I was a history minor in college and have enjoyed studying history almost as much as I enjoy studying the Bible. The history of America is fascinating and as Christians we can appreciate the role the pursuit of freedom of religious practice played in the founding of the country.
People came to America for many reasons from all over Europe, but especially from England and Ireland. At the peak, 38,000 people were moving to America every year from there. This was after only about 20% of the initial settlers survived. Many of those traveling to this side of the world were leaving countries where the government dictated what kind of religion you could practice, usually saying there was only one true religion, such as Catholicism or a state church. In most cases, they were fleeing situations where the state defined your religion for you at birth, based on nationality and family heritage.
What this means is if you were born some countries, you were likely to be a part of the state church, if you were born in Spain, you were likely Catholic, if you were born in the Ottoman Empire, you were likely Muslim. This way of thinking may seem very foreign to most of us here, but it dates back centuries in Europe to the time of a ruler named Constantine. Before Constantine, the Roman Empire engaged in state sponsored persecution of Christians. You can imagine the desperate desire believers at that time felt to see change.
This change happened when Constantine and his army had a vision of a cross and the emperor became a follower of Christ. He ended state-sponsored persecution and over the course of the rest of his life, he gave more and more power to Christians and the Church. In the beginning, they had new found freedom to practice their religion, but within a generation, Christianity was declared the official religion of the Empire and everyone thereafter was “born” Christian. Not born again, as Jesus told Nicodemus when he came to visit Him at night, but born Christian because of their family or nationality. That established a precedent that the Christian religion was similar to Judaism and some other ancient religions, not based on faith. Well meaning people, many of whom called themselves Christian, desired to fix the problems of their society with “good” Christian ideals.
For almost 20 years, I lived in the city that was the center of Constantine’s empire. Today, more than 99% of the people who live there are not Christian. The people who live there carry identity cards, and on those cards they have a place for religion. People are born into their religions, they are born Muslim, or they are born Christian. Some of them actually practice the faith they are born into, but for many of them, it doesn’t mean much of anything. The majority of them are Muslim in name only, but it is a part of their identity, given at birth. When they think of the United States, they consider us a Christian nation, a nation filled with people who are born Christian because of their heritage.
As followers of Jesus, we can be grateful for that Christian heritage, but you know as well as I do that it is faulty thinking to believe that we are Christian only because of our heritage or because our parents happen to be Christian. That is not what the Bible teaches and when we look around our society today, we don’t see a great deal that is worthy of the name of Christ.
In 2 Timothy, Paul wrote to a young Christian leader a warning. This warning is one that believers often turn to when they look around them and see troubling times. 2 Timothy 3, beginning in verse 1:
“You should know this, Timothy, that in the last days there will be very difficult times. 2 For people will love only themselves and their money. They will be boastful and proud, scoffing at God, disobedient to their parents, and ungrateful. They will consider nothing sacred. 3 They will be unloving and unforgiving; they will slander others and have no self-control. They will be cruel and hate what is good. 4 They will betray their friends, be reckless, be puffed up with pride, and love pleasure rather than God.”
As surprising as it may seem, Paul was not talking about 2020 in America specifically. Instead, he was warning Timothy about human nature and a time that Timothy would see in his lifetime. Paul’s words were true for Timothy and they are true for us as well. Sin leads people to the destination that Paul describes. Mankind without God always finds itself in the same state and the “last days” that they saw in the first century church have been repeated throughout history. Paul wanted Timothy to understand that these things would happen and he should not be surprised, but be ready for them. It is the normal state of a human’s heart to live in rebellion against God.
Later in that chapter Paul writes beginning in verse 12:
“everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution. 13 But evil people and impostors will flourish. They will deceive others and will themselves be deceived. 14 But you must remain faithful to the things you have been taught. You know they are true, for you know you can trust those who taught you. 15 You have been taught the holy Scriptures from childhood, and they have given you the wisdom to receive the salvation that comes by trusting in Christ Jesus.”
