So I want to address a question that’s been asked many, many times, not in this brief way, but it comes up in conversations over and over again. And it is, “Is the gospel political?” Before I answer that question, I just want to comment on the angry, aggressive, adversarial, rather despicable political moment that we’re in. It’s a two-party system that cannot work if it’s driven by anger and hatred. It just doesn’t. And you, as a Christian, believe things. You believe them strongly. I would just so encourage you, don’t be caught up in the hate. You do not win your neighbor by screaming at him. You do not win your neighbor by characterizing him with the most hurtful of terms.
We are in a political moment that is sad. We cannot work together. Government is grinding to a halt. We’re in moments now of, not only political, but racial tension because the language has been cranked up. And I have to say I’m sad that the church has been caught up into this. And there are things that are coming out of people who represent the gospel because they’ve been caught up in this moment that are not becoming to what God has called us to be. So I think what we’re going to talk about is particularly important in this cultural moment that we’re in.
So I want to start this way. We should care about government. Government is God’s good gift to us. If you understand, again, a biblical worldview, government is set up by God, meant to represent His authority and is given a particular job description. We’re not anti-government people and that way, we’re not anti-political because it takes politics for the government to form itself.
One of the ways that God makes His invisible authority and restraining mercy visible is through government, through setting up visible human authorities that set laws that are for the common good. We’re all benefits of that. I don’t generally have to be afraid to walk on the streets. I don’t have to be afraid to drive. My life is regulated by a whole set of things that the government controls and regulates. I should be thankful for that and understand that that’s God’s idea, and it’s His good grace to all of us.
So that means a second thing. I should care about elections. I should care about voting to elect, as much as possible, trustworthy, moral leaders. You say, “Paul, there aren’t any.” Well, I’m going to search for the best because I care about my neighbor. I care about life in the here and now.
Listen. You can’t understand God’s call to you and just act like this “now” moment is meaningless coz we’re just sitting around waiting for the Second Coming. That’s not a biblical worldview. We’re called to live in this culture, to make this culture better. I love the direction God gives to His people who are captive in Babylon: to love the surrounding culture, to love the city, to make it better, to plant trees. That’s what we’re supposed to do, so I should care about this moment. I should care about participating in things like elections, so that, to the best of our ability, we can have leaders who would actually care for the welfare of our neighbors.
You should endeavor to be a good citizen. Do things that good citizens should do. Peter, in writing to people who are misunderstood and being persecuted, tells them to pray for their leaders. “Pray for good for your leaders. Pray for wisdom. Pray for moral hearts.” Can I ask you a question? Do you pray for your leaders? In the morning, would you ever think of praying for your senator, praying for your congressman, praying for your mayor, praying for your president? Do you ever pray for these people?
Is it much easier for you to rip them in conversation than pray for them? Have we abandoned the belief in God running the ultimate government, that He can turn the hearts of leaders? The Bible says that God raises up and puts down leaders, that the king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, like the rivers of water. He can turn it wherever He wills. Pray. Participate in the good of your community. If there’s a community clean-up project, be part of that. If there’s a park that needs refurbishing, how about your church adopting the park? Participate in the citizenry of your community.
Now, let’s get to the issue at hand. We’re not anti-government. We’re not anti-elections. We’re not anti-citizens, but the gospel is not political. What politicians can do is pass laws that promote good and restrain evil. They can help restrain and normalize the way a community operates, but politics is not where we place our hope.
Listen. The hope of the people of God is never in political power. Let me say that again. Our greatest power is not political and the minute you believe that your greatest power political, your greatest power is political influence, you will compromise the gospel. It always happens. You see, our power is the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ because the gospel of the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ has the power to do what politics could never, ever do; and that is rescue and transform the heart of a person.
Let me say it this way. People are not changed by the passing of laws. People are directed and restrained by the passing of laws. That’s an important critical difference. For example, the passing of laws with regard to race does not end racism. We know that now. There were massive civil rights laws passed in America and we still live with individual, corporate and institutionalized racism in America because racism is an issue of the heart.
Now, I’m thankful for those laws. I’m thankful for those laws that have restrained evil and promoted good in the human community in America, but we’ve seen the inadequacy of political power to do what actually needs to be done. You want prejudice to be robbed of its power in a human being’s life? Well then, you want grace for that person because it’s only the power of God that can change the way I look at and I think about another human being, that can break down lifelong-held hatred.
