On Being a Worldly Christian

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“There is also confusion about what it means to be spiritual. We feel it is more spiritual to take our non-Christian roomate to a Bible study or to church than to a play or out for pizza. Just as we do not understand our natural points of contact with the world: we don’t understand our natural points of contact with God himself. He made us human. He is therefore interested in our humanness. We dare not limit him to Bible studies and discussions with Christians. He created life and he desires to be glorified in the totality of all that adds up to life.” (Rebecca Pippert, Out of the Salt Shaker, p. 34)

What is a Worldly Christian? [1] Is being a Worldly Christian a good thing? Many who read the title of this article will no doubt be shocked by the words “Worldly” and “Christian” being placed side by side. I believe that Christians are called to be Worldly Christians. Not in the sense that Christians are meant to partake in worldliness. Rather, we ought to be world-affirming and world-transforming Christians. Many Christians, like myself before, have the idea that anything that has to do with the world is evil. Therefore, we think we should cut down our ties with the world in favour of more spiritual activities like worship, prayer, evangelism, Church activities, etc. What Rebecca Pippert says is true: many of us Christians “feel it is more spiritual to take our non-Christian roomate to a Bible study or to church than to a play or out for pizza.” I think that the result of this kind thinking and attitude which seeks to prevent contact with anything associated with the world is an unbiblical one which doesn’t glorify God because it fails to realise the goodness of God’s creation around us. Rather than thinking as such, a Worldly Christian would affirm the goodness of God’s creation, know the liberty to enjoy it, yet understand the need to transform it for the better and not be transformed by it.

In this article, I hope to share some thoughts which I’ve learnt concerning my role in the world as a Christian and how one can more effectively be a “Worldly Christian”. My hope is that it will challenge all who read it. Whether you agree with it or not, I’m sure what I write will cause you to think more about how you as a Christian should relate to the world around you.

The tension of Christians being in this World, yet not of this World

We all know that Christians are called to be “in” this world, yet not “of” the world. Yet what does that mean to us? On the one hand, we know that we are all living in this world. We have not yet gone to heaven. On the other hand, as Peter writes in 1st Peter 1:1, we know that we are actually “strangers” in this world – we do not really belong here for we are truly a citizen of heaven. God states in Psalm 50:12 that “the world is Mine” – it belongs to God. And we all know that God created the “heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). Yet in 2 Corinthians 4:4, Paul mentions that the “god of this world” is the devil and we’re told in 1 John 2:15 that we ought not to “love the world, nor the things in the world” and in James 4:4 that “friendship with the world is hatred toward God.” Now, if this is God’s world and He created it, why are there many passages in the Bible that warns us about being too close to the world? How should we as Christians relate to the world and its culture?

I was saved around 1994 when I was 15 years old. Since then I’ve faced the tension as expressed by the above verses. How should I refrain from being “of” this world, eventhough I’m “in” it?

As a teenager and in this MTV generation, I faced many temptations to conform to be like the world around me. Yet I knew I shouldn’t be like these ungodly people who don’t know Jesus, but instead should act like a Christian. I had been and still am a big listener of music. I would listen to radio stations that played pop music and had probably about 50 secular music CDs at one stage. It wasn’t long before I faced the question of whether I should continue to listen to all these secular music or whether I should give it all up. I believe this is a question that almost all teenage Christians face early on in their Christian lives. We constantly hear sermons about the evils of the worldly culture and its music, movies and television, etc. Sometimes we even hear of people bringing their worldly CDs, magazines, books and games, etc., to the Church to be burnt! The truth is that we all struggle, especially as teenage Christians, in how we ought to relate to the many things in the world.

Within a few years of becoming a Christian, I took all my secular CDs and threw them away. Almost $1000 worth of CDs was gone like that! But I thought I was doing the right thing. From then on, I listened only to Christian music. I would also tell my friends about the evils of secular music and how we as Christians should not listen to secular music, but we should instead listen to Christian music. As a young Christian full of zeal for Christ, I was firmly against anything “worldly”. I thought that we Christians should be “spiritual.” To me that meant doing spiritual things like praying, reading the Bible, attending Prayer and Church meetings, etc. Watching Television, going to movies or listening to music was considered “worldly” and “unspiritual”. We should instead spend our time doing “spiritual” things. In writing this article, I hope that others can learn from my journey in my Christian life and the mistakes I have made. I believe now that my sincere and zealous attitude against secular things was done in a right spirit, but not based on a right understanding of God’s will as revealed through Scriptures. Let me try to explain…

Zeal based on the knowledge of Scriptures

Zeal is definitely a good thing. I’d rather be around Christian friends zealous for the things of God, than those who aren’t zealous for the things of God. Paul says this in Romans 12:11 – “Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord.” So zeal is good. However, zeal without knowledge is definitely not a good thing! (Romans 10:2) Our knowledge of the truth ought to direct our zeal. Our minds need to be engaged and our understanding of the Bible needs to be clear before we become zealous about things. If not, we’ll be zealous over the wrong things! We need to be mature in our thinking, and not be like children, Paul tells us (1 Corinthians 14:20). It’s not good enough to be sincere in our zealousness for we can be sincerely wrong and zealous for the wrong things. So we need to have a zealous spirit coupled with a mature understanding of the Bible. We need both the right spirit of zeal and the right doctrine to be able to worship God in spirit and truth. To lack either a right spirit or a right understanding of Scriptures is not a good thing.

As I said before, in my early Christian years what I lacked was the right understanding of Scriptures. This probably isn’t so shocking since we are always learning new things as we grow deeper into our walk with God. So how has my understanding of Scriptures changed since then? Instead of seeing everything that is not specifically Christian (e.g. secular pop music, secular movies, television programs, discos, pubs, etc.) as things I shouldn’t touch, enjoy or get involved with, I’ve come to see a lot of what many Christians consider worldly/ungodly things as legitimate ways to enjoy God and His creation. How is this so? Before I get into the practical applications of how a Christian should relate to the world, I hope to go through some simple doctrinal truths from the Bible. The rest of the article will be divided into:

1 Doctrinal Foundation:
1.1 Some Basic Truths: 4 Cs of Christianity
1.2 “Creation Realm” and “Redemption Realm”
1.3 “Common Grace” and “Special Grace”

2 General Applications:
2.1 How Christians should relate to the world from the angle of distinguishing between the “Creation Realm” and the “Redemption Realm”.
2.2 How Christians should relate to the world from the angle of distinguishing between “Common Grace” and “Special Grace”.

