Reformed Quarterly Volume 9, Issue 2
Reverend John Muether is librarian and associate professor of Theological Bibliography & Research at RTS Orlando. He holds a B.A. degree from Gordon College an M.A.R. from Westminster Seminary and an M.S.L.S. from Simmons College. Before coming to RTS, Muether was library director at Westminster Seminary.
Abortion on demand. Pornography sold in convenience stores. Homosexuality moving out of the closet and into mainstream American culture. Growing numbers of homeless in our nation’s cities. These and other concerns have reawakened the social consciousness of American evangelicals. Gone are the days of evangelical social quietism that characterized the early part of this century. During that time, the church reacted against the liberal social gospel and renounced social responsibility. Today evangelicals agree that the church must address social issues.
If evangelicals share a renewed sense of social concern, they are far from united on the rules of that involvement. Is the solution to our political problems a reconstructed republic patterned after the civil law of Old Testament Israel? Should the church identify with the liberation movements of the poor and oppressed of the third world? These are some of the strategies that are being proposed in the church today.
Many of these ideas have in common some form of politicized gospel, recommending that Christians pick up the sword to achieve a political goal. This modern impulse to use force against a perceived social injustice is prevalent among both the religious left and right.
This use of force is also indicative of political utopianism, or the idea that one can establish the kingdom of God in this world in political form. Christians can be strongly tempted to work toward a theocratic utopianism –the premature consummation of the kingdom of God in this world.
The politically-charged atmosphere of today’s church raises fundamental questions. Why has God given us this world? Why has He placed us here? What is the role of the state? What is the duty of the Christian citizen? I would like to suggest a biblical framework for addressing these issues.
THE ERA OF COMMON GRACE
When God pronounced judgment on our first parents, He did not extinguish them and the world He had just created. Rather, He delayed the execution of His final judgment in order to set in place His program of redemption. Theologians refer to this stay of execution as the era of common grace. This world is part of the common grace order that God established at the time of the fall.
One of the greatest blessings of this grace is God’s ordination of the state. Civil government was created to be a temporal restraint on evil, to provide the outward peace and order within which God could accomplish His redemptive purposes. The state, then, is a temporal benefit, serving mankind as at least a partial interim refuge from the wilderness condition into which the fallen race, exiled from paradise, has been driven.
Three features of the common grace order must be underscored: first, God has generously endowed all humankind with the benefits of common grace, tempering the effects of total depravity in all people so that none of us are as evil as we could be. Even the most hard-hearted of the reprobate reflect a measure of God’s common grace.
Secondly, the blessings are common, but not redemptive. Common grace serves to restrain the expression of evil within man, but it does not eliminate these evils. Thus the state as instrument of common grace is not designed to provide ultimate and complete solutions for malfunctioning society. Sin is overcome only through the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. Justice is the concern of the state, not righteousness. Its role is not eternally redemptive, only temporally remedial.
We should not expect the eradication of sin in this world, contrary to the desires of Christian utopians. A view which looks toward a holy and righteous political order before the return of Jesus Christ longs for a premature end of the common grace order of this world. This will not happen, because common grace extends from the fall to the consummation, when God will no longer withhold His judgment on the sin of this world.
Third, the blessings of common grace are temporal, not eschatological. At the consummation of history, the Bible tells us, God will establish a new order. The kingdom of God will come from above, not made with human hands, and no cultural activity, redeemed or unredeemed, will carry over into the new order.
LIVING IN EXILE
What does this tell us about our relationship to this world? Common grace instructs us to cultivate two attitudes toward the world. First, we cannot get caught up in the things of this world. This world is penultimate; it will pass away, and so we must eagerly await the new world to come.
Another way to express this truth is to affirm the “already/not yet” tension in the life of the Christian. The kingdom of God established by Christ has both present and future aspects. On the one hand, we possess salvation now. On the other hand, the richest expression of our salvation still awaits us. We are living in between times, between the “kingdom come” on earth and the “kingdom-consummation” in heaven, between the “now” and “then” of our redemption, between the “already” and the “not yet.”
Fundamentally, we should be discontent with this world. Ultimately, nothing here can satisfy the human heart. We groan with creation for the new creation, and we affirm with Augustine that our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God.
The church in this world, in other words, is a people in exile. We are far short of the kingdom of God. Things are not what they ought to be, and they will not be what they ought to be until Christ comes in glory. Only then will we experience the perfect way to order our lives. The church is called to suffer in this world.
Yet, while we suffer, we must cultivate the second attitude — to care for this world in a real and genuine way. The words of Jeremiah to the Israelite community in exile apply also to our situation: “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jer 29:7).
We are called to be wise and prudent during our exile. In our engagement in politics, we must not seek to establish the kingdom of God. He will establish His kingdom in due time.
Our exile has no guarantees, few securities. It affords no occasion for triumphalism. We have no promise from God regarding our cultural achievements. Unlike the promises to the holy nation of Israel in the Old Testament, the common state possesses no special guarantees of a material blessing as a reward for its obedience to the law of God. Rather prosperity and adversity are experienced unpredictably through the inscrutable sovereignty of God’s will.
Our calling is to care for this world and to await the next eagerly. The pattern for the Christian life is, then, both service and waiting. Paul sums this up in I Thess 1:9 when he commended the Thessalonians “… to serve the living and true God and to wait for his Son from heaven.”
It is not always pleasant to suffer in exile. It may seem much better to live with the confidence of the utopians. But that is a false and unbiblical confidence.
We should address the social concerns of our day. We should be opposing abortion, homosexuality, and poverty. But we do so without any promise of success. Things may improve, things may get worse. Common grace ebbs and flows throughout history.
God does not call us to be successful; He calls us to be faithful — however embattled we are, however much in the minority we are. Yet to live faithfully is to live with joy and peace, even in the suffering of our exile.