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Our Post-Constantinian, Pre-Christian World

An important but overlooked essay on Christianity and culture is Massey H. Shepherd’s “Before and After Constantine.”[1] In reaction to assertions by historians like Arnold Toynbee that Christianity has been becoming gradually obsolete or, at least, losing its influence, he suggests that the real predicament for Christianity is in another area. The actual problem, asserts Shepherd, is not that Christianity is losing influence, only that it is losing influence in society. It’s possible that in certain small pockets of the West, a vibrant, virile Christianity survives — and even flourishes. But it does not survive as a culturally dominant force.

Whatever one may think of the product of Constantine’s Edict of Milan (313), it ushered in an astoundingly extensive era of Christian culture. In fact, in the East, the longest-lived human empire in the history of the world was Christian — I am speaking, of course, of that centered in Byzantium. Constantine’s edict, it is sometimes presumed, explicitly established Christianity as the official religion of the Empire. This is not correct, as Charles Norris Cochrane observes in his great Christianity and Classical Culture.[2] Constantine granted religious liberty. The Edict of Milan truly was an act of political toleration, canceling persecution of the church and restoring its confiscated lands and other possessions. The fact that Christianity soon became the dominant cultural force in the ambiance of such relative political toleration lends credence to the idea that what is necessary for such dominance is not official political establishment, but only the absence of official political hostility. If given genuine religious freedom, all other factors being equal, Christianity tends to rise to the top.

Christian culture requires religious liberty

Today’s Western world, including its preeminent nation, the United States, does not in practice accord Christianity such freedom. Expressions of orthodox, Biblical Christianity are officially or unofficially outlawed or censured in politics, the major media, the educational institutions, the artistic community, and so on. Note carefully that while the profession of Christianity is permitted to exist in many of these spheres, the practice of such Christianity is often outlawed. No Christian teacher in any state school in the United States may teach Biblical Christianity as absolute, divine truth or evangelize his students. No civil magistrate may enforce the law of God as it relates to aborticide (elective abortion). No local, orthodox church may treat its physical property as though it were an extraterritorial Christian outpost and as a legal haven for those wrongfully persecuted for their faith, race, and so on. It is questionable whether Bible-believing churches will be permitted to discriminate against practicing homosexuals who apply for church membership. The George W. Bush administration elicited a media firestorm when it was thought that it had cut a deal with the Salvation Army to protect this organization from local laws that forbid discrimination in hiring homosexuals. The Boy Scouts, hardly an overt Christian organization, wished simply to maintain its traditional policy of forbidding homosexual Scout leaders; and it was subjected to merciless assaults, even publicly at the Democratic National Convention. In July 2015, under immense pressure, the Scouts ended their ban on openly gay Scout leaders.

If the present trend is not reversed, it is possible that soon in the United States orthodox Christian ministers will not be permitted publicly to declare the Biblical teaching regarding homosexuality, regarding the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as the only way of salvation, and regarding false religion. These will be considered “unprotected” speech in that they offend “good, hard-working Americans.” The problem is not that Christianity as such is becoming less virulent (though this likely also is true), but that it is becoming less relevant in the society at large.

If given genuine religious freedom, all other factors being equal, Christianity tends to rise to the top.

Some jeremiads speak of a “post-Christian” world. It’s more accurate to speak of a post-Constantinian world. Christianity still survives (even, in small pockets, some orthodox Christianity!); but it decreasingly influences education, politics, media, the arts, and so forth. When the present administration in Washington, D.C., for example, floats policies reflecting even the slightest degree of even the most generic Christian faith, the liberal elite in Congress and the media mercilessly shouts them down. While this is inexcusable, it is perfectly understandable, given the present dominant secular culture rabidly hostile to anything that smacks of Biblical faith.

Christian culture is the only viable culture

The only legitimate culture the Bible knows anything about is a godly culture under divine authority mediated in the Bible. It was this culture spawned by Constantine’s act which, however, imperfectly, laid the foundation for a medieval and Reformation Europe Christian culture which, by and large, reflected a sincere, widespread attempt to please God in all things, not merely at church on Sunday. This culture was the fruit (from a human standpoint) not only of vigilant prayer and labor in the family and church, but also in the wider society. It repudiated (or rather, did not even consider) the idea that there could be zones of life impervious to Christianity, the Bible, and the church. This culture is fully compatible with (and, I believe today demands) constitutional democracy and republican forms of government, which tend to check the growth of tyranny.

