Dear RTS family,
As morning dawned on June 1, 2020, in Jackson, Mississippi, we found ourselves in a nation gripped by fear, frustration, indignation, sorrow, mourning, division, and violence. The cruel mistreatment and unjust killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota have sparked a broad (even worldwide) response revealing a pent up rage over injustice. Protests, riots, and the destruction of neighborhoods and businesses have ensued. We have seen and felt this tension building in this country repeatedly since at least 2014. A friend of mine, who serves in Christian ministry now, but who has walked the halls of power in high places for much of his life, said to me yesterday: “2020 started off like 1974 (impeachment crisis), quickly became 1918 (pandemic), turned into 1929 (economic crash), and is now 1968 (massive social unrest).” Indeed, here in Mississippi add to that a one hundred year flood and the devastating side effects, and we are all in a tinder box right now.
Over a hundred thousand of our fellow citizens have died from COVID-19, millions are unemployed and in dire financial need because of the measures taken to slow its spread, and now our nation is inflamed against itself because of what we witnessed in the latest injustice against an African American at the hands of a law enforcement official. Deep wounds have been opened that will not be easily healed. We are haunted by the memories of slavery, segregation, lynching, and injustice that have stalked so many of our fellow countrymen for so many years, while so many others of us stood by in silent indifference and culpable complicity. What can we do in the face of such enormous realities, complicated by factors of almost infinite regress?
We can trust God and be Christians. We, of all peoples on this earth, understand that “we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Ephesians 6:12). We know that we are no match for what we are up against, but “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in time of trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved, and though the mountains be carried into the sea” (Psalm 46:1-2). “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made the heavens and the earth” (Psalm 124:8).
Especially as a community of servants of the Lord, preparing to serve our triune God in Christian ministry, we can and should do at least four things. Love and trust God, and show that by praying to and depending on and believing in him. Love one another, tenaciously committing ourselves to be the communion of the saints. Love our neighbors, determining to let no one out-love us in this country and culture. Proclaim the Gospel which is the power of God unto salvation and the power of change in transformed people.
Repent, Lament, and Pray
First, we should commit ourselves to repent, lament, and pray to our God. This problem, situation, and its remedy is bigger than us. We know that it is, even though snake oil salesmen from the left and right are going to try to market their “solutions” to us in the coming days. In Atlanta today, Dr. Guy Richard, and Dr. Carl and Karen Ellis, of RTS Atlanta and the Edmiston Center, are leading a time of prayer using our Lord’s Prayer. This is not an attempt to wash our hands of our responsibilities to love our neighbors tangibly in this moment of crisis. It is the first step of every true believer who understands that the unseen world of spiritual reality is determinative of life here and now, and not just that of the life to come. The Reformation came in the wake of plague, pestilence, poverty, famine, war, and ecclesiastical corruption. God is always up to things in big societal upheavals. We go to him. First. Yesterday, on the Lord’s Day, I prayed:
O Lord, we thank you for your abundant, and undeserved, blessings on our country. You have been so gracious to us and we have presumptuously and unthankfully enjoyed your many favors. We humble ourselves before you because of our national sins. And in this time of riot and protest we especially lament the staggering magnitude of injustice against African Americans.
O Lord, forgive and change us. In wrath, remember mercy. We humbly ask for your mercy toward our nation, since our every blessing depends on your grace. Our national iniquities testify against us. We have sinned against you. Yet for the glory of your name do not forsake us.
Lord, we pray that the gospel will always continue among our nation and that the means of grace will remain available to all your people here. Do not remove the lampstand of Christ’s Church from the midst of us, though we deserve it. Do not give us a famine of the Word.
Sovereign God, our nation is gripped by fear, frustration, indignation, division and violence. Grant, as only you can do, safety in our streets, peace and tranquility in our communities. Establish in our hearts and lives justice that rolls down like waters and righteousness as an everlasting stream. Give success to every sincere effort to promote civic righteousness and public virtue, and for the suppression of vice and injustice, unto domestic tranquility and the general welfare. Display your faithfulness to the poor and needy as you free them from their affliction.
We pray for the protection of your people as they enter into conflict against evil and untruth when it is manifested within our nation, among our neighbors, and even in foreign nations. We pray especially for public servants today: leaders and elected officials who bear the burden of governance in a perplexing moment. Teach our president, governors, and mayors wisdom. Give them courage, compassion, resolution, and discernment. Do not silence trustworthy advisors. Uphold and help them.
O God, just Judge of the world, we pray for our judiciary at all levels. We pray that they would be just, wise, impartial, incorruptible, people of integrity. Make them a terror to evildoers but never to those who do good. Let them acquit the innocent and convict the guilty.
