Conscience, Christ, and the Ballot Box

As I said in a previous blog post, my conscience is convinced that I must vote for Mitt Romney. That has predictably generated some discussion. It’s not surprising that there are various brothers and sisters in Christ who agree or disagree, some of the latter including dear friends whom I love a great deal.

In this post I would like to clarify a few matters and offer a prayer for the election tomorrow that I hope many can echo in their own prayers.

1) Accountable to God for Our Vote. When I put our voting responsibilities in the light of Judgment Day, I am not invoking God’s wrath against those who vote for someone other than the Republican candidate. I am however reminding us of our accountability before God. As Christians we must do all things, including politics, in the fear of the Lord. Sins of commission and omission may bring fatherly discipline and a loss of reward on the great Day. The very fact that we are redeemed by the blood of Christ demands that we be holy (1 Peter 1:15–19).

2) No Excuse Not to Vote. In the blog post, I addressed two groups of people. My strongest words were reserved to Christians who do not vote for any presidential candidate. I believe that to fail to vote is to remain silent when God has given us a political voice to speak against abortion and immorality. Regardless of whom you mark on the ballot, the Christian should vote. The lives of millions of children are at stake, and God calls us to stand for the orphan in the political and judicial system (Isa. 1:17).

What Dietrich Bonheoffer wrote concerning the Nazi holocaust is equally true of today’s abortion holocaust: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil; God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

3) Need for Unified Opposition to Evil. The other group I addressed was believers who intend to vote for a third party candidate in the presidential election. I have empathy for them. I recognize the righteousness of supporting third party candidates where the main parties have lost their way. I also long to see godly and experienced Christians running in the primaries to gain Republican nominations.

However I do think that in this present election so much is at stake that we cannot afford to be fragmented among various presidential candidates. The Obama administration is not the run-of-the-mill liberalism we have seen in previous years. It is driving our nation full speed over a cliff of socialism and immorality into an abyss that is profoundly anti-Christian.

I understand that some believers have scruples of conscience against voting for Romney because he is only a moderate conservative and also not a Christian. My aim was, and is, to persuade their consciences that Christians need to use common sense. I freely admit that we don’t have an ideal candidate, but this is a time to stand together against evil that the other party advocates so blatantly with its bold stand for unbiblical, homosexual marriage and its unabashed support for abortion.

4) Sovereignty, Responsibility, and Urgency. I have full confidence in God’s providence over all things. Whoever rules the United States in 2013 will be appointed by God. At the same time, God’s sovereign providence does not remove our moral responsibility, nor the suffering that poor choices bring. We should foresee these consequences and be motivated to choose wisely. There was indeed a strong tone to my exhortation and it was a tone of urgency. God’s sovereignty does not make us passive or emotionless, but empowers us to take action.

5) The Supremacy of Christ. Jesus Christ is the King of kings and Lord of lords (Rev. 17:14), including all Presidents of the United States. Even though the nations rage and the people plot a vain thing, God has enthroned His Christ and He will reign (Ps. 2:1–9). All men, whether kings or beggars, must bow the knee to Christ or suffer His wrath (Ps. 2:10–11). But because this King shed His precious blood, all who trust in Him, no matter how sinful they have been, will be blessed by God (Ps. 2:12).


Let me close with a prayer for election day.

Our Father, Lord of heaven and earth, Thou art very great. We praise Thee for Thy name is above all blessing and praise. Thou canst do immeasurably above all that we ask or think. Thou hast made the heavens and all their host, the earth and seas and all that fills them, and the angels of heaven do worship Thee.

Thou hast blessed our nation with an abundance of food and wealth. Thou hast revealed Thy law and gospel in Thy Holy Scriptures. Thou hast sent Thy Son to give His life a ransom for many. Thy servants have testified to our people.

Yet, O God, our land is bathed in the blood of innocents. We have taken Thy gifts, and made them our idols. We have hardened our hearts, and listened not to Thy commandments. We have turned Thy holy gospel into a license to sin. We have celebrated that which Thou dost condemn. We are a proud nation, and Thou dost hate pride.