3 Specific Applications
3.1 Family
3.2 Vocation
3.3 Arts
3.4 “Heavenly Wisdom” and “Secular Wisdom”
3.5 Friends
3.6 Pubs and Discos
3.7 Smoking
3.8 Secular Entertainment

1 Doctrinal Foundation

1.1 Some Basic Truths: 4 Cs of Christianity

First, let us start with some basic principles and truths we learn in the Bible. I believe a clearer and more proper understanding of some basic Gospel truths will help us to understand our role as Christians in this world. I’d like to divide these truths into four parts – 4 Cs : Creation, Corruption, Cross and Coming.

a) Creation: We know that God created the world and everything in it. In Genesis 1:31, we read that “God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good.” So God not only made all these things, but all these things were “very good” in God’s sight. Man was to rule over the world (God’s creation) and enjoy it (Genesis 1:28).

Included in all of God’s creation is of course the creation of man. However, man is unlike all other living animals and plants as “God created man in His own image” (Genesis 1:27). This means that God created man in His own likeness. All human beings thus have intimate ties to God’s own character. We were created righteous, perfect and holy just like God.

b) Corruption: However, we also learn that man fell into sin when Adam sinned against God (Genesis 3). Because of this, both the world and man has since been corrupted. Firstly, human nature since then has been corruped by sin. While we were created in the image of God, this image of God in us has now been marred by sin. Not to the extent that sinful human beings are no longer like God anymore and no longer bear His image, but rather that this image of God in us has been corrupted by sin. Secondly, the world which God pronounced “very good” has been corrupted too because of the fall (Genesis 3:17). But just as sinful man has lost only a bit of the image of God in us because of sin (and not all of the image of God), so too has the corrupted world lost only a bit of its original goodness – though not all of its original goodness. In Romans 1:20, we read that the world still bears the Creator’s character and attributes.

So before the fall, man was made perfect in the image of God. He was made to glorify God and enjoy God’s fellowship and to take charge over the world and enjoy it. But since the fall of Adam, man has hated God instead of glorifying Him. And no longer does man enjoy the full benefits of God’s creation. God still loves man and creation as both are His works and were created by Him. He is not angry with man and the world per se – for both are good originally and not inherently evil – but God is angry with the corruption of man and the world.

c) Cross: The good news and central to whole of Christianity is that God sent His only Son Jesus Christ to die on the cross for the sins of the world. Jesus Christ lived a perfect and sinless life, died a horrible and cruel death on the cross and rose an awesome resurrection so that those who trust in Him for salvation will be saved by Him. Jesus came to earth to reverse the effects of the fall. Before the fall, man had the perfect image of God in them and the world was “very good”. Because of the fall, God’s image in man has been marred and the goodness of the world has been corrupted. However, in Romans 8:19-23, we learn that Jesus’ death on the cross will one day restore God’s perfect image in Christians (v.23) and will liberate the world that is in bondage to decay, corruption and sin (v.19-22).

d) Coming: Though Jesus’ death on the cross has secured and started the reversal of the effects of the fall, it will not be completed until His second coming. All Christians still eagerly awaiting for the fullness of the results of the Cross to come into effect. The world and Christians are still very much influenced by sin. Only when Jesus comes again will we experience full liberation from sin and corruption. Christians will be perfected in God’s image again and will live in a new world (creation) with God. For that day, we Christians eagerly await with expectation, hope, faith and perseverance.

The first 2 Cs – Creation and Corruption – has already happened. God’s creation – man and the world – has been created and God’s creation has been corrupted by Adam’s sin. As for the last 2 Cs, we’re actually living between the 3rd and the 4th C. We’re living in a time between the Cross and the 2nd Coming of Christ. Because of this, there are many implications for us that relates to how we ought to live in the present world before Jesus comes again. However, we won’t go into that as yet. Building on from the 4 Cs outlined above, we need to realise two realms in which we live in.

1.2 “Creation Realm” and “Redemption Realm”

Here I would like to distinguish between two realms[2] that every human being relates to in this life. If we confuse them, we will fail in how we relate to the world as Christians.

a) Creation Realm – The 1st realm will be called the “Creation Realm”. Everybody (both Christians and non-Christians) are part of this realm. Activities which are not specifically Christian (e.g. watering the plants, watching a secular movie, talking with a friend about school or work) are also part of this realm. This realm is related to the 1st and 2nd C – Creation and Corruption. As we’ve already learnt, God created everything – the world and all human beings. However, because of Adam’s sin, all human beings and the world have since been corrupted by sin. The important thing to note here is that eventhough God’s image in man has been marred, and the original goodness of the world has been corrupted, man still retains the image of God and the world is still good enough to reflect the Creator’s attributes. So though Creation – man and the world – has been corrupted, it still retains divine marks in it. Creation is not totally worthless! Things and activities that belong to this realm are still of use and can still be enjoyed – to the Christian and the non-Christian. (e.g. we can still enjoy watering the plants, watching a secular movie and talking to a Christian or non-Christian friend about school and work, etc.) All the things that are related to this realm – activities we partake in or things we receive – are all gifts of God’s “Common Grace”.

b) Redemption Realm – The 2nd realm will be called the “Redemption Realm”. Not everybody or every activity is a part of this realm – only Christians and specifically Christian activities (e.g. reading the bible, evangelising, praying, fellowshipping with Christian friends) are part of this realm. This realm is related to the 3rd and 4th C – Cross and Coming. We know that Jesus was sent by God to earth to die for the sins of the world. That is the good news and the Gospel of Christ. Those who accept Jesus Christ become part of this “Redemption Realm”. While the “Creation Realm” is related to the realm of earthly and temporal activities and things (e.g. the sea, land, sky, stars, playing tennis, jogging, studying in school, working a secular job, etc.), the “Redemption Realm” is related to the realm of heavenly and eternal activities and things (e.g. Jesus, Salvation, the Bible, Evangelism, Prayer, Worship, etc.). The “Redemption Realm” relates to what God has done through the Cross of Christ, all that He is doing at present and all that He is going to do in future to save His people before Jesus comes again. And all the things that are related to this realm are gifts of God’s “Special Grace”.

