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Christian Influence in the Public Square

What's needed for our time is a Christian witness rooted in sound doctrine, that has a worldview robust enough to answer the questions society is asking, lived out of an ethic of integrity and characterized by a pilgrim spirit that recognizes we're not trying to build a city here below but that we seek one to come.

Why be involved in the public square? Involvement in the public square is a doxological imperative. We are to live lives to the honour and glory of God. We must be involved as providence gives us opportunity and as our gifts allow us.


Building biblical foundations must begin with creation. God did not just create the physical creation; in Genesis 1 we have an account of the creation of all the potential of creation. Technology is there in Genesis 1, just as much as the mountains. It doesn't matter how many times you go to Kananaskas, you are overwhelmed by the grandeur and glory of the Creator as you look at creation. But it is equally the glory of the Creator that allows us to fly in an airplane or to go into space or for a computer to work. That technology, all that we have, the works of art, the great things that mankind has been able to do, are the result of God's good creation.

According to Genesis 1:26, the image of God in mankind created in His image-is an essential aspect of the creation. To quote Herman Bavinck,

Just as God did not reveal Himself all at once at the creation but continues and expands that revelation from day to day and from age to age so also the image of God is not a static entity but extends and unfolds itself in the forms of both space and time. It is both a gift and a mandate. It is an undeserved gift of grace that was given to the first human being immediately at the creation but at the same time it is the grounding principle and germ of an altogether rich and glorious development. Only humanity in its entirety -as one complete organism, summed up under a single head, spread out over the whole earth as prophet proclaiming the truth of God, as priest dedicating itself to God and as ruler controlling the earth and the whole of creation-only it is the fully finished image, the most telling and striking likeness of God.

We must be involved in the public square because it is part of our humanity as an image-bearer of God to be a creator-to develop the earth. There is an imperative but it's also of our essence. It is who we are. To not do it is to not be truly and fully human.

Another important aspect of the creation that we need to pay attention to is the diversity that is built within the creation. God created the animals "after their kind" (Genesis 1:25). He didn't just create one animal. He created various types of birds, various types of mammals and various types of insects; but He also created those different categories. There is a diversity within the creation. There are different aspects or functions built within the creation. Within that diversity there are also different spheres: art, business, philosophy, technologies, etc.

There are three things that come from the image of God. First of all, that man has a special place and calling as an image-bearer of God; secondly, man has a special capacity to create, develop and reason as no other crearure does; and thirdly, there is, before the Fall, the doxological imperative. Man was created to tend the garden so that God would be glorified. And that's given to us in the very clear cultural mandate of Genesis 1:28. We have a very clear task to carry out. Of course, to describe the glory of the creation and the task given to man in the creation takes us only through the first page or so of Scripture.


After Genesis 1 comes Genesis 2 and in Genesis 3 we have the Fall. What is important to note about the Fall is the non-human impacts of the Fall. Often, we only recognize the fact that as a result of the Fall we are depraved, sinful people that only by the grace of God can we be reconciled through the finished work of ]esus Christ. But as a result of the Fall, the creation itself became broken. Thorns and thistles began to grow. Carnivores began to kill other animals for their food.

There was also an impact on man as an image-bearer of God. All of a sudden, our work, which in the Garden of Eden was a delight because it was done to the honour and glory of God, became toil. Our work, very quickly, had the wrong focus. We began to work for our paycheque. When the first cities were built, they were named after Cain and his descendants. We no longer worked to the honour and glory of God. The Fall resulted in an idolatry in which man put himself in the place of God. Ultimately, idolatry is selfishness.

There are two aspects of that idolatry which came into the human condition as a result of the Fall. First of all, we had a self-determined view of authority. Ultimately, wasn't that at the heart of the sin? Eve chose to listen to Satan and trust his word over God's word. And that has continued on since the Fall in the Garden and now we all, to a greater or lesser degree, bow to idols made with human hands.

