Cultural Sanctification: Engaging the World like the Early Church

The secular turn in the modern age is often compared with the ancient pagan world. In my recent book: Cultural Sanctification: Engaging the World like the Early church, I consider these parallels and how ancient Christians responded. In the following except, I discuss one of the key features that distinguished the Christians from their pagan neighbors: the theological virtue of hope. I explain how the Christian hope motivated Christians to live faithfully in the present world—even a pagan one—and walk with courage through any and every challenge before them. I pray that Christians today can learn from their example, live in hope, and face any challenge with the confidence that Christ is reigning now and one day, Christ will come again in glory to set all things right.


The Christian hope, however, is not merely about the future but also the present. Early Christians understood that the Scriptures call them to a higher moral standard, not just for the sake of fulfilling some command but also because they lived in expectation of a coming judgment and eternal reign of God. There was no shortage of Christian exhortation to live holy lives here and now because Christ was coming again. After all, all moral claims require a narrative substructure; as Alasdair MacIntyre argues, “generally to adopt a stance on the virtues will be to adopt a stance on the narrative character of human life.” Similarly, Wayne Meeks observes that “a particular narrative, consistent in its broad outline though wondrously variable in detail, has been at the heart of the Christian moral vision.” The conviction that God reigns as Ruler and Judge over all motivated early Christians to live virtuously, in accordance with the law of God. “We know of no ruler more kingly or more just than He [the Word of God],” said Justin.

Such exhortations pervade early Christian writings. One of the earliest Christian sermons, a short homily called 2 Clement, urged Christians to “love one another, that we may all come to the kingdom of God.” Later, the same text encourages the faithful, saying, “Let us have faith brothers and sisters! We are competing in the contest of the living God, and are being trained in the present life in order that we may be crowned in the life to come.” Like 2 Clement, Justin assured the emperor that “more than all other men are we your helpers and allies in promoting peace, seeing that we hold this view, that it is alike impossible for the wicked, the covetous, the conspirator, and for the virtuous, to escape the notice of God, and that each man goes to everlasting punishment or salvation according to the value of his actions.” If all people knew and believed in an impending judgment, it would shape the way that they thought about their lives and the world. People would restrain themselves and adorn themselves with virtue in order to “obtain the good gifts of God, and escape the punishments.” Those who wished to avoid punishment from Roman authorities simply tried to avoid detection, said Justin, but no one could hide from the eye of God, so those who confess God to be all-knowing would “live decently on account of the penalties threatened, as even you yourselves will admit.” Ironically, Justin wondered, perhaps the emperor actually feared that all men would become righteous, leaving him with no one to punish. Origen, responding to the pagan Celsus, describes how Christians train their fellow citizens in the godly life and warn them about the coming judgment. He writes that Christians “educate the citizens and teach them to be devoted to God, the guardian of their city; and they take those who have lived good lives in the most insignificant cities up to a divine and heavenly city.” To these who have been faithful to God and dwell within the heavenly city, Origen adds, it will be said of them (citing the words of Ps 82:1, 7), “you were faithful in a very insignificant city; come also to the great city where ‘God stands in the congregation of the gods and judges between the gods in the midst,’ and numbers you even with them, if you no longer ‘die like a man’ and do not ‘fall like one of the princes.’”


The faithful strove to be holy as God is holy precisely because they hoped, one day, to dwell with God in the final kingdom. As detailed in the Epistle to Diognetus in the opening chapter, the church understood a different ending to the story of salvation from the Roman narrative because “Christians live as strangers amidst perishable things, while waiting for the imperishable in heaven.” Christians remembered the wisdom of Job 12:23: “He makes nations great, and he destroys them, he enlarges nations, and leads them away.” Kingdoms will come and go, and nations rise and fall, but the hope of the Lord’s return is the unchanging conviction that guides the faith of the church. There is an end to the Christian story beyond rejection, oppression, and death, because Christ will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead and establish a kingdom that will have no end.