1.3 “Common Grace” and “Special Grace”

It’s appropriate now for me to quickly distinguish between “Common Grace”and “Special Grace”[3]: All the things and activities that are related to the “Creation Realm” and the “Redemption Realm” are given by God’s grace (undeserved kindness). And this is amazing because man, since the fall, do not deserve God’s blessings but rather God’s wrath. But it’s important to distinguish between two ways God manifests his grace. One way is what theologians call “Common Grace”. The other is “Special Grace”. “Common Grace” is grace given to everybody and common to all. It is the “grace of God by which he gives people innumerable blessings that are not part of salvation.”[4] It is because of God’s “Common Grace” that man is even created and alive. It is by God’s “Common Grace” that we are made in the image of God, that we have many talents, that we are creative beings and that we can enjoy living in God’s created world – with its many blessings. You see, we’re all fallen sinful human beings and we deserve to go to hell straight away. But it’s by God’s “Common Grace” that we’re still alive and can enjoy so many gifts from God. The fact that we suffer or die isn’t God’s fault, it is merely justice being done. For us to continue to live and enjoy so many blessings in this world is because God gives grace to everyone – “Common Grace”. And “Common Grace” is related to the “Creation Realm”. All things we receive and activities we partake in this realm is because of God’s “Common Grace”.

On the other hand, God gives “Special Grace”. “Special Grace” is grace God showers upon His own chosen people. It is not “common” to everyone – only to God’s believing people. Thus the term “Special Grace”. It is because of God’s “Special Grace” that Jesus Christ came to die for our sins. It is by God’s “Special Grace” that people have faith in Christ, are saved, are made holier and are given many spiritual gifts, etc. And “Special Grace” is related to the “Redemption Realm”. All things we receive and activities we partake in this realm is because of God’s “Special Grace”.

So we see that the common definition of grace as “(G)od’s (R)iches (A)t (C)hrist’s (E)xpense” may not be totally accurate after all. Grace is not only related to what God did in Christ. It is not only related to the eternal, heavenly things in the “Redemption Realm”. That would be “Special Grace”. But there is “Common Grace” whereby God is gracious and good to all – even unbelievers (Psalm 145:9, Matthew 5:44-45).

2 General Applications

To quickly sum up the above “Doctrinal Foundation” section, we’ve learnt that God created man in His own image, and the world to reflect His attributes. The fall resulted in a marring of God’s divine image in man since then, and the corruption of world. Yet man still retains part of God’s image in him and the world still retains part of its original goodness. Jesus Christ came to earth to die on the Cross in order to reverse the curse of the fall – to save man and restore the world. However, this will not be fully completed till Jesus comes again in future.

We are living in the unique time between the Cross and the 2nd Coming of Jesus. Because this is so, there are two spheres or realms in which man can exist in. Christians belong to both the “Creation Realm” and the “Redemption Realm” while non-Christians belong only to the “Creation Realm”. Everything that is not specifically Christian belongs to the “Creation Realm”. Everything that is specifically Christian and relates to Salvation, Jesus, etc., belongs to the “Redemption Realm”.

And finally God is gracious to both Christians and non-Christians, and not only Christians. “Common Grace” is a term we use to describe God’s gracious attitude towards everyone – regardless of whether one is Christian or non-Christian. Thus, “Common Grace” belongs to the “Creation Realm”. “Special Grace” is the term we use to describe God’s gracious attitude towards Christians only. Thus “Special Grace” belongs to the “Redemption Realm”.

How can all this apply to us in how we relate to the world?

Noting all the above principles and truths, understanding how we Christians can live “in” the world, yet not “of” it becomes easier. I’m going to try to explain how we Christians should relate to the world from two different angles:

1) From the angle of distinguishing between the “Creation Realm” and the “Redemption Realm”
2) From the angle of distinguishing between “Common Grace” and “Special Grace”

2.1 From the angle of distinguishing between the “Creation Realm” and the “Redemption Realm”

As Christians, we must be aware that we live in both Realms – “Creation Realm” and “Redemption Realm”. Furthermore, we must also be able to distinguish activities which belong to the different Realms. For example, fishing, listening to secular music and climbing the mountains are “Creation Realm” activities. There is nothing specifically Christian about it. It is not eternal in value, nor does it have to do with Salvation or Jesus. On the other hand, praying, studying the Bible and evangelising are “Redemption Realm” activities. These activities are eternal in value and they are all specifically Christian activities.

Once we realise which Realm the different activities belong to, the trick is to balance the time we spend on the activities in each Realm. We ought not to overemphasize – or overoccupy ourselves with – the activities of the “Creation Realm” and underemphasize – or underoccupy ourselves with – the activities of the “Redemption Realm”, and vice versa. So there is a danger in emphasizing one Realm at the expense of the other.

a) On one hand, too much “Redemption Realm” activities results in:

i) Not fully appreciating God’s Creation: Many Christians (like myself) tend to focus so much on “Redemption Realm” activities like praying, going to Church, reading the Bible and fellowshipping with Christian friends – so much so that we have come to look down upon anything that is not specifically Christian in nature. That is, we look down on “Creation Realm” activities. We are told that we shouldn’t spend so much time with unbelievers and so we hardly spend time with them at all. We are told that we should always be involved in Church and Christian activities, and thus we don’t have time for other things in life like enjoying friendship with non-Christians, enjoying a night out with some friends, etc. What has happened is that we are really looking down upon God’s own creation. You see, eventhough unbelievers are not saved, they still have the divine image of God in them. Eventhough the world is corrupted by sin, there is still goodness in it. We ought not to look upon unbelievers and the world as totally evil. Sure, we ought to resist sin. We shouldn’t be influenced by our unbelieving friends whose lives indulge in sinfulness, nor should we be influenced by the sinful corruption in the world. Yet we need to realise that we can enjoy a time out with some unbelieving friends, and we can enjoy “Creation Realm” activities that are not specifically Christian. There is nothing wrong with it. We don’t have to go only to “Christian restaurants” or listen only to “Christian music” just because we’re Christians! Like Michael Horton says, “These pressures to create distinctively “Christian” versions of everything in the world (i.e. creation) assumes that there is something essentialy wrong with creation.”[5] The truth is that there is still much good in creation. We ought not to be unappreciative towards God’s own creation and neglect “Creation Realm” activities and members (i.e. unbelievers).

