Monthly Archives: June 2012

Biblical Guidelines for Interpreting America’s “Christian Heritage”

A view of American history which gives a falsely Christian character is a hindrance, first, because it distorts the nature of the past.  Positive Christian action does not grow out of distortions or half-truths.  Such errors lead rather to false militance, unrealistic standards for American public life today, and to romanticized visions about the heights from which we have fallen [leading Christians and therefore churches into idolatrous practices of worship of a mixture of God and country].

But a false estimation of America’s history also hinders positive Christian action by discouraging a biblical analysis of our position today.  And it can compromise genuinely biblical guidelines for action.  If we accept traditional American attitudes toward public life as if these were Christian, when in fact they are not, we do the cause of Christ a disservice.  Similarly, if we perpetuate the sinful behavior and the moral blind spots of our predecessors, even if these predecessors were Christians, it keeps us from understanding scriptural mandates for action today….

[P]roper biblical principles for our attitudes to the American nation and its heritage…

(1) In the first place, we must agree with Roger Williams that no nation since the coming of Christ has been uniquely God’s chosen people.  The New Testament teaches unmistakably that Christ set aside national and ethnic barriers and that he has chosen to fulfill his central purposes in history through the church, which transcends all such boundaries….

However much particular nations may be used at particular times to do God’s work in the world, they are not the primary tools that he is now using.  Similarly, the Lord of history has not aligned his purposes with the particular values of any given country or civilization.

Instead, God calls out his people to be strangers and pilgrims, as many of America’s early settlers knew.  he calls them to repent of their sins and to avoid conformity with the world.  We are to be good citizens, but we must remember that our real home, that city with foundations, is beyond our own culture.  Our renderings to Caesar, while they must be taken seriously, are to follow the values of that Kingdom which stands above all earthly authority.  These priorities, rather than those of our culture and nation, demand our unfettered loyalty.

(2) A second principle is that God has no interest in religion per se.  There are strong inclinations, in fact, that he hates religion that is not truly Christian more than the absence of religion.  Christ condemned the Pharisees because not only were they blind, but as religious leaders they misled others.  “I hate the sound of your solemn assemblies,” the prophet Amos informed religious men and women of the Old Testament, when they used their religion as an excuse not to face the Lord himself.  One of the biggest dangers of an awareness of America’s religious past is the temptation to condone religion per se as the means to the ends of national righteousness.

There is the implicit tendency among uncritically patriotic Christians to conform any religion that tends to uphold the basic principles of American morality.  Where is the prophetic voice that condemns all religion which does not have its ultimate end in the God of our Lord Jesus Christ?  We must recognize that the American civic faith constantly repeats the chorus that any religion is good enough and that none should claim exclusive truth.  Against this tenet, we must be willing to stand as lonely prophets whose hearts are not glad with mere religiousity.  Jehovah demands exclusive loyalty.

(3) A third principle is that God judges people not according to what they say they believe but according to their real faith commitment.  God always is very practical in this respect.  We are liars, he says, if we claim to love God while we are busy hating our brother.  Similarly, when Israel would parade her religiousity, God would remind her people of the social injustice that was everywhere practiced upon the powerless.  This is the message of the book of James.  Real Christian faith can always be evaluated by the fruit it bears.  Real Christian faith will produce works, or it is not genuine faith.  According to this principle, we should evaluate the righteousness of any society not merely by the religious professions that people make, but also by the extent to which Christian principles concerning personal morality and justice for the oppressed are realized in the society.

The basis for judging the righteousness of this nation at any point is not solely to examine the membership rolls of the churches [especially in light of that, in much of pre-Revolutionary America and shortly after, church attendance was mandated].  No doubt, professions of faith are important.  But we must also look at the extent to which believers are engaged in the task of applying Christian love and justice to every facet of life.  What is really important is not the claims about American Christian heritage, nor an unjustifiable equation of modern America with the “my people” of 2 Chronicles 7:14.  What will stand in the final analysis is how believers, who recognize that their final Kingdom is not of this world, prove their faith in God by works of worship and love.

Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, George Marsden, The Search for Christian America22-24.

