One of the hallmarks of Peter Leithart’s work has been the public nature of the Christian faith. To say that Jesus is King is to make a highly charged political claim. Worship is a political act. The sacraments are public, objective realities that proclaim cosmic truth to power regardless of and often despite the intentions of the people involved in them. Baptism means that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Jesus. The Supper proclaims the victorious and vicarious death of Jesus to the world until He comes. And this is all because the Word of God is living and powerful and thunders from heaven and demands obedience, allegiance, loyalty. God’s truth trumps all pretenders.
The last couple of weeks Pastor Leithart has continued his series through the book of Isaiah, and he has reminded us particularly that the prophet Isaiah was not foretelling a future for Israel that could exist only in their hearts. The prophet’s burden is not something that might remain safely within the confines of the minds of certain exiled Jews. Isaiah was not trying to calm everyone down, giving them a religious pacifier to suck on while the uncircumcised rejoice over the destruction of Jerusalem. No, if anything, Isaiah is trying to get the people worked up, excited, rambunctious. Yes, he promises peace and comfort, but this is the peace and comfort of victory, the peace and comfort of deliverance from their enemies, the peace and comfort of coming home. In other words, the salvation Isaiah foretold can’t leave Israel in exile, can’t leave Jerusalem in ruins, and therefore cannot be a merely private experience. God’s justice is public. God’s righteousness is always for everyone to see. It stops the mouths of kings, and it does so because they read about it in the morning paper.
What follows is my own ruminations on this fact: Over the last two hundred years (at least) the Church has been in retreat in America. We have sown the wind and now we are reaping the whirlwind politically, culturally, economically, etc. If you do the math that means that probably right around the founding of America, the retreat was already beginning. Some of the faithful old guard could see it coming and put up the best fight they knew how, but plenty were already hedging their bets, compromising, and still others were already in apostasy and full blown naturalism was on the rise. And the net result over time has been for many professing Christians to hunker down in the bunkers of a private, personal, and overly spiritualized version of the faith Jesus bled and died for. This happened in some quarters under the guise of highly emotional experiences of revival and spiritual renewal which did not (for the most part) translate into much momentum publicly. Others hunkered down with fat books and systematic theologies, and while they may have said many true things, all the pointy edges were sandpapered with the proper scholarly apparatus, footnotes, and Greek word studies. Nobody but their closest friends and relatives read them (and mostly to be polite).
But the polite, intellectual dissent of the womanizing Benjamin Franklins of two centuries ago has now matured into grown men sodomizing each other and people speaking of it with straight faces and serious tones as though this was as normal as wanting a popsicle on a hot day. The “enlightened” philanderers among the founding fathers have bequeathed to us the fruit of “enlightened” doctors who torture, dismember, and murder little babies before they are born. But of course this means that we can connect the dots all the way along the line. So-called Christians retreated from battles in public that ought to have been fought — like acquiescing on public policies, refusing to inform judges and senators of what Jesus might think about certain economic policies. Others hid behind patriotic sentiments and betrayed their wives and children with prostitutes and dancing girls. Meanwhile we got drunk on wealth and military might. We won a couple of world wars, stared down the commies in the cold war, and did it all with God Bless America in our mouths. Meanwhile we were slowly but surely disregarding the Word of God inherited from our Fathers.
Now on the one hand, true Christians do in fact sin, disobey, and make mistakes. Sometimes really big ones. But when some baptized guy keeps disobeying, keeps sinning, keeps on rejecting God’s word, at some point, God requires that we conclude that He doesn’t actually know God. In other words, the public proclamation doesn’t line up with the heart. He’s wearing a uniform, and everything he’s doing contradicts the uniform. If a police officer arrests the wrong guy once, you might give him a break, but by the fifth time (and no signs of relenting), you call it corruption. And the uniform only underlines the evil. But the same thing applies corporately to churches, communities, nations: you can have millions of professing Christians claiming to know Jesus and yet by their lives contradict that claim. Now Paul is clear about this situation: Let God be true and every man a liar. Though every profession of faith be false, Jesus is still risen from the dead and God is still true. Baptism still proclaims the crown rights of Jesus no matter that a few minutes earlier someone wet-dedicated their pet hamster Philip.
