The Church’s Most Powerful Political Word: The Gospel

Article
04.17.2018

It’s a tough political moment for American evangelicals. There’s bickering inside and outside of our churches. Minorities feel increasingly estranged from white churches. Many worry about a loss of moral credibility in light of recent political alliances.

One religion reporter at The Atlantic called it “a time for reckoning with evangelicals’ relationship to politics.” Another at the New York Times offered a heart-breaking piece entitled, “A Quiet Exodus: Why Black Worshipers Are Leaving White Evangelical Churches.” And Mark Galli, editor-in-chief at Christianity Today, has observed that “evangelicals on the left and right are utterly embarrassed by each other.”

The reasons offered for all the bickering are predictable: the 2016 elections, widespread evangelical support of Trump, white resistance to Black Lives Matter, pastors playing politics by endorsing candidates, churches acting like auxiliaries of the Democrat or Republican parties, and so forth. The result of all this: “Evangelical Christianity has a PR problem,” observes one Christian university professor in the book Still Evangelical?

First off, let me say, we shouldn’t be surprised when the world is upset with us. The Bible tells us the nations rage against the Lord and against his Anointed—Jesus. If we adopted all the politically correct policy postures, would the world’s rage really stop? Hardly. And if it did, what would it say about whose side we were on—the nations’ or the Lord’s? Lest we be overly concerned about our present political PR problem, it’s worth realizing that the world won’t oppose Christians merely because we say, “We love Jesus.” They’ll oppose us because of what we say Jesus requires in their lives and ours. Jesus is a king. He’s political. He makes demands, and specific ones at that. So if you would follow this king, get used to the rage.

That said, yes, we Christians do deserve blame for our present PR problems. Yet those problems didn’t begin in the 2016 elections; or amidst the strong emotional reactions from the Left against Bush or the Right against Obama; or with the missteps of the moral majority in the 1980s; or with our reactions to the passing of Roe v. Wade in 1973 or in the previous decade’s Sexual Revolution; or amidst Christian support for Jim Crow or even slavery in the decades and centuries before that.

Instead, many of our present political troubles root in something deeper and older still. Too often, we Christians become more interested in the kingdoms we can build in this world than the kingdom of Christ. And this has plagued American Christians since colonial days whenever our forbearers sought to make America—not the church—a city on the hill.

Read John Wilsey’s excellent American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion (or my review which summarizes it here; or his 9Marks summary here) to see how the idolatry of nation perverted Christianity and played a huge role in so many of our its historical sins. Too easily we have invested our highest political hopes in the nation, or in our view of what a nation should be. And such utopianism and idolatry leads to intemperate political engagement at best, injustice and oppression at worst.

It’s high time to stop that. Evangelicals instead need to rethink their overall relationship to politics and the public square. Step one of that—and my topic here—is to recognize where our real political power comes from, to recognize that the most powerful political word in the world is—are you ready for this?—the gospel.

A MESSAGE THAT INAUGURATES A KINGDOM

“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” Peter confessed (Matt. 16:16). That’s the confession which would inaugurate a whole new kingdom. And nothing is as politically powerful as a message that inaugurates a kingdom, especially a global one that crosses physical, ethnic, cultural, and language boundaries.

The message, “Jesus is king,” is not just “political” metaphorically, as when we speak of “university politics” or “office politics.” It’s political fully and entirely. It applies to all humanity. It means to bind every life and radically change it. It’s a message that says we obey our governments merely because we owe obedience to King Jesus. We obey them because we obey him. Meaning: governments are not absolute. Their authority is contingent and relative. And make no mistake: that’s a threat to them. Persecution makes sense from the perspective of a government who believes its rule is supreme.

I love Michael Horton’s reflections on the political nature of our message and work. He observes,

As a minister, I am called regularly by God to make a political speech. A deeply partisan political speech. However, it is not to rally the troops in defense of Christendom against the infidels of various sorts. It divides not between Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, but between Christ and Antichrist.[1]

Preaching, it would seem, is political. So is evangelism. Both kinds of speech call people to bow before a king whose claims are higher than all other kings’. Humanity’s allegiance to these lesser kings derives from humanity’s obligation to the King of kings.

Think of Jonah’s sermon in Ninevah: “Judgment’s coming!” (see Jonah 3:4). Immediately the city “believed God” and repented. Jonah’s speech was evangelistic, yes, but can you think of a more powerful political speech than his? It changed a city. And Jonah was not seeking to install an Israelite king. This was a foreign city. Nineveh is no different than Washington or Moscow in terms of where it’s located in the Bible’s redemptive storyline.

Behind the political nature of our preaching and evangelism is a political message—the gospel.

CHRISTIANITY AS IDENTITY POLITICS

To put it another way, Christianity offers its own identity politics. It says that our union with Christ becomes the most fundamental thing about us. It’s all-defining for our identity. “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).

Who now am “I”? I don’t stop being “Jonathan,” son of a Leeman, white, American, male, middle-class, proud, opinionated, and so forth. But now all those things get put into subjection to Jesus. He gets to define, redefine, or throw those things out altogether. He gets to tell me what to do with the different components of who “I” am, whether those parts are good or sinful.