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Towards a Definition of “Christian Nation”

When I begin to explain that I think there should be “significant Christian influence” on government, sometimes people ask me if I think the United States is “a Christian nation.”

The question cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no” until we define more carefully what we mean by “a Christian nation.” That is one reason why people sometimes become so upset about this question—different people have different meanings in mind for the phrase “a Christian nation,” and therefore they can end up talking about different things but using the same words and just misunderstanding one another.

Here are several meanings one can attach to the phrase “a Christian nation,” together with an answer to the question that varies according to each meaning:

(1) Is Christian teaching the primary religious system that influenced the founding of the United States? Yes, it is.

(2) Were the majority of the Founding Fathers of the United States Christians who generally believed in the truth of the Bible? Yes, they were.

(3) Is Christianity (of various sorts) the largest religion in the United States? Yes, it is.

(4) Did Christian beliefs provide the intellectual background that led to many of the cultural values still held by Americans today? (These would include things such as respect for the individual, protection of individual rights, respect for personal freedom, the value of hard work, the need for a strong national defense, the need to show care for the poor and weak, the value of generosity, the value of giving aid to other nations, and respect for the rule of law.) Yes, Christian beliefs have provided much of the intellectual background for many of these and other cultural values.

(5) Was there a Supreme Court decision at one time that affirmed that the United States is a Christian nation? Yes, there was, but that wasn’t the issue that was under dispute in the case. It was in an 1892 decision, Church of the Holy Trinity v. the United States, 143 US 457 (1892). The ruling established that a church had the right to hire a minister from a foreign nation (England), and thus the church was not in violation of an 1885 law that had prohibited hiring “foreigners and aliens … to perform labor in the United States.” The court’s argument was that there was so much evidence showing the dominant “Christian” character of this nation that Congress could not have intended to prohibit churches from hiring Christian ministers from other countries. It seems to me that here the Supreme Court was arguing that the United States is a “Christian nation” according to meanings (3) and (4) above. There is a long history of significant Christian influence on the United States.

(6) Are a majority of people in the United States Bible-believing, evangelical, born-again Christians? No, I do not think they are. Estimates range from 18 to 42% of the US population who are evangelical Christians, and I suspect a number around 20% is probably more nearly correct. In a 2005 poll, Gallup, after doing a survey designed to find how many Americans had true evangelical beliefs, came up with a figure of 22%.6 In addition, there are many conservative Roman Catholics who take the Bible plus the official teachings of the Catholic Church as a guide for life, and a significant number of them have a personal trust in Jesus Christ as their Savior. But even if these groups are added together, it does not constitute a majority of people in the United States.

(7) Is belief in Christian values the dominant perspective promoted by the United States government, the media, and universities in the United States today? No, it is not.

(8) Does the United States government promote Christianity as the national religion? No, it does not.

(9) Does a person have to profess Christian faith in order to become a US citizen or to have equal rights under the law in the United States? No, certainly not. This has never been true. In fact, the Constitution itself explicitly prohibits any religious test for public office:

No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States (Article VI, section 3).

In conclusion, how can we answer the question, “Is the United States a Christian nation?” It all depends on what someone means by “a Christian nation.” In five possible meanings, the answer is yes. In four other possible meanings, the answer is no. Because there are that many possible meanings in people’s minds (and possibly more that I have not thought of), I do not think the question is very helpful in current political conversations. It just leads to arguments, misunderstanding, and confusion. The same points that a speaker wants to make with this claim can be made more clearly, without causing confusion, in terms of one or more of the expanded meanings that I have listed above.

Wayne Grudem, Politics – According to the Bible, 64-65.

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Strange Bedfellows: Christianity and Republicanism

Americans have long been accustomed to think of the values of religion and the values of republicanism as supporting each other. The bitterness of the Civil War, for example, was due at least in part to the intensity with which both North and South defended conflicting visions of “Christian liberty.” To this day, the Pledge of Allegiance—by conjoining “one nation under God with liberty and justice for all”—testifies to a resilient intermixture of religious and republican vocabularies. The long American habit of uniting these value systems has dulled awareness of how strikingly original the new nation’s “Christian republicanism” actually was. In fact, among a panoply of exceptional things about the American founding, one of the most unusual was the commitment by almost all religious people in the new United States to a distinctly republican vision of public life. This American position was unusual, not only by comparison with English-speaking contemporaries in the late eighteenth century, but also because almost all observers outside the United States assumed that republican thinking contradicted the principles of traditional religion.