Have mercy, O God, have mercy upon us! Thou dost not change, and therefore Thy people are not consumed. Forgive America for its many sins. Forgive each of us for all our sins. In wrath remember mercy. Thou didst promise that for the sake of ten righteous men Thou wouldst spare wicked Sodom. O God, hear the prayers of those who delight to fear Thy name, and do not give this nation over to a lie.

Thou art the Most High, who doth rule over the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever Thou wilt. If the heart of the king is in Thy hand to turn it as Thou pleasest, certainly then Thou rulest over the votes of the people. Direct their votes, we pray Thee, to those that will govern our nation with wisdom and lead us in ways that are right. Grant to us a president, senators, representatives, judges, governors, and other officials who will do us good and not harm. Give us a government under which Thy people, Thy church whom Thou dost love, may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty.

Yet, Sovereign Lord, our deepest prayer is that Thou wouldst do whatever is necessary in the United States so that Thy name be hallowed, Thy kingdom come, and Thy will be done, both here and throughout the world, now and in all generations to come. Glorify Thyself in Thy church and in Thy Son now and forevermore. Amen.

Propaganda: Giving the Puritans a Bad Rap

A new rap song by Propaganda has caught the attention of a number of Christians in the blogosphere (lyrics here). It styles itself as a series of questions to a pastor who loves to quote the Puritans, criticizing them for their culpability in the slavery of African-Americans. The rap repeatedly uses the phrase “your precious puritans” in a way that is ironic, to say the least. It is sad that “precious” becomes a piece of sarcasm, for the Lord Himself said to His people that we are “precious in my sight” and “I have loved thee” (Isa. 43:4).

To his credit, Propaganda promotes the gospel of Christ in other raps, and says that he has learned a lot from reading the Puritans. But his rap song forcefully portrays them as deeply flawed men, profoundly guilty for their participation in the Atlantic slave trade and slave economy.

What should we make of this? The subjects of slavery and racism are huge, difficult, and beyond the scope of a single blog post. However, I would like to offer some perspective on Propaganda’s rap song. There are three dimensions to Propaganda’s song: emotional, historical, and theological. While these are intertwined, I think it will help to look at them one at a time.

(1) Emotional Dimension.

You don’t have to read between the lines to see the pain and anger in this song. He raps about “bewilderment,” “heart break,” and an “anger” that “screams.” Furthermore, he is not speaking just for himself, but as the voice behind “our facial expressions,” presumably the African-Americans in the church. White people reading or hearing the rap are also drawn emotionally into the pain in the “shackled, diseased, imprisoned face.” Propaganda’s lines pierce.

The enslavement of African-Americans was a horrific and shameful evil. It remains a stain upon our national history, a sin that only the blood of Christ could cleanse away. To read of the conditions of our fellow human beings in this bondage is painful indeed. Yet, like the Holocaust and the present international atrocity of abortion, slavery must be faced in order that we may renounce it fully and strive to end all human trafficking that continues today.

His imaginary conversation with a pastor is an important reminder that this has implications for preaching and pastoral care. The moral and relational effects of slavery are multi-generational, and we should not pass lightly over the suffering experienced today by African-American citizens in America and our brothers and sisters in the church.

But Propaganda’s song does not set a good example for us. Whatever his personal views may be, his rap portrays the Puritans in a starkly negative light. Some have commented that the song really isn’t about the Puritans, but is a clever, artistic work designed to make us question ourselves and to treat no one as inerrant. We will return to this theological point in a moment, for it has value. But making that point does not justify depicting godly Christians in such a manner.

It is naïve to say that the song does not make us recoil in horror away from the picture it paints of the Puritans. Surely many people who hear the song will be moved to anger and disgust towards the Puritans and resentment towards those who quote them, unless they come to know them better. The song could create a false shame in lovers of Puritan literature, and also give ammunition to those who are eager to write off biblical and Reformed Christianity as bigotry.

Perhaps someone might object that Propaganda’s song is just historical fact. Is that true? This brings us to the second dimension of his rap.

(2) Historical Dimension.

He characterizes the Puritans as “the chaplains on slave ships”—those who “purchased people” and believed that white men bore God’s image in a way that black people don’t. He also says, “Their fore-destined salvation contains a contentment in the stage for which they were given.” These words imply that the Puritan doctrine of predestination was a weapon of oppression that taught people to be passive.

