Thursday, April 9, 2009

"A Christian Nation" vs the True Church

On Tuesday at a public appearance in Turkey, President Obama said of the United States, “we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation.” Upon careful consideration I have a one-word response: Amen.

Conservative pundits and radio personalities have gone nuts over the President’s comment, arguing that the founders of this nation did indeed set out to build a country on the solid foundation of the Bible. Sean Hannity railed on his radio show Tuesday afternoon, producing a plethora of quotations from the fathers of the country, each expressing some kind of faith in the God of Christianity.

While I understand where the conservative talkers are coming from, I can’t help but think there is no such thing as a Christian nation, strictly speaking, unless there is a nation in which all of the citizens have been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb. I’m not aware of any such nation this side of the new heaven and new earth.

But even if we use the phrase “Christian nation” in a more generic sense, meaning that we are a nation that subscribes to Christian principles, I would have to agree with President Obama. Whether the founders of these United States intended for our country to be a Christian nation or not is a moot point. There can be little doubt we are in no way a Christian nation today.

But the main reason I give a hearty “amen” to the President’s comment is that this generic use of the word “Christian” is a detriment to the cause of Christ. It completely warps the popular idea of what it means to be an actual Christian. Seemingly, in the minds of many conservatives and perhaps the public at large, being a Christian means to identify with a specific moral code or ethic. It means believing in biblical principles. Certainly, every Christian should embrace the moral teaching of the Word of God, but that alone is not what makes one a Christian.

The New Testament uses the word “Christian” only twice, and the plural “Christians” only once (1Pet 4:16; Acts 26:28, 11:26). None of these verses refer to a moral code or generic people group. Rather, they refer to disciples of Jesus Christ, those who have repented of their sin and trusted the Son to save them from that sin. Biblically speaking, Christians are saints willing to suffer and die following after Christ.

I know some of you have come across the article in Newsweek noting the decline of “Christian America.” The piece reports that “the percentage of self-identified Christians has fallen 10 percentage points since 1990, from 86 to 76 percent.” This doesn’t bother me even a little bit. It simply means that the word “Christian” is getting closer to its biblical meaning. To all those who fret over such statistics I would ask: is it the true church that is shrinking? Are some who have been redeemed from their sins losing their salvation? Of course not. We have to remember that the actual church never shrinks, but always grows because the actual church perseveres to the end. What we see in such statistics is that nominal Christianity (those falsely claiming to be Christians) is getting smaller.

I understand that these numbers represent a culture shift in America, but I am of the mind that this development only helps the cause of Christ. As nominal Christians decrease, the true church will become more visible and the mission field more obvious. The dividing line between the lost and the saved will become clearer. As nominal Christians decrease, the more uncomfortable it will be for fakers to follow Christ. The man-centered, seeker-driven, emergent, self-esteem, cotton-candy gospel will start to disappear also. Only true believers will have the fortitude to truly follow the Lord. Those who object to Christianity because of “all the hypocritical Christians” will begin to see what true Christianity really is – faith working through love in the lives of those redeemed by the blood of Christ (Gal 5:6).

When we look back at the history of the church, we find that in the eras of widespread opposition to the biblical gospel, God poured out His grace in extraordinary measure, not simply for the survival of the church, but for the revival and growth of the church. Times of persecution find the gospel spreading like wildfire and God greatly glorified in the church. If we truly desire to be lights for Christ, we should welcome times of darkness, knowing that the Lord might be setting the stage for another era of martyrdom and revival, in which we might be found worthy to suffer dishonor for the name of Christ (Acts 5:41).

Things are not getting better in this country, from a moral standpoint. This week, the Vermont legislature overrode a veto in order to legalize gay marriage, making that state the first to do so via the congress rather than the courts. Some have speculated that as gay marriage becomes the law in more states, there will be a push to outlaw speaking against the homosexual lifestyle. Some day it may be illegal for a pastor to preach the Word on this issue. There is also talk of the President nixing the ‘conscience rule’ that allows doctors to refuse to perform certain medical procedures that they deem morally wrong. In other words, it is possible that Christian doctors will soon be faced with the choice of performing abortions or losing their jobs.

We should lament such things. But at the same time, we must recognize the opportunity to be the church and to stand out in a sinful culture in ways we have not been able to in the past due to the prevalence of nominal Christianity. As the number of “self-identified” Christians shrinks, the spotlight on true believers will grow ever brighter. Now is not the time to cower, but to shine (Mt 5:16). Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful (Heb 10:23).

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