For the writing of theology in the American environment, this confluence of republican and Christian allegiances was critical. What the Puritan canopy had once supplied as a boundary for theology, America’s republican Christian convictions would provide for later generations. To illustrate the singularity of this context for theological formation, it is useful to cite comments by Dietrich Bonhoeffer after he visited the United States in the 1930s. Bonhoeffer saw everywhere the presence of popular republican assumptions: “America calls herself the land of the free. Under this term today she understands the right of the individual to independent thought, speech and action. In this context, religious freedom is, for the American, an obvious possession.” To Bonhoeffer, it was especially noteworthy that “praise of this freedom may be heard from pulpits everywhere.” It was even more noteworthy what he took this freedom to signify: it “means possibility, the possibility of unhindered activity given by the world to the church.” For a history of American theology it is important to see why Bonhoeffer thought the Americans he observed at church in New York, New England, and the South were making a mistake. To Bonhoeffer it was not axiomatic that a republican exaltation of freedom merged smoothly with Christianity. Rather, he held that “the freedom of the church is not where it has possibilities, but only where the Gospel really and in its own power makes room for itself on earth, even and precisely when no such possibilities are offered to it. The essential freedom of the church is not a gift of the world to the church, but the freedom of the Word of God itself to gain a hearing.” In fact, he even thought that the American fascination with freedom might presage a decline—”a church which is free in this way becomes secularised more quickly than a church which does not possess freedom or possibility.” His conclusion was that “freedom as an institutional possession is not an essential mark of the church,” since “whether the churches of God are really free can only be decided by the actual preaching of the Word of God.”

Mark A. Noll, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln, 54-55.

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Jesus Paid It All

And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him. –  Colossians 2:13-15

  • I hear the Savior say,
    “Thy strength indeed is small;
    Child of weakness, watch and pray,
    Find in Me thine all in all.”
  • Refrain:
    Jesus paid it all,
    All to Him I owe;
    Sin had left a crimson stain,
    He washed it white as snow.
  • For nothing good have I
    Whereby Thy grace to claim;
    I’ll wash my garments white
    In the blood of Calv’ry’s Lamb.
  • And now complete in Him,
    My robe, His righteousness,
    Close sheltered ’neath His side,
    I am divinely blest.
  • Lord, now indeed I find
    Thy pow’r, and Thine alone,
    Can change the leper’s spots
    And melt the heart of stone.
  • When from my dying bed
    My ransomed soul shall rise,
    “Jesus died my soul to save,”
    Shall rend the vaulted skies.
  • And when before the throne
    I stand in Him complete,
    I’ll lay my trophies down,
    All down at Jesus’ feet.
  • Chorus: O Praise the one who paid my debt
    And raised this life up from the dead
    O Praise the one who paid my debt
    And raised this life up from the dead
    O Praise the one who paid my debt
    And raised this life up from the dead
    O Praise the one who paid my debt
    And raised this life up from the dead.

Elvina M. Hall, 1865.

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Faith is… (Repost)

Faith is not the human notion and dream that some people call faith. When they see that no improvement of life and no good works follow – although they can hear and say much about faith – they fall into the error of saying, “Faith is not enough; one must do works in order to be righteous and be saved.” This is due to the fact that when they hear the Gospel, they get busy and by their own powers create an idea in their heart which says, “I believe”; they take this then to be a true faith. But it is a human figment and idea that never reaches the depths of the heart, nothing comes of it either, and no improvement follows.

