The howling disappointment from the transcontinental elites over the stunning victory for Brexit should come as no surprise. (Tony Blair’s is a prime example.) And David French is ast…
The howling disappointment from the transcontinental elites over the stunning victory for Brexit should come as no surprise. (Tony Blair’s is a prime example.) And David French is ast…
The howling disappointment from the transcontinental elites over the stunning victory for Brexit should come as no surprise. (Tony Blair’s is a prime example.) And David French is astute to point out that the patronizing “history is on our side” mockery that usually accompanies the political successes of the elite progressives seems to have hit a brick wall. What if, after all, history isn’t on the side of the elites? Actually, history doesn’t pick sides; people do. And a small majority of Britons chose against the elite progressives. History, apparently, isn’t cooperating.
The Meaning of Progress to Leftist Elites
However, I’d like to dig deeper on one point. Brexit didn’t only signal the end (for a while, at least) of the mantra of the inevitability of progress — as elites define progress, of course. In addition, Brexit actually exhibits progress. It turns on its head the great progressive presupposition of the last 100 years — that the measure of linear history is the measure of moral progress. To the elites, almost all of them Leftist, the progress of history marches from religious faith to human reason, from benightedness to enlightenment, from submission to authority to exercise of autonomy, from a free economy to a command economy, from the imago dei to “quality of life,” from family hierarchy to horizontal egalitarianism, and from local and territorial nations or states to global and transnational political bodies. The movement is not simply a historical fact, let it be noted. It is considered a moral postulate. When President Obama chimed, “They [the Republicans] want to take us back to the policies more suited to the 1950’s than the 21st century,” he was not merely offering a factual statement. He was handing down a moral verdict. It is one that all progressives would find noncontroversial and axiomatic. The longer we go, the better we get.
This is why Brexit stunned and angered them. It’s why they refuse to accept the verdict at the polls and are demanding a revote. You just aren’t allowed to contest history and get away with it.
But what if the progressives are wrong about what constitutes progress? What if what they think is progress is actually regress? That, in fact, is the truth of the matter.
The Progress and Regress of Progress
God created man and woman to steward the earth of his glory. They were to move outward and overspread the earth with their God-glorifying offspring. They sinned, but God didn’t rescind his cultural commission to them. One aspect of that sin was to retrench, to consolidate, to centralize in an attempt to overthrow God. Liberty to obey God’s mandate wasn’t paramount; centralized power to threaten his authority was.
This first great centralizing project was the Tower of Babel, which God unceremoniously demolished by confounding humanity’s languages, thus introducing a decentralizing tactic. But sinful man didn’t give up; he kept up centralizing. By their very nature, all of the ancient world empires centralized political power: Egypt, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome. Conversely, the Israelites (and other tribal groups) decentralized politics. Jehovah mandated twelve tribes, each of which selected representatives to make national decisions under the rule of the Torah. We might even say that Israel was a primitive constitutional republic. But it was increasingly an exception. And even the Jews, over God and his prophet Samuel’s protest, demanded a king like the surrounding nations. The lust for political centralization dies hard.
Christian Culture as Political Decentralization
Christianity emerged during the slow decline of the Roman Empire. Eventually the Western church came to be massive and international, while the states of Europe grew weak and divided. Christian culture developed in a time of political decentralization. This was no coincidence. England and her Magna Carta and checks and balances on the Crown laid the groundwork for modern decentralized republics. The Protestant Reformation, in combatting Rome, unintentionally unleashed the modern nation-states. But two 20th century world wars and the collapse of the Soviet Union have reintroduced political decentralization. The rise of the European Union was a step backward toward centralization, and Brexit reversed that retrogressive move. The great cultural blessings of the English-speaking world spring from a break with the old, tired, centralization of the past.
Why does biblical faith demand political decentralization? Because God is the earth’s authority, and all human authorities are tempted to usurp his. This doesn’t mean that God desires political anarchy. Family, church, and state are valid subordinate authorities. However, each is prone to idolatrize itself, and therefore, decentralized human authority, especially political authority since it owns a monopoly on coercion, protects God’s prerogative final authority. In short: decentralized political authority most honors God.
The Blessings of Decentralization
It was decentralization that granted the world the greatest political liberty. It has been most graphically exhibited in England and America and wherever their influence has gone. Bills of rights and working constitutions and an independent judiciary and free markets and local prerogatives are all the fruits of this decentralization, this Christian culture. While many non-Christians voted for Brexit, they were voting for the freedom of decentralization and against the tyranny of centralization that many of the older voters once knew and have always cherished as a residue of Christian culture. They may have been old-timers, but they wanted progress. If political liberty is progress, then centralization is the opposite of progress.
