Sacred, Worldly, and Common

Dear Church Family,

This past Sunday, in the first sermon in our series in the book of Genesis, I emphasized the “spiritual antithesis” which exists between believers and unbelievers. One of the key elements of this spiritual antithesis that we talked about was presuppositions. Believers and unbelievers have different presuppositions when they are seeking after truth. Unbelievers presuppose that things like their experiences or expert opinion are foundational to understanding truth. In contrast, believers presuppose that the Triune God exists and that He has spoken to us in the Scriptures. Therefore, those who are born of God presuppose that the Scriptures are true, while those who are not born of God have other presuppositions.

In speaking to this distinction between believers and unbelievers, the Bible often uses the term “the world” to speak of unbelievers. Sometimes, “the world” may simply refer to the earth, or all humanity in general (e.g. John 1:10; 3:16). In other contexts, “the world” refers to the unregenerate, unbelieving part of humanity which is opposed to Christ and His Church (e.g. John 15:18; 17:14: Romans 12:2). In fact, though I haven’t done a precise word-count, it seems to me that this latter use is the predominant one.

This is an important teaching of Scripture. There are only two kinds of people on this planet: those who are “born of God” and those who are “of the world” (1 John 4:1-8). This was one of the main emphases of the sermon this past Sunday. One thing that I did not address on Sunday, however, was the importance of a third category when thinking and speaking of things other than people. While still maintaining the biblical, two-fold distinction between people (regenerate and unregenerate), it is helpful to think about a three-fold distinction in other areas: sacred, secular, and worldly. Let me explain.

Sacred

According to Merriam-Webster, the first definition of “sacred” is “dedicated or set apart for the service or worship of a deity.” To use a biblically term, those things which are “sacred” may also be called “holy.” According to this definition, we can call certain people “sacred” or “holy” (i.e. believers). But, we may also apply this definition to other things. The Lord’s Day (Sunday) may be called “sacred.” And, we may even call some of the things that Christians do “sacred” (e.g., Sunday morning worship, family and private worship, etc.). We may also apply this term to certain vocations and offices. Ministers, elders, and deacons in the church are called to sacred offices in which they perform sacred functions.

Unfortunately, when people think about the term “sacred,” they often think in terms of the time-worn debates between “sacred” and “secular” music. In this debate, one side tends to argue that sacred is good and secular is bad, while the other side tends to argue that we ought to make no such distinctions between the two with respect to music. I won’t try to wade into that debate at this point, but would simply like to make this distinction: some things are rightly deemed “sacred” in that they are dedicated or set apart for the service or worship of God.

Worldly

Typically in the Scriptures, “the world” refers to sinful, immoral things – those things which are opposed to God. Jesus taught His disciples that because they have been chosen out of the world, the world hates them (John 15:19). Paul writes that we should not be conformed to this world (Romans 12:2). He also exhorts Titus to teach believers to deny ungodliness and worldly desires (Titus 2:12).

Again, sometimes the term “world” in Scripture is amoral, referring simply to the created order or humanity. In this sense it is not good or evil, it just is. However, in Scripture, the terms “world” and “worldly” often do carry a moral connotation. And so, John Newton could write in Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken, “Saviour, if of Zion's city I through grace a member am, Let the world deride or pity, I will glory in Thy name: Fading is the worldling's pleasure, All his boasted pomp and show: Solid joys and lasting treasure, None but Zion's children know.”

Thus far then, we have these two biblical categories of sacred (holy) and worldly (sinful). These are good and appropriate categories when we are thinking in terms of people. There are only two kinds of people: those who are born of God are sacred (holy) and those who are not born of God are worldly (sinful).

But now, here’s the rub. In order to think and speak about things other than people (things like art, culture, or vocation) we need a third category. Certainly some aspects of art, culture, and vocation fall into one of these first two categories. We may rightly say that some aspects of art (pornography), culture (slavery), and vocation (prostitution) are worldly and sinful. And, we may rightly say that some aspects of art (hymnody), culture (worship), and vocation (church office) are sacred or holy. But, what about those things that don’t necessarily fit neatly into one of these two categories? For that we need a third category.

Common

Unfortunately, though the true definition doesn’t bear this out, many people equate the term “secular” with the term “worldly.” Because of this, and because of the heated “sacred-secular” debates, instead of the term “secular” I prefer the term “common.” Technically, I use “common” as a synonym for “secular,” but because of all the baggage associated with the latter term, let’s just stick with common.

In labeling something “common,” I refer to those things which are neither “sacred” nor “worldly” – neither holy nor sinful in and of themselves. A helpful way to think about this is to think about those things which both believers and unbelievers share in common. When I listen to classic rock on the radio, that is not necessarily a sacred or a worldly endeavor; however, it is something which I may enjoy together with an unbeliever. When I attend a baseball game, I am participating in a cultural activity which is neither sacred nor worldly; however, it is something which I may enjoy together with an unbeliever. When I served as an infantry officer in the army, I shared that vocation with unbelievers who were also serving for the defense of our country.

This is not to say that there isn’t a difference between how a Christian listens to music, enjoys a baseball game, or works in his or her vocation. There is indeed a difference, but it is not an objective difference, but a subjective one. Indeed, the Bible exhorts all Christians to do everything that they do as unto the Lord: “Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance. It is the Lord Christ whom you serve” (Colossians 3:23-24). Thus, when a Christian serves in the military, or shops in the grocery story, enjoys a baseball game, changes a diaper, or fixes a sink in their vocation as a plumber, we are commanded to do so as though we were serving Christ, not men, and certainly not ourselves.

At the same time, these things may be called “common” in that the Christian shares them with unbelievers. Subjectively, the believer and the unbeliever will engage in these activities with different motives and from a different heart. Objectively, however, because the Bible doesn’t tell the proper way to change a diaper or fix a sink, these are what we may call “common” activities.

Conclusion

There are several reasons for my writing about the concept of “the common” at this point. For one thing, it is one of the concepts that we learn in the book of Genesis. In Genesis 4, we will learn about those of the line of Cain (the unbelieving line) who are the ones who are the city-builders, musicians, and the forgers of bronze and iron implements. These are activities which the believers shared in common with the unbelievers.

More importantly, however, I want to protect us – as a church – from two erroneous and opposite extremes that may ensue from the understanding of the spiritual antithesis which exists between believers and unbelievers. Both erroneous extremes understand that “the world” is opposed to Christ and His people, but one seeks to withdraw while the other seeks to transform. On the one extreme, some believers try to create Christian cultural ghettos – to withdraw from the world and carve out “sacred niches” for ourselves. On the other extreme, some believers try to “Christianize” every form of art, culture, or vocation – to transform the common into the sacred.

There is much more that could be said concerning the importance of understanding the three categories of sacred, worldly, and common. And, wisdom is necessary for applying these categories to the life of the Church and the life of the Christian. However, I have found that these categories are extremely helpful in thinking about the work of the Church, the life of individual believers, and our witness to the world.

Understanding the category of “the common” maintains the distinctiveness of the Christian witness, while continuing to be salt and light in the world (Matthew 5:13-15). In order to maintain our saltiness, we must remember the spiritual antithesis which exists between believers and unbelievers – between the sacred and the worldly. However, in order for our saltiness to be effective, we must also engage in common activities – live in the world, even as we are not of the world (John 17:15-16).

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch