonely people.
Since the movement for authentic lives stressed by Christianity as an individual relationship with Christ, it inevitably led to believing Christians didn’t need anything resembling organized religion, namely the regular gathering of the saints to worship through song, the hearing of the preached Word, and the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
Thus, unfortunately, the fruit of this age is loneliness, which has become an epidemic.
Without beleaguering the point, this, I think, has led to this current moment of division and loneliness rampant in the world. A society living in cognitive dissonance cannot hope to thrive, much less survive for long. Neither can churches that co-opt this cognitively dissonant worldview.
Sin is the Disease; the Gospel is the Cure
Churches should instead strive to answer the culture with the gospel and a biblical understanding of humanity. A biblical view of humanity understands humanity has been stained with sin through the Fall. Though we still bear the Imago Dei, that image was marred by our sin, which brought with it disconnect and enmity with not only God our Creator, but also with one another, and the entire created order.
Our mind, body, and soul, became depraved as a result of the Fall; there is racism, classism, sexism, and most notably, open war has marked most of our history; we get sick, old, and die; we are born dead in our sins, unable to give ourselves life. Scientists need to find the “patient zero” in order to develop a cure, so a world that doesn’t understand the cause for our disunity can never hope to find the cure for it. Thus, its answers always fall short, always miss the mark, and never are able to truly fulfill the longings of a lonely heart.
Human beings with eternal souls cannot find true contentment in a passing world marked by sin and death. We long for the new, we long to be remade, we long for the world to come, the world that never ends.
Therefore, the gospel is the answer that undergirds all the longings and desires this or any, culture has. The gospel of Jesus is His life, death, and resurrection on behalf of human sinners that reconciled us not only with God but also with each other (Ephesians 2:11-20) so that the diversity of the world can be truly united. That is found only in Christ alone.
The gospel is the always relevant answer because it comes from eternity, making it eternally relevant. The human soul has not changed since the Fall, so the answer to what can make it whole again never changes either. The only thing which changes is how we present this truth, echoing Paul, who became “all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22).
The gospel, again, is the only true and lasting answer to our quest to be authentic and to live in the community. The gospel, or more specifically, the implications of the gospel – those who are saved will be in real community found in the local church – as the solution. The gospel at once humbles and exalts us; it reveals that it took the death of the very Son of God to pay for our sin, then it tells us Christ willingly came for us, and God Himself works in and through us for His good pleasure.
That’s the power of the gospel. It takes lowly, wretched, God-hating sinners and makes them alive: a new creature with a new heart that longs after God. That is a power the world hates and it is a power we should never be ashamed of presenting to the world as Christians.
Humans cannot truly flourish while living in discord with their Creator. Thankfully, though we sinned, and still do, God has graciously provided us with the only way home, which is found in Christ alone. Only in Christ can we flourish, only in Christ can we be true to who we are, created in Him for good works (Ephesians 2:10), and only in the very Son of God can we truly live an authentic life.