Grace can turn proud people into humble people. Grace can turn war-makers into peacemakers. Grace can turn haters into lovers. Grace can turn joyless people into joyful people. Grace can remove condemnation from my mouth and place words of love there. Only grace can do that. And so, we don’t want to forsake our mission because we’ve mistakenly thought that we got to get more political power. “The only hope for us is to get more political power.”
Now, what that means is the church of Jesus Christ will never fit comfortably with any political party. Let me say that again coz I think it needs to be repeated. The church of Jesus Christ will never fit comfortably with either political party because if the Conservative worldview is one way and the more Liberal-Progressive worldview is one way, the gospel worldview is a third way. And it isn’t defined comfortably by this side. It’s not defined comfortably by this side.
Let me just give you one example. If you read the social justice calls in the Bible, passages like Micah 6:6-8 or the passages where we’re called to defend the fatherless and widows, that sounds more like the energy that would be in the Democratic Party. If you hear the massive amounts of calls in scripture to personal responsibility, that sounds more like the themes of the Republican Party. But you can’t take the whole of what the gospel says about life and says about how we should live and place that comfortably in the political philosophy of any party. Now, I’m afraid we do that. I’m afraid we too quickly align with a political party because we’re interested in power and whenever you do that, you have to lop off or compromise elements of your message.
I’m going to say something that may get me in trouble, but I’m going to say it anyway. I believe that the church of Jesus Christ is always weakened and its reputation, defamed, when we identify too strongly with one political party; because what happens is we then, because of the strong identification, we get known by whatever that party is known for, instead of being known for what we actually stand for. Our identity gets absorbed into the identity of that party that we so stand for.
So I think that there may be things in the Republican Party that would make me comfortable there, but I think there are ways that those political leaders talk that are reprehensible, that are wrong, that are hateful, that make the discourse dark and aggressive; so I don’t want to be known as too strongly identifying with that thing because it compromises my identity in the gospel and weakens my voice. It never works and it ends up defaming my message because the beauty of the gospel message, the beauty of the awesome generosity of the Lord, as I’ve recently been studying my way through the Old Testament, I’ve just been amazed by this pattern.
God chooses His people, they rebel against Him, He warns them and disciplines them, and guess what He does. He restores them again by His grace and that patient love of God to draw His people back again to Him, our message is the most beautiful message that could ever be told. We have a narrative that is the story of stories. We want to be known for that narrative and we don’t want to associate so strongly with a particular political persuasion that we weaken or defame the thing that is most precious us and that is the source of our power and influence.
I think what is very, very important is to always remember that you’re a citizen of another kingdom. Jesus says very powerfully, again, getting near the end of the Sermon on the Mount, “Seek my kingdom and seek my righteousness.” So here’s the life that you’re called to live right now. You have a dual citizenship. God’s plan is that you would participate in the kingdom of this world in a place where you can. [In] the kingdom of man, you are a human citizen on earth, living under a government by God’s sovereign choice. He’s called you to be a citizen. He’s called you to pray for your leaders. He’s called you to recognize the important function of government.
So it’s not right for the church to withdraw. It’s not right for us to not participate. We’ve been placed here as active participants, rendering unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, rendering unto God what belongs to God. You always have that citizenship in the kingdom of man, the kingdom of this world and that is your moral responsibility.
But you’re also a citizen of the greater eternal kingdom of God. You’ve been called, you’ve been chosen to be a citizen in that kingdom and so, your dominant allegiance is to the greater kingdom. And so, because of your allegiance to the greater kingdom, you don’t withdraw from the kingdom of this world, but you associate with the king of this world through the vehicle of your allegiance to the kingdom of God.
In every way as a citizen, in every election, in every community activity, you are aware of your higher citizenship. You’re called to seek and represent the kingdom of God, God’s will, God’s way, God’# plan, God’s glory, God’s truth, God’s morality, God’s values, His call to relationship, all of those kingdom things. So it’s the kingdom of God that is my direction system for how to relate to the kingdom of man. I always have this dual citizenship. It is because of my allegiance to the kingdom of God, knowing that’s where my power is, that I won’t get snookered into thinking that my power is to be found in some kind of identification with a certain political power and the gaining of political power.
