Friday, March 28, 2008


I have some thoughts from Galatians to share. I'm wondering whether they are accurate? (It's also possible that they're very obvious to everyone except me, but to me these are new and exciting thoughts). Sorry, it's long. I am too verbose to make a good blogger!

Firstly, what is the problem in Galatia? Obviously false teaching. But there must have been something in that teaching to make it attractive to the Christians. Although they were doubtless "foolish" (3:1) to go along with the false teachers, they surely didn't think that they were "deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ" to turn to "a different gospel" (1:6). They must have thought they were being offered something good. I would suggest that what they wanted was to be righteous - surely a good desire! The false teachers offered them a way to be righteous, namely, by the observance of the law: the law that was given by God.

Now, Paul had himself once relied on the law for righteousness. He was, after all, a Jew by birth, and not a Gentile sinner (3:15). But he had come to see that works of the law do not give righteousness - only faith in Christ does (3:16). That also led to another realisation: whereas he had thought that he, with his law-keeping, was different to all the "Gentile sinners", he now testified that "we too (i.e. the Jews) were found to be sinners" (3:17). He was in the same boat as the Gentiles he had once despised!

Paul is therefore forced to put his faith solely in Christ, and as he does so he can testify that the old man he used to be, with both his sin and his law-keeping, died - "crucified with Christ" (3:20). The life he now lives is not his own - it is Christ who lives in him, and he lives solely by faith in Christ (3:20).

The Galatians have had a similar experience. In Paul's preaching, Christ was portrayed as crucified before their eyes (3:1). They heard, and responded with faith, and God gave them his Spirit (3:2). Indeed, as they continue to hear and believe, God continues to supply the Spirit (3:5). We can assume that Paul's faith that he was crucified with Christ and that his old self no longer lives is also the faith of the Galatian Christians.

After a few arguments about the uselessness of the law to justify (3:10-14) and its obsolescence with the coming of Christ (3:15-4:7), Paul expresses exasperation that the Galatians are turning to the law - which he directly equates with a return to their old pagan religion! (4:8-11). This would be to return to slavery. Christ did not set them free from paganism in order to enslave them to the law; rather, "for freedom Christ has set us free" (5:1). In fact, rather than seeking righteousness through the law, Paul is now through the Spirit and by faith eagerly awaiting "the hope of righteousness" (5:5), a hope given him in Christ (5:6).

Now, I imagine the Galatians saying this: 'but Paul, all you are offering us is the righteousness of Christ (which is in heaven) and the hope of righteousness (which is reserved for the resurrection). Sure, we can possess the former by faith and look forward to the latter, but what about now? The law gives us some righteousness that is tangible, something we can experience. You just seem to offer pie in the sky in comparison'.

And Paul says no. The Christian life now is to be characterised by increasing righteousness in behaviour, but it is not to be brought about by the law but by walking by the Spirit (5:16). If the Galatian Christians walk by the Spirit, the Spirit makes war on the evil desires of their flesh (5:17). It's not their fight, but his. And how do they receive the Spirit? By hearing the gospel of Christ crucified and believing it (3:2-5). The conclusion is that nothing counts except the fact that Christ was crucfied, and in him I was also crucified, my old self being killed to make way for a new creation (6:14-15). And this I know only by faith (hence the parallel between 5:6 and 6:15).

What does this mean for us? It means we must live by faith. Christ was crucified, objectively, in space and time, in history. In him, I was crucified and killed - the old me, the one enslaved to sin, is dead. Now, Christ lives in me in all his perfect righteousness. But I do not see that in my experience. If I look at myself, I see sin, not righteousness. So the temptation will be to pursue an experience of righteousness - whether through rules, or accountability, or mysticism (the latter - an attempt at mystical righteousness - appears to be the problem in Colossae. Paul points them to the righteousness of Christ in heaven [Col 3:2]). I want to be able to look at myself and see some righteousness. But that is not faith. Faith is believing what I do not see. Faith is trusting in Christ's righteousness, and waiting patiently for the day when I will be made perfectly righteous in my experience. And actually, as I believe what the gospel says about me - that my sinful self died with Christ and I am now raised to new life - the Holy Spirit begins to make it true in my experience.

So my fight is not the fight against this sin or that sin, or the fight to be more godly in this or that area of life. Not primarily anyway. My fight is to believe, trust and live by the finished work of Christ, looking not to myself but to him. God give me grace to do so.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

God and Politics 3: Sin

No attempt at a Christian engagement with the political sphere can ignore the effects of the fall on human society and the world more generally. The third central statement that I think we need to think about is this:

3. Human beings are fallen and sinful.

I mention "fallen" and "sinful", because I see these as expressions of two sides of the human condition post-fall. On the one hand, human beings are all actively sinful; on the other hand, they all suffer the effects of fallen-ness, and living in a fallen world. Neither fact can be ignored by a responsible government. To explore further:

a) Each human being is sinful, and therefore fundamentally self-interested.

Though no doubt this will seem a harsh analysis to anyone who is not a Christian, it is a conclusion forced upon us by Scripture. If the two fundamental commands are to love God and to love our neighbour, the two fundamental sins are pride (which displaces God) and selfishness (which displaces love of, or even regard for, our neighbour). Pride and selfishness characterise humanity, and each individual human being, in the world post-Eden. That is not to say that each person demonstrates these characteristics to the full, nor to deny that many people pursue lifestyles that are more or less generous and humble. It is, however, to assert that at heart the human being is selfish, and therefore his or her thoughts and actions will always have a strong bias toward self interest.

