A Right Response to Revolutionary Times

In our last post, we were looking at a conference message delivered by Martyn Lloyd-Jones in 1975 where he surveyed the French Revolution (1789-1799) and then noted how he laid out the responses that generally occur in revolutionary times. As we saw, the revolutionary mindset isn’t limited to a particular period in history, rather the conditions are always ripe, therefore the reactions are ever-present as well. As we overviewed the reactions to revolution, we observed that there are parallels in our own day, several of which are troubling and could lead us into serious danger. Perhaps you read that post and found yourself in one of the reactionary camps. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing, but we should pause to examine our position according to Scripture. Regardless of where we may find ourselves on the reactionary scale (conservative-radical-liberal; not necessarily political affiliation), Scriptural refinement is necessary for us all. In this post, we want to again turn our gaze to the message from Lloyd-Jones and note the right response of Christians to Revolutionary Times.

After summarizing the reactions, as we have done, Lloyd-Jones then moved to note applications that can and should be drawn from such an analysis. He starts with the observation that we as Christians should begin as people of the Scripture, noting that the New Testament specifically does not encourage revolution, rather the opposite is true. He uses the example of slavery, as in the letter to Philemon, by noting there is no discussion of overturning that particular institution, rather that the master, Philemon, is to treat his slave as a fellow brother in Christ. We might add that our Lord during His own earthly ministry was not concerned with overthrowing the Herods, nor upsetting the rule of Rome over Israel, despite the intentions of His fellow kinsmen. As this applicatory point concludes, Lloyd-Jones uses the illustration of Revelation (and we might add 1 Peter) to show that in an era of difficulty and suffering believers are not revolutionary nor even, “adding to [our] sufferings, by a denunciation of the worldly and religious powers that were opposed to them and persecuting them.” The Christian is, according to Scripture, as summarized by Lloyd-Jones, to be “as ‘salt’ in society and ‘leaven’, and surely the whole point of those comparisons is that Christian influence is to be a quiet influence and a slow process of influencing society.” (The Puritans: Their Origins and Successors, Banner of Truth, 2016; p.341)

The second point of application is to note that because of point one, the position of Luther and Calvin seem to be more justified. We may recall in our previous post that there’s was a position of embracing the status quo. In other words, they were not revolutionary in the sense of overturning entire institutions, rather they desired to maintain them as over and against the Anabaptist position. With this Lloyd-Jones is advocating the position of ‘order’ over ‘liberty’, in the case of the Protestant Reformation, and concludes that doing so likely saved the Reformation. Here I would offer push back, particularly in regard to the relationship of Church and State that while both Luther and Calvin maintained this orderly institution, it was not the correct position. Upholding it may have prevented mass chaos, as in the Peasant’s Revolt, but this relationship is not one that Scripture advocates (will return to this point later in the message).

The third and final point of application that Lloyd-Jones draws from his summary of revolutionary reactions is to note the two extremes held by Christians between no involvement in political activity and being overly interested in political activity. Both extreme positions, he concludes, will alienate people to the gospel and the church. This is no insignificant point, rather one that we ought to linger on in our own day. When we assume the head in the sand approach to politics, that nothing in that arena is relevant or important enough to discuss, we run the danger of alienating people to the gospel primarily because they see no relevance to their own condition in the state of the world. In a sense, it creates a gnostic view of the gospel in that it only applies to the spiritual world and not the physical. On the other hand, the position of the politically interested also runs the risk of alienation. This is our greatest risk in present day evangelicalism. We have fully embraced the political gospel and assume, perhaps even presume, that righting the wrongs in the political arena will solve the ills of the day. It’s simply not true. The following quote from Lloyd-Jones is salient:

It is pathetic, not to say ludicrous, to notice the way in which certain modern Evangelicals, who seem to have started reading some ten or twelve years ago, after having spent their time exclusively in evangelistic activities, are now rushing their ill-digested reading into print, and seem to think that they are innovators in saying that we should all be taking an interest in politics and social matters.