1 Timothy 4:4-5 says, “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, if it is received with gratitude; for it is sanctified by means of the word of God and prayer.” The “word of God” that sanctifies everything probably refers to Genesis 1:31 when God pronounced that creation was “very good”. Thus, we ought to take note that creation is still good despite the fall just as is recognized by Timothy.

Wayne Grudem writes, “Though the created order can be used in sinful or selfish ways and can turn our affections away from God, nonetheless we must not let the danger of abuse of God’s creation keep us from a positive, thankful, joyful use of it for our own enjoyment…A healthy appreciation of creation will keep us from false asceticism that denies the goodness of creation and the blessings that come to us through it.”[6]

Even in its fallenness, the world is still “God’s theatre of glory”, as John Calvin would say.

ii) Formation of Pride: Christians can easily fall into pride when they get involved so much in “Redemption Realm” activities. Two things can happen:

Firstly and more dangerously, they may start to think that it’s their Christian activities that save them. We can easily fall trap into thinking that because we are so committed in evangelising, reading the bible, praying or serving God that God is bound to save us. This is a most harmful and dangerous thinking. We ought to always realise that no matter how good we are or how committed we are, it is not Christian activities or even our good committed heart that saves us. Rather, it’s Christ’s death and resurrection!

Secondly, the more “Redemption Realm” activities we do, the more we may start to look down upon other Christians whom we feel are not as godly or committed as us. Eventhough we may not think these activities save us, we can be tempted to think that God loves us more than others or that He is going to bless us more because we are more committed. We can lose sight of the fact that all blessings are after all by God’s grace, not by what we do. Thus we can easily develop pride by thinking we are more spiritual than others.

iii) Failing in our mandate to preserve the environment, advance society and transform the fallen World: Once we understand that God created the world and that His creation is still good despite the fall, we will not feel guilty in being involved in the “Creation Realm”. We will understand that God isn’t only interested in religion but also in all of His creation and in our humanness.

We should have a love to preserve the environment. After all, all of creation is God’s and it is still good. The more the environment is preserved in all its awesomeness rather than destroyed, the more of God’s wonderful and creative attributes shine through which glorifies God. But most of us can’t be bothered about God’s creation. We need to change our thinking in this area.

We also need to realise that it is our duty to see advancement of society for the glory of God – in terms of technological, scientific, medicinal, artistic advances, etc. – and not just to see increase in the number of souls going to heaven. This is so because God still works in both Realms. Therefore He ought to be glorified in both Realms. The advancement of both Realms glorifies Him because He is the one who gives the increase in both Realms. Therefore, advancement in society glorifies God too. We must not lose sight of this. There is thus nothing wrong with pursuing excellence in the technological, scientific or artistic worlds.

Not only ought we to see advancement in society, but also transformation of the hostility and sinfulness in the creation. God is sad to see the world in its sinfulness. We should be sad too. We should desire to see transformation of society in many ways. For example, we should stand against the world’s acceptance of and indifference towards abortion, homosexuality, immorality, corruption in the government, racial discrimination, etc. We should seek for transformation in all ways we can. That means getting involved in the world and in the government – not just in the Church!

We Christians often fail to realise our mandate in the world as Christians. We are called to glorify God in all things – whether it be in the “Creation Realm” or “Redemption Realm”. But Christians often fail to see this because we fail to realise the remaining goodness of fallen Creation. We need to appreciate God’s “Creation Realm” more and hopefully with such appreciation will see the preservation of environment, advancement of society and transformation of the fallen world.

b) On the other hand, too much “Creation Realm” activities results in:

i) Being transformed by the World and influenced by Worldliness: This is the reason why most Christians are afraid of anything in the World. The fear of being influenced by worldliness is a good and healthy one. After all, John tells us in 1 John 2:15 not to “love the world, nor the things in the world.” The things of the world in all its hostility, sinfulness and corruption can indeed cause us to stumble and sin against God. Of this, we need to be careful. Although we should not be so fearful of everything in the world till it causes us to refrain from appreciating legitimate God-glorifying “Creation Realm” activities, on the other hand we should also not be so consumed by these activities such that we be transformed by it. We need a healthy fear of the evil things of the world and need to be careful not to fall prey to the devil’s trap.

ii) Losing sight of things Eternal: The temptation when one spends too much time in “Creation Realm” activities is to lose sight of heavenly, eternal things. “Creation Realm” activities after all involve temporal and earthly things, while “Redemption Realm” activities involve eternal and heavenly things.

Paul writes in Colossians 3:2, “Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth.” Paul’s concern is that we will be tempted by the sinful earthly things and habits. Indeed if we so focus our thoughts and minds and spend our time on “Creation Realm” activities alone, we will lose sight our heavenly Father’s eternal agenda for us in the Great commission. So although it is not wrong to enjoy the “Creation Realm”, we must not only focus on that.

Preserving the environment, advancing society and transforming the fallen world are all good and necessary duties we ought to do. As Christians, we need to have an impact upon the world around us. However, we also should not focus so much on these “Creation Realm” activities that we forget the fact that the whole world will only be transformed fully in future when Jesus comes (Romans 8:19-22). We need to remember that though we’re called to impact the world, we will not fully do so on this earth. God will complete the transformation of the world in future. Therefore, we should not focus all our time in this Realm.

So again, the trick to leading a balance Worldly Christian life is simply a balance of time spent on the different Realm activities. There is no strict rule. For example, we can’t say 2 hours of bible reading (“Redemption Realm” activity) should allow us 2 hours of listening to secular music (“Creation Realm” activity)! We need not and should not be so legalistic. I believe God will guide us through His Spirit and through our maturity level. The wiser and more mature we become, we will better know how to use our time and how to relate to the world. So this is merely a general principle – later on in the article, I’ll try to give some specific applications.

2.2 From the angle of distinguishing between “Common Grace” and “Special Grace”

If you haven’t understood the above (i.e. about the necessity to balance the time we spend in the two different Realms), let me try to put it in a different way and from a different angle.