It is only when Christians recover a full-orbed, liberty-loving faith that we can expect manumission from the slavery of secularism under which we presently languish. We will recover this faith. As my friend Dr. Joseph Boot likes to say, we live not in a post-Christian world but a pre-Christian world: the world of the cultural prevalence of true Christianity uncontaminated by elements of ancient Greek philosophy that blighted medieval Christian culture is ahead of us. Future Christian culture will surpass past Constantinian culture.


[1] Massey H. Shepherd, “Before and After Constantine,” in The Impact of the Church Upon Its Culture, Jerald C. Brauer, ed. (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1968), 17–38.

[2] Charles Norris Cochrane, Christianity and Classical Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1957), 178–179.

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The New Perspective on Paul: Yes, No, and Maybe

Dear Andrew,

What is your view of the New Perspective on Paul and its origins? How would you define it essence? I don’t mean just N. T. Wright, but the whole thing.

My verdict on the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) is a big question to which I can give only a small answer.

There’s no doubt that Stendahl, Sanders, Dunn, and Wright have punctured the long-standing Protestant tradition that Second-Temple Judaism (2TJ, the Judaism of Jesus’ and Paul’s time) was rife with meritorious works-righteousness and that Paul’s opposition to the Judaizers was parallel to Luther’s with late medieval Roman Catholicism. Still, the soteric assumptions of at least some of 2TJ that Paul was targeting in Romans and Galatians included a salvation that could not plausibly be described as entirely gracious. The historically astute opponents of the NPP have documented the mixed character of 2TJ, at least to my satisfaction.

The traditional view of justification by faith alone is anchored in sound biblical exegesis and theological reasoning. Christ’s redemptive righteousness is imputed to those who believe in him. However, this imputation, like every other aspect of individual soteriology, is appropriated by incorporation into Jesus Christ. The issue is imputation by incorporation. Alastair McGrath is, I think, correct that for Calvin, the center of individual soteriology is union with the crucified and risen Christ. In him, we have all other benefits. Outside him, we have nothing. Union with Christ underlies everything else.

On the other hand, the superexalted place that the original Reformers gave to justification is not biblically warranted. The Bible does not depict justification as the article of the standing and falling church (Luther, or the Lutherans), or the principal hinge of religion (Calvin). I feel sorry for anybody who tries to defend those estimates exegetically. The Reformers were driven to inflate justification since it was the pressing soteric issue of their day. But they should not have inflated justification as it is depicted in the Bible.

I remain entirely unconvinced by the NPP that the central meaning of Jesus Christ in his incarnate ministry was as the new Israel. On this point, Richard Gaffin has persuaded me that Romans 5:12-21 is founding everything else in the epistle: the first Adam versus the Second Adam. Jew-Gentile relations are a subset of a larger, and more fundamental, issue. And I abhor the idea that Genesis 1-11 is the “prologue” to the rest of the Bible. I would say almost the opposite: Genesis 3:1–Revelation 22:21 is a huge series of footnotes to Genesis 1-2. The Bible is all about creation-fall-redemption, not about relations between Jews and Gentiles, important though they are.

My assessment of the NPP is that it has identified several flaws in the traditional Reformation paradigm but it’s not been as successful in making a positive case for a restructured New Testament theology/Christology/soteriology.

Salvation is entirely by grace through faith alone in the crucified, risen, and reigning Lord Jesus Christ. Eternal life is not a reward for race, performance, or good works. Union with the visible church is not union with the living Lord. There are both internal and external aspects of the covenant, and there always were. We relate to the church by means of Jesus Christ; we do not relate to Jesus Christ by means of the church.

Good works are the inevitable and inescapable result of union with Jesus Christ, appropriated by faith (alone). Therefore, there will be no final justification or eternal life apart from good works. They are not an effectual condition, but they are a consequent condition. We are not saved by good works, or because of good works, or on account of good works, but we are also not saved without good works. This, by the way, it’s just good, all-fashioned, standard Reformation teaching.

Contrary, therefore, to Sanders’ “covenant nomism,” the old covenant Jews did not enter the covenant by grace but remain in it by law-keeping. They entered by grace and remained in it by a grace that imparted a living, vital faith that resulted in law-keeping obedience, precisely the case with new covenant believers, both Jew and Gentile. There is not and never has been a “covenant of works” by which one merits eternal life and a contrasting covenant of grace that excludes good works as a consequent condition of eternal life. The Bible isn’t Pelagian before the Fall and antinomian after the Fall. Eternal life as a gift received by faith alone, a faith that is never without good works, has always and everywhere been operative.

