Before you go to to sleep realizing what today's sermon is about, remember that these are important questions!
The Lutheran Confessions’ answers to them come straight from God’s Word, the Bible, and are different from the answers given by other groups of Christians through the centuries.
So, what does it mean to be a Lutheran Christian living in a world of governments and politics? Please turn to John 19:10-11. These verses are part of the Gospel of John’s account of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion, which we read during our Good Friday services last week. Jesus, under arrest, is standing before Pilate. We’re told:
...Pilate said to [Jesus], "Are you not speaking to me? Do You not know that I have the power to crucify You, and power to release You?" Jesus answered, "You could have no power at all against Me unless it had been given to you from above...”Jesus says that Pilate’s power and the power of the Roman Empire to decide Jesus’ fate and Pilate's power to govern, didn’t come from Pilate or the emperor. In fact, contrary to what Thomas Jefferson would write in the Declaration of Independence in 1776, Jesus is saying that governmental power doesn’t even come from “the consent of the governed.” It comes “from above,” from God.
The apostle Paul underscores this when he writes to Christians in Romans 13:1-7:
Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is [pay attention to this and in place of the word, authority, put words like president, senator, judge, sheriff, commissioner] God’s minister [The word translated as minister there is, in the Greek in which Paul first wrote it, diakanos, deacon, and it means servant. The political authority is, Paul says, God’s servant] to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’s sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing. Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.In other words, from the standpoint of God and His Word in the Bible, there is nothing evil or dirty about serving in governments. Whether Christians work as presidents, generals, VISTA volunteers, NASA engineers, fighter pilots, FBI agents, or IRS case workers, the Bible says that they’re functioning as ministers of God, installed in their positions by God Himself in order to do God’s work in the world. And Christians not in government are to obey, honor, and support their governments and pay their taxes as our service to God.
But, you may think, I thought Jesus Christ ruled over God's people. Why do we have to give consideration to governments?
Lutherans believe that, in passages like these and others, the Bible teaches that God rules over this world through two different kingdoms at the same time.
First, there’s the kingdom of God. It’s made up of those who have been saved from sin and death by the charitable grace that God gives to all who repent for sin and believe in Jesus Christ.
Martin Luther said that the citizens of this kingdom--Christians--don’t need to be forced into treating their neighbors with Christian love. They strive to do so out of thankfulness to God for saving them from sin and death through Jesus Christ!
But not everybody in the world lives voluntarily under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. So, God also rules the world through another kingdom. This is the kingdom of worldly authority.
It exists because all human beings are sinners. We are, by nature, prone not to love God or our neighbors, but to love and only look out for ourselves.
The sinful behavior of human beings won’t be controlled by the Gospel of God's charitable grace if people don’t seek to daily surrender their lives and wills to Jesus.
Through Jesus Christ, God sets Christians eternally free from sin, death, and the devil. So, in the kingdom of God, God rules through the Gospel, through His grace.
In the kingdom of the world, God rules through the Law, through force, through penalties, fines, regulations, incarceration.
Through the kingdom of this world, God institutes governments, in part, to make the world safer for Christians who voluntarily live with Jesus as their Lord.
But, God institutes governments for another reason: They act in service to the other kingdom, the one of which God wants all people to become citizens for all eternity, the kingdom of God.
Let me explain: Do you remember when you were kids and you had a substitute teacher, how you would always spend the first few minutes of class, seeing how much you might want to get away with that day?
When a substitute incapable of maintaining discipline took over for my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Goldsberry in Room 17 at Westgate School in Columbus, we all decided that we could act like convicts. And we did. The lunatics took over the asylum! And nothing that poor substitute tried to teach us got through.
But then something happened. Miss Grener, our principal showed up. We all loved Miss Grener. I had never even seen her angry. But when she walked into that classroom, filled with 35 fifth-graders acting up, throwing paper wads, cracking jokes, and generally misbehaving, Miss Grener was clearly mad. She made it clear that we would behave or there would be grave consequences.
All of a sudden, each of us became model students. We listened. We learned.
God rules through the kingdom of worldly authority, through law, through school principals and others in authority, in order to clear away the chaos that exists in world where sinful people behave sinfully so that, somehow, we have a chance of entering the Kingdom of God by hearing and absorbing the Word about Jesus Christ that can transform us from enemies of God to children of God and transfer us from the kingdoms of this world to the kingdom of God!
