If the foundations are destroyed … What are the issues?
The modern world is dominated by shades of liberalism. According to Alasdair MacIntyre, there are ‘conservative liberals, liberal liberals and radical liberals’.1
For our purposes, we can say that there would seem to be three main ingredients in the present make-up of present day Western societies — humanists who oppose saying that anything sexual is wrong; Muslims with varying degrees of commitment to the rising tide of Islam; and churches that by and large have capitulated to the world.
In short, unfaithfulness on the part of the professing church has led to an increasingly intolerant secularism in society, which has left the West vulnerable to the challenges of Islam.
The public response of the secularists has been to blame religious fundamentalists of whatever hue, and to crank up the claims for a supposedly tolerant, secular, agnostic society. The solution has in fact fuelled the problem and the decay of the West has continued unabated.
The hot issue of the day is not ‘Is Islam compatible with modern democracy?’ Modern democracy is hardly the judge of all things; for the most part, it is degenerate. Christian realism takes the Fall seriously. In the perceptive analysis of C. S. Lewis, ‘I am a democrat because I believe in the fall of man.
‘I think most people are democrats for the opposite reason. A great deal of democratic enthusiasm descends from the ideas of people like Rousseau, who believed in democracy because they thought mankind so wise and good that everyone deserved a share in the government.
‘The danger of defending democracy on these grounds is that they are not true … Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows. Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters’.2
It is the Christian understanding that we as human beings are joined together in what Oliver and Joan O’Donovan have felicitously called the ‘bonds of imperfection’.3 The Christian believes that man is in the image of God and he believes that human beings are fallen.
That curbs any breast-beating about democracy and Western values, and prevents democracy from descending into what it has become today — a form of amoral populist authoritarianism.
The Christian does not mistake the voice of the people for the voice of God — vox populi is hardly vox Dei. Democracy has saved nobody, although it might be better than most of the other available options.
The comedian, Groucho Marx, was capable of prophetic words: ‘Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedies’. We need to bring Scripture to this situation. This teaches us that:
1. God deals first with the church, not the world (1 Peter 4:17)
It was because God knew Israel above all the nations of the earth that he punished her (Amos 3:2). Those who know the truth and reject it are more culpable than those who have not heard it (Matthew11:20-24; Luke 12:47-48).
Our first task, therefore, is to deal with the insiders, not the outsiders (1 Corinthians 5:12-13). Christ addresses the churches of Asia in Revelation 2-3, not the pagans. The first cause of distress in the Western world is the state of the church. The state of society is a consequence of the state of the church.
2. We are grieving the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30)
We are not seeing blessing; God cannot be pleased with us. Salt which is not salt is useless (Matthew 5:13).
As John Stott has put it: ‘And when society does go bad, we Christians tend to throw up our hands in pious horror and reproach the non-Christian world; but should we not rather reproach ourselves? One can hardly blame unsalted meat for going bad. It cannot do anything else. The real question to ask is: where is the salt?’4
3. We cannot expect the world to listen to us if the church is not
Professing Christians are causing the Gentiles (the heathen) to blaspheme (Ezekiel 36:20-23; Romans 2:24). Again, this is not a totally new situation, but much of the Western church is part of the problem, not the solution. In the sixth century BC the prophets Ezekiel and Jeremiah dealt with Judah, the professing people of God, far more than they dealt with Babylon.
4. Common grace is real, but substantial change will only come with revival
At the moment Christians are only winning the odd legislative or legal battle. A plethora of laws are not making people more decent and trustworthy.
Hard hearts remain hard, unless the Spirit of God come among us to give us a new heart. Common grace means that non-Christians have some capacity to judge right and wrong (Romans 2:14-16; 1 Timothy 3:7) and can even be capable of performing unusual acts of kindness (Acts 28:2), but it is the coming of the Spirit of God who gives real power to glorify God and walk in his ways (Ezekiel 36:25-26).
There is nothing new under the sun. We find it all expressed in John Newton’s hymn, ‘Oh! May the pow’r which melts the rock, be felt by all assembled here!’ (written in 1776)5
Lord, while thy judgments shake the land,
Thy people’s eyes are fixed on thee;
We own thy just uplifted hand,
Which thousands cannot, will not, see.
How long hast thou bestowed thy care
On this indulged, ungrateful spot!
While other nations, far and near,
Have envied and admired our lot.
Here peace and liberty have dwelt,
The glorious gospel brightly shone;
And oft our enemies have felt
That God has made our cause his own.
But ah! Both heaven and earth have heard
Our vile requital of his love;
We, whom like children he has reared,
Rebels against his goodness prove.
His grace despised, his power defied,
And legions of the blackest crimes,
Profaneness, riot, lust, and pride
Are signs that mark the present times.
The Lord, displeased, has raised his rod.
Ah! Where are now the faithful few
Who tremble — for the ark of God,
And know what Israel ought to do?
Lord, hear thy people everywhere,
Who meet to mourn, confess, and pray;
The nation and thy churches spare,
And let thy wrath be turned away.
As we have seen, the psalmist asked: ‘If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?’ (Psalm 11:3). He answered: ‘The Lord is in his holy temple; the Lord’s throne is in heaven; his eyes see, his eyelids test, the children of man’ (Psalm 11:4).
Any philosophy or worldview needs to answer three questions. Firstly, concerning creation, where did we come from, and who are we? Secondly, concerning the Fall, what has gone wrong with the world? Thirdly, concerning redemption, what can we do to fix it?6
It is God alone who answers those questions. We have been created in his image, but we have sinned grievously against him, and gone our own way.
Christ Jesus has come from outside this fallen world to become one with us in all things except sin. His life is the life we should have lived. His death will be the death we die if we reject him.
We are called upon to have eyes to see — to see our terrible need, to see the holy majesty of God, and to see that no one can save us except the Lord himself.
One cannot look with understanding upon the moral and spiritual devastation of the times without turning to the Lord of eternity in prayer that he might act to glorify his name and to save us for himself.
Peter Barnes, The author is minister of Revesby, Presbyterian Church, New South Wales
1. Cited in David T. Koyzis, Political visions and illusions, IVP, 2003, p.45.
2. C. S. Lewis, ‘Equality’ in Present concerns, ed. Walter Hooper, Collins, 1986, p.17.
3. Oliver O’Donovan and Joan Lockwood O’Donovan, Bonds of imperfection: Christian politics, past and present, Eerdmans, 2004.
4. John Stott, Christian counter-culture: the message of the Sermon on the Mount, IVP, 1978, p.65.
5. John Newton, Works, Vol.3, Banner of Truth, 1985, pp.530-531. Marylynn Rouse of the John Newton Project kindly helped in the location of this hymn.
6. Charles Colson and Nancy Pearcey, How now shall we live?, Tyndale House Publishers,1999, p. xiii.