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Living in the World

Author
Category Articles
Date November 6, 2020

This article is the contents of an address first given in February 2020 at the Westminster Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Newcastle, UK.

* * *

LIVING in the world. How are Christians to live in the world? The question can be answered in many ways. The topic is potentially vast in scope — that becomes more obvious once we start to break it down into a consideration of matters to do with personal morality on the one hand and matters devotional and spiritual on the other. There are a plethora of issues upon which a distinctive Christian perspective could be considered: marriage, medical ethics, economics, the environment, education, and crime and punishment are but a few. However our focus now will be on Christians and the State.

To set the scene, let us turn to two scriptures. First, let us note what the apostle Peter was inspired to write. In the second chapter of his first letter we are informed that Christians are:

a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy (1 Peter 2:9-10).

Secondly, Paul instructed the followers of Jesus in Rome in these terms:

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. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 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, 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. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience (Romans 13:1-5).

There you have it. Christians live in two realms: the Kingdom of God and a kingdom of this world. That is true of all believers whilst they sojourn in the land of the living (Psalm 27:13; 52:5; 116:9; 142:5). Thus at present we reside in the United Kingdom, a Kingdom of this world. But as those born from above, that is regenerated by the Spirit of the God (John 3:1-10), we are new creations in Jesus our Lord (2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:15). We have been, in the sovereign and amazingly gracious purpose of Almighty God, delivered from the domain of darkness and transferred into the kingdom of his beloved Son (Colossians 1:13).

The question, How we are to live in this world? is a relevant one. It will never be redundant for as long as the present condition of mankind in a fallen state prevails before the second coming of the Saviour. However, it will surely come as no surprise to hear that it has been answered in different ways down the years. Put simply, and at the risk of being deemed simplistic, there are those who argue for separation from the world. To a greater or lesser degree that is what monastic movements have done and do. They are not alone. After the Reformation separatist groups emerged such as, more latterly, the Amish, but before them the Hutterites and the Mennonites. And then there are those who in many respects argue for a convergence or melding of church and state to the point that the church appears barely distinguishable from the world. Such is the fruit of liberalism, which in a Christian context is characterised and driven by a defective and deficient hermeneutical principle. Put differently, the varied expressions of liberalism fail to articulate a proper and legitimate doctrine of the authority of Scripture. As a consequence, apart from practising religious rites and rituals of some kind, liberal morality frequently apes the morality of the surrounding culture. It fails to be ruled by the whole counsel of God.

Our question, How are we to live in the World? needs to be explored further. How are those here on earth whose citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20) to behave as citizens of an earthly state? This matter inevitably came to the fore at the time of the Reformation. Biblical Christians parted company from the corrupt medieval church centred in Europe as it was on Rome. But after the fall of the Roman Empire, clerics gradually came to people of influence in society. That was partly due to the fact that monasteries and the more senior clergy were educated. They
were in a position to take on clerical tasks in the state in a way that many others were not. A legacy of this is indicated in the shades of meaning associated with the word clerical. On the one hand it refers to clergy, whilst on the other it is used to describe administrative duties and tasks. Why are we saying this? Because by the time of the Reformation the leaders of nations, who did not embrace a secular philosophy or hold to the tenets of another religious system, invariably accepted some form of allegiance to the corrupt expression of the Christian faith associated with Rome. Thus the progress of and acceptance of Reformation principles in a country in the sixteenth century was invariably related to stance of the monarch or equivalent ruler. Was he persuaded that Protestant principles are right? If he did then the likelihood was that the state would favour them notwithstanding the fact that for many people their allegiance to the same could well prove nominal rather than by conviction.

So how are Reformed Christians to live in the world? The first person to attempt and provide a theological and scriptural formulation in response to the question was Martin Bucer (1491-1551). He was for some years a prominent leader of the Reformation in Strasbourg and southern Germany. Prior to that he was a Dominican monk steeped in the Thomist tradition. He became a follower of Luther at the beginning of the Reformation in 1518. From him he learned that the Bible is to be the source and centre of all theological thinking. He differed from Luther in his emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit in the elect. And after coming under the influence of Zwingli as he laboured to establish the Reformation in Strasbourg he went further than Luther in insisting that it was not only the church in its corporate life but also the whole of human life in its individual and social expressions that is to be ordered according to the will of God as revealed in the Bible.

