Sons of Freedom and Joy

How a Christian Relates to the State

Bethlehem College & Seminary | Minneapolis

Jesus Christ and his way of salvation is the only reality that sustains joy when our livelihood is taken away, and our family is taken away, and our life is taken away. The state, by God’s design, has the power (according to Romans 13:1–6 and 1 Peter 2:13–17) to take our livelihood and our family and our lives, if laws are put in place that define us as criminals. As Paul says in Romans 13:4, “[Rulers do] not bear the sword in vain.” Swords are for killing and for confiscating. Therefore, the state cannot take our joy. It can only take our lives.

“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” (Matthew 5:11–12)

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. (1 Peter 4:12–13)

You had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering [or confiscation] of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. (Hebrews 10:34–35)

Then they [the apostles] left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. (Acts 5:41)

Therefore, since the state can only take our livelihood and our family and our lives, but not our joy, it is finally and decisively powerless to defeat Christianity. Every Christian that does not bow the knee to the state defeats the state eternally.

Therefore, if the church renounces Christianizing the state in this age and never Christianizes the state in this age, she remains triumphant through every apparent defeat. And there have been many such defeats. Look at North Africa, the Middle East, Turkey.

Should the Christian church renounce the Christianization of the state in this age? By Christianization — in America at least — I mean that the vast majority of congressmen and senators and court justices and members of the executive branch — state and federal — would be Christians enacting laws that enforce Christian morality. For that is what the state does. It enforces with the sword fines, imprisonment, and death.

Should the State Be Christianized?

I think we should renounce the Christianization of the state, which also means I think we should renounce certain forms of postmillenialism. Here’s the reason: God ordained that the state exist. And he ordained that the defining essence of it is that human behavior may be required on pain of death, imprisonment, confiscation, or pain. The king, Peter says, and the governors sent by God exist “to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1 Peter 2:14). Paul makes it clear that this punishment happens by the sword (Romans 13:4). Of course the government can influence behavior by praising and by the rhetoric of statesmanship. But that is not unique to the state. What is unique in defining the state is the power to kill and confiscate and imprison. And that is God’s design.

God also ordained and founded the church. And he did so on radically different foundations than the state. Christ bought the church by renouncing the use of the sword (John 18:36). And by sacrificing himself to save his enemies. He calls into being a people who die to themselves, take up their crosses, follow him, love their enemies, and do not return evil for evil (Mark 8:34; Matthew 5:44; Romans 12:17; 1 Peter 3:9). He brings the Old Testament law to an end, so that from now on in this age, unrepentant sin is dealt with in the church not with stoning, but excommunication.

Church and State in Conflict

By founding the state and the church on such contrary ways of dealing with evil, God made two things plain.

First, the day is coming when the state and the church will merge, and the state will be perfectly and totally Christianized. This will happen when Jesus returns as the all-knowing, all-wise, all-just, all-good ruler of the world, deposing every other ruler who does not rejoice in his supremacy. The age of tolerance and pluralism will be over. Because when he comes he will come with the sword. “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” (2 Thessalonians 1:7–8)

The other thing this difference between the church and the state makes plain is that until Jesus comes, the relationship between the church (or we could say, the Christian) and the state will be at best conflicted, and at worst deadly. And the deadliness has happened when the compatibility is seen to be greatest.

If you ask, “But don’t you pray, ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’?” (Matthew 6:10). Absolutely I do. And what I mean is “Bring your kingdom, O Lord, and establish your perfect will at every level in every structure on this planet by coming in person. And let it be soon. Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus” (1 Corinthians 16:22). And until then, enable us to endure the cross and despise the shame and reach the nations and love our enemy.

Radical Christian Freedom

Now, against that backdrop of immovable Christian joy and the final Christianization of the world in the return of Jesus, my aim is to sketch a biblical picture of Christian existence in the institutions of this world — especially the state — that I believe is meant by God to protect us from wrongheaded other-worldliness, and wrongheaded this-worldliness. I want to sketch a picture of a kind of radical Christian freedom that only Christians know as citizens of heaven and as sojourners and exiles on the earth.

The Sons Are Free

We look first at Matthew 17:24–27,

When they came to Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax went up to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the tax?” He said, “Yes.” And when he came into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?” And when he said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free. However, not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for me and for yourself.”