Faith, however, is a divine work in us, which changes us and makes us to be born anew of God, (John 1:12-13; 3). It kills the old Adam and makes us altogether different men, in heart and spirit and mind and powers; and it brings with it the Holy Spirit. O it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith! It is impossible for it not to be doing good works incessantly. It does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is asked, it has already done them, and is constantly doing them. Whoever does not do such works, however, is an unbeliever. He gropes and looks around for faith and good works, but knows neither what faith is nor what good works are. Yet he talks and talks, with many words, about faith and good works.

Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that the believer would stake his life on it a thousand times. This knowledge of and confidence in God’s grace makes men glad and bold and happy in dealing with God and with all creatures. And this is the work which the Holy Spirit performs in faith. Because of it, without compulsion, a person is ready and glad to do good to everyone, to serve everyone, to suffer everyone, out of love and praise to God, who has shown him this grace. Thus it is as impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate heat and light from fire. Beware, therefore, of your own false notions and of the idle talkers who imagine themselves wise enough to make decisions about faith and good works, and yet are the greatest fools. Pray God that He may work faith in you. Otherwise you will surely remain forever without faith, regardless of what you may think or do.

Martin Luther (1483-1546), “Preface to the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans,” in Faith and Freedom: An Invitation to the Writings of Martin Luther, 94-95.

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Spirit-Empowered Holiness and the Contemporary World

The great contemporary challenge of embracing the biblical perspective about the holiness of the Triune God, in general, and the Spirit’s sanctifying work, in particular, is that the ideas of human depravity coram Deo and therefore of the desperate need for the Spirit’s sanctifying grace do not chime well with modern sensibilities. Men and women today do not view themselves as sinners who fall short of the holiness demanded by a thrice-holy God. Dominique Clift, writing in the late 1980s from the vantage point of twenty-five years of commenting on Canadian society and politics, well describes this modern situation when he writes:

The most significant break with earlier religious attitudes, the one with the most far-reaching psychological consequences because of its effect on the way people see themselves, is the elimination of feelings of guilt and of unworthiness as the foundations of religious life. This development coincides with the appearance of more permissive social standards, particularly in sexual matters. …Somehow religion has moved beyond ethics: what has become uppermost today is the religious experience itself.

J.I. Packer, in his own inimitable way, describes the same phenomenon as a day of “unwarrantably great thoughts of humanity and scandalously small thoughts of God.” Our day, he predicts, will be remembered as “the age of the God-shrinkers.” The result, he says, is that:

belief in God’s sovereignty and omniscience, the majesty of his moral law and the terror of his judgments, the retributive consequences of the life we live here and the endlessness of eternity in which we will experience them, along with the intrinsic triunity of God and the divinity and personal return of Jesus Christ, is nowadays so eroded as to be hardly discernible. For many in our day, God is no more than a smudge.

 Part of the solution is to immerse ourselves afresh in the biblical perspectives about God and his holiness, and radically re-orient our mindset to what constitutes reality. Another part is to recognize that the Holy Spirit is still sovereign and has ways of overriding the barriers erected by erroneous thinking.

Consider the case of Mary Stewart, who, came to know Christ in that turbulent era of the late 1960s and early 1970s and found that she had some radical choices to make in her life. In her own words, she was:

a very liberated young woman at the time. I had had a rich sexual fantasy life almost since I could remember. …I had almost lost count of the number of men I had slept with in a serially monogamous fashion. I had taken advantage of the spirit of the Women’s Movement (in which I was quite active) to begin exploring my own bisexuality. And I had no intention of giving any of that up. When I accepted Christ, I figured that it was the spirit of the law, not the letter, that mattered, that “love” was the overriding principle, and that I could witness in bed as easily as anywhere else.

But to my progressive astonishment, I found all that changing. Not quickly. Not all at once. Not by anyone’s prying into my personal life or trying to send me on a guilt-trip (although I am sure I had lots of people praying for me). It was totally a process of God’s working on me, one item of behaviour at a time, over many months, like patiently peeling one layer after another off an onion.

As God’s Spirit began to enable her to “walk in his statutes,” as promised in Ezekiel 36:27, she came to find herself “progressively liberated, gentled and strengthened” and that, in her own words, “I wanted God’s Spirit more than I wanted transient physical titillation.”