Soteriology isn’t a stand-alone proposition or a theme that floats in the eternal divine decrees untethered from God’s dealing with his people in history. He always and everywhere deals with them in covenant: if they trust him, he will unite them to his Son and therefore justify (and forgive and regenerate and adopt and sanctify and glorify) them. If they persist in God-granted repentance, faith and obedience, he will justify them on the final day — not because of their obedience, but because their faith necessarily results in obedience. The Swiss Reformer and Zwingli’s successor Heinrich Bullinger beautifully articulates this viewpoint in his slender classic A Brief Exposition of the One and Eternal Testament or Covenant of God. His robust, overarching view on the covenant was quite at odds with Luther’s sterile and truncated justification-top-heavy soteriology.

The redeemed will boast throughout eternity of and in the slain and risen Lamb, the eternal Son of God, whom God used to accomplish our redemption on the Cross, at the empty tomb, and from his heavenly rule. From first to last salvation is, to use Spurgeon’s words, all of grace.

But faith without works is still dead.

For Further Reading:

Bird, Michael E. The Saving Righteousness of God. Colorado Springs: Paternoster, 2006.

Bullinger, Heinrich. A Brief Exposition of the One Eternal Testament or Covenant of God. In Fountainhead of Federalism, Baker, Wayne and McCoy, Charles S. and, eds. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991.

Dunn, James D. G. The New Perspective on Paul. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005, 2008.

Gaffin, Richard B., Jr. By Faith, Not by Sight. Milton Keynes, England: Paternoster, 2006.

McGrath, Alister. Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification From 1500 to the Present Day. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Sanders, E. P. Paul. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Shepherd, Norman. The Call of Grace: How the Covenant Illumines Salvation and Evangelism. Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P & R Publishing, 2000.

Stendahl, Krister. “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West,” Paul Among Jews and Gentiles. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976, 78–96.

Westerholm, Stephen. Justification Reconsidered: Rethinking a Pauline Theme. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013.

Edited and expanded

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MAGA? Well, What Made America Great in the First Place?

The president’s successful campaign slogan Make America Great Again (MAGA) is entirely legitimate, but I’m not sure that most Americans know what made our country great in the first place. It wasn’t our natural resources or two massive oceans that separated us from Europe and Asia. Nor was it even our military might or system of government or character of our citizens, though all of these contributed to our greatness. Rather, it was the providential hand of the Triune God and our substantial submission to him and his word and gospel that made America great.

The United States wasn’t founded as an explicitly Christian republic, and people who argue that it was only embarrass themselves. It was, however, launched as an implicitly Christian nation, and secularists who deny this truth are equally embarrassing.[1] All of the founders were either Christian or influenced by an establishment sort of Christianity.[2]

Christianity is a holistic Faith. We often hear about holistic medicine, that is, medicine that addresses not only the physical dimension of the person but also his spiritual and emotional and psychological aspects. Holistic means: the whole thing. Christianity is designed to shape and influence and impact all of life, the entire cosmos. God placed the man and woman in the Garden to live eternally as obedient worshippers. Their entire lives were to be lived in the presence of God for his glory, obeying his will in toto.

Anti-Compartmentalization

Christianity became great because it refused to be compartmentalized. You might remember that this word entered the national lexicon during the Clinton presidency. Allegedly one factor contributing to his political success was his ability to compartmentalize.  For example, he could compartmentalize his private life of sexual immorality from his public life of politics. On an even darker side, Nazi executioners at Auschwitz could gas Jews during the day and to go home to their loving families at night. They were the consummate compartmentalizers.

The Christian Faith is averse to compartmentalization. Since the Triune Creator God is sovereign in his universe, and since Jesus Christ is Lord over the entire cosmos, we’re not permitted to seal off certain aspects of life from God’s loving, compassionate authority. Christianity is in part an anti-compartmentalization program.

