For Memorial Day 2019: The Glory of the Nations – How Common Grace Redeems Nationalism
by Michael Spencer
My friend Mark is a soldier. A Sergeant in the United States Marine Corps. He just returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan, where he, in his own words, was “proud to be a Marine at a time my country needed my service.” I am proud of him, too. Not just because of his military service helping to keep my children safe from the terrorists who hate all Americans. I am proud of him because he is a Christian, one who is serious about following Jesus and gives real evidence of Christian commitment and character. I donâ€™t hesitate to wish that my children would grow up and imitate Mark.
Recently, however, I was reminded that not everyone agrees with my assessment of my friend, Mark. There are some Christians who would say that Mark cannot love his country enough to go to Afghanistan and dispatch Bin Laden and company, while at the same time claiming that Jesus is King. This is idolatry, they say. A sinful and impossible compromise, choosing country over Christ and ignoring the Bible’s teaching that Jesus alone is King. These critics point to Jesus’ words of non-resistance and non-violence in the Sermon on the Mount and say that Mark is willfully disobeying Jesus at the instigation of nationalism.
Some of these critics make an articulate case that the evangelical church has adopted a blindly nationalistic, patriotic idolatry in the last two decades, as Christians have become flag-waving supporters of the Gulf War and the War on Terrorism. They point out America’s many sins, such as abortion, its shallow and unbiblical understanding of God, and its headlong pursuit of money and materialism. How can a Christian follow Christ and promote and defend these errors?
The Kingdom of God, these critics charge, is our true country and Christ is our only King. All other nations are under His judgment. Notions such as freedom, liberty and justice are perverted by the nations of the earth, and only Christ can be the source of such blessings. We are to live as aliens and strangers, giving no allegiance to nation or political party that ultimately belongs to God.
It’s the ultimate WWJD question. Would Jesus do what Mark did? Could Jesus have been a Sergeant in the Marine Corps, go to Afghanistan to fight terrorists and still have been our savior and example? Could Jesus give His service to America, and not sin in choosing to do so? Or would Jesus have refused military service? Would “Render unto Caesar” include or exclude fighting to defend His family if invaders attacked Nazareth, or if the nation of Israel asked for His service in defending itself? Tony Campolo used to ask if anyone could picture Jesus dropping bombs on North Vietnamese civilians.
These are serious questions that must be answered. As a Christian I believe I must answer them from the Bible, and that I must submit to what the Bible teaches and not to my own emotions and preferences. I freely admit that I am a patriot, and that the phrase “For God and country” is not nonsense to me. I have listened to the arguments of those who take the position outlined above, and I agree with substantial parts of their observations. But, in the end, I believe they have ignored and over-simplified the Biblical material to bolster their own choices.
To begin with, I will not outline my considerable agreement with those who accuse evangelicals of idolatry. There is a plague of patriotic idolatry in American Christianity. Our ultimate loyalty is to Christ. We are citizens of His Kingdom, and we must obey the law and example of our King. I am a great admirer of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and I fully agree with the Biblical foundations for his critique of America and the movement he inspired. I don’t believe America is always right or that every conflict we have entered was right, and I certainly agree that America is fallen, pagan, materialistic and likely to become increasingly hostile to Christians in her midst.
My disagreement — and it is a substantial one — is that this picture is too simple. It discounts the Bible as a whole in favor of one stream of Biblical material. This is a common problem among people who build Biblical cases without an overall Biblical theology, and I have noted this with everyone I have debated concerning these issues. There is a real annoyance at bringing up anything other than the words of Jesus. Where Jesus endorsed all of scripture as a testimony of truth, these critics quickly reject or ignore scripture that is not on the level with the Sermon on the Mount or the words of Jesus. Of course, one must ignore the words of Jesus Himself that send us into the rest of the Bible to understand Jesus if we are going to maintain that position.
I also find it interesting that the position of the critics does not match up with what we find in scripture where Jesus or the disciples interact with people. I was surprised to discover that some advocates of pacifism teach that the centurion and the Roman officer Cornelius left the military after becoming Christians. The text, of course, says nothing of the sort, and, in fact, the New Testament seems to have a positive or at least neutral view of the career of soldier. Such assertions come perilously close to the kind of statements Roman Catholics make about the career of Mary. I am not denying that we may sometimes make logical inferences beyond scripture, but there is a limit to what sort of confident factual assertions we can make.
What is the missing factor in the argument that my friend Mark cannot serve God and country? Common grace, an element of theology that is more and more frequently abandoned by Christians who do not know the whole Biblical story. It is God’s common grace that redeems nationalism sufficiently that my friend Mark can defend my family against terrorists in the service of our military with a good conscience.
