God Relenting of Good

American flag with church and cross

Is America a Christian Nation?

Is America a Christian nation?

This past Monday and Tuesday I attended a conference of ministers put on by the New Hampshire Renewal Project–and I’m pretty sure you’d find the vast majority of those attending that gathering would wholeheartedly say, “Yes!” to that question.

How would you answer it?

How would you define it?  (“It” being “Christian nation.”)

For instance, to be a Christian nation would the Bible need to prophesy about us?  Some people are convinced in Scripture’s symbolism they can find our great union.  I would argue that someone really wanting to can pretty much find anything they want in the imagery of Daniel and Revelation…or elsewhere like Ezekiel 38 with “merchants of Tarshish with all it’s villages” (Ezekiel 38:13, NASB).  However, I think that we can all agree that (a) being spoken of in the Bible could mean quite opposite of being a Christian nation (they might be words “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction”–Romans 9:22) and (b) that if somehow the U.S. Is mentioned, it’s clearly not in the same sense of Israel–where God called, redeemed, and ruled that nation.

[ These are quick sermon notes…not cleaned-up…and missing the "extras" that come out in the audio (which, sadly, is unavailable for this sermon). All quotes are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted. ]

Should we define it based on the percentage of Americans who claim they are Christians?  If so, then we do pretty well–although it is extremely disturbing that we’ve dropped from 91% identifying themselves as Christian back when Gallup first started tracking religious identification in 1948, as of 2008 77% of us label ourselves “Christian”1.  However, considering the filth we consume via media, our divorce rate, how empty so many churches are nationwide, the fact we elect so many politicians who won’t even attempt to stop the murder of the unborn, and so on–how can we consider ourselves a Christian nation based on profession?  We clearly aren’t a Christian nation based on action, are we?

Perhaps we are a Christian nation because of the sayings we have–for instance, “In God we trust” is on our money and our Pledge of Allegiance has “One nation, under God” in it.  Well, as appealing as that is, “”In God we trust” didn’t show up on our currency until 1864 (on a two cent coin)2 and “under God” was added to the pledge in 19543.  Not only were those both later in our history, if that’s how we define being a Christian nation, what happens if ten years from now some court permanently decides both break the modern view of the separation of church and state?  Poof!  No longer a Christian nation?

Perhaps the best way to decide if we are a Christian nation or not is to use the definition proposed by Wall Builders.  After earlier commenting, “Contrary to what critics imply, a Christian nation is not one in which all citizens are Christians, or the laws require everyone to adhere to Christian theology, or all leaders are Christians, or any other such superficial measurement” Wall Builders continues, “According to Justice Brewer, America was ‘of all the nations in the world . . . most justly called a Christian nation’ because Christianity ‘has so largely shaped and molded it.’”4 Wall Builders goes on to confidently state that “Christianity is the religion that shaped America and made her what she is today. In fact, historically speaking, it can be irrefutably demonstrated that Biblical Christianity in America produced many of the cherished traditions still enjoyed today…”

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Not Yet

Now…I’m going to stop here and change the subject.  In future sermons–my plan is once a month–I am going to discuss the religious heritage of the United States, our civic duty, and other topics where faith and American citizenship intersect.  But today I want to quickly review two other related subjects, looking to answer the question, “Is the United States a Christian nation?,” in the future.  Yes, that means the introduction to this talk was a teaser for a future one, but I want you all to think seriously about that question–and whether it actually matters when it comes to our day-to-day behavior.  If you don’t want to wait for the answer, please go ahead and read David Barton’s article, “Is President Obama Correct:  Is America No Longer a Christian Nation?”4–I’ll have a link to it in my sermon notes which I’ll publish on our site later today.

Christian Behavior

Regardless of whether we are a Christian nation or not, the Bible gives us some pretty clear guidance on how we should interact with local, county, state, and federal governments.

Let’s first turn to Paul’s advice to Timothy.  In 1 Timothy 2:1-4 he has these words of wisdom:

2 First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, 2 for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. 3 This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, 4 who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

#1…we should pray for them…in this case Paul is specifically suggesting our “supplications” be so “that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.”  As a whole I think in America God has answered this prayer–although we can see some pretty ominous clouds on the horizon, and the U.S.’s performance in this respect has been less then stellar starting in the mid 20th century.

To continue our discussion, let’s look at another one of Paul’s pastoral letters–this one to Titus.  Flipping to Titus 3:1-3…:

3 Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, 2 to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people. 3 For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.

