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Christian Realism and Optimism

Category Articles
Date June 25, 2019

On November 18, 1559, at one of the most critical junctures in the history of the Scottish Reformation, John Knox sent to England two letters. The first he addressed to Sir William Cecil, chief secretary of Queen Elizabeth, setting forth very clearly the Scottish Protestants’ need for English help, coupled with a serious warning of the danger in which both countries stood at the moment from the threat of French and Roman Catholic attack. He did not ‘press the panic button,’ but he did state his views as realistically and forcibly as possible.

The second letter he dispatched to Mrs. Anne Lock, a Protestant lady and member of his former congregation in London. In this communication, while speaking of the Protestants’ difficulties, he assured her that all was well, for they would eventually conquer by divine favour and power. The two letters seem to be almost contradictory, and one cannot but ask how he could write them both on the same day.

The answer would seem to be that they represent truly the Christian’s ambivalent approach to this world. Knox saw his problem from two different angles, which at the same time gave him an over-all Christian perspective. On the one hand, he was completely realistic concerning the situation as it then existed, recognizing the threat that the present difficulties posed for him and his allies. Furthermore, he appreciated fully the danger to the Protestant cause that lay in the possible victory of the French Roman Catholic forces. On the other hand, he had no doubts of the ultimate outcome. He believed that he was fighting in the Lord’s cause, and that ultimately victory would be the Lord’s. While radically realistic, he was also very optimistic.

In what was apparently a self-contradictory position, Knox was quite consistent. The Christian has the obligation of trusting in and rejoicing in the sovereign God, knowing that all things work for good to his people (Rom. 8:28 ff.). Therefore, he can be joyfully optimistic about the future, for he knows that all is well since all is in God’s hands. At the same time, he must be consistently realistic about men. He must see them, not as he would like them to be, but as they are.

Unfortunately Christians very often deceive themselves about man. On the one hand, they often reject him absolutely as a depraved sinner in whom there is no good at all unless, through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, he becomes a Christian. For this reason he should be shunned as an unbeliever, although he should be preached at with the Gospel as a sinner. On the other hand, they often become sentimental over him, minimizing his corruption and denying any basic difference between the unregenerate and the regenerate. The result is that they either separate themselves as far as possible from non-Christians, or they recognize no difference at all. In his estimate of man, however, the Christian has the duty of being strictly realistic.

To be realistic means that the Christian must recognize that, in this life, man is a mixture of both good and bad. We see this even in the Christian, who, although regenerate, is never completely sanctified. Similarly, despite his basic sinfulness, unregenerate man, endowed with many gifts and preserved from total corruption by the grace of God, is capable of much that is good in this world. The image of God in which he was created has not been totally destroyed.

Like the Good Samaritan he will often help his fellow man, even to the extent of sacrificing his life on his behalf. He will work unselfishly for a cause in which he believes, giving himself unstintingly to its advancement. The same man, however, can also be mean, vindictive, subject to fits of temper that are murderous, and completely careless of the injury done to others in gaining his objectives. Man is in constant conflict within himself and with his neighbours, so that he is inconsistent in all his actions and attitudes.

This mixed character of man the Christian must recognize. He must see that even he, himself, displays it. Therefore, he can neither praise nor condemn man completely. Recognizing that man has both his good and his bad sides he must deal with him in an appropriate manner, as did Christ, never trusting him completely, yet never rejecting him totally. He must see that man has within him the seeds of total corruption which have infected his whole being, yet since by the restraint of divine grace, those seeds have not yet come to full flower, man can be brought back to his true focal point in God, through Jesus Christ. Although the image of God in man has been seriously damaged, tattered and torn, it has not been totally eradicated, and is capable of restoration by God. Man is still man.