So, governments aren't inherently bad, evil, or corrupt. In fact, they can serve God's purposes, tamping down chaos, immorality, and lawlessness enough to let people hear the Word of God that tells people, "God so loved you that He gave His only Son so that all who believe in Jesus Christ--entrusting their sins, lives, hopes, and dreams to Him and letting Him be the authority of their lives--will not be eternally separated from God, have eternal life in God's kingdom!"
This is what Philipp Melanchthon was getting at in Article 16 of The Augsburg Confession, one of the basic confessional documents of the Lutheran movement. It says:
Our [Lutheran] churches teach that lawful civil regulations are good works of God. They teach that it is right for Christians to hold political office, to serve as judges, to judge matters by Imperial laws and other existing laws, to impose just punishments, to engage in just wars, to serve as soldiers, to make legal contracts, to hold property, to take oaths when required by a magistrate, for a man to marry a wife, or a woman to be given in marriage...Now, having said that, we know that governments can veer off-course from God’s intentions for them. That shouldn’t come as a surprise to us. Government personnel are human beings. That means that they are sinners tempted to sin, perpetrate injustice, even taking power only God can wield. The ruling regimes of Nazi German, the Soviet Union, or contemporary China all show how governments go wrong.
What then? Are Christians supposed to support governments like that?
Look at the last three sentences of Article 16, please. It says:
...it is necessary for Christians to be obedient to their rulers and laws. The only exception is when they are commanded to sin. Then they ought to obey God.Notice that Melanchthon there mentions Acts 5:29, from the New Testament. Turn to that passage, please. Peter and the apostles have been told by the temple authorities never to speak of the crucified and risen Jesus again. Acts tells us:
But Peter and the other apostles answered and said, "We ought to obey God rather than men.”The history of God’s people--from Old Testament figures to the Christian martyrs of today--is filled with examples of people of faith choosing to obey and honor God rather than governments who commanded that they sin or put the governing authorities in a place higher than God. Just a few examples suffice to make that point:
- Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego endured the fires of an oven rather than worship the king instead of God;
- Daniel went to the lion’s den when he refused to stop praying to God when commanded to do so;
- Early Christians accepted martyrdom rather than renouncing Christ and worshiping the Roman emperor;
- Martin Luther came under an Imperial Ban, meaning that anyone had the authority of both Church AND State to kill on Luther on sight because he told the truth that human beings are saved from sin, death, and the devil by the grace of God through their faith in Jesus Christ and not by adherence to laws and traditions established by churches or governments.
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer went to a concentration camp, where he was executed, rather than giving homage to Adolf Hitler.
But when governments command their citizens to sin or when they try to take the throne that belongs only to God, Christians must speak up. In his most famous essay on this subject, Luther said that the Church is bound by God to speak out against injustices perpetrated by governments.
You and I are blessed to live in the United States. There have been massive injustices perpetrated in the history of this country. Some are ongoing. But a central theme of US history has been to always move toward the eradication of injustice, more and more, usually too slowly but still moving in the direction of greater justice. Our leaders make mistakes; they’re human. But we’ve never had a despot or a king who would command Christians to disavow Jesus Christ or violate our creeds.
And I suppose that’s made us comfortable. Maybe too comfortable.
We take the peace and order God has granted us through our government in order to share the Gospel with others and instead of sharing the Gospel, we waste much of our lives on self-indulgent pursuits.
The result is predictable. The percentage of Americans saying they have no religious affiliation rose from 15% five years ago to 20% today. And our own denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, experienced a steeper decline in membership in 2012 than any other mainline Christian denomination in this country.
The book of Ephesians warns us though, “Be careful...how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil.” This world, remember, for all its beauty and blessings, still groans under the weight of sin. Many of the people you and I meet each day aren't yet citizens in the Kingdom of God, Jesus' kingdom of grace.
How wise are we Christians living in these evil days? (I know that I don't use as much of my daily life honoring God or spreading the good news of new life through Jesus as I could!)
In these days before Christ returns, judges the world, and fully establishes the kingdom of God, we need governments.
But whether we serve in governments or as good citizens, our call as followers of Jesus Christ is our highest priority. It’s the call the risen Jesus gave just before He ascended to heaven and told Christians like you and me:
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:19-20)God, by His grace, allows you and me to live in a free land kept in relative peace and order by governments He establishes.
Let’s take advantage of these blessings by sharing with as many people as we can that they can have everlasting life with God when they turn away from sin, trust in Jesus Christ as their Savior and King, and become citizens of the only kingdom that will last for eternity, the kingdom of God.