Common grace is an answer to the question, “To what extent did God abandon the world when it fell into sin?” Now the reason so few understand common grace is that their answer would be, “God abandoned the world totally and completely, because He can have nothing to do with sin, sinners, or anything they create.” And of course, there are lots of scripture verses to prop up that claim. The problem is, however, that while God’s holiness does dictate that His eyes are too pure to behold evil and so on, God’s mercy, kindness and continued involvement with sinners has been consistently demonstrated through all of redemptive history.
God should have exterminated Adam and Eve. Instead, He showed them mercy, forgave them, clothed them, allowed them to enjoy the blessing of marriage, family and creation. God was merciful to Cain. He blessed whole generations and nations of sinners. Even in the flood, when it appeared God had run out of grace, He was gracious to a whole family of sinners, and continued to be so after the flood when they demonstrated they were still quite sinful and fallen. The story of God’s surprising common grace is the story of the entire Bible. The Apostle Paul appeals to this often, as he does in Acts 17.
I won’t write a treatise. Common grace is the history of God’s dealings with every person and every nation in the Bible. When He should have utterly abandoned them, He did not. When He should have left them to themselves to rot in their own depravity, He showed a more patient, kinder face. He blessed them with gifts large and small. The goodness of His image remained with them, though marred and broken. He restrained judgment and extended mercy repeatedly. God did this as a witness to His mercy. As Paul said, the kindness of God is meant to bring us to repentance. Common grace is a pointer to saving grace. Many Christians may think it wasted, but God apparently disagrees, because He lavishes the stuff on the just and the unjust alike with every breath.
If you have come this far, please understand the importance of this last point. God has not utterly turned His back on humanity or human institutions, work, creations, and concerns. God is up to more in history than just the redemption of a people for eternal glory. He is invested in every aspect of human experience to do us good, even those of us who despise Him and always will. While the sinfulness, depravity and judgment-worthiness of humanity and its works are beyond dispute, that has not compelled God to abandon us. In the worst of people, the worst of human activities and the worst of human institutions, there is still the remaining purpose of God and His on-going common grace.
Now the premise of this essay is that common grace sufficiently redeems nationalism that my friend Mark may serve his country with a clear conscience and still give ultimate allegiance to Jesus Christ. Two passages of scripture catch my attention in this regard, one in Genesis and one in Revelation.
The first is the origin of human government itself, the story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-11) I would like you to observe that what God is doing at Babel is a restraining act of mercy. It is God’s opinion that human nations will be less evil if separated into nations than if they are one nation, one culture. (One world government fans, have at it.) In other words, nations are, to a certain extent, a manifestation of God’s common grace, and this is, I believe, Paul’s entire point in the crucial text of Romans 13:1-13. The state is a minister of God to do you good. That is common grace in the form of a nation.
Now what is the purpose for God’s invention of a world of nations at Babel? If the purpose of the individual government is to bear the sword and punish the evildoer, then I do not think it a leap at all to say the entire Babel project had as one of its purposes the preservation of good and the restraining of evil in the community of nations. All nations are fallen, and all are under God’s judgment, but in the sovereignty of God, some nations will preserve genuine good more so than others. And the stage of Biblical history demonstrates that this is exactly the way God used nations: preserving truth and good, while bringing temporal, restraining judgments on individuals and other nations. (Read Habakkuk, where the prophet learns from God himself how God will use one nation as judgment and preservative.)
It is at this point that I want to say there is a good bit of unbiblical multi-culturalism underlying some of the criticisms I am answering, and I think it is important to point this out bluntly. A nation that treats women like animals is inferior to a nation that gives them equal rights. A nation that says kill innocents is worse than one that says protect innocents. (A true contradiction in America, as we protect some children and abort others.) A nation that protects religious freedom is better than one who denies it. A culture that allows people to choose their own government is better than a dictatorship. A nation that freed its slaves is better than one that enslaves its own people. A nation that gives generously is better than those who take ruthlessly.
I know both are fallen, depraved, wicked and under the judgment of God. But one, in the common grace of God, is better than the other on the scale of true virtues. It is grade school stuff. (At this point I will spare you the bizarre statements made by some critics that America is the moral equal of Nazi Germany or Communist North Vietnam. It is sad to see what multi-culturalism has done to the ability to recognize simple human decency. Some of our Christian colleges are churning out this remarkably barbaric point of view, and it is tragic.)
