As we prepare to welcome 2021 this week, this post is meant to consider how the largely unexpected and unprecedented events of 2020 have impacted us, especially the church and its pastors. May the Lord give us wisdom to keep our eyes fixed on Christ and courage to say so.
At the time of America’s founding, heterodox pastors attacked the doctrine of hell, while many of the Founders appreciated religion for its earthly and civic benefits. A century later, theological liberals exchanged the reality of heaven for the earthly message of the fatherhood of God and brotherhood of mankind. In the last century, prosperity preachers have promised heaven on earth, while many pragmatic pastors have made earthly success as important as—and often more important than—entrance into heaven.
Looking from the past to the present, it shouldn’t surprise us that the message of heaven has been threatened. Going back to Eden, there have always been those who have doubted God’s judgment and misjudged God’s eternal gospel. Movements like the social gospel, the prosperity gospel, and liberation theology have, in various ways, exchanged the glories of heaven for “Christian” messages that focus on the here and now. And always, when heaven is lost, the lost suffer.
Today, we are seeing a de-emphasis on heaven in a new way. Unlike theological liberals who might affirm universalism where everyone goes to heaven or deny the reality of hell, some evangelicals are mis-stepping with heaven on the basis of their ministerial focus. Without abandoning their orthodox confessions, Bible-believing churches are veiling heaven by focusing their attention on matters related to earth.
In 2020, you don’t have to be a “liberal” to downplay heaven in your daily living. You don’t have to preach a message of prosperity to illicitly transport heavenly blessings to earth. You don’t even have to deny Scripture to lose the heavenly mission of the church. In fact, you can hold firmly to the faith and lose heaven by doing nothing at all. The cultural winds of 2020 are that strong! Here’s what I’m getting at: Unless you realize how the events of this year are causing pastors and churches to focus almost exclusively on earthly matters, you will lose heaven—if not its doctrine, than its declaration.
In what follows, I will highlight two cultural winds that are blowing Christians off course. Instead of preaching the glories of heaven and discipling the nations to obey all the Lord of heaven has commanded, churches are being tempted to give all their attention to (1) COVID regulations and (2) social justice. As a result heaven is assumed and not asserted. My argument, then, is that without Spirit-empowered effort, focus on these earthly concerns will cause us to mute the message of heaven. And if this is not corrected by faithful pastors, the reality of heaven—not just its emphasis—may soon be lost by some too.
What 2020 Has Done on Earth to Outposts of Christ’s Heavenly Kingdom
Somewhere in March of this year, COVID blew up the Gospel of John. Or to say it more exactly, our state’s shelter-at-home order led our church to change our 2020 preaching calendar and postpone the heavenly message of John’s Gospel. I suspect ours was not the only church that suffered from the government response to COVID. Like so many, our elders had to reconsider what, when, and how we were preaching.
Two months later, George Floyd’s death and its aftermath pressed our church again to consider something else unexpected. Namely, how to respond to a nation grappling with racial unrest—again. Then, in November, with the only event we had anticipated on January 1, 2020, America experienced one of the most contentious presidential elections in recent history. As we know all too well, we are still feeling its effects.
I mention these three events (COVID, racial unrest, and the presidential election) because they illustrate how matters on earth have impacted the people whose hope is in heaven. Churches are to be outposts of God’s kingdom, which is to say, we are embassies of heaven, planted on earth. As Mark Dever and Jamie Dunlop have said in The Compelling Community, the church is the gospel made visible. When churches gather to worship God, they display for a moment on earth realities that are continuous in heaven.
Moreover, our prayer life is centered on praying that God’s will would be done “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). Our mission, therefore, is not decided by what goes on in the world. Rather, the body of Christ is to do what the head commands, which is the be witnesses of his resurrection (Acts 1:8), royal priests who make disciples of the nations (Matt. 28:19–20), and ministers of reconciliation, who tell the world how their sins can be forgiven, so that they can go be heirs in Christ’s heavenly kingdom (2 Cor. 5:14–21).
Put all that together, and we see heaven is to be our unswerving, earthly ambition. As Paul says in Colossians 3:1–2, “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” The place “where Christ is” is heaven. Positionally, heaven is where the saints of God are now seated (Eph. 2:4–5; cf. Rev. 20:4–6); heaven is where our citizenship is found (Phil. 3:20); and heaven is where we are going (2 Tim. 4:8), until we receive our heavenly bodies (1 Cor. 15:35–49) at a time when the new heavens and new earth are finally revealed (Revelation 21–22).
