Editor's Note: This message was delivered at the Chalcedon Conference for Christian Culture in Lusaka, Zambia, June 28, 1997.
Where do liberty, wealth, security, safety and prosperity in a nation come from? Why do some nations prosper and others suffer poverty, disease and revolutions? Are such things mere accidents of history? Are they simply the result of certain social, cultural or environmental processes? Or does the sovereign God really rule heaven and earth? Most Christians, even supposedly "Christian" academics, often unwittingly become operational humanists when it comes to social and cultural issues. They develop their understanding of the world from the world, rather than the Word of God. And yet God's Word is so simple to understand here, that only an academic could miss it! God rules! He raises nations up and he sets them down. Kings, princes, presidents and prime ministers reign only at his will (cf. Ps. 2:1ff). And the Apostle Paul is very clear in Romans 1:20ff that evil men build evil nations. They cannot help but do so. When sinful men turn their backs on a holy and righteous God, that holy and righteous God turns his back on them. They become foolish in their speculations and fall into depravity and sin. In trying to live their lives in defiance of God, they inevitably bring his curses upon themselves in the form of poverty, tyranny, anarchy, perversion and finally, destruction. This is the clear, unambiguous message of Romans chapter one.
In this century, few people in the West still bow down before idols (though this is increasing), but they do bow down before the myth of the omnipotent state. Humanism has taught that the state is the solution to all our social and personal problems. If we just elect the right people, who will develop the right programs, all our problems will be solved. But God is flagrantly left out of the equation, as if his will, his commands, his principles are unimportant.
This is the fundamental problem facing every democratic system. In a nation filled with unrighteous people, wicked men demand that the civil government do things for them that it cannot possibly do, because such things belong only to God. The politicians have to promise to deliver them or they won't get elected. Yet they KNOW that they cannot give the people what they want, so they learn to lie. It does not matter what the politicians promise to do, but rather what they actually can do that is the issue.
Even godly elected officials get caught up in this. In order to get elected, they must promise to meet the people's expectations. But if the people's expectations are wrong or sinful, then either the godly politician has to compromise, or he won't get elected in the first place or stay in office long enough to do any good.
Therefore, the one fundamental fact of bringing Biblical Reformation to any nation is that the people themselves must be reformed first! This is crucial: the very first and most basic form of government under God is self government. If a people are to receive God's blessing, they must learn to live their lives in submission to King Jesus, bringing every thought and action into obedience to him (2 Cor. 10:4-5).
But how are the people to be changed? Can the King (or President, Prime Minister, etc.) change people by passing laws or developing certain programs or policies? NO! This is the fallacy of legalism, that laws can make people good. Biblically, all that Law can do is restrain sin; it cannot make people better. People are what is in their hearts, and unless their hearts have been changed, their natural inclination will be to rebel against God (and coincidentally, they will rebel against their King as well).
Hence pagan cultures tend to swing like a pendulum between two extremes. On the one hand, without some kind of law, the nation becomes anarchic, where everyone does what is right in his own eyes. Anarchy results in every man's hand being set against every other's. Hence, because all men need a certain amount of security just to live, civil governments tend to become tyrannical dictatorships in order to bring order. The King (President, Prime Minister, or what-have-you) has to pass ever more restrictive laws, employ secret police, etc., just to keep the population under control. People willingly trade their liberty to the state for the promise of security.
You cannot change a nation, unless you change the people in it. Unless a people have been freed from slavery to sin, they can never be freed from the slavery of other men. Think about the former Soviet Union. In 1917, the Russian people overthrew the Czar, who was an oppressive tyrant. Did they then become free? No, they only exchanged one master for another. The Czar murdered at best a few thousand Russians to stay in power. The Communists murdered millions, all while promising security and prosperity. Think about what has happened in the former Soviet Empire since its collapse. Marxism destroyed those nations and finally fell of its own ineptitude and gross mismanagement. But what did the people of many of those nations do with their new found freedom? They elected the very same Communists who used to oppress them right back into power! This is one of the reasons why Zambia is so important in the family of nations! When the people of Zambia got rid of their dictator, you replaced him with committed Christian leaders! No one else did that! God's hand is on this nation!