Now this alone, in my mind, justifies my friend Mark’s choices in life. He is fortunate to live in a country that, under the kindness of God, cares about values that are superior to and more compassionate than most other nations that have ever existed. Our country is flawed and its history is flawed, but no one need be ashamed to protect women, children and their fellow human beings. Mark is doing the Lord’s work, according to Romans 13.
Is it right for Mark to take the life of a terrorist? Don’t the words of Jesus absolutely preclude that option for a Christian? This is another essay, but I’ll say this: Where is the moral law of God eliminated as a result of the words or works of Jesus? If the Ten Commandments say “Do not murder,” and the next two chapters are filled with example after example of capital punishment, where does the New Testament say this moral law is abrogated? In John 8, is Jesus’ act of mercy premised on an elimination of the moral law? I hear Jesus’ words to Christians saying they cannot employ violence in any way towards those who persecute them, but where does the New Testament say I cannot protect my family?
Right here? Matthew 5:43-44: “You have heard that it was said, `Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Are these words intended to stop Christian policeman from enforcing the law? Do they mean the state, if it submits to Christ’s words, will empty death row and all prisons? Does it mean I am obligated to only pray for the terrorist who is murdering my children, rather than stopping him — even with lethal force — if I can? I respect those who say that is the case, but I must respectfully disagree.
Romans 13 makes it quite clear that Paul assumed his readers understood the rightness of the execution of justice. A Christian choosing to not resist persecution is one thing. A Christian choosing to not do the just and right thing is another. God says He is a protector of the innocent. God says He is a warrior for the cause of right. God says we should imitate the good soldier. Jesus said that Pilate’s power to execute was from God. I believe that Cornelius went back to work after becoming a Christian, and if a threat to the safety of his fellow citizens came his way, he would be absolutely acting in accordance with right principles to deter the evildoer in any way, including the use of lethal force.
Should Cornelius obey Rome if it said, “We are going to invade Britain, pillage and rape the population?” In my opinion, no. The principles of justice can obviously be violated to the point that a Christian cannot serve, but my point (and St. Augustine’s) is simple: when a nation is defending what is good and just, a Christian may serve with a clear conscience.
And so my last passage is from Revelation 21:24 ,26: 24 The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. 26 The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. This is, of course, the picture of the New Jerusalem, and it is explicitly said that the glory and honor of the nations, and their kings, will be brought into it.
The picture is one of triumph, the victory of God attended by the arrival of conquered nations, bringing their treasure to lay before their conqueror, the Lord Jesus Christ. Like all of Revelation, this is picture language, using the known to communicate the unspeakable. But it is striking, in a book that so consistently speaks of the nations of the world negatively, to hear of the “glory” and “honor” of the nations being part of the New Jerusalem.
I find this the perfect compliment to the idea of common grace given to every nation. To every nation and every culture, there is given the gracious gifts of God. These treasures of truth, justice, liberty and compassion are then soiled and broken in the hands of fallen, sinful men. But they are God’s gifts nonetheless. There is a glory and honor to every nation and culture, to every people group, and yes, apparently to every government. A glory and honor that we may be able to see or not. A glory and honor that we sometimes handle with respect or treat with contempt. A glory and honor that leads us to Christ, or which we distort and destroy to dishonor Christ.
In the kingdom, such glories will be redeemed. The gracious purpose and blessing of God will be recognized, and we will have a further reason to admire God’s kindness, mercy and salvation.
There is a divine glory to America. There is a godly honor given to this nation. Yes, it has been betrayed in the idolatries of human ambition, and soiled in the ignorance and evil of human greed. But those gifts have not been completely forgotten, and they are worth living for, and even dying for. Martin Luther King, Jr. saw this and spoke of it often. I believe my friend Mark sees that honor and is right to be proud of his service to a country that still upholds, imperfectly and inconsistently, values and truths that reflect God.
The critics I have responded to believe that America is rotten to the core because it is not, nor can it ever be, a Christian nation. They criticize those who say America is such a country, and point out the flaws of our founders, our dreams and our ambitions. In many ways they are right. But there is another way to look at America. In this fallen world, this is one nation where the churches of the Lord Jesus have flourished. This is a nation that has sent more missionaries and ministers to serve than any other in history. It is a nation given incredible blessing by God, and though these have been misused and made into idols, it is a nation that regularly thanks God for those blessings. It is a nation where millions of people beg that God for mercy and revival.
America is, among all the nations of the world, in many ways the best and the worst. The best in the grace that God has shown us. The worst in how little we have done to respond to that God. But where a young man named Mark lives for Christ, and serves the best values of this great country that God has established for His honor and glory, then I think we have no reason to be ashamed.