To put it simply, heaven is what God’s people are to seek first (Matt. 6:10, 33), even as we are living on the earth. For indeed, the only way we will be any earthly good is to be heavenly-minded. However, when the earth is reeling and rocking around us, as it has been in 2020, it becomes difficult to keep our eyes fixed on heaven. Or to put it in the form of a personal question: How are you and your church doing in keeping your eyes on heaven?
As I will detail below, I believe that without intentional effort and the countervailing power of the Spirit, focus on (1) COVID regulations and (2) social justice will cause us to mute, or even miss, the message of heaven. So, my hope and prayer for highlighting these two trends is to awaken Christians, but especially pastors, to the need we have for stressing heaven as the aim of our Christ-centered message. May God help us to keep seeking first the unveiled face of Christ, the King of glory who now reigns over heaven and earth.
1. COVID Regulations: Has earthly safety overshadowed the safety of heaven?
With the outbreak of COVID-19, churches have had to decide if they can meet, where they can meet, how many can meet, and so on. Not only has COVID turned pastors into furniture movers—Are these chairs six feet apart?—but they have also turned churches into places where safety-first is the first order of business. How many hours have pastors spent complying with regulations, setting up Zoom accounts, and explaining how God’s people can gather, or can’t? Compare that care for physical safety to the amount of time spent sharing the dangers of sin, hell, heresy, or not gathering at all.
Of course, this is not a zero-sum game. Faithful pastors have labored—some to the verge of breakdown—to keep their churches together, even as they come up with creative ways to evangelize, disciple, counsel, and feed the flock. But because every pastor is finite and time is scarce, hours spent on making the congregation safe on earth means hours not spent on “making the congregation safe” for heaven. This is not a jab at anyone, but a lamentable feature of 2020.
Even more dangerous, though, is the spirit of our age which has prioritized physical health as the greatest good. Have you noticed how “stay safe” has replaced “good bye” when we part with friends now? This is harmless enough, but do not forget the Christian origins of good bye (God be with ye). Staying safe is a nice idea in theory, but in a fallen world safety is impossible. As Catherine Ruth Pakaluk has observed, our culture now possesses “a morbid obsession with safety,” one that “jettisons life in order to preserve life.” Speaking of the dangers of childbirth, she explains how the immense blessings of having six children have far outweighed the real and bodily costs of having those children.
I would apply the same logic to the church and the dangers of placing earthly safety above safety in heaven. At what expense are we focusing on bodily health and well-being? If we recognize the dangers of a gospel of health and wealth, do we also recognize how earthly safetyism is impacting disciples in 2020? Conversely, are we speaking as often, as forcefully, as boldly about eternal well-being, as we are stressing masks, social distancing, and leading the church to gather online, at least until is safe? Or has the need to stay safe made matters of heaven and hell less pronounced?
Make no mistake, COVID is real, but its death rate is still less than one percent. In that context, churches have the important role of reminding Christian and non-Christian alike of dangers greater than COVID. While death is on the mind of so many, ought we not spend more time talking about heaven and hell? Only those who have the Son have a guarantee of life (1 John 5:12). But those who live for 100 years, avoiding COVID and everything else, will still die. And if they die without Christ, they die forever.
It is not unloving to tell people that there is something more deadly than COVID. In fact, it is unloving to not do that. Yet, I fear that we are using so much of our breath on safety measures that we may not be preaching the glories of heaven and the realities of hell as we ought. Ironically, a pandemic is the perfect set up for declaring the glories of heaven and fearing the God of heaven more than the fear of disease. Yes, there will be many who think such talk of heaven as grossly out of place and insensitive. After all, “Don’t you know how many people have died”? But that’s when we need to look them square in the face and tell them the truth: All those who live through COVID without Christ, will not save their lives. They will lose them!
In 2020, we have been pulled into all manner of health regulations in our churches. And unless we combat that pull with an equal and opposite effort to speak of eternal realities, we will continue to focus—most likely, by accident—on earthly safety instead of the safety of heaven. This is one way heaven has been lost in 2020, but it is not the only way.