The Puritans: Their Origins and Successors, Banner of Truth, 2016; p. 342

The situation in Lloyd-Jones’ day mirrors much of what we find in our own day, that of unlearned Christians, who have shifted their efforts from gospel matters to social and political matters. We may even include here those who have been educated in theology – the professionals – who have out of expediency and desire for self-interests, co-opted the gospel for political or social means. This of course is where we get both the social gospel AND the political gospel as I’ve written on before (Three False Gospels; The Political Gospel). As Lloyd-Jones concludes, “Politically-minded people are always ready to make use of the church, but they always abandon and shun her when she ceases to be of any value to them.” (Puritans, pg. 342)

Having examined Lloyd-Jones’ applicational analysis, we now turn to the last major section of his conference message which deals with how Christians should respond in revolutionary times. He does not enumerate this, so some analysis is required. First, and foremost, as believers we ought to understand that our citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:20). Lloyd-Jones summarizes below

The Christian’s primary concern must always be the Kingdom of God, and then, because of that, the salvation of men’s souls. The Christian is a ‘pilgrim and a stranger’. He is a traveller and a sojourner in this world. Those are the preliminary assumptions.

Puritans, p. 343

If we start with this principle, being derived and informed by Scripture, it helps us to properly align our lives while we are on earth. Our citizenship, while national, is superseded by our heavenly citizenship. Our national bonds with our fellow citizens are secondary to our international bonds with fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. The Christian must always pause to consider the impacts that political decisions may have on brothers and sisters in Christ in other countries. As may be obvious, one can take this principle heavenly citizenship too far to the point of isolation and detachment, as with our earlier post on the revolutionary reaction of “otherworldliness”. This was likely the error of the Thessalonians who so considered the imminency of Christ’s return that they descended into idleness.

This of course brings up the question of eschatology, that is, the progression of end times culminating in that final day of Christ’s return which ushers in the eschaton. We might ask, does eschatology have a role in this discussion? It naturally would, as we have seen above, but this is also the direction that Lloyd-Jones takes his conference message. He adds

The Bible has a view of history. There is a Christian view of history, and surely it is that everything is leading to an end. There is a development and a progress in history, and it is all leading up to ‘that one far off divine event to which the whole creation moves’ – our Lord’s Second Coming.

Puritans, p. 343

Because history is moving towards one grand event, eschatology therefore helps us relate the present reality to the future hope of that Day. It is, or at least should be, a Christian’s framework for how he lives in this world in light of a heavenly citizenship. If we recall in the last post how those during the time of the French Revolution were expecting a great utopia to be ushered in, only to be left in disappointment, then we can begin to see just how one’s eschatology relates to revolutionary times. Additionally, in the post “The Danger of Over-Realized Eschatology” we saw precisely how our present day is being manipulated and directed by faulty eschatology, even by those who claim no allegiance or relationship to Christ. Even false religions have an eschatology by which they live and make their decisions.

A right eschatological view of history also correctly frames the Christian view of man and the Christian view of God’s Nation (People). As Lloyd-Jones astutely notes the general tenor of his own day, “We are in an age when man is being worshipped.” How true is that today. Man has continued the general trend and desire to play god since the days of Eden’s Garden as well as the Tower of Babel. Governments and power, even democracy, has only served to increase those desires.

The moment democracy loses any kind of biblical sanction it is bound to lead to the worship of men and the setting up of men as the ultimate power over against God, and indeed as god.

Puritans, p. 343

The impetus driving the Fourth Industrial Revolution is indeed a desire for a utopia being ushered in by men who want to defeat death, control and develop food, and even alter life itself. Christians need to be crystal clear with their view of man, beginning with original sin incurred by Adam and shared subsequently to all mankind since him. All men are born sinful with a depraved and sinful nature, enslaved to their sinful desires. At their root they possess the desire to be god, the master of their own fates, and for those in positions of power, the fate of others as well. God’s creation has always wanted to usurp the Creator.