How Christianity Made the West (and America) Great

With this comprehensive view of Christ’s authority, it’s no wonder that Christianity changed the world.[3] What we know as Western civilization would’ve been impossible without Christianity, because it refuses to compartmentalize religion into airtight “spiritual” containers. Therefore, it transforms all of life. For example …

Dignity of human life

 Christianity restored the dignity of human life at a time when life was cheap (remember the gladiatorial games of ancient Rome?). Abortion and infanticide were rampant. Christians knew man was created in God’s image, so they opposed abortion and rescued abandoned infants. If you want to know why Western civilization until recent decades treasured human life, why medical doctors worked so hard to preserve it, why automobiles pull off to the shoulder when an ambulance races by, why murder is a capital offense, why humans go to extraordinary lengths to rescue individuals trapped under rubble or in collapsed mines — it’s because of the influence of Christianity.

Had Jesus Christ never been born, had Greco-Roman civilization simply continued to develop, we have no good reason for assuming that our world today would be any different materially from the ancient world and its cheap view of human life. It’s radically different today because of Christianity. Unfortunately, as our culture is apostatizing and turning its back on Jesus Christ, the classically pagan disregard for human life is returning. Departure from Christianity necessitates departure from the dignity of human life.

Exaltation of women

Second, ponder the exaltation of women. Feminists today blame Christianity with oppressing women, but primitive Christianity did just the opposite. Ironically, modern radical feminists often revive the pagan worldview that degraded women in the classical world. By contrast, the Bible depicts women as not inferior to men, but as their partners. This is God’s arrangement set forth in Genesis 1:28–30 in the cultural mandate, humanity’s call to exercise stewardship and dominion over the rest of creation. Both husband and wife are heirs together of the grace of life (1 Pet. 3:7).

Purification of sexuality

Third, think about the purification of sexuality. If you’d visited a home in the Greco-Roman world, you’d likely be stunned by least one factor: the depiction of raw sexual acts, including perversion, on everyday items like wall fixtures, oil lamps, vases, bowls, and cups. Pornography was routine and ubiquitous. There’s a harrowing explanation for this pervasive pornography. Marriage and sexual fidelity were looked on with derision and disgust. Sexual fidelity in marriage was a rarity. Sadism, masochism, and sexual orgies were common. Common bathhouses were magnets for heterosexual fornication, not to mention rampant sexual perversion in society.

The Christian approach to human sexuality was decisively different. The sexual act is a beautiful gift from God to be reserved in marriage between a man and woman. Intercourse is designed for both delight and procreation within the divine ordinance of marriage. Interestingly, it was Christianity that introduced the now widespread notion of sexual privacy. Sexual intercourse is a private, not a public, act.

Rise of modern science

Fourth, think about modern science. No weapon in the arsenal of atheism, agnosticism, and secularism has been wielded as frequently against Christianity in the last century than this: Christianity is at war with science. There’s only one way honestly to answer this charge. It’s flatly false. Modern science could never have materialized apart from Christianity.

Gregor Mendel, Augustinian friar, and father of modern genetics

In the ancient world, what we today call empirical science was unknown. The Greek philosophers and Roman thinkers were deductive, rational thinkers. Their way of arriving at a conclusion was to begin with axioms they were already committed to, and from those axioms arrive at their conclusions. Nobody employed what we today call the scientific method. Almost nobody put theories to the test by conducting experiments in the physical world. This meant that if there was scientific advancement, it came by accident.

Christianity is in part an anti-compartmentalization program.

What Christian thinkers began to understand, in addition to the divinely ordered universe, is that since the Creator is separate from creation, we can and should study creation on its own right. We can and must be inductive thinkers.

The newly translated book from 1904 by Herman Bavinck titled Christian Worldview[4] points out that Christianity recognizes that knowledge arises as our sensations interact with the real, concrete world. We don’t begin by turning away from the external world and into our private thought world. We start thinking as we immerse ourselves in the created world as the theater of God’s glory. This is precisely what modern science did, and how it developed such remarkable, life-enhancing and -prolonging  advances.

De-stigmatization of labor and vocation

This brings us to the fifth way Christianity is great. One reason the Greco-Romans were so undeveloped scientifically is because they believed manual labor or working with one’s hands is an inferior, demeaning task. The wealthy and upper classes left manual labor to slaves. If they were intellectuals like Plato, they relished deep thoughts that couldn’t be disturbed by physical labor. This silly idea cut the Greco-Roman world off from important developments that only intellect wedded to manual labor could produce.