2. Social Justice: Has doing justice replaced the justification that leads to heaven?
In the middle of the first COVID lockdown, cries for justice rang out. Following the death of George Floyd and a series of protests, riots, and social media statements, Christians were drawn into an worldwide debate about justice, policing, race, economics, and politics. Without getting into all the details, it is worth observing the impact they had on the church. Whereas the mission of the church is centered on making disciples of all the nations, a cadre of justice issues consumed the church in 2020.
To be most clear, the push for social justice did not begin in 2020. This year only set ablaze the kindling that has been piling up for more than a decade. Books like Timothy Keller’s Generous Justice (2010) and Eric Mason’s Woke Church (2018) have advocated a mission of the church that includes doing justice in spaces outside the church. In fact, Mason goes so far as to define justification as “a huge greenhouse of truth that extends beyond ‘being declared righteous’!” Explaining himself in a way that denies the Reformation doctrine of sola fide, he writes, “Justified isn’t merely a position, but a practice! Christ’s righteousness being imputed to us by faith leads to our being made right with God as well as our making things right on earth.”
After incorporating justice-as-practice into the definition of justification, Mason advocates a “woke church” that proclaims the gospel to individuals and brings justice into the community, especially poor, urban neighborhoods. The question becomes, “What does bringing justice to the world do to the gospel and the message of heaven?” One argument might be that it brings the church into the proximity of unbelievers, so that the hope of heaven can be shared. And this may be the hope. But the counter-argument, one that 2020 has proven in spades, is that when churches focus on justice, especially justice that partners with non-Christian or even anti-Christian organizations like Black Lives Matter, it leads churches away from their mission to save the lost, disciple the nations, and shepherd saints as they sojourn to heaven.
In all instances, justice needs to be defined biblically. While Scripture says a great deal about justice, it does not leave it undefined. Rather, in Scripture, we see how God reveals his justice, and that justice is found in the message of the gospel that saves sinners from eternal destruction. As Paul explains in Romans 1:18–3:23, those without the law (Gentiles) and those with the law (Jews) are equally guilty before God: all have sinned and fall short of his glory (3:23). And only by offering Christ as the sinless substitute, could God’s justice be accomplished.
According to Scripture, the cross is Justice 101 for Christians. While Scripture addresses the root causes of pride, partiality, hatred, and murder, and calls them sin; it also tells us how God put those sins to death. In Christ, he became the sin-bearing substitute for saints who will share a place in heaven with him. Outside of Christ, there is no justification, nor justice—only everlasting judgment (the second death) and on earth deeds of darkness. Accordingly, when we are transferred from death to life, we are no longer permitted to define justice or seek justice as the world does. As disciples of Christ, we learn that God alone is just, and everyone else is not. Moreover, if we long to see justice on the earth, it will come when the gospel transfers sinners from hell to heaven through faith in Christ.
This is the glorious news of God’s gospel, but it is a message that has been overwhelmed by all the events of 2020. In response to videos that flood our social media and tell us how to think, feel, and respond to injustices—real or perceived—we must ask the question, “What are we to do?” Is it the mission of the church to bring justice to the streets, to the courts, to the schools, and the halls of power? Or is our mission something else?
Answering this very question, Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert have written that the mission of the church prioritizes the eternal reality of heaven. They write, “Universal shalom will come, but personal redemption comes first—first in temporal sequence, first in theological causality, and first in missions priority. God will make all things new, but our job in the world is to help all peoples find a new relationship with God. We are not called to bring a broken planet back to its created glory. But we are to call broken people back to their Creator.” In short, on earth we are to lead people to heaven by means of proclaiming Christ’s gospel.
The pressure on the church to do justice as a part of its mission has grown to such an extent in 2020, that to question it is to invite scorn. How could it not be the church’s mission to oppose racism, alleviate poverty, fight injustice, and speak up for the unborn? Those are good questions, and they need to be answered. But their answer must be gained from an exposition of Scripture and not from an a priori assumption of what justice is. In obedience to Christ, we must ask: What has Christ commanded? Is our mission to bring justice to the earth, or to is it preach the justifying message of Christ and then teach disciples to obey all that Christ has commanded?