When Strasbourg came under the power of forces associated with the pre-Reformation church in 1548, Bucer was invited to England. He arrived on these shores in 1549 and quickly immersed himself in the life of the church in England. In 1550 he wrote a seminal book which was not published until 1557, some six years after his death. Furthermore it was not published in London or Cambridge, where he laboured, but in Basel. Its title in Latin is De Regno Christi, and in English, On the Kingdom of Christ. But, please note, an English translation of it did not appear until 1969. In fact, to read it all in English you have to go to two sources. You will find most of the treatise, minus the section on Divorce, in Melanchthon and Bucer, edited by Wilhelm Pauck. The section on Divorce, book 2, chapters 22-46, was not included by Pauck because it had been translated in the seventeenth century by John Milton (1608-1674). You will find it an edition of Milton’s prose works.

We will return to Bucer in a moment. Before we do mention should be made of two other seminal works. One is Lex, Rex, or The Law and the Prince by Samuel Rutherford. The other is Christian Worldview by Herman Bavinck (1854-1921).

Bavinck’s work was first published in 1904. A second edition appeared in 1913. The first English translation was published in 2019. It differs from Bucer and Rutherford in so far as it provides a Christian answer to three fundamental questions most if not all people ask at some point in their life: Who am I? What is the world? and What is my place in it? Bavinck demonstrates in a masterly way that it is only the Bible that provides mankind with answers to these questions that respects the integrity of  individuals created in the image of God but fatally marred by sin, and that satisfies the deepest yearnings of mankind. Writing at a time when the authority of the Bible and the Lordship of Jesus were both being seriously questioned, if not rejected, Bavinck demonstrates that the wisdom and works of God reveal that mankind is not autonomous. We did not and do not create and form the world, rather we are created beings who owe our existence to God, and it is our responsibility to conform our ‘perception and thinking to God’s revelation in nature and grace’ (Christian Worldview, p. 47). Though they do not present their arguments in the more philosophical language and terms used by Bavinck, both Bucer and Rutherford had a firm grasp on a vital truth that all people should endorse. We are made by God for God. Thus to answer our question, How are we to live?, we of necessity must have recourse to what God has revealed. There are secret things that belong to the Lord our God, but there also things that are revealed which belong to us and to our children forever (Deuteronomy 29:29). Let us summarise some of the principles enunciated by Bucer and Rutherford in the two seminal works on the subject of Christian political science written from a Reformed perspective.

We shall concentrate more on Bucer than Rutherford. Why? Because almost a century after his death it was not just being read by English Puritans. It was used by some as a sort of manifesto for the reforms that they wanted to see in both church and state.

Rutherford begins with a consideration of whether civil government is warranted by Divine law. He recognises that it may take different forms, and refers to monarchical as well as democratic rule. History teaches that there is a sense that all rule, from the human perspective, is ultimately by consent. Even tyrants, let alone monarchs, may have their days of rule curtailed or ended by the people.

There are two biblical principles that govern the power of government Rutherford argues at the beginning of his treatise. One, there is no power except that which is from a God. The powers that be are ordained by God (Romans 13:1). Two, God commands that we are to yield obedience to the powers that be. We are to do so for conscience sake, Paul writes (Romans 13:5). And Peter, writing in similar vein, instructs us to submit ourselves to every ordinance of mankind for the Lord’s sake (1 Peter 2:13).

Rutherford then draws two conclusions from these precepts. First, God has made us social beings — no one is an island. The basic societal unit in which we live is a family. And God, being holy, just, and righteous, would have us behave in a way that reflects his very being. We are to do so in the three main spheres in which we have our being, namely in the family, the church, and the world. There is a need for order rather than disorder in each. Secondly, God wants mankind to enjoy peace. He is the God of peace who rules and reigns over all in the unseen realm. In the seen realms of this age there needs to be government of some kind. This is a logical inference that can be drawn from the precepts God has given. And in our heart we all know that such is necessary if peace is to prevail. Rutherford takes these conclusions and establishes that we are to deduce that all civil power has its root in the purpose of Almighty God.

