Saturday, June 27, 2015

THE GOSPEL AND POLITICS

by John MacArthur
For us, as Christians in the United States, it’s easy to get
caught up in all the political fervor. It can even be tempting to
think that legislation is the key to solving the moral problems
that plague American society. But is that a right perspective?
John MacArthur addresses this important issue and
underscores a biblical response.
There was a time (in the days of our Puritan forefathers),
when almost every soul in America acknowledged the Ten
Commandments as the cornerstone of ethics and morality.
Today most Americans can’t even name three of the Ten.
There was also a time (not so long ago) when Americans
universally disapproved of homosexuality, adultery, and
divorce; they believed sexual promiscuity is absolutely
wrong; they regarded obscene language as inappropriate;
they saw abortion as unthinkable; and they held public
officials to high moral and ethical standards. Nowadays,
most of the behavior society once deemed immoral is
defended as an inalienable civil right.
How times and the culture have changed! The strong
Christian influence and scriptural standards that shaped
Western culture and American society through the end of
the nineteenth century have given way to practical atheism
and moral relativism. The few vestiges of Christianity in
our culture are at best weak and compromising, and to an
increasingly pagan society they are cultic and bizarre.
In less than fifty years’ time, our nation’s political leaders,
legislative bodies, and courts have adopted a distinctly anti-
Christian attitude and agenda. The country has swept away
the Christian worldview and its principles in the name of
equal rights, political correctness, tolerance, and strict
separation of church and state. Gross immorality—including
homosexuality, abortion, pornography, and other evils—has
been sanctioned not only by society in general but in effect
by the government as well. A portion of our tax dollars are
now used to fund programs and government agencies that
actively engage in blatant advocacy of various immoral
practices.
What are Christians to do about it?
Many think this is a political problem that will not be solved
without a political strategy. During the past twenty-five
years, well-meaning Christians have founded a number of
evangelical activist organizations and sunk millions of
dollars into them in an effort to use the apparatus of
politics—lobbying, legislation, demonstration, and boycott—
to counteract the moral decline of American culture. They
pour their energy and other resources into efforts to drum
up a “Christian” political movement that will fight back
against the prevailing anti-Christian culture.
But is that a proper perspective? I believe not. America’s
moral decline is a spiritual problem, not a political one, and
its solution is the gospel, not partisan politics.
LESSONS FROM HISTORY
This is a lesson evangelicals ought to know from church
history. Whenever the church has focused on evangelism
and preaching the gospel, her influence has increased.
When she has sought power by political, cultural, or
military activism, she has damaged or spoiled her
testimony.
The Crusades during the Middle Ages were waged for the
purpose of regaining Christian control of the Holy Lands.
Few believers today would argue that those efforts were
fruitful. Even when the crusaders enjoyed military success,
the church grew spiritually weaker and more worldly. Other
religious wars and campaigns tinged with political
motivation (such as the Thirty Years’ War in Europe,
Cromwell’s revolution in England, and other skirmishes
during the Reformation era) are all viewed with disapproval,
or at best curiosity, by Christians today. And rightly so.
The military and political ambitions of some of the
Reformers turned out to be a weakness, and ultimately an
impediment to the Reformation. On the other hand, the
strength of the Reformation, and its enduring legacy, was
derived from the fact that Reformation theology shone a
bright spotlight on the way of salvation and brought clarity
to the gospel.
Throughout Protestant history, those segments of the
visible church that have turned their attention to social and
political issues have also compromised sound doctrine and
quickly declined in influence. Early modernists, for
example, explicitly argued that social work and moral
reform were more important than doctrinal precision, and
their movement soon abandoned any semblance of
Christianity whatsoever.
Today’s evangelical political activists seem to be unaware
of how much their methodology parallels that of liberal
Christians at the start of the twentieth century. Like those
misguided idealists, contemporary evangelicals have
become enamored with temporal issues at the expense of
eternal values. Evangelical activists in essence are simply
preaching a politically conservative version of the old social
gospel, emphasizing social and cultural concerns above
spiritual ones.
That kind of thinking fosters the view that government is
either our ally (if it supports our special agenda) or our
enemy (if it remains opposed or unresponsive to our voice).
The political strategy becomes the focus of everything, as
if the spiritual fortunes of God’s people rise or fall
depending on who is in office. But the truth is that no
human government can ultimately do anything either to
advance or to thwart God’s kingdom. And the worst, most
despotic worldly government in the end cannot halt the
power of the Holy Spirit or the spread of God’s Word.
