The Seventh Sunday after Trinity| Rev. Rolf Preus| July 6, 2008
“Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God.” Romans 13:1
“Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.” John 8:36
They say that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. That simply means that hypocrisy is the compliment that vice pays to virtue. Patriotism is a virtue. We love our country for the same reason that we love our family. In fact, the word patriot comes from the Latin word for father. We love our father and our fatherland.
The 4th of July is that time of year when Americans feel especially patriotic. The United States of America does not have any special relationship with God that sets it apart from other nations in this world. But it has been blessed by God as few other nations have. Our nation has enjoyed more freedom, more opportunity, and more prosperity than most nations even dream of. Why is this? A brief history lesson will help explain. Let’s compare the two great revolutions that took place during the last quarter of the 18th Century: the American Revolution and the French Revolution.
The men who led the American Revolution for the most part believed the words of the Apostle Paul in our text, “For there is no authority except from God.” When they declared their independence from Britain and King George, they were not declaring their independence from the law. They were strongly committed to what is known as English common law. The American founders were not primarily interested in rejecting a monarchy and establishing a democracy. They were interested in the rule of law. They wanted a government of laws, not men. They believed that all rulers are accountable to God, and that God’s law governs the king as well as the common man. They were very wary about democracy because they were afraid of the unbridled passions of the mob. They were also careful not to give too much power to government at any level because they understood man’s capacity for evil. Most of them had an understanding of original sin that made them distrust too much power in anyone’s hands. They believed in the rule of law. They respected tradition and custom. They acknowledged that the law of nature was God’s law.
Not all of the American founders were Christians, of course. And of those who were their theology often left much to be desired. But they were influenced by Christian teaching. They believed in limited government because the Fourth Commandment requires that honor be given first to father and mother and then to other authorities. They believed in private property because the Seventh Commandment says, “You shall not steal.” They believed that they were accountable to God for their actions.
The French Revolution, on the other hand, was thoroughly godless. It wasn’t enough to murder the king and other members of the royalty. They did everything they could to stamp out Christian influence in the nation. The French Revolution did not appeal to the law. It appealed to human reason and passion. It rejected the truth that man is basically sinful. Its dream for a perfect society was based on the false notion that man is basically good. It was a revolution based on human pride, on the attempt to cast off God and his law. What was the fruit of the French Revolution? The guillotine, whereby tens of thousands of innocent people were murdered by the State, arbitrary mob rule leading to the rise of the dictator, Napoleon, and one European war after another.
This little history review teaches us a basic fact of life. God blesses nations that respect His law. Nations that despise God’s law create their own hell on earth. When it comes to a nation’s health, nothing is more important than respect for and obedience to God’s law. Look at the many problems facing America today and you will see that they are due to a disregard of God’s law. God says, “If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat.” (2 Thessalonians 3:10) Yet people who are able to work are paid not to work. God says, “Flee fornication,” yet fornication and every kind of sexual immorality are glorified and even rewarded today. The result is the breakdown of the family. God says, “You shall not murder,” yet today it is a civil right to murder the unborn.
God is not an American. He has not blessed America because he cares more for our country than he does for other countries. He will not punish America because he cares for our nation any less than He does for others. But there is a basic principle at work. The authority of all governments comes from God. God will bless those nations that honor His law and He will punish those nations that defy His law. That’s the way it is. The law makes us free to live lives in which we are safe in our homes, secure in our property, protected from violence, fraud, theft and other crimes. As a nation, we depend on the law for our freedom. Our peaceful union as a nation has always depended on the law: respect for it and obedience to it.
But the law cannot bring us into peaceful union with God. It cannot bring us true spiritual freedom. In fact, our greatest problem is only made worse by the law. Our greatest problem is not the increasing lawlessness in our society. It is not the gradual decay of our constitutional government. It is not the loss of our civil liberties. Our greatest problem is inside of us. It is our own sin.