Therefore, if a people want to be blessed by God, they must be obedient to God. They must walk according to his statutes, commandments and principles, acknowledging him as the one true God. But they will learn this only if there are courageous men, willing to stand tall in an evil age and proclaim the whole counsel of God's Word. The role of pastors is, therefore, absolutely central to reforming the nation.
The Sacraments and the Church
God has entrusted to his church, and more specifically, to his church's officers, pastors and elders, two fundamental ministries: (a) preaching the Word and (b) administering the sacraments. On these two ministries rest the health, well-being and success of the church in God's plan. And on the well-being of the church will depend the well-being of the nation.
R. J. Rushdoony has noted that the word "sacrament" is from a Latin term that referred to the oath of allegiance that a Roman soldier took when he joined his legion. It was an oath of loyalty to the emperor and to his comrades that he would do his duty, even unto death. When we talk about the sacraments in Christian terms, we must understand that they are symbols, pictures of God's grace to us. But they are also oaths, or vows, of obedience and submission that we make to him. We don't tend to think about that way; but really, this is what we are doing whenever we perform (or receive) either of the sacraments.
In the church, the sacraments are baptism and the Lord's Supper. In baptism we are united with Christ as a member of his covenant people. It is a visible sign of God's promise of regeneration and restoration, a marking off of God's people from the world, and of their new status in Christ.
The visible church then admits a baptized person to the Lord's Table. While there are theological differences among Christians as to what this means, ALL Christians, regardless of denomination, will agree that Christ promises to be in communion with his people through the Lord' Supper and that he strengthens, encourages and prepares us for spiritual war. At the Lord's table, all of God's people are united with Christ and with each other. That's why we call it "communion."
And ALL Christians will agree that to take the Lord's Supper in an unworthy manner is to bring God's judgment against the individual and the church (1 Cor. 11:29-32). In Corinth, some people were sick and others had actually died because they did not examine themselves and repent of their sin. Therefore, the true church must practice spiritual discipline against unrepentant sinners, lest they bring judgment on themselves. These spiritual oaths have very real physical implications.
There are two kinds of discipline related to the Lord's Supper; preventive discipline and reactive discipline. Reactive discipline is when we excommunicate someone for unrepentant sin. To excommunicate means to expel an unrepentant sinner from our midst so that God might bring him to repentance (1 Tim. 1:20). A person is "excommunicated" when he is no longer allowed to take "communion." Sadly, most Christian churches today do not practice church discipline. Some do not know about it; many are afraid of it. But according to 1 Corinthians five and six, it is a vital ministry that we neglect at our own peril. Perhaps God does not grant his church more success in this age just because we refuse to follow his commandments regarding reactive discipline (1 Cor. 11:31).
Preventive discipline is the other side of the coin. Rather than react when someone sins, we disciple Christians, teach them, train them, instruct them how to live their lives in conformity to God's Word. Or at least, that's what we're supposed to do. Sadly, the church often sees so many cases of reactive discipline (even if she doesn't know what to do about them) because of a lack of preventive discipline.
The Preaching of the Word
The key to effectual preventive discipline is the faithful preaching of the Word. It is by preaching the Word that hearts are convicted of sin, regenerated by God's grace and brought to saving faith in Christ. It is by preaching the Word that individuals grow in conformity to the image of Christ and are equipped for spiritual warfare (Col. 3:16, Eph. 6:12-17). If the key to reforming the nation lies in first reforming the people, then the people will be reformed as they become saturated with the Word of God (2 Tim. 2:15, Ps. 119:9-11, 2 Tim. 2:15).
But pastors cannot preach what they do not know. If the pastors do not read the word of God daily, if they do not meditate upon his precepts, if they do not consider their own ways, then they will lose their people. Remember the great high priest Eli who, though himself a godly man, lost his own children? He failed to teach and refused to discipline his own family and, as a result, the nation was defeated by the Philistines and the Ark of the Covenant was lost (cf. 1 Sam. 2:12-17: 4:11).
