What is the greater grief—a compromised church or a compromised nation? Which more afflicts the heart of God’s people—a morally declining country or a spiritually diseased congregation?
I’ll answer in seven points.
1. CHURCHES CONSTITUTED BY CITIZENS OF EVERY NATION
We begin with clarity: local churches are made up of Christians who have covenanted together to walk in the ways of their crucified Lord. There is no such thing as a Christian nation. The new covenant people of God are gathered from every kingdom, tribe, and nation, and they testify together that “here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come” (Heb. 13:14).
Ham-handed efforts to shoehorn Old Testament texts and principles into the life of modern nations will not work—the patterns and precepts, the warnings, and the exhortations are written “for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Cor. 10:11), not for nation-states.
2. YET CHRISTIANS SHOULD NOT WITHDRAW BUT PREACH THE GOSPEL
Does that mean we withdraw from the world? Should we become modern monastic communities, ignorant of and distant from the things happening on our doorstep?
Absolutely not! We preach the gospel as the way to glorify God and, incidentally, as the only effective means of bringing purity, peace, holiness, and happiness to our neighbors and friends, one soul at a time. We let our light so shine before men that they may see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven (Matt. 5:16). We go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature, making disciples out of all the nations, baptizing those disciples in the triune name, and teaching them all the commands of Christ, in anticipation of and dependence on his presence with us (Mark 16:15 with Matt. 28:18–20).
3. CHRISTIANS SHOULD ALSO LOVE THEIR NATIONS
Does that mean we neglect and despise the nation to which we belong?
Not at all! Andrew Fuller helps us in a sermon entitled “Christian Patriotism.” Fuller preached with care and caution from the often-abused Jeremiah 29:7. His sermon was delivered in England in 1803, a time of national threat and unrest. The authorities were suspicious of the Dissenting believers; they feared a revolt like those in America and France. Fuller makes precise distinctions between our attitudes and actions as earthly and heavenly citizens. He makes plain that, as believers, it is right and proper to love, serve, defend, and pray for the country in which God has put us:
Ought we not to seek the good of our native land; the land of our fathers’ sepulchres [tombs] . . . protected by mild and wholesome laws, administered under a paternal prince . . . where civil and religious freedom are enjoyed in a higher degree than in any other country in Europe . . . where God has been known for many centuries as a refuge; a land, in fine, where there are greater opportunities for propagating the gospel, both at home and abroad, than in any other nation under heaven?
Not every Christian then or now can speak this way of their nation, but every Christian might still truly “seek the good of our native land; the land of our fathers’ sepulchres.”
Yet love of our nations can go too far, and we must not err in this direction either. So often our Christian feeling is tainted by an ugly and pompous nationalism which sets our earthly ties above our heavenly home.
4. YET OUR GREATEST LOVE SHOULD BE RESERVED FOR THE CHURCH
Does this mean that our first and best energies and endeavors, our highest and brightest hopes, our deepest and truest joys, our surest and sweetest commitments, are to the church of Jesus Christ?
Yes, and amen, “for our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ (Phil. 3:20). Has that gripped us? More than anything, we should be committed to the church’s peace and prosperity, her protection and purity. We must contend for her with the spiritual weapons appointed by God. And we should sing,
I love your church, O God:
Her walls before you stand,
Dear as the apple of your eye,
Engraved upon your hand.
For her my tears shall fall,
For her my prayers ascend;
To her my cares and toils be given,
Till toils and cares shall end.
5. A COMPROMISED NATION SHOULD GRIEVE BUT NOT SURPRISE US
Putting these first four points together, we can say that a compromised nation, our compromised nation, should grieve us. Like the Apostle Paul, I may “have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart,” wishing “that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh. . .” (Rom. 9:2–3). Our heart’s desire and prayer to God for the people to whom we belong should be that they may be saved (Rom. 10:1), whatever they know of the legacies and privileges Israel enjoyed in the days of Paul.
Yet even though a compromised nation should grieve us, it should not surprise us. It is not a surprise because we do not expect nations as entities to be Christian; we do not look first to governments to establish and enforce God’s law; we do not expect nations to promote and defend an established church. Indeed, we rather expect to see the nations of this world rise and fall at God’s command, and all come to nothing. We long to see God so work that multitudes shall be brought into his kingdom, and that nations might know God’s blessing accordingly, but we also anticipate the biblical norm in which God’s people will be outcasts and strangers, like their Lord before them.
6. A COMPROMISED CHURCH SHOULD GRIEVE US EVEN MORE
To be sure, the greater grief is a compromised church.
If we forget that Christ’s kingdom is not of this world, if we abandon the spiritual weapons of our warfare for the carnal weapons of the world, if we build our houses upon the sand of national prosperity, if we yoke our expectations to thrones that topple, we are undone, and we can be of no earthly use to anyone.
7. HOPE IN THE KINGDOM, NOT YOUR NATION
We do not hang our hopes upon any earthly nation but upon the King and his everlasting kingdom. We want and urge civil authorities to restrain outward evil, but we do not anticipate that they will change men’s hearts—only the Spirit can write the law there. The kingdoms of the earth shall all utterly fail and fall, but the kingdom of the Lord endures forever. If we compromise the eternal for the sake of the temporal, if we prioritize the seen over the unseen, not only will we lose our own souls, but we will also disavow the very truth men and women need in order that they might enjoy everlasting life in Christ.
In his profound treatment of this question in The City of God, Augustine reminded his readers that the city of man and the city of God do not rise and fall together. He urged them to remember that Christ’s kingdom would not collapse with Rome but must endure if they continued steadfast in the faith and held fast to the gospel. Loving our nations as we do, we as God’s people must believe and behave the same.