Let’s take a look at it, if we can stand it. Look at the crime, the abused children, the mindless and savage violence, the deliberate murder of innocent civilians by suicide bombers, the sexual promiscuity, and the forsaking of all responsibility. Look at every sign of decline and social decay here in America and around the world and you will see what is inside of us all. Where does crime come from? Every sin and crime, every act of selfishness, violence, and lust, all of it comes from the same evil root, and that root is the sin inside our hearts. Original sin is not just a theological theory. It is the nature of fallen humanity. Governments instituted among men can keep the innate sinfulness of the people from flowering into open rebellion and anarchy, but no human government can take out the root of sin. No kind of legislation can change the sinner.
That is why we cannot depend on any law at all to bring America back to God. God keeps the nation free through the law, but the law cannot bring us spiritual freedom before God. Only Jesus can do that. He brings us peace with God and true freedom by taking our place under the law and fulfilling its demands. Jesus could examine His own heart and soul and know that He willed and desired only to please God. He loved with a pure love. The law examined Jesus and found nothing at all wrong with Him. Pilate spoke God’s truth when he said, “I find no fault in Him at all.” (John 18:38) But the demands of the law had to be met by us. So Jesus, the innocent Man, took the place of us, the guilty. In our place he obeyed the law and suffered the punishment for our disobedience. He thereby fulfilled the law. St. Paul put it this way in Galatians 3:13, “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’).”
Patriotism is a virtue, but those who depend on their virtue as they stand before God are slaves to sin even if they live in a free country. The way to true spiritual freedom does not lie in obedience to any law. St. Paul writes in Galatians 3:10, “For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them.’”
God rules us through the government. Respect for and obedience to the law of the government keeps a nation free. Through the law God brings us an outward or civil peace. Spiritual peace and freedom requires the total destruction of sin, and that no law can do. Those who trust in the law of God or any human law for true spiritual freedom remain under the curse of the law. Only God the Son can set us free because Christ not only obeyed the demands of the law He also suffered the penalty of the law against all law-breakers. This Christ comes to the guilty in his gracious Gospel and forgives them. He washes away our sins in Holy Baptism and restores us to God. He feeds us with His body and blood and He lives within us. He rules over us by placing us under His grace.
Isaiah said concerning Him, “And the government will be upon His shoulder.” (Isaiah 9:6) Jesus’ government doesn’t burden us with laws, taxes, or wars. He bears the burden Himself. He fulfilled the law and He paid the debt and He set us free. He set us free by bearing the source of all hatred, violence, and war under which the entire world was enslaved. Jesus rules over us by taking our burden away from us, not by imposing burdens upon us. He sets us free. His gospel makes us free. He speaks words that give us freedom because His words give us forgiveness. When we believe His words of forgiveness we have the forgiveness He gives and we are free. If the Son sets you free, you shall be free indeed.
The law keeps the nation free. This is why we pray for our leaders. Jesus fed the four thousand with seven loaves of bread and few small fish. This was to teach us that God provides us with our daily bread. Praying for our country is praying for our daily bread. We pray for America when we ask our Father in heaven to turn the hearts of all our leaders to love and uphold His law. We pray that God will keep America free so that within our freedom as Americans the gospel will sound forth in its purity. That’s the greatest blessing God has given us as Americans. He has preserved among us the civil right to preach and confess the gospel through which God will keep us free from sin, death and everlasting punishment.
When it comes to our faith no law from God or man can impose any burden on us. The law cannot accuse us of anything because the blood of Christ has silenced its accusations against us. We have Christ. He has borne the curse and He has set us free. No law can condemn us before the judgment seat of God because Christ Himself has borne the legal judgment against all sinners and has thus guaranteed our liberty before God. Long after America has passed away, a great multitude which no one can number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, will praise God in heaven for washing away their sins in the blood of the Lamb. They will enjoy perfect freedom in which perfect justice will prevail because the love of God in Christ will swallow up sin and death forever and ever. Amen