To gain a thoroughly biblical and Christian perspective on
political involvement, we should take to heart the words of
the British theologian Robert L. Ottley, delivered at Oxford
University more than one hundred years ago:
The Old Testament may be studied. . .as an instructor in
social righteousness. It exhibits the moral government of
God as attested in his dealings with nations rather than
with individuals; and it was their consciousness of the
action and presence of God in history that made the
prophets preachers, not merely to their countrymen, but
to the world at large. . . .There is indeed significance in
the fact that in spite of their ardent zeal for social reform
they did not as a rule take part in political life or demand
political reforms. They desired. . .not better institutions
but better men. (Aspects of the Old Testament. The
Bampton Lectures, 1897 [London: Longmans, 1898],
430-31)
LESSONS FROM SCRIPTURE
My point is not that Christians should remain totally
uninvolved in politics or civic activities and causes. They
ought to express their political beliefs in the voting booth,
and it is appropriate to support legitimate measures
designed to correct a glaring social or political wrong.
Complete noninvolvement would be contrary to what God’s
Word says about doing good in society: “Therefore, as we
have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those
who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10; cf. Titus
3:1-2). It would also display a lack of gratitude for whatever
amount of religious freedom the government allows us to
enjoy. Furthermore, such pious apathy toward government
and politics would reveal a lack of appreciation for the
many appropriate legal remedies believers in democracies
have for maintaining or improving the civil order. A certain
amount of healthy and balanced concern with current
trends in government and the community is acceptable, as
long as we realize that that interest is not vital to our
spiritual growth, our righteous testimony, or the
advancement of the kingdom of Christ. Above all, the
believer’s political involvement should never displace the
priority of preaching and teaching the gospel.
There is certainly no prohibition on believers being directly
involved in government as civil servants, as some notable
examples in the Old and New Testaments illustrate. Joseph
in Egypt and Daniel in Babylon are two excellent models of
servants God used in top governmental positions to further
His kingdom. The centurion’s servant (Matt. 8:5-13),
Zaccheus the tax collector (Luke 19:1-10), and Cornelius
the centurion (Acts 10) all continued in public service even
after they experienced the healing or saving power of
Christ. (As far as we know, the Roman proconsul Sergius
Paulus also remained in office after he was converted [Acts
13:4-12].)
The issue again is one of priority. The greatest temporal
good we can accomplish through political involvement
cannot compare to what the Lord can accomplish through
us in the eternal work of His kingdom. Just as God called
ancient Israel (Ex. 19:6), He has called the church to be a
kingdom of priests, not a kingdom of political activists. The
apostle Peter instructs us, “But you are a chosen
generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own
special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him
who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1
Pet. 2:9).
Jesus, as we would expect, perfectly maintained His
Father’s perspective on these matters even though He
lived in a society that was every bit as pagan and corrupt
as today’s culture. In many ways it was much worse than
any of us in Western nations has ever faced. Cruel tyrants
and dictators ruled throughout the region, the institution of
slavery was firmly entrenched—everything was the
antithesis of democracy. King Herod, the Idumean vassal
of Rome who ruled Samaria and Judea, epitomized the
godless kind of autocratic rule: “Then Herod, when he saw
that he was deceived by the wise men [concerning the
whereabouts of the baby Jesus], was exceedingly angry;
and he sent forth and put to death all the male children
who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two
years old and under” (Matt. 2:16).
Few of us have experienced the sort of economic and legal
oppression that the Romans applied to the Jews of Jesus’
day. Tax rates were exorbitant and additional government-
sanctioned abuses by the tax collectors exacerbated the
financial burden on the people. The Jews in Palestine were
afforded almost no civil rights and were treated as an
underprivileged minority that could not make an appeal
against legal injustices. As a result, some Jews were in
constant outward rebellion against Rome.
Fanatical nationalists, known as Zealots, ignored their tax
obligations and violently opposed the government. They
believed that even recognizing a Gentile ruler was wrong
(see Deuteronomy 17:15, “You may not set a foreigner over
you, who is not your brother”). Many Zealots became
assassins, performing acts of terrorism and violence
against both the Romans and other Jews whom they
viewed as traitors.
It is also true that the Roman social system was built on
slavery. The reality of serious abuses of slaves is part of
the historical record. Yet neither Jesus nor any of the
apostles attempted to abolish slavery. Instead, they
commanded slaves to be obedient and used slavery as a
metaphor for believers who were to submit to their Lord
and Master.
Jesus’ earthly ministry took place right in the midst of that
difficult social and political atmosphere. Many of His
followers, including the Twelve, to varying degrees
expected Him to free them from Rome’s oppressive rule.
But our Lord did not come as a political deliverer or social
reformer. He never issued a call for such changes, even by
peaceful means. Unlike many late twentieth-century
evangelicals, Jesus did not rally supporters to some
grandiose attempt to “capture the culture” for biblical
morality or greater political and religious freedoms.
Christ, however, was not devoid of care and concern for
the daily pain and hardships people endured in their
personal lives. The Gospels record His great empathy and
compassion for sinners. He applied those attitudes in a
tangible, practical way by healing thousands of people of
every kind of disease and affliction, often at great personal
sacrifice to Himself.
