Whatever your brand of protestant faith, I think that in this coming month of October–in a very important sense–we are all Lutherans: here we stand. The monk from Wittenberg was the spark that roared to an unquenchable fire, hitting the dry wood of people yearning for the true word of God. As Michael Reeves says,
The Reformation was not principally a negative movement about moving away from Rome and its corruption; it was a positive movement, about moving toward the gospel.
Luther’s initial and fundamental shift from a works-based righteousness to a faith-based righteousness enabled God’s people to reclaim God’s truth. For that, we are eternally grateful, as there can be no more significant human gift than Luther’s helping the church see the glory of God’s gift to us of salvation–a free gift that we receive by faith alone. So in churches around the world, we are seeing an outpouring of teaching and celebration of 500 years since the “wild boar” nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Catholic Church in Wittenberg.
Yet as much as we celebrate Luther, we must with sad reflection acknowledge his sinful attitudes towards Jews. Luther was particularly vitriolic in his older days after Jews did not receive the gospel sufficiently to his liking. In his book, On the Jews and Their Lies, he called for, among other things, Jewish synagogues and schools to be razed, and Jews not allowed to own homes near Christians. So should we be honoring Luther this month? Or should we be condemning him? Is it possible to do both?
One of my own personal Christian heroes is Abraham Kuyper. His classic quote I relish almost as much as scripture (since I believe scripture itself testifies to this truth):
There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!
Kuyper was an energetic businessman, author, theologian, and politician, and his fundamental worldview is captured in the quote. His life was spent applying a Christian worldview to all aspects of life. For Kuyper, as for your Bereans, there is no part of life that is separate from God’s authority. Two years ago, when I went to Acton University, there were several sessions on Kuyper, and I eagerly attended all of them. While I’ve read some of Kuyper’s works, I’m certainly no scholar, and looked forward to the sessions. Dr. Vincent Bacote, an African-American, began his session with a frank acknowledgement that his love of Kuyper’s public theology was a bit of a crisis since Kuyper’s lofty spiritual ideals were jettisoned in his discussions of race. So can we honor Kuyper? Or should we condemn him? Or is it possible to do both?
I consider George Washington one of our greatest presidents, if not the greatest, because of his refusal to seek to become a king; something plausibly within his grasp. Yet Washington used his powers to enrich himself, and was a slaveowner. Do we praise Washington or condemn him? Or do we do both?
Humans are complex, and our historical visions often fail to capture the universal complexity of the men and women we admire or despise. Do we praise Pilate for initially trying to deliver Jesus from the schemes of the Pharisees, or do we condemn for the most unjust decision in human history? Do we praise Martin Luther King for his heroic stand against injustice or condemn him for his infidelities? The list could almost certainly go on to as many people as ever lived, as we are all created in the image of God, and yet are fallen. The left is no doubt correct that we fail to acknowledge the faults in our historical heroes, but then they create an even worse error by trying to destroy them. What in my generation was called the “blame America first crowd,” has metastasized into a far worse “hate/loath America above all else” crowd. And thought to have been completely marginalized, there is an unapologetic “white supremacist/nationalist/populist” movement standing up for their “own” group. The fruits of identity politics are yielding a bitter taste indeed.
There is a significant danger in failing to recognize this fundamental biblical truth that we are all worthy of dignity inherent in being created by God, and yet also under his wrath due to our rebellion against him–a wrath that can only be satisfied by a faith in Jesus Christ. The danger is this: we see the outward flaws in others–flaws that we do not have ourselves (or don’t think we do)–and we are tempted to think we are categorically different from them. Consider the outrage against white supremacists in Charlotte. Their beliefs can and should be condemned, but we must never think that somehow racism is a more monstrous sin, or that we are unlike them.* Racism is just a species of a broader genus, and each of us has that genus of sin. The broader genus is that in our brokenness, we often desire to find dignity in ourselves not by recognizing who we are (individuals created in the image of God), but rather by putting others down in an attempt to elevate ourselves. Is that not the root issue of racism? And do not all of us do this to some degree? It begins in grade school and continues from there–there is an in-group and an out-group. We have attitudes about others that are not biblical, and do not reflect their intrinsic worth as fellow image bearers. Some of these feelings are more acceptable socially, some less acceptable, and those change over time. Particularly odious versions of our feelings not only seek to elevate our own worth by putting down others, but seek to deny any of the common humanity we share. The Nazi’s views of Jews particularly come to mind. The Christian understands that what is different is only a matter of scale (the magnitude of sin’s manifestation), not of scope (the category of sin).
Realizing this, we should seek to find reasons to praise those things that are worthy of praise, and condemn those things worthy of condemnation. If we were only able to praise perfection, there would be no one to honor but Christ. Yet God calls us to honor others….and the standard for honoring others is not perfection.
* In fact, it is slippery slope that turns us into what we profess to hate, when we treat white supremacists (or name your favorite villain group) as almost sub-human, refusing to recognize that they too are created in the image of God.