It’s been tried before. There have been movements, even in the last few decades, for the church to vie for political power. And when you look, those movements simply did not bear the fruit that was promised. Those movements over-promised and under-delivered because I think those movements forgot where the power is actually to be found.
Be careful what you put your hope in. Every human being functions by hope. You will attach your identity, your meaning and purpose, your inner security to something. It never works to attach your hope to something horizontal. Lasting hope is only ever found vertically.
Be careful what you’re afraid of. Fear never produces anything good in your life. I think fear of the march of cultural things that we think are wrong, that threaten human identity, massive changes in sexuality, in gender, in morality – that fear can make you run some place and associate with things that you think are speaking your language that may lead to complete compromise on what you actually believe and where you actually find hope.
I think that’s happening. I think we’re running to people who actually may be the enemies of what we actually believe because they are the friends of some of the things we’re concerned about. They carry those concerns and we identify ourselves too closely with those people, and we end up weakening our standing and defaming our message.
Don’t give way to fear. Know that your Lord is sovereign. I can’t entertain this topic without talking about the sovereignty of God. Paul is in Athens. It’s a commuter’s passage of scripture. I love this. It feels like the city. He’s sitting, waiting to make connection with somebody and to go on with his journey. It’s sort of like sitting here in Philadelphia in Dilworth Park outside of city hall. And he’s listening to these Athenian philosophers and their debate about the unknowability of God. And Paul says, “Can I say something here? I think He’s actually knowable because He’s revealed Himself.” And in his brief little talk there, he talks about God being creator and sovereign and savior. If you’re going to believe in God, you’re going to have to believe in those three things.
And I love how he talks about the sovereignty of God. This little talk of Paul is my friend. It’s one of these things that gets me up in the morning. He says, “He determines the exact place where we will live and the exact length of his days.” And then, he says something. This blows my mind. “He does that, so He’s not far from each one of us, so that any moment, we can reach out and touch Him.”
Now, think of the picture of the sovereignty of God. We think of sovereignty of God as one of His huge transcendent qualities. In order to be sovereign, He has to be distant out there, He has to be looking over everything. Sort of makes God feel distant. And He’s seen as the great chess player in the sky and He’s moving the players. Paul says, “No, no, no.” He is in intimate sovereignty over the very details of your life, right down to your address and He’s done that so He’s near.
Paul is actually teaching the theology of imminent sovereignty. “Imminent”, meaning “near”. He’s sovereignly near so that He’s touchable. Isn’t that amazing that God would make Himself reachable to us? Now, that one who is sovereignly near to me rules the affairs of human history and government. There’s a book in the Bible, Daniel, that is meant to demonstrate He is sovereign over nations and rulers and the move of history.
Now, it may look like chaos to you. It often does to me and somehow, I look around at the political culture and I think, “Is anybody in charge?” You have to remember – and this will keep you from compromise and keep you from fear – that your Lord, not only is the Lord of government. He’s near to you in your fear. He’s near to you in your struggle. He’s touchable for you and he’s there as your hope. He’s there as your help. He’s there as your defender. He’s there as your protector.
You don’t need to give away precious things to associate with people, who you think value a few things you value because you’re afraid, but in the end, have led you to compromise things that are at the heart of what God has called you to be. The power of the church is not political power. The power of the church is the existence and presence of the Lord Almighty. He is our hope and no matter what is happening now, He will advance His story.
In the 1400s, in the darkness of Europe, it seemed like there was no hope. It seemed like things were as bad as they could be, but God raised up Wycliffe and Zwingli and Jan Hus [John Huss] and Martin Luther and John Calvin. And the light shone in the world again, and the dominance of the monarchies were broken, and people were given human rights again, and people were lifted out of poverty, and nations were built.
Who would’ve ever thought it wasn’t, first, a political movement? It was a gospel movement in days that seemed incredibly dark and the gospel movement, human culture. That’s who we are. That’s what we believe. And don’t let the darkness of this moment cause you to associate yourselves too closely with things that would make you compromise your message. Carry gospel hope, and believe in the presence and the power of the Lord Almighty.