Election Day has arrived in California with all the accoutrements, not the least of which is transforming places of worship into “polling places” (including the one in which I now sit). While this is probably indicative of little more than the utility of church buildings as convenient and accessible locations for voting, it may also be something of a parable for how often the people of another Kingdom hope in the nations of this world. The attention Christians give to political fervor is one of the subjects John Newton covered in his letters to John Ryland, Jr., which have recently been published by the Banner of Truth as Wise Counsel.
The British Empire of the late eighteenth century was no less familiar with geopolitical controversy than we are today. In fact, the main topic of conversation and contention for Newton’s and Ryland’s congregations was the inception of hostilities with the colonies in America. The united rebellion of the 13 colonies divided many in England along political lines, as not every British citizen was a consistent loyalist. Many in England agreed with the colonial leaders in Boston (the original “Tea Party”) and were angered that their sons faced death on foreign soil because the dolts in Parliament had mishandled the entire situation (sound familiar?).
Ministering amidst such political and national ferment, Newton gave Ryland this counsel in a letter dated August 1, 1775 (Wise Counsel, pp. 83-86):
It seems to me that if I was to outcry the loudest patriot at a city feast I might as well save my breath to cool my pottage [stew or soup], for things would go on just as they do. As a minister and a Christian I think it is better to lay all the blame upon sin. Instead of telling the people Lord North [British prime minister from 1770-82] blunders, I tell them the Lord of hosts is angry. If God has a controversy with us, I can expect no other than that wisdom should be hidden from the wise. If our Lord’s kingdom was of this world, then I think his servants would have as good a right as others to take the lead in political disputes; at present I believe they will do as well to let the dead bury the dead, to mourn for what they cannot help, and to ply the throne of grace as the best and most effectual method of serving their country.Simply and pointedly, Newton reminds us that the blame for strife and international duress ultimately lay upon man’s sinfulness. It is for this reason that political players make foolish decisions; they walk not in the wisdom of God, but in the counsel of the wicked. The response of Christians, who are claim to understand this, should therefore not be political contention, but contrition and petitions to God for His mercy and enlivening grace. Newton continued along this line:
It seems to me one of the darkest signs of the times, that so many of the Lord’s professing people act as if they thought He was withdrawn from the earth, and amuse themselves and each other, with declamations against instruments and second causes and indulge unsanctified passions instead of taking that part which is assigned them Ezek 9:4. I believe if instead of unavailing clamours against men and measures they would all unite in earnest prayer, we might hope for better times, otherwise I fear bad will be worse. Thus you have the substance of my political creed. Only I should add farther that I believe the Lord reigns, that He is carrying on His great purposes in a straight line, that His wall shall be built in troublous times, and that He will be a sure sanctuary to them that fear Him.These passions that Newton describes still diverts well-intentioned Christians today. Rather than lamenting the sin and transgression of which they are also accountable, they lay blame on “second causes” with “unsanctified passions.” The social betterment for which they strive might actually be experienced if instead of focusing upon “men and measures,” the people of Christ again returned to “earnest prayer.” It is to our shame that we so often need to be reminded that the Lord is not “withdrawn from earth” and His sovereign purposes follow “a straight line.” He concludes his thoughts with these exhortations:
It grieves me to hear those who are slaves to sin and Satan, make such a stir about that phantom which they worship under the name of liberty, and especially to see not a few of the Lord’s people so much conformed to the world in this respect. Let us pray and watch, let us bear testimony against sin, and abound in the fruits of the gospel. The Lord help us to do thus, and then we may humbly hope He will preserve our liberty; if He does not I am sure we cannot preserve it ourselves.What profound insight and truly wise counsel! All of humanity is enslaved, so speaking of liberty and freedom in any real sense is to discuss a “phantom.” To the extent that Christians involve themselves in the same, they deny the very foundations of their confession, especially that God is now declaring to all men everywhere they must repent.
Over 200 years later, Newton still helps us navigate the political process of our own day. Without minimizing the privilege of suffrage or the legitimacy of politics as a vocation, let us be careful to never obscure the fact that Christians have no real hope in human government or political machinations. For all who have had the veil removed in Christ, and eagerly await His Kingdom, theirs is not the picket line, but the prayer meeting. Theirs is not the political grandstand, but the pulpit of the Gospel. Theirs is not political action committees, but a community zealous for good deeds.
Especially on Election Day, let us remember that true freedom will never be created by the institutions of an enslaved humanity, but is only given in and by the Son.