The Christian appreciates man realistically, however, only as he, himself, truly knows God in Jesus Christ. Non-Christians may to a certain extent accept the Christian estimate of man’s mixed character, but they usually conclude by interpreting man as neither fundamentally good, nor as fundamentally bad, but as neutral, his character being ultimately determined by his environment. They are seldom willing to believe in man’s self-contradictory character because it does not fit their logical categories. Moreover, to acknowledge it would force them also to admit too much concerning themselves. The primary reason for their failure to adopt the Christian point of view is, however, that they do not have the Christian understanding of God. It is this alone that enables one to see men as they really are.

The Christian’s doctrine of God makes him a realist because it faces him with the ultimate meaning of all things. He sees God, not as one factor among many, but as the sovereign Lord over all. He recognizes that God is the God of all power and might whose hand no one can stay and whose will no one can rightly question. He is the Creator of all things and ‘by him all things consist.’ (Col. 1:17). The doctrines of creation and providence set forth most clearly this aspect of the Christian’s view of the divine sovereignty.

Because of this faith in the power of the sovereign God, the Christian sees all things in his light. That is, he regards all the facts of existence, the character of the universe in which he lives, as divinely created and sustained. He views all events as coming ultimately from the plan and purpose of God. He does not see man or accident as that which in the final analysis determines either the history of the world, or the events of his own life. Since he knows that God is Lord of all, he recognizes that those things done by man, whether good or evil, are in some mysterious way, ultimately carrying out the divine purpose. He, therefore, neither mourns overmuch nor rejoices overmuch, at what man does in the world.

At the same time, the Christian also sees God as the God of both judgment and grace. He is the one who, possessing all authority over man, in his love for his creation brings good out of man’s evil. Therefore, the Christian strives to understand all things in the light of God’s gracious redeeming action in Jesus Christ. Knowing God as loving heavenly Father, he recognizes the world in which he lives as the scene and object of God’s saving work. In the end, God will subdue it to himself either in condemnation or in salvation (Rom. 8:19; Col. 1:2). He believes that the whole of creation and the whole of its history are directed towards the redemption of God’s people, the church, and thus to the divine glory.

True, it may not always be obvious that this is its ultimate objective. At times the forces of evil seem to overcome that which is good. Lawlessness, immorality and violence may appear to have their own way on all sides. Yet the Christian must constantly remember that Christ is ‘head over all things to the church’ (Eph. 1:22). No matter how the battle may apparently be going, God is still sovereign and is working out his purpose for his people’s blessing.

Because the Christian looks beyond man to the sovereign triune God, he is a true realist. He does not base his judgments upon the good or evil fortunes of the moment, but upon the ultimate power and grace of God. Therefore, the Christian cannot but be optimistic. This was the outlook of the psalmist in so many of his hymns of praise. It was what Christ meant when he warned his disciples of tribulations, but assured them that he had overcome the world (John 16:33). It was Paul’s constant theme in so many of his epistles as he spoke of the present tribulations which are not worthy to be compared to the glory to be experienced hereafter. It is the underlying motif of the Book of Revelation which foretells that, despite all that the powers of evil can do, Christ and his people will ultimately triumph.

Like John Knox four centuries ago, the contemporary church faces fierce opposition in this so-called ‘post-Christian age.’ In some parts of the world it is experiencing violent persecution and may eventually experience the same thing here. Christians must realistically accept this fact. Man, faced with the demands of Christ, if left to his own devices will always rebel and reject him. Furthermore, he will often turn most violently against those who make Christ’s claims known.

Despite all of this, however, the Christian must keep on bearing his witness and living his life to the glory of God. But he does not do so in desperation or with a feeling of defeat, but with the quiet confidence that ultimately God will vindicate the right, and bring his own sovereign purposes and plans to fruition. Therefore, the Christian alone, like Knox in his day, can look at the present world realistically, recognizing its evil and sin, but knowing also that God is still the Lord who so guides all things that it will accomplish his ultimate purpose of redemption to the glory of his own name.


This article was first published in the October 1970 edition of the Banner of Truth magazine.

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