All this begs a very important question. What is the extent of civil power? Are there limits to it? We could immediately appeal to the example of the apostles, and early Christians, who when necessity demanded affirmed that they must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29). Yet those people also knew that their Saviour and Lord teaches us not just to render to God that which is God’s but also to render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s (Matthew 22:21; Mark 12:17; Luke 20:25).

At this point we want to listen to Bucer. In book 1, chapter 2, of De Regno Christi (On the Kingdom of Christ) he explores the ways in which the Kingdom of Christ and the kingdoms of this World are similar. However it must also be borne in mind that the two kingdoms are dissimilar. The main difference relates to the rulers. In the Kingdom of a Christ there is the one heavenly King who has promised to be and actually is with his people everywhere everyday until consummation of the world (Matthew 28:20). The same can never be said of an earthly ruler, no matter how sophisticated his surveillance technology is. The rulers of the kingdoms of this world are bound by time and space. Of necessity, therefore, they need assistants, representatives and subordinate authorities to help them exercise the power to govern entrusted to them by a God.

Another difference is seen in the fact that, in the a Kingdom of Christ, our heavenly king ‘sees, attends to, and accomplishes whatever pertains to the salvation’ of his people (p. 179). He does that by his Word and Spirit. It is true that he uses under-shepherds, but it is true also true that they have no power in and of themselves to render a person born again, justified, or sanctified. It is Jesus alone who glorifies his people.

Bucer would not have us conclude that civil rulers ought to have nothing to do with the moral and spiritual well-being of the people over whom they exercise government. Some politicians say that they do not concern themselves with the matters spiritual. They may not but they should. Why? Because they hold office according to the purposes and plans of God. They are — as we all are — answerable and accountable to God. Their prime concern is the peace and security of those they govern. That being so, Bucer argues, ‘the kings if this world also ought to establish and promote the means of making their citizens devout and righteous who rightly acknowledge and worship their a god and who are truly helpful toward their neighbours in all their actions’ (p. 180).

It is also the duty of the powers that be to deal appropriately with criminal and incorrigible men. They are not to bear the sword in vain (Romans 13:4). This power of a ruler reflects the rule that a Jesus has in his Church over those who err and stray from his ways.

Furthermore it is the duty of a civil ruler to ensure as far as it practicable that things are so ordered that the necessities of life are made as available as possible to the people ruled. They are not to be self-seeking. Rather they are to strive to see not one of their subjects in need. Their goal is to see things so ordered that people both live well and are happy (p. 183).

As the Lord Jesus empowers his people to resist the forces of evil, so civil rulers are to maintain the defence of the realm. A failure to do so renders the people exposed to malign forces from without. That is why the Reformers were prepared to argue that, in times of war resulting either from the evil actions of an outside aggressor or insubordinate people from within, the civil ruler could summon people to take up arms to defend the realm.

We have only begun to scratch the surface of the substance of the three volumes we have referred to — Bucer’s De Regno Christi, Rutherford’s Lex Rex, and Bavinck’s Christian Worldview. However I trust these initial musings on this important topic has been of some use in helping us to see how God would have us live in the world. It is the privilege of Christians to be members of the Kingdom of Jesus. As a consequence we are enabled to enjoy something of the first fruits of what we shall enjoy in their fullness in the new heaven and earth. But we are not to be so heavenly minded that we are of little earthly use. We live, for the time being in this world. We reside at present in the United Kingdom. Like the Reformers and the Puritans who followed them we should have a vision of seeing a godly Commonwealth here on earth. We know such will never be perfect. Heaven on earth is for the age to come. In the mean time we are in the world to so let our light shine before men that they may to turn to Jesus and glorify our Father who is in heaven (Matthew 5:16).

Stephen Charnock (1628-1680), the Puritan divine, argued that eternity is the ‘choice perfection of God’ (Existence and Attributes, 1.353). Because he is eternal our minds should focus not on things that are passing and temporary but on those that are lasting and eternal. Here we have no abiding city. But here we are to prepare for eternity. As well as needing pastors and teachers in this life we do well to strive see godly rule in the state. As chapter 23 of the Westminster Confession of a Faith teaches:

(1) God has ordained civil magistrates;
(2) it is lawful for Christians to function as magistrates and to maintain piety, peace, and justice;
(3) to pray that civil rulers will honour God and allow godliness to flourish; and
(4) to obey their lawful commands, and to be subject to their authority, for conscience’s sake.

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