Therefore, the key to reforming the nation is in raising up godly men who will preach the truth of the gospel and its requirements. But notice something important here: the purpose of our preaching is not to make people feel good about themselves, not to attract people to our churches, not to be well liked and respected in the community. A wicked people will call to themselves pastors who tell them only what they want to hear (1 Tim. 4:3). But like Nathan standing before King David, the nation needs pastors who will call even the King to account when he is in sin. Do you think Nathan was concerned about being liked by the King when he told him that he was in sin with Bathsheba? Do you think he was worried about his church growth figures? NO! He feared God, not men, not even the King who could have done to him, what had just been done to poor Uriah the Hittite! Nathan feared God and preached the truth.
The nation needs pastors who seek to please God, not men. And that will mean telling people things that they would rather not hear. Most people today, sadly, don't mind at all if the pastor preaches about heaven and hell, because it all seems so safely removed from real life. But let him start teaching about how the gospel ought to change your personal life, your work ethic, your relationship skills, your way of handling your family or finances, and brother, he's stopped preaching and started meddling!
Yet it is just this practical dynamic that is so often missing in even the best of our preachers. I have heard many fine sermons throughout the years preached by very eloquent, able men. But too often, the problem was that they didn't get specific. They preached in wonderful generalities that everybody could agree with. But as someone said, "God is in the details." Pastors must understand that there is no area of life that does not belong to King Jesus and they must teach God's people how to obey him. If we don't know how to apply the Word of God, who does?
But that will offend many people. You won't always be popular. There is safety in ambiguity. Its comforting to think that when the pastor is preaching, he's preaching about someone else's sins. But when he gets specific and applies the Word of God to real life situations, that is going to get some people upset. And sometimes, your church won't grow as fast, or as much as those who compromise the Word. But let's get serious for a moment. Do you really think that on the Great and Glorious Day of Judgment, when all men must give an account of their labor before God, that Jesus is really going to give out prizes for who had the most people attend his services? Or is Jesus going to be a bit more concerned with how faithful you were in preaching his Word?
Pastors must preach Christ's commands (cf. Jn. 14:21). God expects his covenant people, who have been redeemed from the marketplace of sin, to obey HIM! We are now slaves to Christ (Rom. 6:22), and if the pastors do not teach this, the people will not grow and the nation will sink into sin. There is a Christian and Biblical way to think about money, time, politics, economics, work, family and church. When we study Christ's commandments, when we repent of our sins and strive by his grace to obey him, then he blesses us. But sadly, most pastors replace the commandments of Christ with the commandments of men (Col. 2:20ff).
The Great Shepherd has entrusted his sheep into the care of pastors, for the word "pastor" means a shepherd. When Jesus gave Peter his final orders, he repeated three times, "Feed my sheep" (Jn. 21:15ff). But what do we usually feed them? They plead for the bread of life and we give them bad doctrine, empty sentimentality and pious platitudes. How can they grow if we do not feed them spiritual meat (Heb. 5:12ff)? They long to drink from streams of living water and we give them the stagnant pools of human wisdom. Powerful, life-changing preaching does not come from the academic cloister, but out of the practical applications of the Word of God to real life situations.
Where to Begin
The problem, of course, is that all too often pastors live lives not all that different from the people they are supposed to be helping change! For example, in my country, pastors' children are notorious for being rebellious, disrespectful and disobedient, causing much turmoil in the church. You see, the problem is that Daddy is so busy having a wonderful ministry and being thought well of by the community, that he has no time to minister to his own family. He breaks God's own commands that an elder must be one who manages his own household well (1 Tim. 3:4-5), and then wonders why his church is weak and sick and ineffectual. Pastors need to start in their own homes, in their own families, loving their wives, bringing their children up in the discipline and admonition of the Lord, having consistent family worship, catechizing their children, disciplining them, making the Scriptures work in their own lives. If we do that, the heathen will beat a path to our door crying out, "What must I do to be saved?"