A Tale of Two Progresses
Brexit is progress. It’s a step forward. Better: it’s a step backward to when England was taking steps forward, before she capitulated to elites who wanted to step backward. If this progress isn’t limited to England, we can expect other EU nations to abandon the large, cumbersome, bureaucratic leaky Ship EU and return to political liberty. In the United States, we can expect a revival of states rights, a delicate balance of power between the states and the federal government reminiscent of the Founders’ political philosophy. It would be the progress on which the U.S. was founded 240 years ago.
If you believe that liberty is progress, as our Founders did, you’ll cheer Brexit. If you believe that central political control is progress, you’ll lament Brexit. The great political battle of our time is whether liberty or control will win out.
Which is to say, whether Christian culture or anti-Christian culture will win out.
If Christians are confused about the Gospel, they are flummoxed about the law. Many of them know a few biblical texts that have become dismissive catchphrases: “You’re not under the law, but under grace” (Rom. 6:14). “We’re free from the law” (Rom. 8:2). “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:6). “Christ is the end of the law” (Rom. 10:4). Armed with these and a few other texts, they see the law as at best obsolete and at worst, harmful. Jesus came to get rid of the law (Jn. 1:17), and that is that. The NT writers (they think) have given us some instructions for life, but it has nothing to do with the law.
This dismissal is woefully one-sided and in fact, flat-out wrong. This post won’t permit anything resembling a complete discussion of the Christian law, but let me make a few points to exhibit in summary form simply the blessing of the law as the Bible depicts it.
Holy, Righteous, Good
First, the law is holy, righteous, and good (Rom. 7:12). How could it be anything else? The law is a reflection of God’s character. We read in Leviticus 20:7–8,
Consecrate yourselves, therefore, and be holy, for I am the Lord your God. Keep my statutes and do them; I am the Lord who sanctifies you.
“Be ye holy, for I am holy.” We must be holy like God is, and to be holy is to obey God’s law, for God’s law exhibits his character. To know the law of God is to know the character of God, in other words, to know the law is to know God. Some Christians might chafe at this description. Isn’t the law opposed to the grace of God, for example? And don’t we need to know the grace of God in opposition to the law of God? We do not. If the law of God is a reflection of his character, the law reflects his grace. This is why in Exodus 19:4–5, before he gave Israel the Mosaic law, God points out how gracious he is to his people in giving that law. The law exhibits God’s grace.
Moreover, when Jesus died on the cross, God was fulfilling the terms of his law. The cross demonstrates the love of God because it demonstrates the law of God (Gal. 4:4–6; Rom. 5:6–11). God loved us so much that he gave up his own Son to the law’s justice. Remember that the only law to which God’s grace is antithetical is a manufactured, homemade law apart from Jesus Christ. But that’s not the proper use of the law. If you want to know what God is like, read the law. If you know want to know what God is like, look to Jesus Christ (Jn. 14:9), whose life and death fulfilled the law (Gal. 4:4).
Second, the law promises life (Rom. 7:10). This statement might perplex us, since Paul writes that the law doesn’t bestow life (Gal. 3:21). Only the Messiah can bestow life. However, the law does promise life to those that live within it (Dt. 30:1–16; cf. Rom. 10:5 –13), because if we live within it, we won’t rely on ourselves for salvation, but on Jesus Christ. This is another clue that many of Paul’s opponents weren’t following the OT law but a twisted, Christ-less, grace-less, faithless version of it. Not only will we know God if we live within the law. We’ll also be led into life. To live in this sphere of the law is to gain life. The law doesn’t bestow life, but the law points us to the One who does, Jesus Christ, and in him alone we should trust.
In addition, when we’re united to Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit leads us to obedience that elicits God’s blessings. If we obey, God blesses us. If we disobey, God judges us (Gal. 6:7–8). If we completely and finally turn our backs on God, he expels us from his kingdom (2 Pet. 2:17–22). What are we to obey? We are to obey God’s law. This is why the law promises life. To live within the law is to live within absolute trust in Jesus Christ and in obedience to him.