Still, as beneficial and appreciated as His ministry to
others’ physical needs was, it was not Jesus’ first priority.
His divine calling was to speak to the hearts and souls of
individual men and women. He proclaimed the good news
of redemption that could reconcile them to the Father and
grant them eternal life. That message far surpasses any
agenda for political, social, or economic reform that can
preoccupy us. Christ did not come to promote some new
social agenda or establish a new moral order. He did come
to establish a new spiritual order, the body of believers
from throughout the ages that constitutes His church. He
did not come to earth to make the old creation moral
through social and governmental reform, but to make new
creatures holy through the saving power of the gospel and
the transforming work of the Holy Spirit. And our Lord and
Savior has commanded us to continue His ministry, with
His supreme priorities in view, with the goal that we might
advance His kingdom: “All authority has been given to Me in
heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all
the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and
of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe
all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with
you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:18-20).
In the truest sense, the moral, social, and political state of
a people is irrelevant to the advance of the gospel. Jesus
said that His kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36).
THE REAL BATTLE
We can’t protect or expand the cause of Christ by human
political and social activism, no matter how great or
sincere the efforts. Ours is a spiritual battle waged against
worldly ideologies and dogmas arrayed against God, and we
achieve victory over them only with the weapon of
Scripture. The apostle Paul writes: “For though we walk in
the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. For the
weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God
for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and
every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of
God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience
of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:3-5).
We must reject all that is ungodly and false and never
compromise God’s standards of righteousness. We can do
that in part by desiring the improvement of society’s moral
standards and by approving of measures that would
conform government more toward righteousness. We do
grieve over the rampant indecency, vulgarity, lack of
courtesy and respect for others, deceitfulness, self-
indulgent materialism, and violence that is corroding
society. But in our efforts to support what is good and
wholesome, reject what is evil and corrupt, and make a
profoundly positive impact on our culture, we must use
God’s methods and maintain scriptural priorities.
God is not calling us to wage a culture war that would seek
to transform our countries into “Christian nations.” To
devote all, or even most, of our time, energy, money, and
strategy to putting a façade of morality on the world or
over our governmental and political institutions is to badly
misunderstand our roles as Christians in a spiritually lost
world.
God has above all else called the church to bring sinful
people to salvation through Jesus Christ. Even as the
apostle Paul described his mission to unbelievers, so it is
the primary task of all Christians to reach out to the lost
“to open their eyes, in order to turn them from darkness to
light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they may
receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those
who are sanctified by faith in Me [Christ]” (Acts 26:18; cf.
Ex. 19:6; 1 Pet. 2:5, 9). If we do not evangelize the lost and
make disciples of new converts, nothing else we do for
people—no matter how beneficial it seems—is of any
eternal consequence. Whether a person is an atheist or a
theist, a criminal or a model citizen, sexually promiscuous
and perverse or strictly moral and virtuous, a greedy
materialist or a gracious philanthropist—if he does not have
a saving relationship to Christ, he is going to hell. It makes
no difference if an unsaved person is for or against
abortion, a political liberal or a conservative, a prostitute or
a police officer, he will spend eternity apart from God
unless he repents and believes the gospel.
When the church takes a stance that emphasizes political
activism and social moralizing, it always diverts energy and
resources away from evangelization. Such an antagonistic
position toward the established secular culture invariably
leads believers to feel hostile not only to unsaved
government leaders with whom they disagree, but also
antagonistic toward the unsaved residents of that culture—
neighbors and fellow citizens they ought to love, pray for,
and share the gospel with. To me it is unthinkable that we
become enemies of the very people we seek to win to
Christ, our potential brothers and sisters in the Lord.
Author John Seel pens words that apply in principle to
Christians everywhere and summarize well the believer’s
perspective on political involvement:
A politicized faith not only blurs our priorities, but
weakens our loyalties. Our primary citizenship is not on
earth but in heaven. … Though few evangelicals would
deny this truth in theory, the language of our spiritual
citizenship frequently gets wrapped in the red, white and
blue. Rather than acting as resident aliens of a heavenly
kingdom, too often we sound [and act] like resident
apologists for a Christian America. … Unless we reject the
false reliance on the illusion of Christian America,
evangelicalism will continue to distort the gospel and
thwart a genuine biblical identity…..
American evangelicalism is now covered by layers and
layers of historically shaped attitudes that obscure our
original biblical core. (The Evangelical Pulpit [Grand
Rapids: Baker, 1993], 106-7)
By means of faithful preaching and godly living, believers
are to be the conscience of whatever nation they reside in.
You can confront the culture not with the political and
social activism of man’s wisdom, but with the spiritual
power of God’s Word. Using temporal methods to promote
legislative and judicial change, and resorting to external
efforts of lobbying and intimidation to achieve some sort of
“Christian morality” in society is not our calling—and has no
eternal value. Only the gospel rescues sinners from sin,
death, and hell.

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