The early Christians were different. They knew that their Lord was a carpenter before he was a rabbi and teacher. The apostle Paul labored with his hands and encouraged others to do it. In fact, he taught that if one doesn’t work, he shouldn’t eat (2 Thes. 3:10). They were hard workers, and as a result, they made money. In fact, the Romans sometimes criticized the Christians because they were wealthy. This fact turns on its head the misperception that all the early Christians were poor and from the lower classes.  They worked with their hands, and their work produced wealth.

The Reformation, in particular, exalted work and vocation. Ironically, today many evangelicals teach or imply that only those in “full-time Christian ministry” are serving the Lord most faithfully. The Reformers didn’t consider this caste system to be biblical. It introduced artificial distinctions into the Christian church. So-called secular vocation itself could be, and should be, holy. We might call this the sanctification of vocation, and it had a profound effect on culture. It meant that the shoe cobbler or wool merchant could look on his work as distinctively Christian. 

If today the plumber and flight attendant and software architect and waitress is honored for working hard and not held in contempt, it’s because of Christianity, notably Protestant Christianity. Had Christianity never disturbed the Greco-Roman world, it’s possible that even today manual labor would be looked down on, and vocation would be considered secondary to higher, “intellectual” callings.

Liberation of economics

Sixth, ponder the liberation of economics. In the Greco-Roman world, there were essentially two economic classes, the rich and the poor, who were usually slaves. Most economic growth was the result of slave labor, or of the conquest of new territory. The idea of what we term a “growing economy” within a society was virtually unknown.

Christianity laid the foundation for the free-market economy that has enriched the world, wherever it has gone. Why? For one thing, God’s law protected property rights; your property couldn’t be merely stripped by the state or by criminals. This meant that people could freely trade. The integrity of personal property grew out of the Hebrew (biblical) law.

Commerce in colonial Jamestown

Individuals could work hard and produce for themselves and in this way gain wealth. This, in turn, created what we call the middle class. No longer was everybody either rich or poor. There are some people who are moderately wealthy but neither rich nor poor.  Later came the Protestant work ethic: Christians were called to work hard and save and not engage in conspicuous consumption. In this way they amassed wealth.

This also means that we are constantly serving each other. I’m helping you, and you are helping me. In fact, I can’t get what I want unless I serve your needs. The free market turns everybody into a servant, though not a slave: the wealthiest CEO must serve his costumers’ needs if he is to remain successful.

The economic success of the West was erected on the generic Christian foundation of property rights and hard work, as well as the Protestant work ethic, which stressed thrift and saving. The Bible forbids the state to redistribute wealth for purposes of so-called “social justice” and “welfare” and, more poisonous still, social engineering programs. Charity is the job of the individual, family and church, the so-called “private” sector. By radically reducing the power of the empires, and what we today call politics, Christianity liberated economics from its ancient stranglehold and fostered massive wealth. This fact leads to the final factor contributing to Christianity’s greatness.

Spawning of political liberty

 “Liberty has not subsisted outside of Christianity.”[5] So said the Catholic historian Lord Acton. Christianity shattered the unity of the ancient, pagan world. The source of that unity was the state, usually identified with society itself. At the head of the state was a great political ruler, a king or emperor, thought to be a god or god-like. The unity of the ancient, pagan world consisted of the divinization of the temporal order in the form of the state: Egypt and Babylon and Persia and Greece, and especially the Roman Empire under whose government Jesus Christ was born. Christianity recognized “another king” (Ac. 17:7).

This recognition set early Christianity on a collision course with classical politics. Early Christians were savagely persecuted not because they worshipped Jesus Christ, but because they refused to worship the Roman emperor. 

The most vicious, violent, and murderous political regimes in the history of mankind have been non- or anti-Christian

Constitutional limitations on political power, the roots of modern classical liberalism, started in Christian England with the Magna Carta. Out of these limitations arose the practice of 18th and 19th century constitutional democracies. England also delivered the first successful assault against the evil doctrine of the divine right of kings during the Puritan Revolution.

The founding of the United States was perhaps the greatest experiment in political liberty to that time. It was classically liberal, and it operated self-consciously on certain distinctly Christian premises. The Founders, for example, recognized the Biblical doctrine of original sin and human depravity, and therefore fashioned a system of civil government that divided decision-making among several branches. They didn’t vest any single branch of civil government with too much power.  They argued that the role of civil government is to secure the rights of “life, liberty, and happiness,” with which God as Creator endowed all men. Recognizing the Biblical doctrine that civil government should protect minorities (Ex. 23:9), they drafted a constitution to which they attached a Bill of Rights. This inhibited tyranny arising from quick political change at the whim of democratic opinion.