#2…here, tying it to a discussion of our overall behavior, Paul tell us to be submissive and obedient toward government.  It should also be noted how clearly not being obedient is tied to the degenerate nature we all had prior to turning to the Lord.  Just as we gave up those repulsive behaviors, be should give up rebellion toward authority.

Staying with Paul a bit longer, let’s consider Romans 13:1-7:

13 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.

Now, there is a lot to this one.  Again we are reminded to be “subject” (that is, obedient), but we also find:

#3…we need to realize God gives government the authority they have.  When we rebel against government, we are rebelling against God…and if they punish us because of it, it is God who is punishing us.

#4…we should pay taxes.

#5…we should respect and honor our leaders.

I know #5 can be very, very hard given the existing conditions of the federal government–but the Lord can give us the wisdom and strength required to remember they’ve been “appointed” by God…and if that isn’t worth of respect and honor, nothing is.

Now, Paul wasn’t the only one who felt it important to remind the early Christians to act properly in a civic context.  Peter also had some intelligent counsel to share in 1 Peter 2:13-17:

13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. 16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. 17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

Did you notice anything new in what Peter said?  Again he reminds us to be obedient; that when government punishes us for misbehavior they are God’s instrument.  He also speaks of honoring, although he says “everyone” (not just “whom is owed”).  What was entirely new?

#6…we should “live as people who are free.”  As citizens of a country that has freedom as a mantra this command should especially appeal to us.  But, please note that we should not use our “freedom as a cover-up for evil”–as I mentioned in a recent bulletin article, you aren’t really free if you do so anyway.  Sin is enslaving.

Now, before we move on from here…can anyone think of the most succinct statement in the Bible about how we should behave in regard to government?

[ Give them a chance to share ideas. ]

I’m sure it is of no surprise that Jesus himself might have most pithily covered our civic duty.  Let’s hear His words directly from his lips:

16 And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20 And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” 21 They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away (Matthew 22:16-22).

What could be more simple than give to government what is theirs, and to God what is His?

Now, Jesus’ words also remind us of a caveat to all the obedience and submission advice we’ve gotten.  It’s best seen and heard in Acts in the action and words of the apostles:

27 And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest questioned them, 28 saying, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” 29 But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:27-29)

Yes, there are going to be times when we will “rebel” against government, but it will be when they are no longer acting within God’s will…and we have to remember to prayerfully remind them we have no choice but to “obey God rather then men.”  As Peter and John later answered, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, 20 for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20).

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Nations

Now…just as I prematurely ended the discussion of whether we are a Christian nation, I am going to only touch on the portion of this topic that led to the title and the Scripture for today.

Ignoring God’s direct involvement in the affairs of Israel…how does our Lord interact with nations in general?  We know from the previous quotes He gives them their authority, but is He otherwise disinterested in the countries He has not specifically called?  We’ll likely look at this more thoroughly in one of my monthly sermons (along with its application to the United States), but for now we’ll look at two other quotes.  First, let’s turn to Job and add one more verse to what we heard before this sermon:

23 He makes nations great, and he destroys them;

he enlarges nations, and leads them away.

24 He takes away understanding from the chiefs of the people of the earth

and makes them wander in a pathless waste.

25 They grope in the dark without light,

and he makes them stagger like a drunken man (Job 12:23-25).

Do you get the sense that right now our federal government is staggering around like a drunken man?  (They are definitely “spending money like a drunken sailor.”)  Does that give you as much concern as it does me since it could indicate God is behind it–taking away their understanding?

If that’s what is happening, do you wonder why?

What especially worries me is connecting the verses from Job with Jeremiah 18:7-10:

7 If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, 8 and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. 9 And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, 10 and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it.

Regardless of whether the U.S. can be found in Bible prophesy or whether we are a Christian nation…I cannot help but believe that God had some hand in building and planting us…and I worry that because we have done what is evil in His site, not listening to His voice, He has relented of the good He intended to do with us.

Let’s prayerfully consider that question together in the months ahead…

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Footnotes

1 http://www.gallup.com/poll/117409/Easter-Smaller-Percentage-Americans-Christian.aspx

2 http://www.ustreas.gov/education/fact-sheets/currency/in-god-we-trust.shtml

3 http://www.religioustolerance.org/nat_pled1.htm

4 http://www.wallbuilders.com/libissuesarticles.asp?id=23909


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