So it is with everyone who is born again of the Spirit and declared a citizen of heaven. Which means, I now belong to a Christian group or a tribe, set in the midst of so many other politically-significant tribes and nations. And my Christian tribe is going to make demands on my life individually and on our life together as a tribe. Jesus is going to say our lives should look a certain way. Some of those things outsiders will like. Others they won’t.

But make no mistake, our message and our existence as a people is nothing if not political—just as the groups identified and protected by identity politics generally is political.

THE POLITICS OF SOLA FIDE[2]

The Christian tribe, however, possesses a different kind of identity politics because group membership begins not with something internal to us. We don’t belong to the group because we were born to these parents, or in this nation, or with this skin color, or with these moral credentials. Our citizenship depends entirely upon the righteousness of Christ, and we possess that righteous standing by faith.

Let me back up. Identity politics, most fundamentally, is an enterprise for justification. It’s a way of saying that “This group deserves to exist and be recognized.” And when a group has been unfairly oppressed, that’s a righteous enterprise.

The trouble is, too often we employ our this-world identities as an argument (or justification) to dominate others. Ideologues justify themselves by their wisdom (“I’m more communist/conservative/progressive than you”). Supremacists justify themselves by their skin color (“I’m whiter/lighter than you.”) Nationalists by their nation (“I’m more German/Serbian/Hutu than you.”). The Pharisees pointed to their works (“I’m more righteous than you”). Self- or group-justification, you might say, always leads to self- or group-enthronement. I can rule over you only after I have justified that rule. Rule and justification are correlates. I feel justified in dominating you because of this thing about me.

The doctrine of justification by faith alone, however, robs me of this thing as a source of social or political standing. Sola fide says, “No, you’re not better than anyone because you’re white, wealthy, or wise.” It brings all such self- or group-vindicating arguments to an end. It stops our mouths and declares us all guilty before God’s throne. It says we can only possess standing before God and all who belong to God’s kingdom based on something external: the righteousness of Christ. In the process, sola fide robs political actors of the incentives to warfare and domination by giving them that which all people, tribes, nations, and armies primarily seek—justification, standing, the recognition of existence.

The most politically powerful phrase in the Bible just might be “Where then is boasting!” (Rom. 3:27). Boasting, after all, is the root of all domination and coercion. We quarrel, fight, and murder because we desire and do not have, covet and cannot obtain (James 4:1–2). But now the need to say, “I follow Paul” or “I follow Apollos” or “I am a Communist” or “I am a Democrat” or “I am a Republican” or “I am Hutu” or “I am a Tutsi” is extinguished because no one should “boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s and Christ is God’s” (1 Cor. 3:21–23). In an assembly of those justified by faith, there is neither slave nor free, Jew nor Gentile, male nor female (Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:11). Those political categories that divide the world are relativized and made subject to our identity in Christ.

Sola fide, in short, ends boasting, levels all hierarchies, and produces peace. It is history’s unexpected source of political unity.

I say unexpected because the idea that a person can in some sense be considered just “by faith” and not by his or her activity, to a political philosopher, sounds like cheating the system. It seems to gut the word “justice” of the very thing it needs—action or works. This has led many to critique sola fide outright, or at least to treat the doctrine as non-political. Yet the doctrine of justification does not merely have political implications; it is a political doctrine outright. “The concept of justice is coextensive with the political,”[3] observes political theorist Iris Marion Young. After all, a just or righteous person, at a bare minimum, stands in a right position with respect to a governing authority and body politic. This means that declaring someone just or righteous is often a political statement, involving vertical and horizontal dimensions.

God’s verdict of “Righteous” to his saints is a covenantal verdict. It declares us righteous according to the terms of the New Covenant. It’s not just a legal declaration, it’s a political declaration. To be declared right by the judge is to be declared right before everyone else in the courtroom.

THE POLITICS OF CONVERSION

Think about all this in terms of a Christian understanding of conversion. If your doctrine of conversion is missing a corporate and political element, it’s missing an essential piece of the whole.[4]

A covenant head comes with a covenant people. 

To be sure, our individual justification and reconciliation before God comes first. There can be no true reconciliation between humans until individual sinners first reconcile with God. But the horizontal necessarily follows the vertical. Ecclesiology necessarily follows soteriology. The corporate must come. Our corporate unity in Christ is not just an implication of conversion, it’s part of the very thing. Notice Peter’s parallel statements:

Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:10)

Receiving mercy (vertical reconciliation) is simultaneous to becoming a people (horizontal reconciliation). God has mercy on us by forgiving our sins, and a necessary consequence of that is inclusion in his people.

The same lesson is put on display wonderfully in Ephesians 2. Verses 1 to 10 explain forgiveness and our vertical reconciliation with God: “By grace you have been saved.” Verses 11 to 20 then present the horizontal: “For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility” (v. 14). Christ has already made—past tense—Jew and Gentile one. There is no imperative here. Paul is not commanding his readers to pursue unity. Instead, he’s speaking in the indicative. It’s what they are because God has done it, and God did it in precisely the same place he accomplished the vertical reconciliation—in the cross of Christ (see also the relationship between indicative and imperative in Eph. 4:1–6).

