Interview with

Founder & Teacher,

Audio Transcript

Happy Fourth of July to those of you in the United States. This holiday is a big one here, of course, and one that reminds me of many episodes on this podcast, Pastor John, where you have delved into the church-state separation controversy, political activism, Christian patriotism, US flags in the sanctuary, things like that — all sorts of topics we’ve covered in this realm. I attempted to digest all those episodes into one summary you can find (hopefully it’s handy for you) in the APJ book on pages 47–56.

Citizenship in a country like America is a wonderful grace, a common grace. On a day like this one, I am reminded of the apostle Paul and his Roman citizenship, which afforded him certain privileges and protections, and we see those come up all over Acts (Acts 16:35–40; 22:22–29; 23:26–27; 25:13–27; etc.). Paul’s passport is always showing up in Acts because his nationhood was useful. It was a common grace he returned to and claimed. We too have a ton of privileges, Pastor John, and protections in being American citizens. We cannot take them for granted. And so, on a day like today, it is good to celebrate them. So, Pastor John, what are your thoughts today as you ponder this common grace of citizenship, and how we got it?

I have little doubt that the lavish blessings of common grace that we enjoy in America are rooted in the pervasive cultural transformation that came from centuries of Christian influences in Europe and America. I don’t doubt that. And just by way of thanksgiving on this special day (and we should be thankful), the kind of common grace I have in mind are things like this — and the list is short and could be many times longer.

America’s Uncommon Gifts

I have in mind a stable government, whose processes so far have freed us from anarchy and mob rule, which are so destructive. You can just look at certain countries in the world today and imagine how horrible it could be.

I have in mind the freedoms we still enjoy to gather for worship and for all kinds of discussions that may or may not support the present persons and policies in power, without fear of the gestapo breaking in.

I have in mind the moral and legal forces that still hold sway that make people trust contracts when they sign them (and banking and currency) without fear of pervasive bribery or graft undermining the entire working of business and industry and personal finance — as is the case in so many countries that can’t do anything because everything breaks; it doesn’t work because of graft and corruption.

I have in mind reliable infrastructures that we simply take for granted. Electricity for virtually every home and apartment, with heat and air conditioning and refrigeration, and countless appliances that work at the flip of a switch. Indoor plumbing — imagine! Indoor plumbing! (And in Minnesota, that’s really good.) And invisible sewers that keep our streets from stench. (They were working outside my house some time ago, and they did this amazing relining of the sewer pipes without even digging them up — just incredible technology.) Hot and cold running water at the twist of a handle, and you can even drink it. You can drink it. Food supplies that almost magically show up every day on the shelves of thousands of stores because of countless processes of production and delivery. Roads and highways and trains and trams and buses and cars and air travel that, by the way, is astonishingly safe and reliable. An Internet that puts the world of information and commerce at our fingertips for almost everyone.

And Tony, I deleted a whole bunch, just to make this shorter. On and on we could go, and all this is true. Yes, though there are criminals at every level of society, from street drug dealers to white-collar fraud, the fact remains, for now, owing to the common grace of God in this land, in America, for the most part, things work amazingly.

I have an immigrant friend that I meet with almost every week to practice his English and to study Scripture, and we talk about his country of origin, where virtually nothing works. There’s no reliable infrastructure or economic system. The poor are kept poor because there’s no stable way for them to work themselves out of poverty in a system that is shot through with bribery and corruption and instability. A tiny layer of people at the top are rich enough to have multiple mansions all over the world, and they simply steal the country’s resources, with no effort to provide structures that enable people to make a living. And we both know, he and I, we know that will never change as long as the human heart of selfishness and greed dominates the culture.

Maintaining Perspective and Priority

So, what do I conclude from lavish blessings in America, rooted in a history of morality-shaping Christianity, and from hopeless brokenness in societies rooted in selfishness and greed and corruption? And lest anybody think I’m naive, of course I’m aware that there is ample selfishness and greed at every level of American society. But that’s not why America works. To the degree that those forces gain ground, to that degree will things simply break down, collapse, stop working. That may be where we’re going. I don’t know. So, what do I conclude from all this?

Not a Tool for Nation Building

Let me say again what I don’t conclude. I don’t conclude that we should think of the Christian gospel as the pathway to nation building or nation preservation. I don’t conclude that the church should define its priorities of ministry as nation building or culture transformation. Why not, since that is often the effect that they have? Two reasons.

“We’re not promised, in this age, the survival of any nation or culture.”

First, in the New Testament, the gospel was given to save sinners from the wrath of God, not from the collapse of the Jewish state or the Roman Empire. Jesus Christ came into the world to solve the biggest problem that exists in the world for everybody on the planet — namely, we will all perish eternally under the wrath of God if we are not saved by Jesus Christ, who reconciled us to God by his death in our place.

This is the most important news we have. No other religion has it. Jesus Christ — crucified, risen, and trusted — is the only hope for every person on the planet to be saved from eternal suffering. That’s the primary reason Jesus came into the world, and the message of the New Testament focuses on it. That’s the great problem of humanity. That’s the great glory of Jesus Christ. If we think of the Christian gospel in another way, and we promote the Christian gospel as a political tool for preserving a nation or transforming a culture, we will move away from the heart of the best news in the world, and the power of the cross will be lost.

The second reason that we don’t prioritize the gospel as nation building and culture transformation is that in that very process of prioritization of the wrong thing, we would undermine the very force of the gospel to transform cultures and build nations.

In the New Testament, the process of becoming godly, righteous, humble, courageous, loving people who are radically different from fallen human nature and from corrupt cultures — that process is profoundly personal and is a deeply spiritual warfare against Satan and against indwelling sin. Where the gospel takes a detour away from the prioritization of justification by faith and sanctification by the deeply personal process of spiritual warfare, the Christian church will reflect culture, not change it.

Faithful and Forward-Looking

So, what do I conclude? What can I say positively? With all our might, let us take the Christian gospel to all the unreached peoples of the world, and let us present the gospel in the most compelling way we can to the people around us, and let us seek to be so radically changed by the gospel that our lives are full of good deeds, which bring glory to our Father in heaven by showing that our treasure is not on this earth. These good deeds may or may not preserve a nation and build a culture.

We’re not promised, in this age, the survival of any nation or culture. C.S. Lewis said, “Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat” (The Weight of Glory, 46). What we are promised is meaningful lives of love in this world and eternal joy in the next — and that Jesus Christ, when he comes (and he is coming, personally, on the clouds), will create a new nation, a new culture, a new world that lasts forever. And so we pray, “Keep us faithful, and come, Lord Jesus.”