The hope of Christ’s return and the resurrected life also served apologetic and evangelistic aims in the early church. Christians proclaimed that Christ would return in judgment for the sinner and blessing for the faithful. From one vantage point, this can make the early Christian vision of God a “sternly just distributor of rewards and punishments,” but the church was never shy about pointing toward the final judgment. They took their cues from the apostles who often defended the return of Christ and the separation of the righteous and the reprobate. Discussions of judgment are difficult on many levels and not often a welcomed topic of conversation over Sunday-afternoon tea. But for the early church, this was the natural implication of their doctrine of God, and they regularly emphasized the impending divine judgment. God would not leave those who reject him unpunished, or hesitate to bestow upon the faithful untold blessings. The Romans were not concerned about the future judgment, as historian Ramsey MacMullen writes: “Punishment in afterlife received hardly a mention in non-Christian debate. That may have been partly because of disbelief in resurrection of the flesh, but no doubt more because of the general disbelief in immortality of any sort at all.” Christians disturbed this disbelief when they continually reminded their pagan neighbors that there was an end in which Christ would come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.

The announcement of the Lord’s return served an edifying end in the early church as well. Christians, above all people, strove to live peacefully and virtuously knowing that “everyone goes to eternal punishment or salvation in accordance with the character of his acts.” The Athenian Christian philosopher Athenagoras stressed “the moral importance for Christians of their hope for resurrection and a future life.” These entailed “the prospect of judgement for humanity” while at the same time affirming the “value of human existence.” Justin persistently warned his readers about the judgment to come. If everyone took that prospect seriously, “no one would choose wickedness even for a little while, knowing that he goes to the everlasting punishment of fire; but would by all means restrain himself, and order his path with virtue, that he might receive the good gifts of God, and avoid the punishments.” For Justin, this conviction was a key distinguishing mark of the faith.

Justin even warned the emperor, and with him all Romans, saying, “if you also, like thoughtless people, prefer the custom [of persecuting Christians] to truth, do what you have power to do.” But, Justin adds, the Scriptures show that even the emperor has no more ability to thwart the plans of God, then the power “brigands have in a desert.” Justin sensed that the emperor and other political authorities were rightly concerned about the rumors of Christians seeking an earthly kingdom, but he assured them that Christians were looking for something quite different—a divine kingdom where God reigns. The thoughts of Christians were “not fixed on the present,” Justin writes, so they “are not concerned when men cut us off; since also death is a debt which must at all events be paid.” He closed his First Apology, saying, “we forewarn you, that you will not escape the coming judgment of God,” and if injustice continues, he adds, the people of God will cry out, “What is pleasing to God, let that be done.”

Like Justin, other early Christians issued warnings of impending judgment and rewards. Aristides, for example, writes that Christians rejoice when a faithful member of the church dies, because they are only “being transferred from one place to another.” However, when a “sinner dies, they weep bitterly over him, because they know he is sure to be punished.” An apologetic emphasis on the coming judgment is a key feature in 2 Clement:


Let not any one of you say that this our flesh is not judged nor raised again. Consider this: in what were ye saved, in what did ye recover your sight, if not in this flesh? We ought, therefore, to guard our flesh as the temple of God; for in the same manner as ye were called in the flesh, in the flesh also shall ye come. There is one Christ, our Lord who saved us, who being at the first spirit, was made flesh, and thus called us. So also shall we in this flesh receive the reward. Let us, therefore, love one another, that we may all come to the kingdom of God.


But if God has saved his people and those whom he has saved have been given “sight,” they were now to demonstrate this faith through works in the body, so when they stood before God, they could give an account for their works. The abiding emphasis on a future judgment was always tied to the consequences of actions performed in the body.


Perhaps some might debate this approach or its precise wording, but the language of the early church resonates with hope. In the end, Justin realized that this might not be enough, that persuading those who reject the faith was not as easy as writing a few chapters and offering some reasoned defense of Christianity. It is still debated whether the emperor ever saw Justin’s Apology. Perhaps not. But in any case, the text communicates a certain posture toward the emperor and the state based on the abiding conviction that Jesus Christ will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead and establish a kingdom that will have no end. While Justin prayed that the emperor Antonius Pius, or whoever else reads this text, would find the Christian arguments persuasive, he also recognized that the coming kingdom of God did not depend upon the whims of the emperor.


Through all their activities and trials, ancient Christian writings often cycle back to discuss hope. In their debates about how to navigate their cultural moment, Christian hope, like a track running under their feet, led them forward, step by step. Christians look for the coming kingdom of God with hope, and in this hope, they live.


Excerpted from Cultural Sanctification: Engaging the World like the Early Church by Stephen O. Presley ©2024 (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.). Reprinted by permission of the publisher.