Third, the law bestows liberty (Jas. 1:25, 2:12). This is counterintuitive to many Christians today. For them the law is heavy and burdensome. They might get this idea from Acts 15, which tells of the Jerusalem council, where Peter identified the law as a heavy yoke (v. 10). But it seems they might have missed v. 1. The great error being combated at the council is the teaching that one must keep the law as a way of salvation. Of course, this is precisely what the law was never intended to do. When the law is turned into a system of works-righteousness, it does indeed become a yoke and a burden. This is a pharisaic and Judaic perversion of the law.
The yoke the Lord Jesus imposes is easy and his burden is light (Mt. 11:29–30). Why is this? Because God is our Creator, he knows precisely how we are to operate within his world. His law, his instruction, is suited to man as the earth-bound creature made in his image. We might say that the law is the instruction manual for humanity. And this isn’t limited to the Mosaic law, but includes God’s entire word, which instructs us (1 Tim. 3:16–17). It is in the sense that we could say that the entire Bible is law. It’s God’s revelation for how we should believe and live. God knows how we should live much better than we do. That’s why he gave us his word, his law. To turn away from God’s law is to turn away from the only truth that will help us to live with great blessing and profit in God’s world. We live in a God-rigged universe. Far from being hard and onerous, God’s law shows us how to live within our environment with the greatest of light and blessings.
Fulfilled in Believers
Fourth, the law is fulfilled in us (Rom. 8:4). If we ask the question, Can anybody fulfill or obey the law, the answer is, No and Yes. No, everyone has sinned and fallen short of God’s glory (Rom. 3:23), and if we break one commandment we have violated all (Jas. 2:20). However, believers, by the power of the Spirit, can fulfill the law as much as a redeemed sinner can. This is why 1 John tells us that everyone sins (1:8), but also that we must not live within the reign of sin (2:4–6), which is a violation of God’s law (3:410). In other words, to live by the Spirit’s power is to live in obedience to the law. In this sense, we can keep the law. No, not flawlessly, but nonetheless faithfully (see Gen. 26:5; 1 Kin. 11:24; Lk. 1:6; Jn. 15:10). In a post-Fall world, the issue is not whether a person can be flawlessly sinful. It’s whether a person can live a life dominated by righteousness. He certainly can — and must. “In the natural man sin is the essential element, but in the new man sin is an alien element.”  Therefore, the most faithful Christians are those who’ve most faithfully kept God’s law. The best Christians are the best law-keepers.
In Harmony with the Gospel
Finally, the law is not contrary to the Gospel promises (Gal. 3:21). Paul makes this point quite emphatically (see vv. 21–29), and if we understand it, we might never again have a problem reconciling the law and gospel, law and grace, law and promise. The Mosaic law was given to Israel subsequent to the Abrahamic promises. The promises are promises of eternal life. The law was never given to impart eternal life. It has given, as we have seen, to lead us toward eternal life, that is, toward the Gospel promises (see v. 24). The law is not against the promises, precisely because they serve different functions. The promises tell us what God has accomplished, is accomplishing, and will accomplish in Jesus Christ. The law tells us how we are to live in relation to Jesus Christ. We are not saved by keeping the law, and no one was ever saved by keeping the law in any era. In addition, no one was ever led to please God without the law. Hebrews 11 tells us that without faith it is impossible to please God (11:6), and then it moves on to tell us how that faith led the great OT saints to great exploits of obedience, in other words, law-keeping. To perceive the law as a means of salvation or justification is to pervert it. To see it as a means of pleasing God is to see it precisely as God intends.
How to explain the verses that speak disparagingly of the law is a topic for another post, but suffice it to say that swiftly dispensing with God’s law is a contra-biblical move.
God’s grace in Jesus Christ is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian. We are saved by God’s grace, not by our works (Eph. 2:8–10), but God’s grace operates differently in different classes of people. First, there is the class of those converted as adults, who have lived lives dominated by sin and its injurious consequences. God’s grace when they trust his Son is his recovering grace.
Second, there is that class of children generally reared in a Christian home and the church who, while born sinners, are spared the deep, injurious effects of sin since God’s grace captures their little hearts before sin’s effects run deeply in their lives. This is God’s preventative grace. These are two kinds of grace, both splendorous, but one is preferable to the other: God’s preventative grace is preferable to his recovering grace.
Years ago there was a popular Christian radio program called, “Unshackled.” It was a dramatization of the conversion experience of sinners who’d fallen into deep depravity but whom God had marvelously saved: alcoholics and thieves and drug addicts and prostitutes and unscrupulous businessmen and on and on. It was always exciting and moving. One got the impression listening to “Unshackled” that the most exciting conversions were those conversions of sinners who’d fallen into deep depravity but whom God had saved and cleaned up for his glory.