We also have a selfish motive toward our fellow man. There's a very utilitarian way that we look at our neighbours. And so the Fall has resulted in a great contrast between our natural condition of selfishness and the call of the law of God, which is a reflection of His own character, to love God above all and our neighbour as ourselves. You can lay those two beside each other and you can see the devastation of the Fall.


If the redemption of]esus Christ only accomplishes the saving of our souls, if it does not undo the curse, not just in terms of the guilt of my sin, but also in terms of the thorns and thistles and the toil, then it is not a perfect redemption. But we need to think of the redemption of Jesus Christ as being a perfect and complete redemption. Grace restores nature. If it isn't that way, then the redemption won't be perfect.

According to Romans 8:22, "We know that the whole creation groans and travails together even until now." As we look at the glory of the future which awaits the children of God, we see a picture painted for us: the new heavens and the new earth in which sin is totally undone and mankind will be able to live out his full task and calling. We're called to witness and to bring every thought captive (that's part of the process of sanctification). We are called to a God-glorifying humanness. So, if we establish the fact that all of creation was created by God for His glory, and if we follow the biblical teaching that the Fall was complete in the sense that all aspects of the creation are impacted by it, then certainly we must also have a grand view of the extent of the redemption. The redemption of Jesus Christ does not just apply to our souls; it applies to our bodies. It applies to the creation, which leads us to our eschatological vision.


Obviously, redemption includes both now and the future but I think it is important, in our time especially, to emphasize glorification and eschatology as a separate point. One cannot help but look at the history of Christian involvement in the public square and see that even among believers, the temptation is very real to build our kingdoms here on the earth and to consider our activism and our causes as somehow critical to the corning of the kingdom of God. As we think of the end times, we are reminded that the project of the kingdom of God is one that He, in His sovereignty, is carrying out over millennia. And whatever role I'm called to play, even if it's a very significant role in history, I have but seventy or eighty years and chances are that my public involvement is only going to be about half of that. So, even if I were the most influential person among the 6 billion people of this earth, I'm here for thirty-five years out of several thousand years of God's working. I play a very small role. We ought to have a humility about our causes that, I fear, is not characteristic, either in our own day, or in the history of Christian involvement in the public square.

Another aspect of redemption is the fact that there is coming a day of judgement. One can enter into conversations in which you are challenged by those who say "You're spending far too much activity worrying about the day-to-day stuff of life. When Christ comes again it's all going to burn." We've all heard that. 2 Peter 3:6-7 says, "Whereby the world that then was being overflowed with water perished but the heavens and the earth which are now by the same word are kept in store, reserved unto fire against the day of judgement and perdition of ungodly men.

What is important to observe about this text is that the fire that's talked about here is not the fire of destruction. In fact, when one goes to the various passages it's the refiner's fire. There is a continuity. God does not come to make new things; He comes and will make all things new. He will renew His creation and that's a very important concept. The calling of the Christian is to work towards being conformed to the image of God - to be who he was originally created to be: an image-bearer of God to live for His glory. What did that perfect image-bearer do before the Fall? He worked in God's good creation. There is a God-glorifying eschatological focus that needs to undergird our activity in the public square.


We should be involved because it's here; because it's what we were put on earth to do - to give glory to God in the world in which we've been placed. The entire cosmos is His. And He will redeem it. When we put the questions of our day in that broad framework, we will find ourselves capable of providing answers which no one else can, also in the public square.

You will notice that I very consciously have tried to avoid a very narrowly political approach, because to me, Christian involvement in the public square is not just about politics even though that has been the watchword and the sphere in which we focus. It is as much about the arts; it is as much about education and philosophy and all the other spheres. God created them all and the full cultivation of that all is part of His honour and glory. Think with me about the calling of the Christian as the calling to live Soli Deo Gloria - to the honour of God - and that provides us every reason to be involved in the public square.

Ray Pennings is the vice president of research for the Work Retearch Foundation (, on emerging public policy think tank whose mission is to influence others to a Christian view of work and public life. This paper was given in Toronto at "Christian Influence in the Public Square," a special Toronto Baptist Seminary 80th anniversary event on October 19, 2007. Recording of this semimar day can be obtained by contacting the Seminary office.