Paul encourages Timothy to hold to the truth, especially to the truth of the Gospel. This is the key for the church whenever they face times of trouble or uncertainty. Our hope is not in figuring out a better human solution, our hope is in Christ. The only true hope for mankind is in salvation through Christ alone. That is the only thing in the entire universe that has the power to take a selfish, sinful heart and turn it towards the potential of a positive solution. That isn’t to say that the presence of Christians and Christian initiatives doesn’t have a positive impact on a large scale, even across a nation. I lived for many years in a country that didn’t have the benefit of a foundation built on Christian principles and I can tell you that the difference is noticeable.
But the power of the Gospel for transformation is local. It begins in the hearts of individual believers who have submitted their lives to Christ and it makes the greatest difference through those individuals impacting others in their community, especially through the local Church. Paul encouraged Timothy to turn to the truth and focus on the Gospel in times like this, but I think his first letter to the Church in Corinth is helpful for us as well. Let’s turn to 1 Corinthians 1, beginning in verse 18.
“The message of the cross is foolish to those who are headed for destruction! But we who are being saved know it is the very power of God. As the Scriptures say, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise and discard the intelligence of the intelligent.” So where does this leave the philosophers, the scholars, and the world’s brilliant debaters? God has made the wisdom of this world look foolish. Since God in his wisdom saw to it that the world would never know him through human wisdom, he has used our foolish preaching to save those who believe. It is foolish to the Jews, who ask for signs from heaven. And it is foolish to the Greeks, who seek human wisdom. So when we preach that Christ was crucified, the Jews are offended and the Gentiles say it’s all nonsense. But to those called by God to salvation, both Jews and Gentiles, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. This foolish plan of God is wiser than the wisest of human plans, and God’s weakness is stronger than the greatest of human strength.” (1:18 – 25)
Growing up in the United States and being a part of churches in the Midwest, it was sometimes tempting to think that we could reach our communities and grow our Church through clever strategies and even what might be called “marketing”. In the same way, it can be tempting for us as Christian people to think some of the serious problems we see today can be solved by a policy change or implementing a better moral standard. Living in a Muslim country taught me the foolishness of everything but the Gospel. Nothing I say or do has the power to change the life of anyone. That is completely dependent on the power of Christ.
Paul points to the cross as the answer, not human wisdom. He calls our preaching foolish, offensive to some and nonsense to others, except to those who are called. To those who are ready to receive the message of Christ, it is the power and wisdom of God, a wisdom that is greater than all of man’s wisdom and stronger than all human strength. We proclaim a truth that is not yet ready to be received by all, but that all need to hear. If they find it foolish or offensive, that is not our main concern. Those who have ears to hear will hear.
America, just like the world, has a sin problem and the end result of sin is death, spiritual death. If you want to fix what is wrong with America, we have to start in our community. We are surrounded by those who have no hope. Hope is not found in a policy or a politician, it is in God alone. Later in 1 Corinthians chapter 1, in verses 30–31, Paul writes:
“God has united you with Christ Jesus. For our benefit God made him to be wisdom itself. Christ made us right with God; he made us pure and holy, and he freed us from sin. Therefore, as the Scriptures say, “If you want to boast, boast only about the Lord.” (1:30 – 31)
We ourselves, followers of Christ, who are but frail creatures of dust, have been united with Him. We can be right with God, pure and holy, freed from sin. That is what we boast of and that is what we offer our friends, neighbors and communities as their own opportunity to receive. If we rely on anything else, we are fools.
J.D. Greear, in a meeting last year with the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention said the following:
“What if the lack of money and power was a blessing… set us up for a resurgence of something simple. What if our lack of money and waning power turned us back to the simple things – relying on members intentionally sharing Jesus with others! And that’s where the power was. And, like the early church, who, without money or power or any of their people in Congress, saw a worldwide explosion of the gospel. What if that was what is ahead for us?”
Jesus is the answer. He is the one who changes lives. He is the one who changes churches and He is the one who changes communities. If you don’t know Him, you don’t know what hope truly is. He is the only hope for you and He is the only hope for America.