Christians often think the word “grace” is associated with “spiritual” things – e.g. evangelism, salvation, worship, answers to prayer, etc. Therefore, we think we are enjoying God’s grace only when He saves a soul, gives us a miracle or answers a prayer, etc. The result is that we are only thankful to Him and only praise Him when these things happen. But like we’ve defined before, this grace is God’s “Special Grace” to His people. God gives grace not only to His people, but also to unbelievers too! We must never forget that God’s grace extends not only to believers and the Church, but also to unbelievers and the world. Therefore, we can and should enjoy and give thanks to God not only for the ministry, services and talents of Christians, but also for those of non-Christians.

If we fail to realise that God’s “Common Grace” extends to both believers as well as unbelievers, we will be less thankful to God as we attribute the talents of unbelievers to any other but God. Like Wayne Grudem says, “The Doctrine of Common Grace should stir our hearts to much greater thankfulness to God.” [7] Therefore, we need a fresh recovery of enjoying and giving thanks to God for the “Common Grace” gifts which don’t flow through Christians or the Church. For example, the talents and giftedness of secular musicians are all from God, just as Christian musicians are blessed by God. We can thus enjoy music which does not have explicitly Christian lyrics [8] simply because God extends His grace and gifts to unbelievers too! Dare we reject things which are given by God’s grace? To do so is to reject many of God’s gifts that are meant for our enjoyment!

Not only ought we to appreciate more the talents and gifts of unbelievers because of our understanding of “Common Grace”, but we also ought to appreciate unbelievers themselves more! Christians often look down upon unbelievers because they think that these unbelievers may be influenced by ungodly desire or by the devil. We think that because they do not have a new heart or aren’t born again into godly desires like us, that it would be a temptation for us to be with these ungodly people. Thus, we tend to refrain from spending too much time with unbelievers. However, again understanding “Common Grace” will correct us of this error. We ought to be able to appreciate unbelievers eventhough they aren’t born again because God still showers grace upon them. They are not totally evil in all their ways – God’s “Common Grace” restrains the fullness of evil in them. That means, not every unbeliever are as evil as we may think. These unbelievers can still be kind and loving. They can bring much blessing into our lives and they can become a good, faithful friend. Being a Christian doesn’t automatically make us super good. We all know many unbelievers who are better, more faithful and loving friends than some of our Christian friends.

So we need to understand that God gives grace to unbelievers too. We should enjoy their friendship, their talents and praise God for all the gifts they have received. Understanding this will clear up misconceptions on how a Christian ought to relate to the world around them. I will end this section with a quote by John Calvin:

Shall we deny that the truth shone upon the ancient jurists who established civic order and discipline with such great equity? Shall we say that the philosophers were blind in their fine observation and artful description of nature? Shall we say that those men were devoid of understanding who conceived the art of disputation and taught us the speak reasonably? Shall we say that they are insane who developed medicine, devoting their labor to our benefit?… No, we cannot read the writings of the ancients on these subjects without great admiration. We marvel at them because we are compelled to recognize how eminent they are.

But shall we count anything praise worthy or noble without recognizing at the same time that it comes from God? Let us be ashamed of such ingratitude, into which not even the pagan poets fell, for they confessed that the gods had invented philosophy, laws, and all useful arts. Those men whom Scripture calls “natural men” were, indeed, sharp and penetrating in their investigation of inferior things. Let us, accordingly, learn by their example how many gifts the Lord left to human nature even after it was despoiled of its true good. [9]

3 Specific Applications

3.1 Family

Many Christians find themselves so involved in “Redemption Realm” activities that they neglect time spent with the family. They consider Church activities like prayer meetings, bible studies, etc. more important than enjoying family life. However, this is a wrong kind of thinking. Enjoying family life should be high on one’s agenda. It belongs to the “Creation Realm”. Before the fall, God had already ordained the importance of reproduction and family life (Genesis 1:28). Michael Horton writes, “Since the very beginning, the family has been the divine institution closest to God’s heart; it is not only the most basic building block of society, but of the church as well.” [10] Thus the family is an institution ordained in the beginning, before the fall. The family is not some evil institution as a result of the fall, but rather a good institution that is close to God’s heart.

What this means is that children, whose parents aren’t Christians, ought to spend more time with them and with the family and appreciate and enjoy family life – and not spend all their time in Church activities such that they neglect their families. How many times have we heard of the unbelieving parents of Christians upset at the amount of time their Children spend in Church – at the expense of time with the family? In such a case, we’re not being a good testimony to our unbelieving parents.

And for Christian parents, they ought not to neglect time with their own children and family in favour of time spent in “ministry”. How often have we heard of pastors or leaders of the Church spending so much time in Christian ministry that their own children grow up rejecting Christ? Could all this be the result of parents failing in their duties towards their own families, while pursuing ministry in the Church?

3.2 Vocation

Vocation, like family, was ordained before the fall. In Genesis 1:28, Adam and Eve are both given work to rule over every living thing in the World. In Genesis 2:15, they are given the job to cultivate and look after the Garden of Eden.

We can thus see that work is important to God. Christians usually don’t have a problem with that. Most would agree that we do have to earn our wages and that laziness is a sin. However, many Christians tend to look down on the idea of holding a secular job. “Why serve in the secular world if you truly love God and want to see His Church grow? You should quit your job and serve in full-time ministry!”, we may hear often. I believe this attitude stems from a failure to see that our vocation, whether in the “Creation Realm” (e.g. working as a scientist or a doctor) or “Redemption Realm” (working as a pastor or an evangelist) is equally pleasing to God. Those who work in the Church full-time are no more spiritual than those who work as a road sweeper! God is pleased with both. Wherever we work, we should do it for God’s glory (1 Corinthians 10:31). That is what pleases God.

Once again, in the area of vocation, we need to remember that God works sovereignly upholding and blessing both Realms and thus for us, working in either Realm is pleasing to God as long as we glorify Him through our work. Michael Horton describes how the great Reformer Martin Luther thought of work:

A cobbler asked Luther what he should now do since he had embraced the Gospel. What should his calling now be?…The Reformer’s response was as surprising to the cobbler as it might be to some of us today: “Make a good shoe and sell it at a fair price.” When asked what he would do if he knew Christ were coming back tomorrow, Luther replied, “I would plant a tree.” In other words, God is so pleased with our ordinary faithful activity in this world that Luther no longer felt that he had to be found in prayer or in “spiritual” exercises when Christ returned in order to receive His blessing. [11]

We don’t need to justify or defend our work in secular institutions by our evangelistic efforts or by saying that we actually have an ulterior motive of trying to evangelise the lost there. The fact that God has ordained work for all of mankind is a good enough justification in itself. Thus we don’t have to feel guilty if we work in a secular institution. Nor do we need to explain away our vocation in secular institutions by holding our heads up high and proudly saying, “Well, I plan to win souls for Christ through this job.” No, we work first of all, because God worked to create the world and continues to work in upholding this world, and by our taking after Him, we reflect His image and glorify Him.