Political liberty as reflected in the separation of powers, as well as checks and balances; the role of the state in protecting life, liberty, and property; and the constitutional protection of the rights of minorities all these were bequeathed to the modern world by Christianity.

The idea that the West should get rid of Christianity and embrace secularism in order to preserve political liberty is not just mistaken: it’s embarrassingly false. The most vicious, violent, and murderous political regimes in the history of mankind have been non- or anti-Christian: the primitive pagan humanism of ancient Egypt, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome, and the sophisticated secular humanism of revolutionary France, the Soviet Union, Mao’s China, Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and other modern secular states like North Korea and the “new” China.

Humanism is and always has been a recipe for political terror and tyranny.

Today the West languishes under the violence of abortion and euthanasia, the scourge of homosexuality, the poverty of materialism, the coercion of socialism, the stranglehold of public education, the chaos of judicial activism, and the injustice of a forced racism and sexism. These tyrannies are all the direct result of the abandonment of biblical Christianity.

The Western world has increasingly accepted the proposal of that first modern political liberal, Jean-Jacques Rousseau:[6] the state will emancipate you from responsibility to all non-coercive human institutions like the family, church, and business, if only you submit yourself to the coercion of the state.  Modern man has been willing to trade away responsibility to the family and church and business for subjugation to an increasingly coercive and violent political order. We’re returning to the classical, pagan world in which the coercive state is the unifying principle for all of life.

The only hope for the return of political liberty and the free society it fosters is a return to orthodox, biblical Christianity. Christianity isn’t merely a matrix in which political freedom flourishes; it is the only foundation on which to build a free society.

Conclusion

In review: the dignity of human life, the exaltation of women, purification of sexuality, the rise of modern science, the elevation of labor and vocation, the liberation of economics, and the spawning of political liberty — these are just several of the numerous ways in which Christianity is great, and made our world great.

We may not compartmentalize Christianity or say that Christianity is designed to be great in the family and church but doesn’t much matter in science or sexuality or economics or politics or entertainment or education. If Christianity is great, it should be great everywhere. And everywhere Christianity goes, despite the sinfulness of Christians, it makes the world great. The only way to MAGA is to make Christianity great again.


[1] Daniel L. Dreisbach, “The Constitution’s Forgotten Religion Clause: Reflections on the Article VI Religious Test Ban,” Journal of Church and State, 38 [Spring 1996], 261–295.

[2] M. E. Bradford,  “Religion and the Framers: The Biographical Evidence,” Original Intentions (Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 1993), 87–101.

[3] For this entire section I am greatly indebted to Alvin J. Schmidt, Under the Influence: How Christianity Transformed Civilization (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001).

[4] Herman Bavinck, Christian Worldview (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2019), 36–39.

[5] Lord Acton, Essays in Religion, Politics, and Morality, J. Rufus Fears, ed. (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1988), 491. 

[6] Isaiah Berlin, Freedom and Its Betrayal (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002), 27–49.

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Advent: Peace or Conflict?

Abraham Hondius, Annunciation to the Shepherds (1663)

When the angels announced the birth of our Lord to the shepherds, they noted that this incarnation of God would bring “peace on earth, goodwill toward men” (Lk. 2:14). This oft-repeated Christmastime pledge warms the hearts of Christians and even many non-Christians who bemoan the obvious and ubiquitous conflict in our world. There is hope that in Jesus Christ, this conflict will be permanently quieted. 

Yet when he commissioned his apostles, Jesus told them that he did not come “to bring peace but a sword” (Mt. 10:34). The contradiction is only apparent, not actual. The resolution is found in this truth: God promises peace in his Son’s Advent, but only on his terms. God isn’t interested in granting peace to a fallen world at war with his purposes. God is only interested in shaking a fallen world, and only when the sin has finally been shaken off, will he bring global peace.

The Peace the Wicked Seek

The wicked often seek peace, but they seek it on their own terms. They want peace to live their rebellious, depraved, apostate lives. God doesn’t grant it. We should be neither deceived nor mocked. Whatever a person sows, that is what he reaps (Gal. 6:7–8). The wicked live a life of greed and debauchery, deception and sexual rapacity; and they bear in their minds and bodies the consequences of their sin. They long for peace, but they cannot find it.