Here is what I think Jesus is laying down as a foundation for Christian existence in relation to the institutions of this world, and it pervades the New Testament. The authority of human institutions over Jesus and his disciples is nullified. And any submission to those institutions is now rooted not decisively in the institution but in God, who may or may not, at any given time, call for your submission to the institution based on factors other than any intrinsic worth or authority in the institution. The basis of this freedom is that the followers of Jesus are children of God. Paul calls it “the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21).

Must we pay the two-drachma tax? Must we? No. Not that kind of “must.” “The sons are free!” Free from that kind of obligation to human institutions. However, pay it anyway, Peter, so as not to give offense. The children of God are free from human institutions and relate to them on the basis of kingdom aims that do not come from this world. When we submit to a human institution, something totally different is going on than when the world submits. The children are free.

Slaves of God

Now compare this account to how Peter works it out.

Be subject for the Lord’s sake [not the emperor’s sake, or the governor’s sake, or for the sake of the institution] to every human institution. . . . Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants [literally, slaves] of God. (1 Peter 2:13, 16)

We might have expected him to say, “living as sons of God.” But he chooses “slaves” to put all the emphasis on the authority of God as our Master rather than the state as our master. Be subject for the Lord’s sake. How? Knowing that you, the Lord’s slaves, are free from human institutions. And that freedom is not a cloak of self-indulgence (see also Galatians 5:13), but a commission from the Lord. So we relate to the state on a totally different footing than the world. We are free from human institutions. That obligation has been nullified. In themselves they do not bind us. We serve at the behest of a different Master, not any king, or governor, or president, or court.

Submit to Christ

Now consider the institution of slavery itself.

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as obeying Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man. (Ephesians 6:5–7)

In other words, Christian slaves, your submission to your masters is totally different from the submission of other slaves. It is on a totally different footing. Your obedience to your masters is only required and only good as obedience to Christ. You are serving the Lord and not man. Not man! Why? Because you are free. The children of God are free. The slaves of Christ are freedmen. Your earthly master has no inherent authority over you. That obligation is nullified. All is from Christ and for Christ. When you submit, you submit to Christ. And in that submitting you are free.

One Final Authority

And so it is in 1 Corinthians 7:22,

He who was called in the Lord as a slave is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a slave of Christ.

Slaves are Christ’s freedmen. Citizens are Christ’s freedmen. All of life in human institutions is put on a new footing. Human institutions are dethroned. Their inherent authority over the children of God is nullified. We have one Father, one Lord, one final authority. If and when he says to serve men, we serve — for his sake.

As Paul put it in 1 Corinthians 9:19, “For though I am free from all [free from every human and every human institution], nevertheless I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them.” The foundations of Christian existence in the world and the aims of Christian existence in the world are totally different from the world. “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19–20). Bought by God to glorify God. A totally different foundation of life. A totally different aim.

Seven Implications for Christians in the Institutions of this World

Now let me draw out from this sketch of Christian existence in the institutions of this world. I have seven implications for our lives today, especially in this election year.

1. As redeemed children of God, our primary and decisive citizenship is in heaven, not in America or any other country.

With the transfer of our citizenship to heaven, we have become sojourners and exiles in America — and everywhere else on earth.

Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. (Philippians 3:20–21)

Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. (1 Peter 2:11)

When Christ died for his church (Ephesians 5:25), she died with him to the elemental things of this world (Colossians 2:20). Died to the law (Romans 7:4; Galatians 2:19). Died to the world (Galatians 6:14). Died to sin (Romans 6:2). And she rose from the dead to walk in newness of life (Romans 6:4). A new birth (John 3:3). A new person (Ephesians 4:24). A new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). A new covenant (Hebrews 9:15). Heirs of a new earth (2 Peter 3:13). “He [Christ] has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13). We have passed from death to life (John 5:24). We are seated with Christ in the heavenly places (Ephesians 2:6).

This is why we are fundamentally free from human institutions. We have already died. We live in heaven in a profound way. We are not ordinary citizens of America. When we testify as Christians to other Americans, we are not calling them to “make America great.” We are advocating for a transfer of citizenship — an eternal one.

