The events of September 11 last year unleashed in the Christian community a tidal wave of compassion and cowardice. The compassion at ground zero and beyond has been beautiful, and is owing to the life that remains in the tree of conviction concerning Jesus Christ. The cowardice is owing to the fact that for many the root of the tree of conviction has been severed. A long time before September 11, the ax of unbelief had been laid to the root of conviction and the withering of courage was predicable.
The cowardice I have in mind, of course, is not the daring of Todd Beamer on United Flight 93 over Pennsylvania (class of '91). The cowardice I have in mind is the fear in the hearts of Christian clergy to make the supremacy of Jesus Christ central in the public, religious events that followed the calamity, especially when Muslims were present. When Jesus Christ himself, the crucified God-man and the Lord of glory, is made subordinate to the cultivation of amicable, patriotic, religious feeling, he is crucified afresh on the altar of clerical cowardice. It was a sad spectacle.
And it has set many of us to pondering with more urgency than we ever have the issues of tolerance and religious pluralism in national and global perspective. There are not many issues that the class of 2002 needs to have more clear than this: what is the relationship between Jesus Christ and religious pluralism and tolerance?
Why Tolerance Is Perplexing
The issue of religious pluralism and tolerance in the world is tremendously complex for several reasons. One is that religion is woven into life and produces behaviors that may meet intolerant legal regulation: letting your child die rather than using medical treatment, smoking Peyote as part of a religious rite, practicing polygamy, refusing to pledge allegiance to the American flag. And the issue is complex because with the rise of Islamic states and the civil implementation of Sharia, the assumptions that we have of separating church and state are increasingly challenged. And we find ourselves today, for example, pouring billions of dollars into the creation of a state in the middle east that is committed to religious intolerance.
But complexity or no complexity the members of the class of 2002 will have to take a position on this issue. Because neutrality is a position on this issue, and a very radical one. What is the relationship between Jesus Christ and religious pluralism and tolerance? In the few minutes I have I want to plant a seed in the soil of your mind and heart in the hope that they will grow up and become a tree of unshakable Biblical conviction and courage and love.
The Truth About Tolerance
Here's the seed: Jesus Christ, the source and ground of all truth, will himself one day bring an end to all tolerance, and he alone will be exalted as the one and only Lord and Savior and Judge of the universe. Therefore, since Jesus Christ alone, the Creator and Lord of history, has the right to wield the tolerance-ending sword, we dare not.
To put it another way: All religious tolerance will end because Christ will come. And therefore it dare not end until he comes.
To put it a third way: Because Christ alone is absolute and infinite in his wisdom and power and justice and grace, he alone is the final end of tolerance, and therefore the present ground of tolerance.
Or to put it more personally, you not only may, but must, make room for religious pluralism in the world, not in spite of, but because of, the absolute Lordship of Jesus Christ over all false religions.
Or, to put it most radically and most violently - and most Biblically - since the wrath of Jesus will consign to everlasting punishment all who do not obey the gospel, therefore we must give place to wrath, and love our enemies. Since Christ alone, crucified-for-sinners, has the final right to kill his religious enemies, therefore Christianity will spread not by killing for Christ, but by dying with Christ - that others might live. The final triumph of the crucified Christ is a call to patient suffering, not political success.
Paul's View On Christ's Triumph
Listen to the apostle Paul in 2 Thessalonians 1:7-10:
The Lord Jesus [will be] revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed.
Wheaton College embraces this terrible and glorious truth with these words:
WE BELIEVE in the blessed hope that Jesus Christ will soon return to this earth, personally, visibly, and unexpectedly, in power and great glory, to gather His elect, to raise the dead, to judge the nations, and to bring His Kingdom to fulfillment.
WE BELIEVE in the bodily resurrection of the just and unjust, the everlasting punishment of the lost, and the everlasting blessedness of the saved.
In other words, Wheaton College does not believe in eternal tolerance. Wheaton College and every honest professor who signs this statement believe that religious tolerance will one day end. And, unless I judge wrongly, Wheaton College also believes that religious pluralism and tolerance in the world will remain, and must remain, until Christ himself, in person, puts it to an end.
What Jesus Said About His Own Triumph
In the last hours of his life in answer to Pontius Pilate Jesus said, "My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world" (John 18:36).
This does not mean that the kingdom of Christ has no impact on this world. The salt and light and truth and beauty that the kingdom of Christ brings to this world are inestimable. What it means is that this kingdom does not advance by the sword. To spread the gospel and establish the church of Christ and transform the world, Christ puts one sword into the hands of his people: the Word of God.
And in that Word he says, "Repay no one evil for evil . . . Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord'" (Romans 12:17, 19). The vengeance of Christ, and the final end of tolerance, is the ground of love, not violence.
Therefore Christian graduates of Wheaton College will not play the Joshua of the conquest of Canaan, which was a redemptive-historical season of savagery and judgment, appointed by God for a limited time and place. But now with the coming of Jesus into the world and the kingdom of God being taken away from Israel (Matthew 21:43) and given to a people bearing the fruits of it from every tribe and tongue and nation-Palestinian, Jew, Saudi, Afghani, Latino, Chinese-a new time and a new way is here. The way of suffering and patience and love and courage, persuading and pleading with the world to be reconciled to God.
My Question as a Prayer
Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them? (Luke 9:54). No, you don't know what spirit you are of. Come, walk with me toward Jerusalem, we have other villages to reach.
Lord, an enemy has sown weeds with the wheat in the world. Do you want us to go pull them up? No. Let them grow. At harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn (Matthew 13:30).
God, should we fight to spare our Christ the shame of rejection and the cross? No. Put your sword away. Join my Son on the Calvary road. Show by your willingness to rejoice in unjust treatment for Christ's sake that your treasure is in heaven, and that you know the day is coming when all tolerance will cease, and Christ alone will be exalted. Let that be your joy and your hope, class of 2002. Follow the crucified Christ in patient suffering. Don't kill to spread your faith. Die to spread your faith. Christ is the end and the ground of your tolerance and your suffering. Give place to wrath. Love your enemies.
May the seed of this message find good soil in the class of 2002 so that you become unshakeable trees of conviction and courage and love.