But this is the thing: the public action of God, His gospel, His justice, His salvation means the Holy Spirit getting ahold of people like a smack in the face, like a cold shower, like an electric shock that tickles and stings, jolts and burns all at the same time. It seems to me that we have plenty to repent of and this includes the retreat of many Christians into holy huddles of emotional orgasms or intellectual farting contests. Either way, you’ve got people, in the name of Jesus, sitting on their thumbs and the name of Jesus is being blasphemed among the nations. But this means that at the end of the day the problem wasn’t really lots of people who had the joy, joy, joy, joy down in their hearts. Where? The problem wasn’t that the Holy Spirit actually got bottled and stuck inside some seminary wonk’s noggin. The Holy Spirit can’t get bottled. The Spirit is free. Which means that the problem wasn’t the privatization of Christianity. The problem wasn’t that millions of people experienced the justice of Jesus somewhere down next to their kidneys and felt warm fuzzies for a while. No, that wasn’t the justice of Jesus, that was last night’s blue cheese casserole. Whatever their claims, they didn’t experience the justice of God because no kings shut their mouths when it happened. Nobody cared because nothing happened.
In other words, the justice of Jesus isn’t something that can be experienced except in public. There is no such thing as your own personal Jesus. There is no such thing as a private justice. Justice, and the justice of Jesus, is public, political, unavoidable, and it has ramifications for every area of life. The problem isn’t spiritualizing the gospel because the gospel can’t really be spiritualized. The problem is the gospel got dismembered and somebody has the toe of St. Calvin and has started a private cult to it in the name of Jesus. But when God acts, when the Spirit thunders, when Jesus saves, He saves all the way down. And He saves all the way up. He puts joy in people’s hearts that makes them fearless to fight giants and dragons and talk back to nitpicking pharisees. The Spirit gives courage to women who don’t give a damn what the king said and refuse to murder their babies. When Jesus saves, His salvation is always public because sinners repent. It of course often includes miraculous deliverances: Pharaoh finally lets the people go, Cyrus sends the Jews home, Herod gets et by worms, and the mouths of lions are shut. But the most common feature and the most socially and politically explosive effect of the salvation of Jesus is repentance of sin. Men refuse to buy porn, and instead they are faithful to their own wives and children. And daughters are raised in loving, affirming, protecting homes and do not seek refuge in the faux-patriarchy of pimps. When thieves and cowards in suits and ties repent, they become honest laborers who give gladly and freely to those in need. They start to tell the unvarnished truth, and the strangers and orphans are welcomed and sheltered. When judges repent, they acknowledge blasphemous laws they upheld, and they go on record to be held accountable to the Word of the One who Judges all men. When military generals repent, they are not cowed by social pressures to go soft on evil or look the other way when injustice is ordered. And in many places repentance would look a lot like a lot of people getting really joyful and stubborn all at the same time, all kinds of glad and uncomfortably opinionated about lots of stuff. And that would be sure to put our current liberal handlers into fits for at least a week. In short, if God were so kind as to send His Spirit among us, there would be sparks, there would be trouble, there would be persecution, there would be cosmic disorder and panic. But this would not be disconnected from individual men, women, and children. On the contrary, it would be precisely because a few million men suddenly grew backbones given only by the Spirit of the Living God. And just to be clear: that Spirit would show up as the justice of God declaring them righteous for the sake of Jesus who paid their penalty and set them all free. When the justice of Jesus gets a hold of somebody it always goes public.
In other words, there is only the public gospel, there is only the public justice of Jesus, there is only the kind of salvation that shuts the mouths of kings. We can pretend we’re talking about the justice of God while carefully guarding against anybody actually getting rambunctious, assuring everybody that everything’s fine as long as they feel “right” deep down inside and say “justification by faith” at least ten times while standing on one foot and throwing out Calvin quotes like confetti. But whatever. You’ll know you’re justified by faith when you tell your boss you can’t lie or cheat or steal and see the red come into his face. You’ll know you’re justified by faith when after repenting of your long standing porn problem, you graciously and firmly begin leading your wife and she gives you the look of death. You’ll know you’re talking about the justice of Jesus when one of your closest friends stabs you in the back and spreads false rumors about you — and somehow you know it’s OK because it happened before to the only Good Man and He was raised from the dead by the justice of God.
And before you know it, you’re hauled before the press, and they want to know why you’re such a trouble maker. And you’ll say, no trouble, ma’am, it’s just that everything’s finally been made right.