This mentality, in fact, has become the reigning paradigm in much of American Christianity.
But there is one drawback to the “Unshackled” mentality. It’s the spurious idea that somehow God’s grace is most greatly exhibited when it rescues the most depraved sinner.
This is utterly false. God’s preventative grace is preferable to his recovering grace. Do you imagine that God’s grace is less potent, less glorious, less overwhelming when it captures a little child in a Christian family and keeps that child from the depths of depravity? Which is a greater testimony to God’s grace: salvation of somebody steeped in immorality and drug addiction and abortion and pride or illegitimate divorce or pornography, or salvation of somebody so that they’ll never have to endure the painful consequences of these and other sins?
Know this: God promises to forgive the sins of anybody who repents. But God doesn’t promise to deliver us from all of sin’s consequences. Oh, how many who were saved later in life still bear the scars of the sins of their pre-conversion life! And oh, what joy in the hearts of young adults, reared in the Christian Faith, most from infancy — knowing that there’s no reason to suffer the dreadful consequences of those sins of heart and mind and body — because God’s preventative grace is preferable to his recovering grace.
Years ago one of my daughters was going on a mission trip with an evangelical church. She came to me and said, “Dad, before we go, we’re required to give the group a public testimony of our salvation experience. I know I’m saved. What should I say? A lot of the other kids have really spectacular testimonies, but mine is so boring. I was trained in a Christian home and heard the gospel from an infant and trusted the Lord. I wish my testimony were more exciting!”
I smiled with gratification, and told her of the blessing of a boring testimony.
One of the great errors of the church today is the notion that one must fall into deep depravity in order to be “truly saved by grace,” and that since this usually excludes small children, they need to “grow up and sin real good” before they can become “real Christians.” One is immediately reminded of Paul’s dire comment to the Romans:
For if the truth of God has increased through my lie to His glory, why am I also still judged as a sinner? And [why] not [say], “Let us do evil that good may come”? — as we are slanderously reported and as some affirm that we say. Their condemnation is just. (Rom. 3:7-8)
God’s grace is not glorified because of sin; it is glorified in spite of sin. Obedience is better than sacrifice (1 Sam. 15:22).
God’s preventative grace is to be more highly prized than His recovering grace. It is glorious grace in both cases, but God’s grace is exalted more in what it prevents than in what it repairs.
We learn of Timothy, to whom Paul writes, “And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15, emphases supplied).
My daughter’s paternal grandmother was converted as a Sunday school child at nine years old. Her father himself (that is, I) was converted at four years old, and cannot even remember first being converted.
We can experience salvation from a very young age, in fact, from our youth. Little children who bounced on Jesus’ lap believed on Him (Mt. 18:6). The very smallest children can — and should — be believers. Indeed, while the modern evangelical message is generally that children must have an “adult” conversion experience, Jesus taught just the opposite: adults must have a child’s conversion experience (Mt. 18:3).
Child conversion is the rule; adult conversion is the exception.
May God give us a massive harvest of young people nourished in the gospel from their infancy! May we, by the grace of God, rise up an entire generation of warriors for the Faith, protected from many of the tragic consequences of sin into which those not blessed with a Christian upbringing have fallen.
We live in the days of pitchfork populism. Populists are always saying they are against the élites, but don’t believe them. They might think they are, but in reality, populism couldn’t exist without its own form of elitism. Populism is supposed to be antithetical to and at war with elitism, but actually populism necessitates a very peculiar and dangerous kind of elitism. In our present political climate, general wisdom has it that populism is represented by the likes of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, and elitism by Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Paul Ryan. Actually, all are élites. Given the wide differences and distribition of gifts and talents inherent in the human condition, elitism is inescapable. The only question is whether they’ll be good or bad élites. These days, usually they’re bad.
Populism is defined as “political ideas and activities that are intended to get the support of ordinary people by giving them what they want.” Elitism is “[t]he belief that certain persons or members of certain groups deserve favored treatment by virtue of their superiority, as in intelligence, social standing, or wealth.” A little consideration will show how symbiotic these ideas are.
