In AD 410 the city of Rome was sacked by the Goths. Rome was already drastically weakened by self-indulgence, and its social structures, heavily based on slavery, were falling apart. It had become easy prey to the invaders. In the minds of Roman citizens the sacking was, of course, a catastrophe. And to the Christians too it seemed a disaster, especially since the Roman state now recognised Christianity and seemed a final bulwark against Barbarian paganism.
It was to address such fears that Augustine of Hippo wrote his majestic treatise The City of God. In it, he shows that the church of Jesus Christ is above the rise and fall of earthly empires. Divine providence is centred not on the fortunes of earthly kingdoms, however benevolent, but on the hidden drama of redemption history.
Church and state are not the same, but have different functions and destinies. The Barbarians are not monsters, but people who need to be converted to Jesus Christ. In other words, (as Martin Luther wrote) ‘the city of God remaineth’.
Augustine’s thesis remains a deep consolation to evangelical believers today, especially in communities facing departure from long established Christian values and resultant political, social and moral implosion. The power of Augustine’s arguments is seen in the very name ‘city of God’. What is this city? Is it Christendom? Is it the external unity of all kinds of ‘churches’ or even of multi-faith religion, quite irrespective of actual beliefs? Many think this to be the case, and work long and hard on religious projects of all kinds, striving to unite the most absurdly antithetical ‘faith communities’.
Now we have to acknowledge that there will one day be a glorious, visible unity realised in the whole of the true church. Christ prayed for it to happen — ‘that they all may be one’ (John 17:21) — and it will happen. But it will only be accomplished at the Second Coming, when, finally, the ransomed church will be presented to the Saviour ‘as a bride adorned for her husband’ (Revelation 19:7-8; 21:2).
But few today realise that already the real church on earth is at one. It is in a de facto state of unity.
It may be rent asunder by schisms, distressed by heresies, but still its unity goes deeper than these ‘sore oppressions’. For it is comprised of all who know the Lord Jesus Christ as their Saviour. It is not a mixed group of sincere people who have simply joined a cause, but it is all and only those who have been ‘born again’ (John 3:3), who have been baptised by the Spirit into the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13). Members of this Body have repented of their sins and trusted in the merits of Jesus Christ. They know by the inner witness in their hearts that they are born of God (1 John 5:10). They do not rely on baptismal regeneration or their own good works for salvation. They did once trust in things like that, but now Christ is their only confidence. Moreover, they love the brethren and belong to them as members of the same spiritual family.
Their spiritual unity can be marred by sin, but it can never be obliterated. It does not depend on politics or religious manoeuvring, but on ‘like precious faith’ springing from the same divine nature (2 Peter 1:1,4). This is what defines the city of God. And this city shall never perish nor be plucked out of God’s hand (John 10:28-29), however insane the world becomes.
This is why believers today, like those living nearly two millennia ago, can face personal and national upheavals unafraid. Whatever happens within our communities and country ― ‘the city of God remaineth’.