National reformation thus begins with personal transformation. But personal transformation will not occur apart from the normal ministries of the sacraments. If we do not preach the truth, the people will not know what God expects. If we do not hold people accountable through access to the Lord's Table, then they will have no incentive to change. Think with me for a moment. A godly father teaches his children the truth. He teaches them right from wrong, what is good from what is bad. But all children disobey their parents. What does a godly father do? Does he smile indulgently, pat them on the head and send them on their way? Well, if he wants to raise sons of hell, I can think of no better way. A godly father not only teaches his children what is right, he also disciplines them when they don't do what he told them. Does a father spank his children because he hates them, because they make him angry, because he's fed up and he wants to hurt them? Of course not! He spanks them just because he loves them. They need the pain from the spanking to learn to hate evil. Church discipline is a spanking from God's church. You cannot and will not have a healthy church, unless you have both sound preaching and discipline.
Pastors must teach the people how to show Christian virtues in the homes, work diligently at their calling, and demonstrate in deeds, not just words, that the love of Christ is in them. A nation is transformed, not from the top down by electing politicians who promise us what we want to hear, but from the bottom up, as God gives grace to individuals, families and churches. As individual hearts are changed, as men learn to live self-governed under God's commands, as they teach their wives and children, as they reach out and share the gospel to their friends and neighbors, then the blessings of God begin to flow.
We are a covenant people. God did not create us to live as autonomous individuals. We have a relationship with God, our families and with our brothers and sisters; we need each other. Godly pastors need to learn how to work with their brothers in other churches. Now this may not be a problem in Zambia, but in the United States, Christian pastors often refuse to work with each other because they think they are in competition! Therefore they won't read certain books, attend certain conferences or work together on important projects, because they are afraid that their people might like some other pastor better than them! And as a result, the work of reformation is impeded and frustrated.
But there are many things too great for individual churches to do. What happens when a man is found in sin in one church, and if, in God's grace, that church has the courage to discipline him? Why he runs right down the street to another church, which is all too willing to take him right in! And does that man change the behavior that got him in trouble in the first place? Why should he, if the pastors will not work together?
There are children to be educated, widows to be cared for, men without jobs that need to be put to work, and no individual church can hope to meet all these needs. But together, we can accomplish miracles, if we trust in Jesus Christ and obey him.
As a pastors preaches the whole Word of God, his people are motivated to step out in faith and struggle to conform their lives to God. As the sacraments are received by grateful, humble hearts, repentant for their sins and depending upon the grace and mercy of God in Christ, then God gives greater grace, the scales fall from blind eyes, and the calluses removed from hardened hearts. When the gospel is adorned with the good works of his covenant people, the heathen are befuddled and amazed at the mercy of God and through that witness. He is pleased to bring them to repentance and faith.
The role of the pastor in reforming the nation is often a lonely one. Real reformation, like revival, is not something in the hands of men; it depends upon the sovereign grace of God. Therefore, pastors must be men of devout prayer, on their faces before God, asking his grace and mercy. National reformation begins with pastors getting on their knees, alone, beseeching the Almighty Creator for mercy.
But our God is a gracious and kind God who hears the prayers of his people. If we seek, we shall find; if we ask, it shall be given unto us. John Knox was the great reformer in Scotland. The nation was spiritually dead and under God's curse before he was raised up to preach the reformation. His daily prayer was, "Lord, give me Scotland lest I die." God gave John Knox Scotland, and through Scotland, God also gave him the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. These nations were all distinctly influenced by the grace that God poured out through one lonely pastor. Are there such men in Zambia? Is there someone here who will pray, "Lord, give me Zambia, lest I die"? Your nation, your future, your children and your God, all await your response.
- Brian M. Abshire
Rev. Brian Abshire, Ph.D. is currently a Teaching Elder associated with Hanover Presbytery. Along with his pastoral duties, he is also the director for the International Institute for Christian Culture, has served as an adjunct instructor in Religious Studies at Park University and is a visiting Professor of Comparative Religion at Whitefield College.