Once we realise this, we won’t feel pressured to make the whole company know we’re Christians by showing off our Bibles, or by praying aloud, or by always telling others about Jesus. These are not bad things, but we must not treat our workplace as merely a battleground to win souls. We cannot allow our zeal to win the lost cause us to make light of our call to glorify God through our work. Already, both Christians and non-Christians who employ people are slowly but surely getting the impression that too often the most zealous Christians end up being the least concerned about their work. A Christian once said:

I’m liberated from the guilt I used to have for not ‘being a witness’ at work. I would read my Bible – or, at least, pretend to read it, and pray, and prominently display bumper stickers or posters at my work station. And the more ‘guff’ I got for being a religious nut, the more spiritual I felt. Now I’ve taken down the shrine and focus on my work as a reasonable service of worship to God and dedication to my calling, and guess what? Now I’m actually asked about my faith by my co-workers at lunctime! [12]

Another way to understand how Christians should relate to work is the idea of “the priesthood of all believers.” Michael Horton explains:

In the medieval church, the Sacrament of Holy Orders entered those who were really “sold out” for the Lord into “full-time Christian ministry.” Christians were separated into “secular” and “religious” callings, as though those who decided to work for the church or Christian ministries were somehow more spiritual than those who engaged in “worldly” vocations. Luther recorded, “Whoever looked at a monk fairly drooled in devotion and had to be ashamed of his secular station in life. [13]

However, the Reformers introduced the biblical concept of “the priesthood of all believers.” According to 1 Peter 2:9, all Christians are priests! All believers are priests because of what Christ did for us on the Cross. What this means is that whether we’re working in a secular or Christian institution, we are serving and glorifying God!

Therefore, we need a renewed understanding of our vocation. Secular work isn’t meaningless – it is to be done to glorify God. Daniel and Joseph both worked in secular institutions, yet didn’t see the need or any particular pressure to “christianize” it. They were greatly blessed by God despite the fact they didn’t work in a Christian organisation.

How are you treating your work? Whatever your calling is, do your best for God’s glory! Like Martin Luther King, Jr said :

“If a man is called a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”

3.3 Arts

Our point here is one constantly repeated throughout this article: “Creation Realm” activities are legitimate activities in itself and needs no “Christianizing” for us Christians to participate in these activities. What is meant here as it relates to Art is that we don’t need to sanctify the enjoyment of Art by appealing to its evangelistic or religious purposes. We can enjoy any form of Art (music, fine arts, literature, poetry, entertainment) just because it is artistic!

Art belongs to the “Creation Realm”. Art’s primary purpose is to entertain and provide pleasure for us. We ought to be able to enjoy it without feeling guilty, just as we ought to be able to enjoy “Creation Realm” gifts and activities without feeling guilty.

What usually comes to our mind when we see a particularly talented artist who uses his talents – e.g. in painting – to evangelise the lost? We probably think, “Hey, this person is indeed using his talents in the right way to evangelise the lost and glorify God!” But this is a wrong way to think – doesn’t an artist glorify God even if his work isn’t evangelistic? Of course he does!

Not only do we need to understand that Art doesn’t need to be “christianized” for us to legitimately enjoy it, but we also need to realise that pieces of Art which are justified by it’s evangelistic or religious purposes are usually bad artwork! As mentioned above, Art’s primary purpose is to entertain and provide pleasure for us. However, when we make “intellectual edification” (e.g. an evangelistic message) Art’s primary purpose, we tend to trivialize Art. If we try so hard to get across “a message” through our piece of Art, we end up producing an artwork that isn’t very good artistically. C.S. Lewis observed that “a poetry directly and consciously subordinated to the ends of edification usually becomes bad poetry.” Therefore, we shouldn’t allow the need to teach through our Art upstage the need to entertain through Art. Art’s primary purpose is to entertain people, not to teach people! The moment we try to evaluate Art by how much it teaches us, rather than how much it entertains us, we start seeing less and less artistic art work – but they appear just because their message justifies their appearance. The result is that we end up with bad Art!

I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t use Art for our Christian purposes. Of course, to do so is legitimate. But we need to be careful of too easily accepting artwork which may not be very artistic or creative. In our zeal to “christianize” Art, we will end up trivializing the creative and artistic standards of Art. If I had the choice of either attending an internationally renown drama performance , or a Christian drama performance, it would not be wrong if I were to choose to attend the former if I felt I could enjoy the drama more.

3.4 “Secular Wisdom” and “Heavenly Wisdom”

Science, Information Technology, Medicine, Law, Psychology, Philosophy, Business – all these studies and activities belong to the “Creation Realm”. We can learn “Secular Wisdom” from these. The subject of God and Christianity however belongs to the “Redemption Realm”. Through the Bible, we can learn “Heavenly Wisdom”.

We’ve already noted the danger in not appreciating God’s blessings and grace in both the “Creation Realm” and the “Redemption Realm”. – that the “Creation Realm” is not to be looked down as less spiritual just because it is not explicitely Christian. Here let me point out the danger in confusing between the 2 Realms. If we fail to distinguish between the Bible (part of the “Redemption Realm” and which gives us “Heavenly Wisdom”) and the other activities mentioned above (e.g. study of Science, Medicine, etc, – all of which is part of the “Creation Realm” and gives us “Secular Wisdom”), we will end up trivializing both the integrity and need for both Secular and Heavenly Wisdom. What do I mean by this?

Some people think the Bible answers every problem. Therefore, they will only read and learn from the Bible. They will only seek help from their Pastor or Christian friends good in understanding “spiritual things”. When their friends have problems, they will direct them to the Bible. This is because they think only “Heavenly Wisdom” will help – “Secular Wisdom” is ungodly.