2. We are free from any inherent authority of the state.

We can look Nero or the Supreme Court in the eye and say, “You have no inherent and no final authority over me.” Whatever service or submission we render, we do so wholly because our heavenly citizenship and the Lord Jesus calls us to. This should affect the way we engage with human government so that our involvement points to a radically different and higher allegiance. Submission to the processes of government that does not have the aroma of heaven is a betrayal of our supreme allegiance to our heavenly homeland. It is a failure of heavenly patriotism. It is the porch of the house of heavenly treason.

3. Christ has set us free not only from the institutions of this world, but also from ourselves.

Once we were in bondage to sin and selfishness. “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.” (Romans 6:22). This is why our radical freedom from human institutions does not become a cloak for evil, and does not become a license for civic uselessness.

No book in the New Testament signals as clearly the inevitable conflict between Christian exiles and unbelieving civil society than 1 Peter. And yet no book in the New Testament is more consistent in calling for a life of relentless, public good deeds (1 Peter 2:12, 14–15, 20; 3:6, 11, 13, 16–17; 4:19). These are not insider political good deeds. These are good deeds from the margins done for those who revile us. Because Christ has freed us from the sin of selfishness, not just from civil institutions. Unbinding us from the state does not make us un-useful for others.

4. In freeing us from all people, as Paul said in 1 Corinthians 9:19, God has made us debtors to all.

“I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish” (Romans 1:14). But we are still free — radically free — because we are debtors, not to serve their will, but to serve their good. This is the mind of Christ: “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4).

5. Submission to the state — or any other human authority — is not absolute.

It is relativized by our new citizenship, and by the supreme authority of Christ, and by the call to magnify him above all human value. Therefore, the apostles answered the authorities in Jerusalem, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19–20). “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

6. The right to vote, therefore, in America is not a binding duty (without regard to other factors) for Christians in every election.

The children are free. We are free from human institutions. As citizens of heaven, we are not bound in every situation to participate in the processes of human government. This is not our homeland. We vote — if we vote — because the Lord of our homeland commissions us to vote. And he does not absolutize this act above all other considerations of Christian witness.

In this election, with the flagrant wickedness of both party candidates, the logic that moves from “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution” (1 Peter 2:13) to the necessitythe binding duty — of voting, has lost sight of three things:

  1. the radical meaning of the words, “for the Lord’s sake,” and how it relativizes all human authority and how it brings to bear many other considerations;

  2. the radical freedom of the children of God from the inherent authority of human institutions like governement; and

  3. the aim of every citizen of heaven in all human engagements to display our allegiance to the values of another world.

I am not saying we are bound not to vote. I am saying that the children of God are free to hear the voice of their Master about how to best witness to his supremacy. I will vote. But I have no intention of voting for either of these presidential candidates.

7. When we weaken our prophetic stance as citizens of heaven and fail to distance ourselves from great moral evil in presidential candidates — or anywhere else — we have strayed into a wrongheaded this-worldliness that seeks to wield the power of the state to secure our rights as Christians, when in fact the rights of the children of God cannot be taken away by men because they are not given by men.

Our rights are to belong to Jesus, to stand justified before a holy God, to own everything and inherit everything, to love our enemies, to return good for evil, to treasure Christ above all things, and to live forever in overflowing joy in the presence of God. Those are our blood-bought rights. They cannot be secured for us by laws. They cannot be taken from us by courts.

Our blood-bought rights and freedoms as citizens of heaven are not the same as American freedom of religion, freedom of worship, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly. Christ did not die to guarantee these rights for this age. All these freedoms — precious as they are — can be taken away without any essential loss of our Christian freedom! Therefore, when we seek to use the power of the state to secure these civic freedoms, as if their loss would be the loss of our Christian faith, we betray that we have lost our bearings and fall into a wrongheaded this-worldliness.

As citizens of heaven our freedoms and our joy are invincible and everlasting. They cannot be taken from us. Our livelihood may be taken. Our family may be taken. Our lives may be taken. But our joy and our freedom cannot be taken. Christ bought them with his blood for anyone and everyone who embraces him as supreme. The proclamation of this truth to all the peoples of the world is ten thousand times more important than this election or even the existence of America.