We ask all this, in Gospel hope, through Jesus Christ, our Lord.
Maybe these words will help you form some thoughts in your prayers for our country, culture, and neighbors.
Love One Another
Second, love one another. Our Savior gave us the new commandment to love one another as he loved us, and John tells us to love in deed and truth, not just word and tongue (John 13:34; 1 John 3:18). So let us double-down on loving one another, tenaciously committing ourselves to be the communion of the saints. Our Westminster Confession, in its chapter on the Communion of the Saints, beautifully and biblically says:
All saints … being united to one another in love, … have communion in each other’s gifts and graces, and are obliged to the performance of such duties, public and private, as do conduce to their mutual good, both in the inward and outward man. Saints by profession are bound to maintain an holy fellowship and communion … in performing such other spiritual services as tend to their mutual edification; as also in relieving each other in outward things, according to their several abilities and necessities. Which communion, as God offereth opportunity, is to be extended unto all those who, in every place, call upon the name of the Lord Jesus (Westminster Confession of Faith, 26.1-2).
Let’s make this an expressed and experienced reality for all in the RTS family, especially for our African American students. We want every part of Christ’s body to receive the active love, care, and service of the whole body, even as every part seeks to give it to the other. In this distressing season, let us be a refuge for one another, as we point one another to the only true refuge for our weary souls.
Love our Neighbors
Third, let us all, according to our own opportunities, situations, and circumstances, love our neighbors. Our Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ said that loving neighbor is the second greatest commandment (Leviticus 19:18, Matthew 22:36-40). As his disciples, then, we should be determined to let none in this country and culture out-love us. The Westminster Larger Catechism gives us tangible, biblical, and practical suggestions for how to do this. It says that the duties required in the sixth commandment (“you shall not murder”) are:
all careful studies, and lawful endeavors, to preserve the life of ourselves and others by resisting all thoughts and purposes, subduing all passions, and avoiding all occasions, temptations, and practices, which tend to the unjust taking away the life of any; by just defense thereof against violence, patient bearing of the hand of God, quietness of mind, cheerfulness of spirit; … by charitable thoughts, love, compassion, meekness, gentleness, kindness; peaceable, mild, and courteous speeches and behavior; forbearance, readiness to be reconciled, patient bearing and forgiving of injuries, and requiting good for evil; comforting and succoring the distressed, and protecting and defending the innocent (Westminster Larger Catechism, 135).
Let us all, as Christians, love our neighbors in our various local communities, in these ways. In other words, Christian love — expressed to our neighbors — manifests itself practically. We care about our neighbors’ safety and well-being. We want them to enjoy a fair and just society just like we want to enjoy it. We are committed to and involved in securing that with and for them, because we care about the common good and the general welfare. Those have been American values since the founding of our nation, though unevenly applied and experienced. As Christians, though, we have profound theological reasons for living this way. Our Master and Savior came not to be served, but to serve; he saved us and taught us to love our neighbors and not live selfishly.
Proclaim the Gospel
Finally, let us recommit ourselves to proclaim the Gospel which is the power of God unto salvation and the power of change in transformed people. The world will belittle and beckon us away from the gospel in a season like this, but true believers know the power of God to save sinners and change lives. People need to hear of God’s saving design to rescue rebels and redeem wretches, like us. People need to hear the glorious truth of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. People need to hear the Word of God powerfully and passionately preached, and they need to hear the preacher say: trust in Christ alone for your salvation as he is offered in the gospel.
A life of good works is only possible after receiving such grace, not before it. And so, if we really want to see people living lives of good works and neighborly love in this world in the here and now, we need to remember what Paul said:
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:8-10).
So, don’t let anyone sell you on a false juxtaposition between preaching the gospel and cultivating disciples who do good works, love their neighbors and care about public justice (as defined by the Scriptures). The Gospel makes disciples that care about both the first (love God) and the second great commandments (love your neighbor)! There is no contradiction between those things. And there is also no contradiction between believing the primacy of the proclaimed Word and making disciples who “obey everything that Jesus commanded” (including what the Bible teaches about our social responsibilities as believers).
The world needs Jesus. The world needs the gospel. That’s what we are preparing for here at Reformed Theological Seminary. To be servants of the Word, for the sake of the gospel, so that by the power of God, people will trust in Christ, and come to the Father, by the Spirit, and then live the Christian life, in accordance with God’s Word. That is a wholly supernatural thing, accomplished by the means of God’s own appointment: the preaching and hearing of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, and the lifting up of holy hands in prayer. Let’s be more committed to that ministry — and to the preparation for it — than ever before. There is a lost, sinful, hurting world that needs to know it. Let’s tell them. And show them.