Modern sensibilities be what they may, God’s Spirit and his sweet grace are ultimately, thankfully, and blessedly irresistible. And this gives us great hope and encouragement. Well did John Ryland, Jr., the close friend of Andrew Fuller (1754–1815) and William Carey (1761–1834), express this truth, albeit with reference to a much broader context, in a 1792 circular letter that he drew up for the Calvinistic Baptist churches of the Northamptonshire Association:

Surely the state both of the world, and of church, calls loudly upon us all to persist in wrestling instantly with God, for greater effusions of his Holy Spirit… Let us not cease crying mightily unto the Lord, “until the Spirit be poured upon us from on high” [Isaiah 32:15]; then the wilderness shall become as a fruitful field, and the desert like the garden of God. Yes, beloved, the Scriptures cannot be broken. Jesus must reign universally. All nations shall own him. All people shall serve him. His kingdom shall be extended, not by human might, or power, but by the effusion of His Holy Spirit [cf. Zechariah 4:6].

The Spirit’s work will ultimately be victorious—both personally in those whom he indwells and globally.

Michael Haykin, The Empire of the Holy Spirit, 47-50.

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Our Assurance Rests in the Triune God

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. – Ephesians 1:3-6

Election is a glorious doctrine; yet it makes some people uneasy because it naturally causes them to wonder whether they are predestined or not. Indeed, some people experience high anxiety because they fear they are not among the elect. Their question becomes, how can I know if God has chosen me or not? It is a reasonable question. If salvation depends on election, then it would seem that being sure of my salvation requires being sure of my election.

How then can we be sure that we are among God’s elect? The answer lies in the triune being of God. Here it helps to remember that the elect are chosen in Christ. Election in Christ is the only kind of election there is. What God has chosen to do is to unite us to Christ, putting us together with him for our salvation. Therefore, to ask if we are among the elect is really to ask if we are in Christ. If we want to know whether or not God has chosen us, all we need to know is whether or not we are in Christ. We do not need to read God’s mind. We do not need to climb up to heaven and peek into the Book of Life. The triune God has made himself known to us in Christ. So all we need to know is Jesus Christ, who is the location of salvation. Every spiritual blessing God has to offer may be found in him, including election. If we are in Christ, therefore, we are among the elect, for the elect are chosen in Christ. John Calvin thus warned that “if we have been elected in him [Christ], we shall not find assurance of election in ourselves.” Rather, Christ “is the mirror wherein we must, and without self-deception may, contemplate our own election.” The way to make our calling and election sure is to be sure that we are joined to Jesus Christ by faith.

Since election is in Christ, it is usually best understood after one becomes a Christian. In fact, the doctrine of election is sometimes referred to as a “family secret” (although it is not really a secret to anyone who knows the Bible). While we are still outside God’s family, we may not hear about predestination at all; if we do, it hardly seems to make any sense. Once we are in the family, however, it makes the most perfect sense in the world. Indeed, it is the kind of fact that helps us make sense of everything else.

The famous American Bible teacher and evangelist Donald Grey Barnhouse often used an illustration to help people make sense of election. He asked them to imagine a cross like the cross on which Jesus died, only so large that it had a door in it. Over the door were these words from Revelation: “Whosoever will may come” (22:17). These words represent the free and universal offer of the gospel. By God’s grace, the message of salvation is for everyone. Every man, woman, and child who will come to the cross is invited to believe in Jesus Christ and so enter eternal life.

On the other side of the door a happy surprise awaits the one who believes and enters. For from the inside, anyone glancing back can see these words from Ephesians written above the door: “Chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world” (1:4). Election is best understood in hindsight, for it is only after coming to Christ that we can look and know that we have been chosen in Christ. Those who make a decision for Christ find that the triune God made a decision for them in eternity past. In the words of an anonymous hymn from the nineteenth century,

I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew

He moved my soul to seek him, seeking me;

It was not I that found, O Savior true;

No, I was found of thee.

Philip Ryken & Michael LeFebvre, Our Triune God: Living in the Love of the Three-in-One, 28-29.

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