But this is simply a failure to realise the purpose of the Bible. The Bible doesn’t answer every problem because it’s not meant to! It is not a guide for us in everything. Yes, the Bible is good at what it’s meant to be good for. So the question we should ask ourselves is, “What is the Bible meant to be good for?” The answer – “The Bible is meant to reveal Christ as the way to a restored relationship with the Father in heaven.” This includes teaching us what Christ did for us, how we become recipients of Salvation, how we ought to obey God, etc. The Bible answers ultimate and eternal problems – to answer such problems, we ought to go only to the Bible, and not to any “Secular Wisdom” for help. However, the Bible or Christianity isn’t going to fully solve all our problems. It won’t give us wisdom and knowledge on how to do medical procedures, or how to set up a network of Computers, or how to conduct a business well. We can learn all these from doctors, engineers and businessmen. This wisdom is in no way ungodly. There’s no need to reject it or look down upon it. We need this wisdom. It is “Secular Wisdom” given from God to help us live better lives!

If we tell everyone that the Bible is an answer to all their problems, we end up trivializing the need for “Secular Wisdom”. Others will also lose their faith in the integrity of the Bible, when they’re told that the Bible is meant to help them in everything, and find out later that it can’t! What we need to do is realise that the Bible is the best at what it’s meant to be the best at. For things that the Bible doesn’t touch on, we can legitimately look to “Secular Wisdom” for our answers. We Christians don’t need to act as though only the Bible or only things which are “Christianized” are good, helpful and blessed by God!

3.5 Friends

Most of my closest friends are Christians. I find it easier to relate to other Christians because of our common faith in Christ and interest in “Redemption Realm” activities. I believe Christians should have good and close spiritual fellowship with other Christians. We shouldn’t live our Christian lives in isolation. Rather, we need support and encouragement from other Christians to help us in our walk with God. I always take joy in getting to know other Christians and would encourage Christians I know who do not have many Christian friends to get to know more Christian friends.

I guess a lot of Christians may be in the same position as I am. However, in the process of surrounding ourselves with Christian friends, We can easily fall into 2 traps:

1) By isolating ourselves from unbelievers, we will soon fail to understand how they think and act. This will make us a less effective witness to them as we will not be good in relating to them. In 1 Corinthians 9:22, Paul talks about being “all things to all men, that I may by all means save some.” Part of being “all things to all men” to Paul was to become like “a Jew, that I might win Jews,” or to become “weak, that I might win the weak”. What this means is that Paul accomodated himself – as much as he innocently could and without sinning against God – to their ways of thinking, in order to win them over to Christ. So the first reason why I think we should not always fill our lives only with Christian friends is because in doing so, it can hinder the effectiveness of our witness to unbelievers. We should go as far as we can (without falling into temptation or sinning) to accomodate ourselves to unbelievers. By doing so, we will be able to relate more to them and influence unbelievers more effectively.

2) We need to remember that non-Christians are still made in the image of God and despite their sinfulness, still bear God’s divine marks in them! We thus have something wondefully in common with them – both Christians and non-Christians bear God’s divine image. That should be a good enough reason for us not to look so lowly upon unbelievers. Another reason, as stated earlier, is that God showers “Common Grace” upon unbelievers. Thus because of God’s “Common Grace”, unbelievers can still exhibit some kindness and love and can still be good and faithful friends to us. We thus ought to appreciate and enjoy their friendship.

We don’t have to make friends with unbelievers just to win them to Christ! The 1st point above remains true, but becoming an effective witness isn’t the only reason to appreciate friendship with a non-Christian. To get to know unbelievers with an ulterior motive of winning them to Christ would be insincere and unloving. We don’t have to justify our friendship with non-Christians by seeking to evangelise them, just as you don’t have to justify our work in the secular world by seeking to evangelise our colleagues! We can enjoy our friendship with non-Christians simply because they, like us, bear divine image and that they, like us, are recipients of God’s grace.

Therefore, we need to have a balance of Christian and non-Christian friends. For me and other Christians emerged in Christian activities and in the Church, we need to start appreciating and enjoying the common humanness we share with unbelievers.

3.6 Pubs and Discos

At the time of writing this, I don’t recall having ever been to a pub or disco in my whole life. A normal Christian attitude, which most would consider godly, would be one of refrain from such places. The reasons are plentiful: many people get drunk and there is so much smoking, swearing, sinning, etc. It’s true that we don’t get much godly chatter or activities present in pubs and discos. Because of fear of getting influenced by such ungodly attitudes present, it may be wise to refrain from these places. If temptation for one is too great, then refraining from such places is the right choice.

However, I don’t think it should be a strict rule that Christians should never enter such places. It’s not a sin to do so, nor should we look down upon Christians who go to such places as if the mere presence there is in itself a sin. Sure, many Christians who go there need to carefully think twice about doing so. They need to ask themselves whether they are being negatively influenced by worldliness and ungodliness. Are they being tempted to sin by the ungodly atmosphere of these places? If so, they should be encouraged to stop spending too much time in these places and instead spend more time in Christian activities that will help build up their faith.

However, it needs to be made clear that going to these places is not sin per se. As long as we don’t sin by getting drunk, joining in ungodly chatter…etc, can’t we enjoy a drink with our Christian or non-Christian friends? Can’t we enjoy dancing to the music? I beleive we can do all these things for God’s glory. You can enjoy the beer and give thanks to God for such a wonderful drink if you like drinking beers. You can enjoy the music and dance and give thanks to God for the gift of music and the gift of dancing. Enjoying beer and dance without sinning, and acknowledging all this comes from God, is enough to justify our presence in a pub or disco.

As said previously, we can also relate more to our non-Christian friends. Some of our friends go only to these places. We can go with them and avoid sinning, even if they sin. Through accompanying them, we can understand them better and get closer to them such that they trust us. And when we share the gospel of Christ with them, they will be more open to listen to us.

3.7 Smoking

I believe that not all who smoke are sinning. This may sound ridiculous to many who’ve always looked upon smoking as a sin. However, I’ll give a few reasons why I think smoking may not always be sinful. Before I start, I want to say that I have never smoked a cigarette before. Now to some reasons.

Most will start their attack on smoking by saying smoking harms the body and the body is after all a temple of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19) and therefore to destroy it by smoking would be sinful. True enough, but then shouldn’t we also be weary of anything that harms our God given and owned bodies? Eventhough medical research indicates smoking does cause cancer, medical research also indicates eating fattening food can give us a heart attack. Many other food we eat can make us sick. Even those who eat too much aren’t really taking care of their own bodies! Many sports we play can result in harmful and deadly injuries.