The collection of men bounded by geographic borders must next be reckoned with. Does God have an elect nation? As Lloyd- Jones concludes, “How difficult it is for us to understand how the Puritans could think of England was the elect nation. England is not the elect nation.” (Puritans, p. 344) We would do well to add that those Puritans (and Pilgrims) who left England for the New World did not establish an elect nation either, despite the efforts of modern evangelicals to assert otherwise. As with Puritanical England, so too with Evangelical America as neither are God’s elect nation. God had one elect nation, Israel, and for clarity we would do well to note that God has one elect people, which began prior to the call of Abraham and the beginning of the Israelite people and continues to exist after the fall of Israel as God has given His kingdom to, “a people producing its fruits” (Matthew 21:43) This people, as we have already asserted, are not geographically confined, rather they are an international people made up from every tongue, nation, and tribe. These are God’s elect nation.

Moving out of the increasingly important view of eschatology, particularly in revolutionary times, we come now to another point of emphasis from Lloyd-Jones that is equally relevant in our day, namely the New Testament view of the Christian and the State. As could be inferred, this view flows naturally out of the previous understanding of God’s elect nation. If one assumes that American, England, or others are God’s elect nation, then it is easy to frame a Christian understanding of the State in terms of Theonomy/Theocracy and/or Christian Nationalism as we noted in the previous post. However, by correcting this view as we have done, then we may easily see that, “A Christian State is impossible.” (Puritans, p. 344). As Lloyd-Jones explains

The world can never be reformed. Never! That is absolutely certain. A Christian state is impossible. All the experiments have failed. They had to fail. They must fail. The Apocalypse alone can cure the world’s ills. Man even at his best, even as a Christian, can never do so. So you can never make people Christians by Acts of Parliament. You can never christianize society. It is folly to attempt to do so. I would even suggest that it is heresy to do so. Men must be ‘born again’. How can they live the Christian life if they have not become Christians? Good fruit can only come from a good tree, a good root; and the idea that you can impose a Christian life or culture upon non-Christian people is a contradiction of Christian teaching. Nevertheless, government and law and order are essential because man is in sin; and the Christian should be the best citizen in the country. But as all are sinful, reform is legitimate and desirable.

Puritans, p. 344

Now, we are of course framing the proper Christian view in revolutionary times. Having already seen the importance of understanding our heavenly citizenship, the role and need for a sound eschatology which included a proper view of man and nation, then most recently with understanding the Christian and the State we come now to what Lloyd-Jones calls, “the most important matter of all.” (pg. 345). The following quote, as he states, is the main conclusion of the conference, “The Christian must never get excited about reform, or about political action.” Read that again. As Christians we must fully grasp those points that are laid out above and when we do, we will conclude that the proper Christian view is one of, “profound pessimism with regard to the present, but with a glorious optimism with regard to the ultimate and eternal future.” (Puritans, p. 345) Not only should the Christian not be excited about reform but should never pin his hopes on political action or the passage of laws to improve his life. “He believes in improvement, but he never pins his hopes to it, he never gets excited or over-enthusiastic; still less does he become fanatical or bigoted about these matters.” (Puritans, p. 345) In doing so, as we saw in the last post, the outcome is not always what is intended. Oft times, taken to their logical conclusion the revolution ends in a worse condition than how it started. Was this not true during the French Revolution as the result was the elevation of a dictator? Lloyd-Jones concurs as he wraps up this particular view by saying, “…there is no point in changing one form of tyranny for another. There is also no point is fighting against impossible odds.” (Puritans, p. 345).

We are left asking the immortal words, “How then shall we live?”

Lord willing, in our final post we will conclude our overview and application of Lloyd-Jones’ message by looking at how Christians ought to live in revolutionary times.

Soli Deo Gloria

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Christian saved by grace through faith.

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