If you’re in the advertising business, you quickly learn about the Two Magic Words. They’re guaranteed to snag the customer’s attention every time, whether you’re selling applesauce or automobiles, TVs or timeshares.
One is “FREE!” Who can resist the appeal to get something for nothing? Of course, any thinking person knows that the cost of the freebie must have been built into the pricing structure somewhere. But we’d rather not think about that technicality. It’s more fun to imagine that the extra ounces of chocolate or shampoo were totally gratis.
The other Magic Word is “NEW!” Consumers instinctively want the latest, greatest, fresh-out-of-the-research-lab product. The chemical formula may have been tinkered with only slightly from last year’s model, but so what? They can go home telling themselves they’ve purchased the most advanced version.
I wonder sometimes if the “New!” fascination doesn’t lap over into our belief systems. We were told in earlier days that certain things were true, or good, or reliable … but that was back then, we say; times have changed, and the new way of thinking is better. The glittering appeal of edition 2.0 or 3.0 is strong.
In his autobiography Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis admitted to an early habit of what he called “‘chronological snobbery,’ the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.” His friend Owen Barfield forced him to confront why the older premise needed replacement. “Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood” (pp. 207-08).
Yes, God is sometimes the One who is “doing a new thing!” (Isa. 43:19). He certainly reserves the right to innovate, to surprise us. But the same Old Testament prophet who said that also advised us to “Remember the former things, those of long ago” (Isa. 46:9). What was established long ago is not necessarily obsolete just because it’s been around awhile. (For a further expansion of this concept, see my article “The God of New Things (and Old Ones, Too).”
The apostles who spearheaded the first-century church were hardly a group of old-school traditionalists. They broke molds left and right. The Jewish guardians of the past constantly got irked by them. I can still hear a Bible professor of mine saying, “It almost seems that wherever Paul went, one of two things broke out—a revival or a riot.”
Yet as we read the “New!” Testament, we notice a recurring concern—almost a worry—that the next generations will ditch something valuable. Listen to these words, and hear the tone:
PAUL: “So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thess. 2:15).
“Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to your care. Turn away from godless chatter and the opposing ideas of what is falsely called knowledge, which some have professed and in so doing have departed from the faith” (1 Tim. 6:20-21).
“What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us” (2 Tim. 1:13-14).
WHOEVER WROTE HEBREWS: “We must pay the most careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away” (Heb. 2:1).
JOHN: “Watch out that you do not lose what we have worked for, but that you may be rewarded fully. Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take them into your house or welcome them. Anyone who welcomes them shares in their wicked work” (2 John 8-11).
JUDE: “I felt compelled to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people. For certain individuals … follow mere natural instincts and do not have the Spirit” (Jude 3, 19).
They were not talking about preserving traditions of style or habit. They were talking about core values: doctrines and moral codes. They didn’t want anyone revising the essentials of the Christian faith.
In our times, there’s a temptation to tinker with principles that have been around for a while. Shouldn’t we update our understandings of the gospel, or church, or marriage, or leadership, or money usage?
Not necessarily. Thomas Jefferson said it well: “In matters of principle, stand like a rock; in matters of taste, swim with the current.” We don’t have to dress or speak with the vocabulary of our forebears. But we do well to take seriously the truths they taught us from God’s Word.
While traveling in eastern Canada last fall, I grew curious about the motto on the bottom of Quebec’s license plates: Je me souviens. Not having studied French back in high school, I had to ask someone for the translation: The answer: “I remember.”
What was that supposed to mean, I wondered. It seemed unusual for the setting—until the explanation came. “We remember our unique history, our culture, our place in the world. This is essential to who we are today.”
What do you, as a Christian, see on the current landscape that’s getting an update without needing it? And what’s being lost in the process? Share your thoughts in the “Comment” section below.