This question has received divergent answers from various Christian leaders (compare Keller’s Generous Justice with DeYoung and Gilbert’s What is the Mission of the Church?). Answers that are not unimportant. How one defines the mission of the church will have massive implications for how a church gathers and make decisions—especially when so many earthly matters demand our attention. In 2020, the call for justice has pressed churches to make these decisions, and the point I am making is that those who follow Eric Mason’s model of the “woke church” will prioritize the problems on earth over the solution found in heaven.
Instead of offering a final word of instruction, I will leave with a few questions for pastors and the churches they shepherd: Has doing justice in 2020 magnified or minimized the message of justification that reconciles sinners to the God of heaven? Again, the question is economic. Because we only have so many days, so many messages, so many chances to speak, whenever we focus on earthly justice, we cannot stress the message of heaven with the same gusto. And as D. A. Carson has rightly observed, students (or congregants) learn what a teacher (pastor) is most passionate about? So pastor, what are you most passionate about?
Considered historically, this point is reinforced. When evangelical churches have added social ministries to their mission, it is not long before the message of heaven drifts—first by de-emphasis, then by denial. This is a point made plain by considering the history of the social gospel. As Christopher Evans observes, the social gospel had origins in the evangelical revivals of the nineteenth century. Liberal theology came later. Thus, whether he intends to or not, this historian of the social gospel teaches Bible-believing churches that one way churches have deviated from their heavenly mission is to fuse their mission with social ministries outside the church. In 2020, many gospel-preaching churches have done just that. The question becomes, Is this addition of justice something that Christ commands, or is it the latest effect of churches absorbing their surrounding culture? With open Bibles, these are questions pastors and churches need to answer.
A Final Word
These two winds of culture do not begin to exhaust the various ways earthly concerns can overshadow the promise of heaven. Just the same, this brief treatment of COVID regulations and social justice do not address all the details involved in them. But that’s sort of the problem.
In recent months, it feels like pastors must become experts on immunology, church and state relations, all forms of social media, critical race theory, intersectionality, gender relations, differing viewpoints on justice, and so on. As Paul asked, ”Who is sufficient for these things?” We heaving chests and exhausted hearts, we answer “No one.” But again, there is One who is sufficient and he is seated in heaven.
This fact needs to be remembered and repeated often. Our wisdom, righteousness, strength, and sufficiency is in heaven—the same place we are headed and the same place we are called to fix our eyes. The truth is, pastors cannot be experts in all things earthly, if we are going to be experts in one thing heavenly. As Titus 1:9 says, faithful overseers must be able to instruct in sound doctrine and refute those who contradict it. And this means that with eyes fixed on heaven, we must lead others to the place where Christ is, from all the places of Scripture.
In 2020, this has been hard. But it has also been hard, because we have been focusing so much of our time on earthly matters. In 2021 the earth’s siren calls will not stop, but maybe we have learned in this year how to focus on heaven, even in the rising chaos of the earth. Indeed, this is what the Spirit is always doing among his people. He is preparing us for the place where Christ is, and as Paul said to Timothy concerning those who lead in the church, “No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him” (2 Tim. 2:4).
This is our calling, to not be distracted by the world but to please our heavenly Lord. The more we affix our hearts on that mission, the more prepared we will be to lead in the church, helping those on earth walk towards Zion, the heavenly city, whose architect and builder is God. Thankfully, we do not have to rebuild the world. That is Christ’s mission. Ours is to tell people about him, and to extol the glories of heaven until Christ—and Christ alone—brings heaven to earth.
To that end, may God give his church, and especially its pastors, grace and gumption to stay on our heavenly mission!
Soli Deo Gloria, ds
 One evidence of this earthly focus is Colin Hansen’s “My Top 10 Theological Stories of 2020.” Of his ten stories, one of them is purely theological. The other nine are people and events that impacted the church in 2020.
 Eric Mason, Woke Church: An Urgent Call for Christians in America to Confront Racism and Injustice (Chicago: Moody, 2018), 45.
 For a recent treatment on a biblical definition of justice, see Scott David Allen, Why Social Justice is not Biblical Justice (Grand Rapids: Credo House, 2020). For an exegetical articulation of justice, see my 25-point outline of justice from Psalms 97–101: https://davidschrock.com/2020/08/08/25-exegetical-truths-about-justice-a-summary-from-psalms-97-101/
 Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert, What is the Mission of the Church? Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 248. Emphasis mine.
 See Christopher H. Evans, The Social Gospel in American Religion: A History (New York: NYUP, 2017).