THE GOSPEL AND PATRIOTISM
by John Davis
The Gospel and Patriotism
Dr. John P. Davis
Note: I am indebted to Steve Wilkins’ article on “Biblical Patriotism” for some of the major points and the basic thrust of this blogpost.
Recently in the United States, the last Monday in May was marked by the remembrance of those who have given their lives as members of the Armed Forces of the United States of America. In just one week on July 4 we will celebrate Independence Day. National occasions such as this raise the question of ‘what does it mean for a Christian to be patriotic?’ Were you to draw a continuum of Christian opinions on this subject you would have a myriad of views including pacifists, ‘just war’ proponents, some who will not swear loyalty to any earthly government, others who are actively involved in the political process, etc.
Though Christians may disagree on this subject, every Christian must ask, “how does the gospel transform my view of what it means to be patriotic?”
Let me suggest a few points to think about!
1. The gospel re-prioritizes our loyalties.
True patriotism understands that there is one King and Ruler over all kings and rulers, the Lord Jesus Christ (Wilkins). We confess with the apostle Paul in Phil 3:20-21:
But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.
2. The gospel helps us understand that liberty is the gift of God and not a privilege granted by the government. Though we might think that a constitutional republic is the superior form of human government, we should know from our own American experience that true freedom is not equivalent to democracy. The supreme goal is not democracy. The supreme goal is freedom in Christ. Sin enslaves people whether under communism or representative governments. The gospel of Jesus Christ sets men free regardless of the human tyranny they may live under.
3. The gospel transforms our patriotism from a love of governmental systems and parties to a love of people. Politics by its very nature pits people against each other. The gospel gives Democrats who become Christians the ability to love Republicans and vice versa. It also gives both Republicans and Democrats the ability to discern the evil in their own parties. Some Christians may even in good conscience refuse to join any party. The priority of Christians is not the triumph of a political party but the triumph of King Jesus in the hearts of all men. Christians refuse to violate the law of love by vilifying political opponents.
4. The gospel gives us discernment to evaluate and appreciate the true blessings and inheritance we’ve received from our forefathers. What is the most treasured inheritance of Americans that undergirds the greatness of America? I would say that it is the recognition in the Declaration of Independence of the God given rights of humankind and the 1st Amendment to the Constitution – the freedom of religion – i.e., that the state neither supports nor hinders any religious expression that does not impinge on the basic rights of others.
5. The gospel calls us to a non-divisive, humble patriotism. There are a billion Chinese who though oppressed by their present government nevertheless love their country and their heritage. When we were kids we bragged about our Dads. “My dad can beat your dad.” The gospel moves us beyond “childish patriotism” to one that recognizes that people across the world feel the same passions for their country as we do for ours. The gospel calls us to love others as we love ourselves.
6. The gospel alters our view of war. We know that all war is an outcome of human sin and ultimately leads to tragic death. Christians who go to war never do so lightly. Thoughtful Christians always struggle between the patriotic duty to take a human life in what might be called a ‘just war’ and the biblical mandate to rescue human life through the preaching of the gospel. Consequently, some Christians conscientiously object to participating in war as a matter of their Christian conviction. Whether we agree with them or not, their understanding of the Bible’s teaching on that subject is not unorthodox. No Christian should be so quick to join a government in taking life unless he has first manifested a passion for saving life.
7. The gospel calls us at times to civil disobedience. The true patriot, because he loves his country, is one who is willing to oppose his country when it opposes God (Wilkins). Peter and the apostles in Acts 5 disobey the government not in an attempt to overthrow, nor in any show of force. They simply choose to obey God rather than man.
8. The gospel moves us beyond blind loyalty to any government. So called ‘just’ governments are not all just. The best of governmental systems are administrated by men and women who themselves are not beyond deceit, selfishness, pride, hatred and all the others evil passions that drive nations to war.
9. The gospel causes us to see that there are things more important than winning elections. A victory that is gained by being indifferent to God’s truth and righteousness is a defeat. To vote for the lesser of two evils in hopes of voting for the winning candidate is to idolize political victory. The lesser of two evils is still evil. The late, great 19th century theologian R. L. Dabney noted that “it is only the atheist who adopts success as the criterion for right.” (Steve Wilkins).
10. The gospel leads us to repent of sins and humble ourselves before the living God and beg for mercy on this land and all lands that the gospel may go forth in power and freedom. We pray for our land particularly not because we are superior but because it is our heritage. America is not the hope of the world: Jesus is. Do not accept the mistaken notion that America has some sort of messianic destiny to bring salvation to the world. We already know today that the greater harvest of souls and the growing missionary impetus is in third world countries not the United States. We pray for their success and pray for our country that we may lead “a quiet and peaceful life in all godliness and honesty.”
The foundational question of Christian patriotism should always be: “How does the gospel of Christ, by which I am transformed, through which I am called to evangelize the world, and on account of which I am called to live by the law of love, inform my understanding of what it means to be patriotic?”
On September 10, 1970 I came to understand the great love of God for me, a sinner and a rebel. That evening I received God’s forgiveness and a new life through Jesus Christ, who died in my place and rose again to offer forgiveness and new life. I have been senior pastor for over 30 years planting two churches in Buckingham, PA and Queens, NY and serving two other churches in Brooklyn, NY and Roslyn, PA. I am currently the lead pastor at Grace Church of Philly.
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