The most immediate application of this truth within the sphere of democratic politics is this: we ought not to be too trusting of our leaders. It is a well known maxim that power corrupts (and absolute power corrupts absolutely). However, we must say that in fact everyone is already corrupt, and power merely removes the factors inhibiting the expression of that corruption. We will therefore, if we are sensible, limit the power of any one individual or group as far as is practical within the operation of government. We will furthermore wish to have intense scrutiny of those in power, and rigid accountability for their actions.

A further application will be that government will need to direct a lot of its energy into restraining the effects of human sin and selfishness in society. It should be clear that, left entirely unchecked by law and custom, the selfishness of human beings would destroy society. Christians should therefore support law-enforcement agencies, and should, the above paragraph notwithstanding, be prepared to give government the power to counteract human sin.

The balance between these two applications will be complex. I would propose the rule that as many people as possible be involved in decision making - whilst recognising that "as many as possible" will be very few in cases where important decisions must be made quickly or with secrecy.

b) Human society is fallen, and therefore suffers

We must also recognise that each person, whilst being a sinner, is also to a greater or lesser extent sinned against. Whether this occurs directly, through the malice of one person or group, or indirectly, through the plutocratic economic arrangement of a society or the self interest of a ruling class, is largely by the by. There will be those in society for whom the fall means suffering, exclusion, poverty, illness and the like. I would suggest that Christians can hardly ignore this fact, or fail to respond with compassion, and that this compassion must flow over into their political considerations.

There will be cause at a later date to consider exactly how far this falls within the remit of the state, but for now suffice to say that the plight of the suffering must be a factor in our thinking about politics.

c) Human society cannot be 'fixed' while human beings remain broken

Our ambitions for politics and government must be limited as Christians. We cannot go along with utopian solutions to all humanity's ills, whether those proposed by the left or the right. No amount of economic tinkering (whether in the direction of socialism or the free market), no amount of social rethinking (whether liberalising or authoritarian in tendency), and no amount of political effort can make any fundamental change in human society. This is not to advocate defeat and withdrawal: there is much that can be done. But it is to recognise that human beings cannot fix human beings, and therefore cannot fix human society. Of course, we know someone who can do both, but that is for another day...

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

God and Politics 2e: The Image of God

I forgot this one yesterday...

e) Humanity rules over creation

One pretty major aspect of imaging God that is entrusted to humanity is the rule of creation. Human beings are to govern not only their own society, but also the rest of the world that God has made. All things have been put under man's feet (Psalm 8:6). At a point in time when we are just beginning to realise how much of a profound effect our actions can have on the world in which we live, it would be a significant oversight to ignore the fact that ruling, stewarding and caring for creation is part of what it means to be human. I take it that any human government will need to take seriously the responsibility to rule properly not only over the people they govern but also the part of the earth that has been given to them to steward.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

God and Politics 2b,c&d: The Image of God

So, to pick up where I left off over a month ago...

b) Human beings are relational beings

Whatever else it means to be in the image of God, it certainly includes the idea of being relational. Consider Genesis 1:27:
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
I take it that the implication is that the plurality of man - the sameness-but-difference expressed in the maleness and femaleness of human beings - is an essential part of their image-bearing. In fact, I would say that the image of God is less something human beings have and possess and more something that they do, as they relate to one another. In this way they bear the image of the relational God who created them.

The implications for political systems are interesting. I think this counts against systems that tend to high levels of bureaucracy and centralised government. Why? Because it is inevitable that a centralised government and bureaucracy will tend to deal with statistics and not people; it will therefore pursue policies and not relationships.

c) There is a right way for human beings to live

If human beings were just a chance product of random evolution, it seems to me there would be no grounds for claiming that there are better and worse ways to live. At a fundamental level, ethics would be undercut, and that would affect government. In the "randomly evolved society" there would never be any reason for government not to go along with the majority (assuming some form of democracy; without that they could just do as they pleased so long as they could get away with it). But if God made humanity, and if he made it to function in a particular way, then there is a best way to live. There is right and there is wrong, and one way will lead to a healthy society and the other will lead to an unhealthy one. If God made humanity, then it seems to me that human governments and leaders are, to a certain extent, mandated to lead humanity in the right way to live.

d) Human beings are responsible agents

Another way in which human beings image their Creator is in making significant moral choices. In the sphere of government, I think this should qualify what I have just said in point c. Governments cannot simply work out what is best for people and then make them do it. There has to be space for individuals to make real choices, even if that means choosing wrongly.

The combination of points c and d points to a system of law which sets limits on human freedom, but not unduly restrictive limits. Furthermore, as an expression of the rightness of the laws and as a foreshadowing of the fact that people will be held morally responsible by God for what they do with his laws, governments should rigorously enforce the laws that exist, punishing offenders. Laws which are unenforcable deny both c and d - they give the impression that there is no 'right', only what you can get away with, and they give the impression that you can get away with a lot and not be held responsible. So I would argue on this basis for a limited statute book, containing only what must be and can be enforced.