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The Glory of the Nations
How Common Grace Redeems Nationalism
by Michael Spencer
friend Mark is a soldier. A Sergeant in the
Recently, however, I
was reminded that not everyone agrees with my assessment of my friend,
Mark. There are some Christians who would say that Mark cannot love his
country enough to go to
Some of these critics
make an articulate case that the evangelical church has adopted a
blindly nationalistic, patriotic idolatry in the last two decades, as
Christians have become flag-waving supporters of the Gulf War and the
War on Terrorism. They point out
Itís the ultimate
WWJD question. Would Jesus do what Mark did? Could Jesus have been a
Sergeant in the Marine Corps, go to
These are serious questions that must be answered. As a Christian I believe I must answer them from the Bible, and that I must submit to what the Bible teaches and not to my own emotions and preferences. I freely admit that I am a patriot, and that the phrase ďFor God and countryĒ is not nonsense to me. I have listened to the arguments of those who take the position outlined above, and I agree with substantial parts of their observations. But, in the end, I believe they have ignored and over-simplified the Biblical material to bolster their own choices.
To begin with, I will
not outline my considerable agreement with those who accuse evangelicals
of idolatry. There is a plague of patriotic idolatry in American
Christianity. Our ultimate loyalty is to Christ. We are citizens of His
Kingdom, and we must obey the law and example of our King. I am a great
admirer of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and I fully agree with the
Biblical foundations for his critique of
My disagreement- and it is a substantial one- is that this picture is too simple. It discounts the Bible as a whole in favor of one stream of Biblical material. This is a common problem among people who build Biblical cases without an overall Biblical theology, and I have noted this with everyone I have debated concerning these issues. There is a real annoyance at bringing up anything other than the words of Jesus. Where Jesus endorsed all of scripture as a testimony of truth, these critics quickly reject or ignore scripture that is not on the level with the Sermon on the Mount or the words of Jesus. Of course, one must ignore the words of Jesus Himself that send us into the rest of the Bible to understand Jesus if we are going to maintain that position.
I also find it interesting that the position of the critics does not match up with what we find in scripture where Jesus or the disciples interact with people. I was surprised to discover that some advocates of pacifism teach that the centurion and the Roman officer Cornelius left the military after becoming Christians. The text, of course, says nothing of the sort, and, in fact, the New Testament seems to have a positive or at least neutral view of the career of soldier. Such assertions come perilously close to the kind of statements Roman Catholics make about the career of Mary. I am not denying that we may sometimes make logical inferences beyond scripture, but there is a limit to what sort of confident factual assertions we can make.
What is the missing factor in the argument that my friend Mark cannot serve God and country? Common grace, an element of theology that is more and more frequently abandoned by Christians who do not know the whole Biblical story. It is Godís common grace that redeems nationalism sufficiently that my friend Mark can defend my family against terrorists in the service of our military with a good conscience.
Common grace is an answer to the question, ďTo what extent did God abandon the world when it fell into sin?Ē Now the reason so few understand common grace is that their answer would be, ďGod abandoned the world totally and completely, because He can have nothing to do with sin, sinners, or anything they create.Ē And of course, there are lots of scripture verses to prop up that claim. The problem is, however, that while Godís holiness does dictate that His eyes are too pure to behold evil and so on, Godís mercy, kindness and continued involvement with sinners has been consistently demonstrated through all of redemptive history.
God should have exterminated Adam and Eve. Instead, He showed them mercy, forgave them, clothed them, allowed them to enjoy the blessing of marriage, family and creation. God was merciful to Cain. He blessed whole generations and nations of sinners. Even in the flood, when it appeared God had run out of grace, He was gracious to a whole family of sinners, and continued to be so after the flood when they demonstrated they were still quite sinful and fallen. The story of Godís surprising common grace is the story of the entire Bible. The Apostle Paul appeals to this often, as he does in Acts 17.
I wonít write a treatise. Common grace is the history of Godís dealings with every person and every nation in the Bible. When He should have utterly abandoned them, He did not. When He should have left them to themselves to rot in their own depravity, He showed a more patient, kinder face. He blessed them with gifts large and small. The goodness of His image remained with them, though marred and broken. He restrained judgment and extended mercy repeatedly. God did this as a witness to His mercy. As Paul said, the kindness of God is meant to bring us to repentance. Common grace is a pointer to saving grace. Many Christians may think it wasted, but God apparently disagrees, because He lavishes the stuff on the just and the unjust alike with every breath.
If you have come this far, please understand the importance of this last point. God has not utterly turned His back on humanity or human institutions, work, creations, and concerns. God is up to more in history than just the redemption of a people for eternal glory. He is invested in every aspect of human experience to do us good, even those of us who despise Him and always will. While the sinfulness, depravity and judgment-worthiness of humanity and its works are beyond dispute, that has not compelled God to abandon us. In the worst of people, the worst of human activities and the worst of human institutions, there is still the remaining purpose of God and His on-going common grace.