I guess you’ll get my point by now. If we are quick to label smoking as sinful, what should we think about Pastors who are overweight? Do we rebuke our Christian friends for eating fattening food? Do we condemn those who risk their lives by climbing Mount Everest – knowing that many have lost their lives on this dangerous climb?

I think the best answer is to say that it’s not wise to smoke too much or to be addicted to smoking, just as it’s not wise to eat too much fattening food, etc. Because the Bible doesn’t explicitly condemn smoking, I think it’s best that such matters be left to the conviction of each individual. “Let each man be fully convinced in his own mind” (Romans 14:5) on these matters, and let us not judge one another (Romans 14:10).
Thus if someone enjoys smoking, finds pleasure in it, understands the danger of how too much smoking can harm his body (and therefore doesn’t smoke himself to death!) and glorifies God for the enjoyment of smoking, then I don’t see him as sinning against God!

3.8 Secular Entertainment

What ought we to think of secular entertainment like secular music, television and movies? As mentioned earlier, I strugged with the question of whether I should listen to secular music, and I eventually destroyed all my secular CDs. I was also quite influenced by a chapter in a book by Charismatic leader David Wilkerson calling Christians to do away with their television sets! Most Christians would probably agree with Philipp Jakob Spener when he wrote:

The joys of the world hinder spiritual joy to the greatest degree and make minds incapable of it. Worldly joy is gross, spiritual joy is subtle. Worldly joy draws man into the flesh, spiritual joy lifts him. Worldly joy puts him ill at ease, spiritual joy gives him peace. [14]

We think that secular entertainment can give us some enjoyment, but such is ungodly. To us, “Creation Realm” activities can give us pleasure, but it’s an ungodly form of pleasure/joy. Rather, we should pursue “Redemption Realm” activities. We tend to look down on others who watch a secular movie, instead of a Christian one or listens to secular music, instead of Christian music. But is this the right attitude?

We all definitely have to beware of a lot of ungodly lyrics, chatter, pictures, etc, we find in secular entertainment today. A lot of movies nowadays definitely do more harm than good. All the swearing, violence and sexual content is definitely not good for us Christians and can tempt us to sin very easily. Because of this, we have to be careful what songs we listen to and what movies and TV programs we watch.

However that doesn’t mean that all secular movies, TV programs and music and bad and it’s always a sin to watch or listen to them. Rather than an outright condemnation, all we need to say is that we need to be very careful. There is a place for proper enjoyment of – and giving thanks to God for – these “Creation Realm” activities.

One last thing to note. Just because there is sexual content in a movie doesn’t make it outrightly bad. In the Bible we read of many stories in the Old Testament that has sexual content. For example, take David’s adultery with Bathsheba. Rather, if a particular movie or TV program has high artistic quality, there is a good reason to enjoy the film and give glory to God.

Besides the fact that there is a place for proper enjoyment of secular entertainment, I can think of other reasons for Christians to not be afraid of it. As stated in 3.5 (Friends), the effectiveness of your witness strengthens when you are able to relate well with your unbelieving friends. Being familiar with secular entertainment like movies, TV programs and music will enable us to have more things in common with our unbelieving friends. This can help strengthen the way we relate to them. [15]

So we really need to be familiar with the culture of our day and not stay only in our own Christian world. A necessary condition for transforming and influencing the world is understanding it. Tremper Longman III says,

Serious readers of the Bible must be serious readers of culture. We must get out of the Christian ghetto by reading and conversing widely. Christians should watch a lot of television, movies, and listen to the music of the day. We must attend to the milieu if we want to affect it. [16]

1. I owe much (if not all!) of the thoughts expressed in this article to Michael Horton’s book, “Where in the World is the Church? – A Christian View of Culture and Your Role in It” (Moody Press, 1995) and also to the modern Reformation magazine edited by Horton – especially this article by Shane Rosenthal. The term “Worldly Christian” was also taken from title of the first chapter (“How to be a Worldly Christian”) of Horton’s book.
2. The two realms I discuss – “Creation Realm” and “Redemption Realm” – finds its origins in Augustine’s emphasis on “two cities” and expanded in Luther’s doctrine of “two kingdoms” and also by John Calvin.

3. The distinction of “Common Grace” and “Special Grace” is specifically a Reformed and Calvinistic view. Arminians would differ on this point.

4. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (IVP, 1994, pg. 657)

5. Michael Horton, Where in the World is the Church? (Moody Press, 1995, pg. 12)

6. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (IVP, 1994, pg. 272, 309)

7. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (IVP, 1994, pg. 665)

8. Of course, eventhough we should be able to accept, enjoy and give thanks to God for music and other things which aren’t explicitly Christian, we cannot do so for things that are explicitly anti-Christian! This goes without saying. However, the point of the article is to get Christians to enjoy activities and things not explicitly anti-Christian. Many people think that activities or things not explicitly Christian is thus anti-Christian or bad for Christians. However, this isn’t true.

9. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.2.15.

10. Michael Horton, Where in the World is the Church? (Moody Press, 1995, pg. 155). Horton goes so far to state that “we must put our families first, even before the church.” (pg. 157)

11. Michael Horton, Where in the World is the Church? (Moody Press, 1995, pg. 20).

12. Michael Horton, Where in the World is the Church? (Moody Press, 1995, pg. 144).

13. Michael Horton, Putting Amazing Back Into Grace (Baker, 1994, pg. 250).

14. Philipp Jakob Spener, “Christian Joy,” in Pietests: Selected Writings (London: Paulist/SPCK, 1983, pg.96)

15. I have not forgotten that Christians are also called to be salt and light of the earth. The distinctiveness of a Christian’s lifestyle, interests, etc., ought to be clearly seen, thereby attracting unbelievers to find out why Christians are so different. So there is indeed a calling for us to be different from unbelievers in our lifestyles and values. But this doesn’t negate the point I’m talking about – which is about the necessity to “break the ice” and “bridge the gap” and strengthen our relationship with unbelievers through common interests.

16. Tremper Longman III, “Reading the Bible Postmodernly” in the 12th Issue (Fall 1998) of Mars Hill Review.

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