And after awhile, they fume, as it were, to the Almighty, righteous God, “Why don’t you leave us alone and let us live in peace in our world?

And he responds, “Because it’s not your world. It’s my world, and I won’t leave it in peace until it returns to my righteous ways.” C. S. Lewis suggests that this is why God calls his people to be militant, not peaceful, in this sinful world:

… Christianity is a fighting religion. It thinks God made the world — that space and time, heat and cold, and all the colours and tastes, and all the animals and vegetables, are things that God ‘made up out of his head’ as a man makes up story. But it also thinks that a great many things have gone wrong with the world God made and that God insists, and insists very loudly, on our putting them right again.

From Mere Christianity

God is loudly insisting on getting his way, and he won’t give the sinful world peace; no, he will unleash conflict on the sinful world until he gets his way.

Our Sinfully Conflicted World

Our world seems constantly in conflict. It’s hard to compare today’s chaos, violence, terror, anger, fatal accidents, suicides, hatred, perversion, and apostasy to that of the past. Maybe it’s just that we know more about these things because of the 24/7 new cycle or our ubiquitous smartphones.

C. S. Lewis

Whatever the case, our world is deeply shaken: Iran preparing to go to war, North Korea building nuclear weapons, England pulling out of the EU, tribal wars in Africa, child sex slavery, opioid epidemics, and I could go on and on. It’s not just that we know about these shaking events; with the advent of computers and smartphones, we can see palpable images of many of them. It seems as though they’re happening right next to us.

Obviously, this conflict can provoke in us fear, worry, and anxiety. Some people live almost their entire lives that way, even Christians. They get up in the morning to check their smartphones to find out what new thing that can worry about, and then they’re distraught that they’re worried all the time.

The wicked often seek peace, but they seek it on their own terms. They want peace to live their rebellious, depraved, apostate lives. God doesn’t grant it.

The most important fact to know about all of these earthshaking, anxiety-producing events is this: God is behind the shaking conflict. God is shaking the heavens and the earth in this new covenant era (Heb. 12:18–29). The shaking will do its final work only at Christ’s second advent, but he is shaking the world even now.  This is true even if the wicked are unleashing the shaking. It doesn’t mean that God is the author of sin; he doesn’t force terrorists and abortionists and child sex traffickers to unleash their evil. Perish the thought. But the shaking that their sin causes is part of his plan to do one thing: get rid of the sin. God asks Job rhetorically:

“… Have you commanded the morning since your days began, [a]nd caused the dawn to know its place, That it might take hold of the ends of the earth, [a]nd the wicked be shaken out of it?” (emphasis supplied)

Job 38:12–13

For this reason, we believers need not fear this nearly constant divine shaking. We should be happy about, in fact. We shouldn’t want a peaceful world if that peaceful world is sinful. Sin derails, demolishes, and damns. Sin is the great enemy of God’s good creational purposes. To desire peace for a sinful world is to long for the victory of sin. That is not a desire God will ever honor.

So when we observe wars, and political strife in Washington D.C., and diseases and even death, we can and should grieve over the suffering, but we cannot grieve over God’s earth-quaking purposes. All the shaking in the world means that God is not giving sinful man his way.  “The way of transgressors is hard,” we read in Proverbs 13:15. It is hard for Saul the persecutor to kick against God’s goads (Ac. 9:5). God doesn’t make it easy for the wicked, and we should find great comfort in this truth.

We should delight in all of the conflict that surrounds us. It means that God is not allowing the sinful world to go on its merry way.

Conclusion

Jesus tells his disciples (and us), “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (Jn. 16:33). The internal peace that should fill the hearts of believers because of the Gospel of Jesus Christ will one day overwhelm the world by the pervasive power of that same Gospel. The objective of the present conflict unleashed by our Triune God to purge sin is nothing short of global peace — peace on his terms. This is very different from the Marxists who, following Hegel, see conflict as an end in itself, a permanent revolution. God launched the conflict when sin entered the world in Eden, promising hostility between the seed of the serpent and the Seed of the woman until Jesus Christ crushed Satan’s head. He did that definitively at Calvary, but the implications of that momentous, head-crushing victory work their way out in time and history (Heb. 1:8).

This Christmas, peace can reign in our heart because our God will not bring peace to our fallen world until he has purged it of the sin and rebellion that alone make the conflict necessary. If you love righteousness, you’ll love only a righteous peace. That is the peace God promises to his people now and his created world for the future.


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