Now the premise of this essay is that common grace sufficiently redeems nationalism that my friend Mark may serve his country with a clear conscience and still give ultimate allegiance to Jesus Christ. Two passages of scripture catch my attention in this regard, one in Genesis and one in Revelation.
The first is the origin
of human government itself, the story of the Tower
Now what is the purpose for Godís invention of a world of nations at
It is at this point that I want to say there is a good bit of unbiblical
multi-culturalism underlying some of the criticisms I am answering, and
I think it is important to point this out bluntly. A nation that treats
women like animals is inferior to a nation that gives them equal rights.
A nation that says kill innocents is worse than one that says protect
innocents. (A true contradiction in America,
as we protect some children and abort others.) A nation that protects
religious freedom is better than one who denies it. A culture that
allows people to choose their own government is better than a
dictatorship. A nation that freed its slaves is better than one that
enslaves its own people. A nation that gives generously is better than
those who take ruthlessly.
I know both are fallen, depraved, wicked and
under the judgment of God. But one, in the common grace of God, is
better than the other on the scale of true virtues. It is grade school
stuff. (At this point I will spare you the bizarre statements made by
some critics that America is the moral equal of Nazi Germany or
Communist North Vietnam. It is sad to see what multi-culturalism has
done to the ability to recognize simple human decency. Some of our
Christian colleges are churning out this remarkably barbaric point of
view, and it is tragic.)
Now this alone, in my mind, justifies my friend
Markís choices in life. He is fortunate to live in a country that,
under the kindness of God, cares about values that are superior to and
more compassionate than most other nations that have ever existed. Our
country is flawed and its history is flawed, but no one need be ashamed
to protect women, children and their fellow human beings. Mark is doing
the Lordís work, according to Romans 13.
Of course, is it right for Mark to take the life
of a terrorist? Donít the words of Jesus absolutely preclude that
option for a Christian? This is another essay, but Iíll say this:
Where is the moral law of God eliminated as a result of the words or
works of Jesus? If the Ten Commandments say ďDo not murder,Ē and the
next two chapters are filled with example after example of capital
punishment, where does the New Testament say this moral law is
abrogated? In John 8, is Jesusí act of mercy premised on an
elimination of the moral law? I hear Jesusí words to Christians saying
they cannot employ violence in any way towards those who persecute them,
but where does the New Testament say I cannot protect my family?
Right here? Matthew 5:43-44:
"You have heard that it was said, `Love your
neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."
Are these words intended to stop Christian policeman from enforcing the
law? Do they mean the state, if it submits to Christís words, will
empty death row and all prisons? Does it mean I am obligated to only
pray for the terrorist who is murdering my children, rather than
stopping him- even with lethal force- if I can? I respect those who say
that is the case, but I must respectfully disagree.
Romans 13 makes it quite clear that Paul assumed
his readers understood the rightness of the execution of justice. A Christian
choosing to not resist persecution is one thing. A Christian choosing to
not do the just and right thing is another. God says He is a protector
of the innocent. God says He is a warrior for the cause of right. God
says we should imitate the good soldier. Jesus said that Pilateís
power to execute was from God. I believe that Cornelius went back to
work after becoming a Christian, and if a threat to the safety of his
fellow citizens came his way, he would be absolutely acting in
accordance with right principles to deter the evildoer in any way,
including the use of lethal force.
Should Cornelius obey
And so my last passage is from Revelation
The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will
bring their splendor into itÖ 26
The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. This is, of
course, the picture of the New Jerusalem, and it is explicitly said that
the glory and honor of the nations, and their kings, will be brought
The picture is one of triumph, the victory of
God attended by the arrival of conquered nations, bringing their
treasure to lay before their conqueror, the Lord Jesus Christ. Like all
of Revelation, this is picture language, using the known to communicate
the unspeakable. But it is striking, in a book that so consistently
speaks of the nations of the world negatively, to hear of the
ďgloryĒ and ďhonorĒ of the nations being part
of the New Jerusalem.
I find this the perfect compliment to the idea
of common grace given to every nation. To every nation and every
culture, there is given the gracious gifts of God. These treasures of
truth, justice, liberty and compassion are then soiled and broken in the
hands of fallen, sinful men. But they are Godís gifts nonetheless.
There is a glory and honor to every nation and culture, to every people
group, and yes, apparently to every government. A glory and honor that
we may be able to see or not. A glory and honor that we sometimes handle
with respect or treat with contempt. A glory and honor that leads us to
Christ, or which we distort and destroy to dishonor Christ.
In the kingdom, such glories will be redeemed.
The gracious purpose and blessing of God will be recognized, and we will
have a further reason to admire Godís kindness, mercy and salvation.
There is a divine glory to
The critics I have responded to believe that
is rotten to the core because it is not, nor can it ever be, a Christian
nation. They criticize those who say