By virtue of Christ’s new covenant, corporate unity belongs to the indicative of conversion. To be converted is to be made a member of Christ’s body. Our new identity contains an ecclesial element. Christ has made us ecclesial persons.

Here’s an easy way to see it. When mom and dad go down to the orphanage to adopt a son, they bring him home and place him at the family dinner table with a new set of brothers and sisters. To be a son is not the same thing as being a brother. Sonship comes first, but brotherhood follows necessarily.

That is to say, conversion signs you up for a family photo. It places you into the Christian tribe. And membership into that tribe quickly proves politically significant to everyone outside of that tribe. Just think of how your relationships with your non-Christian friends or family members changed when you told them you were a Christian now.

THE UNIQUENESS OF A GOSPEL POLITICS

Because a Christian identity politics or a gospel politics doesn’t start with something inside or natural to us, it’s unlike any other brand of identity or nationalistic or partisan politics. Every other form seeks to honor itself. Democrats fight for democrats, whites for whites, Americans for Americans. Yet a politics that begins with sola fide fights for the good of others. It loves the enemy. It turns the cheek. It walks two miles when only one is asked for. Remember, it’s not pointing to anything in itself. Instead, it wants to extend the grace and mercy and freedom it’s discovered to all.

A gospel politics, rightly understood, doesn’t pretend the discriminations and injustices of this world don’t exist. It’s not “colorblind” in that sense. Instead, it means to acknowledge the injustices different groups of people have encountered. What’s more, it no longer needs to defend itself, as in, “I didn’t do it. Don’t blame me!” Rather, it’s willing to accept blame and then extend its resources to help others because its justification comes from Christ. In fact, a gospel politics will wield the sword for the very purposes of establishing justice among those who have been denied it. It recognizes that all people have been created in God’s image.

Here, indeed, is what should make a gospel politics stand apart. It seeks not its own good, but the good of all within its jurisdiction, each according to one’s obligations (my obligation to my children is greater than my obligation to your children, for instance), because all are made in God’s image. The Christian tribe exists not to protect itself but for the purposes of loving God and loving other tribes.

SALT THAT’S LOST ITS SALTINESS

Former Bush speech writer Michael Gerson recently argued in The Atlantic that “modern evangelicalism has an important intellectual piece missing. It lacks a model or ideal of political engagement—an organizing theory of social action.” I’m not sure that’s right. Plenty of Christian practitioners and theorists have offered their agenda or theory of social action.

Where I’m sympathetic to Gerson, however, is that too often our view of political engagement forgets about our most powerful word, the gospel. It’s not enough to simply say, “The Bible emphasizes social justice” or “universal moral laws” or whatever. When that’s our only word, we sound like every other interest group, pushing a self-interested law. It’s the path of moralism and shame-casting. We then become like salt that’s lost its saltiness, which Jesus says might as well be thrown out. With Gerson, then, I’d say we need a better model or ideal, and a truly Christian (read: gospel grounded) one.

Until then, we’ll continue to have self-caused PR problems. David French, I fear, is right on point here:

Evangelicals aren’t worse than other American political tribes. Instead, we’re proving that in politics we’re just like everyone else. In other words, the true sin of white American Evangelicalism isn’t that we’re exceptionally bad, it’s that we’re not exceptional at all.

The solution is not to pretend we’ll ever be morally perfect people. That’s just more moralism. The solution instead is to realize that political power must always begin with the gospel. It alone possesses the ability to change a heart, produce true justice, and permanently unite enemies. This occurs, of course, primarily in the church. We’re the only ones with resources for that kind of true, boundary-dissolving diversity.

And yet, knowing that political power begins in the gospel changes our expectations for the public square, too. It causes us to downsize our expectations. It helps us to repent of our utopianism, and to acknowledge that all the activities of the public square belong in a peripheral position. Yes, we continue to work heard in the public square for the sake of loving neighbor and doing justice. God commands it! But we’re not trying to bring heaven to earth there. And what happens there suddenly becomes a little less important than we thought.

Our gospel, the gospel of justification by faith alone, is profoundly political. It creates a new body politic, one where there’s no boasting. And it sends us as ambassadors with a message of peace for all who would look to King Jesus and live.

* * * * *

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Michael Horton, The Gospel-Driven Life: Being Good News People in a Bad News World (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2009), 164.

[2] I have discussed the politics of sola fide at length in Political Church (IVP, 2016), 316–30; How the Nations Rage (Thomas Nelson, 2018), 57–61; and “A Traditional Protestant Formulation of Sola Fide as the Source of Political Unity” in Journal of Biblical and Theological Studies.

[3] Iris Marion Young, Justice and the Politics of Difference (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990), 9.

[4] For more on this topic, see my article “The Corporate Component of Conversion,” https://www.9marks.org/article/journalcorporate-component-conversion/