Chronicles magazine has long been a mainstay of conservative populism. It supports protectionism, nativism, localism — and Donald Trump — because, presumably, this is what “ordinary people” want. In his recent manifesto, Aaron D. Wolf calls for a populist conservatism that bypasses transcendent, timeless truths, which he derisively identifies as “ideology” (truths like those found in the U.S. Declaration of Independence) and proposes instead family and community truths, and the more local, the better. The “establishment” conservatives, by contrast — the élites, that is — champion universal truths, global free trade, a muscular military, a timelessly revealed right and wrong way about believing and doing things not tied to a particular locale. Populism, in its alleged anti-elitism, is not especially compatible with the U.S. Founders (élites to a man), who, rightly or wrongly, took their stand against England on the “self-evident” truths “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” truths anchored in “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” These are not exactly the sentiments of localists, just wanting to protect their unique ways from meddling outsiders, from the dreaded élites. Alternatively, the Chronicles populists “get the support of ordinary people by giving them what they want.”
But who influences what ordinary people want, and who gets to decide who will represent them? The answer is: élites. For instance, populists support protectionism, which means levying tariffs on imported foreign goods so as to “protect” American workers from cheap imports in their particular industry that Americans would purchase rather than their U.S.-made counterparts. But who gets to decide which industries get protected? Last summer, President Obama signed two bills that would “protect” steelworkers from cheap steel imports. It also, by the way, “protected” American consumers from lower costs on products made from steel, in effect levying a tax on them. Obama protected the jobs of one class of citizens by raiding the wallets of another, much larger, class. But why “protect” just steelworkers? Who gets to decide that the steelworkers get to keep their jobs but many of the autoworkers in Pontiac, Michigan, who must compete for wages with lower-paid employees around the world, do not get to keep their jobs? Élites, of course. And if Donald Trump were elected, he too, the élite one, teamed with fellow élites, would decide which industries get “protection” and which do not. The same is true of immigration (who is forbidden to immigrate and who is not?). Populist elitism is not less a reality than economic elitism (Wall Street) or educational elitism (Ivy League). It’s simply manifested in a different, and more dangerous, way. Why more dangerous?
Populists are often impatient with mediating institutions like legislatures (have you checked Congress’ favorability rating lately?) and pin their hopes on a single individual that can vent their frustrations and grievances and actually change political policies to incorporate those frustrations and grievances. This individual usually has nothing but contempt and vitriol for “the establishment,” which stands in the way of “the people’s” wishes. Yet the populist portal is himself more than an echo — he himself helps to shape the views and attitudes of his followers. He voices their anger and provides content and context for it. He is, in other words, an élite.
This nearly universal pact between populists and their élite is the hallmark of democracies, and the more direct the democracy, the more obvious. It is not a coincidence that some of the most evil regimes of the last 100 years have included the term “People’s” or “Democratic” in their name — for instance, “The People’s Republic of China” and “Democratic Kampuchea” (Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge). These democracies are presided over by one or a few super-privileged leaders, élites, in whose name they dictatorially rule. This is what Lenin and Stalin did in the Soviet Union, Ho Chi Min in Vietnam, and Castro in Cuba. The “will of the people” becomes the nomenclature justifying tyrannical elitist authority. We might term it the Dictatorship of the Populariat. Legislatures, however, properly acting, prevent, or at least seriously impede, that elitist tyranny. This is why both populists and their élites deplore legislatures.
James Madison, in Federalist 10, famously wrote: “[D]emocracies [he denotes direct democracies] have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security, or the rights of property; and have, in general, been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.” This entire document by Madison is most instructive in its refutation of populism, which he considers poisonous. He writes that “a republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens up a different prospect, and promises the cure [for democracy or populism] for which we are seeking.” Legislatures, though imperfect, tend to represent, when taken altogether, the interest of the wider citizenry, not just the voice of “the people” and, more importantly, they tend to offer a more cool, deliberate verdict than the recently distempered masses on the issues that confront them. Ironically, when populists attack Congress as élites, they are assaulting the very government branch that the Founders inserted to keep a single élite or a cabal of élites, deputized by populists, from tyrannizing society.
In the case of Trump, he channels and propels populist rage, promises unilateral changes only his machismo can deliver, exhibits no interest in (or even knowledge of) Constitutional limitations, and dangerously tolerates violence against his opponents. In other words, he is an aspiring populist dictator.
Claiming virtuously to speak on behalf “of the people” while deriding all opponents as venal, incompetent, corrupt, lying élites is the mark of an aspiring tyrant.
Whatever your view of democracy, of the supposed purity of the desires and aspirations of “the common man,” be assured of this: populism is not an antidote to elitism. It is both a magnet to and fuel for the most power-hungry élites in any society.