On Religion, Morality, and Nationalism

I’m reading through a short book by Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones called “The Plight of Man and the Power of God.” It is based on a series of lectures he gave in 1941, but it’s amazing how timely it is today. Though Lloyd-Jones was British, I think some of his thoughts on England’s sense of national morality might be nice to share on the day we celebrate our nation’s independence here in America.

Lloyd-Jones argues that morality is not possible apart from religion. In his day (and even more so in ours), popular thought in intellectual circles was that morality could be independent from faith of any sort; that man could arrive at a set of ethics and morals simply by reason, and that this would progressively lead to the ideal society. This type of thinking led to the setting aside of Christianity as the foundation for morality in both England and America, though both nations retained a very superficial sort of “Christianity” as part of the national vocabulary and heritage.

Jesus of Nazareth, far from being the unique Son of God who had come on earth in order to prepare a miraculous way of salvation for men, was but the greatest moral teacher and exemplar of all time — simply greater than all others, not essentially different (Note: see Thomas Jefferson’s “Bible”). The religious motive and the religious background to the good life practically disappeared altogether, and their place was taken by education and a belief in the inevitably good effects of acts of social amelioration. (Plight of Man, p. 36)

What has been the result of this? Keep in mind that this was written almost 60 years ago!

The very term “moral” has been evacuated almost entirely of any meaning, and the sins of the past have become “the thing to do” of the present. No one, surely, can deny the statement that, morally and intellectually, the masses of the people have sunk to a lower level than at any time during the past two hundred years. (ibid, p. 36-37)

And the solution?

Religion must precede morality if morality itself is to survive. Godliness is essential to ethics. Nothing but a belief in God and a desire to glorify Him, based upon our realization of our utter dependence upon Him and our acceptance of His way of life and salvation in Jesus Christ His Son, can ever lead to a good society. (ibid, p. 38)

Lloyd-Jones quotes Emil Brunner, who believes that morality’s dependence upon religion (specifically the Christian religion) is so thorough as to be capable of being defined as a law of life. When a society sets aside Christ, morality’s decline is sure to follow.

The feeling for the personal and the human which is the fruit of faith may outlive for a time the death of the roots from which it has grown, but this cannot last very long. As a rule, the decay of religion works out in the second generation as moral rigidity, and in the third generation as the breakdown of all morality. Humanity without religion has never been a historical force capable of resistance. Even today, severance from the Christian faith, whenever it has been of some duration, works out in the dehumanization of all human conditions. (ibid, p. 39, emphasis mine)

Do we not see this here in America? The development and propagation of new scientific and philosophical theories in the 19th century led to the relegation of God to the background, as we reasoned our way to a humanistic morality. The second generation after Darwin’s theory on man’s origin (which we know as “the greatest generation”) was certainly characterized by “moral rigidity”. The generation that followed saw this moral rigidity replaced by “sex, drugs, and rock & roll”.

We have always had a tendency in this nation to rely on our sense of national pride, and this often includes references to our “Christian heritage”. But how often does the discussion focus on how our “godliness” makes us moral? Instead of worshiping the one true God simply because He deserves to be worshiped, most people view “church” as something that good Americans do, because the morals taught by Christians produce the type of society that we desire. “Christianity” becomes merely a way of exalting ourselves. See again Dr. Lloyd-Jones (and though he speaks of England, he could just as easily be speaking of America):

Before we begin to think of ourselves, before we begin to consider the good of society or anything else, we must start with God and we must start by worshipping God. If we advocate godliness simply because it leads to the true morality, if we commend religion because it leads to the best state of society, then we are again reversing the order actually and insulting God. God must never be regarded as a means to an end; and religion is not to be commended primarily because of certain benefits which follow its practice. And yet one hears statements not at all infrequently which give the impression that religion and the Bible are to be valued solely in terms of England’s greatness. That is why the charge of national hypocrisy is so frequently levelled against us by other nations. We tend to believe, and perhaps rightly, that we have been blessed in the past because we have been religious. But when we make use of that fact and advocate religion in order that we may be blessed we are insulting God. The more religious the nation, the more moral and the more dependable and solid is the nation. Hence the temptation to statesmen and leaders to pay lip service to religion, and to believe in its maintenance in a general form. But that is the very opposite of what I would stress, and what is emphasized everywhere in the Bible. God is to be worshipped because He is God, because He is the Creator, because He is the Almighty, because He is the “high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity,” because His Name is Holy. And in His presence it is impossible to think of anything else. All thoughts of self and of benefits that may accrue, all ideas concerning the possible results and advantages to ourselves, or to our class or country, are banished. He is supreme and He is alone. To place anything before God is to deny Him, however noble and exalted that thing may be. The results and blessings of salvation, the moral life and the improved state of society — all these things are the consequents of true belief and they must never be allowed to usurp the supreme position. Indeed, as I have said, if we truly worship God and realize His presence, they cannot do so. (ibid, pp. 39-40)

So on this 4th of July, let us remember that our national and individual independence is not absolute. The freedom that comes from Christ is the freedom to live as a slave to righteousness (Romans 6:18). Christ proclaims liberty, but it is a liberty that is fully rooted in total dependence on our Creator God, who loved us so much that He sent His Son to live the life we should have lived, and to die the death we should have died. Whatever greatness this or any other nation may possess is rooted not in our independence, but in the dependence of its citizens on God. Our celebration of national freedom must never take the place of our celebration of our freedom from sin, and our patriotic zeal for our nation must never take priority over our zeal for evangelism and discipleship. Lloyd-Jones once more:

Before you can have a Christian society… you must first of all have Christians. No education or culture, no mode of training, will ever produce Christians and the corresponding morality. To do that we must come face to face with God and see our sin and helpless plight; we must know something about the wrath of God, and repent before Him and then receive His gracious offer of salvation in Jesus Christ His Son. But that is not mentioned. Men ever desire the benefits of Christianity without paying the price. They need to be reminded again that “God is not mocked,” and that even in the name of Christian civilization He is often grievously insulted. Whatever may follow, God must be worshipped for His own sake because He is God. He demands it and will have it. (ibid, p. 41)

I hope that you have had a wonderful 4th of July holiday. We have much for which to be thankful in this nation. Each and every citizen has been the recipient of an abundance of God’s common grace. May God bring revival to this land! May he draw many people to Himself so that they may share as well in the blessings of His saving grace!

Blessed are the people to whom such blessings fall!
Blessed are the people whose God is the Lord!
~ Psalm 144:15

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s