In reality, the Puritan’s doctrine of unconditional election does not foster arrogance, but instead places people on an equal playing field before God as sinners utterly dependent on unmerited grace. The biblical teaching of God’s providence does not make us passive towards wicked men, but inspires courageous activism to resist evil because we believe a sovereign God hears our prayers and is working out His plan through our efforts.

Furthermore, the Puritan view of authority and servitude contained the seeds that ultimately grew into anti-slavery doctrine. They taught that masters could not treat servants and slaves as mere property like a block of wood, but as human beings with rights. Puritans like William Gouge did believe in corporal punishment, but warned strongly against cruelty that would wound or disable people. William Perkins and the Westminster Larger Catechism also recognized that “man-stealing,” the root of slavery, was a sin condemned in Scripture (Ex. 21:16; 1 Tim. 1:10). Some Puritans opposed the Atlantic slave trade, like Jonathan Edwards. Some Puritans followed this to the logical conclusion and opposed all slavery, such as Richard Baxter and Samuel Sewall. After the Puritan era ended and slavery grew in the magnitude of its evil, heirs of the Puritans such as Jonathan Edwards, Jr., and Alexander McLeod became strong advocates of the abolition of the bondage of African-Americans.

(For specific quotations and Puritan sources, click here.)

My point is this: if we view the Puritans only through the lens of their slave ownership, then we draw a lop-sided and inaccurate picture of their character and views. Their theological system held the key to unlock the slave’s chains.

We must recognize that because of the sin and darkness that remain in the church, it takes a long time, sometimes generations, for the seeds of truth present in our theology to grow up and bear fruit in our practice. How many things will future generations see in us that will make them exclaim, “How could they tolerate that and still be godly Christians?” So we need to show a lot of grace to each other.

This brings me to the third and final aspect I want to consider in Propaganda’s rap song.

(3) Theological Dimension.

The rapper ends on a surprising note. After reflecting on his own fallibility and blind spots, he says, “So I guess it’s true. God really does use crooked sticks to make straight lines. Just like your precious puritans.” The rap has a theological point, that the sovereign God uses flawed men and women to bring goodness and truth to the world. Amen! If that were not the case I would resign from ministry today. If we did not believe in God’s sovereign grace, we would have to view the Psalms as suspect because David committed adultery and murder, and the writings of Peter as of dubious value because he denied the Lord Jesus three times. I am thankful that Propaganda made this point.

However, I believe that Propaganda’s point needs more balance. It is true that believers in Christ still have much remaining corruption. The best of us have grievous sins, whether we are talking about the seventeenth century or the twenty-first century. But we are more than “crooked sticks.” We are the saints of God. We are not hypocrites, mere pretenders wearing a Christian mask, but sincerely repentant sinners walking in the light of God. Paul thanked God for the exemplary faith, hope, and love in believers (1 Thess. 1:3, 7). He could even say, “Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1).

So while we need to be honest about the sins of our spiritual forefathers, let’s be careful not to view them or portray them as if they were nothing but sinners. Slavery is a big issue, but we should not make it the defining issue in how we view people lest we fall into another kind of idolatry. The examples and teachings of the Puritans, while not flawless, are very valuable to all who would know the living God. This is not putting someone on a pedestal, but following in the footsteps of the faithful (1 Thess. 1:5–6; 2 Tim. 3:10). The Puritans really are “precious,” not just to white people, but to all who love God and the Bible.

Flying Home from Africa

Woodcutter in Mozambique

In the next few posts I would like to return to the end of my trip to Africa, and update you as well on events since then.

The long trek home began in the back end of a large, bouncy truck, included a quick stop at a souvenir shop, where we watched three men carve figurines from beautiful, dark wood. They will spend an entire day on one piece and then be grateful to sell it for $5. The average full-time employee in Mozambique earns $4 a day or about $110 a month. Most of the shops are owned not by local people, but by the Chinese and other nationalities. You can imagine this may create some tensions.

Nampula has 400,000 people but no malls and no large stores. They did have a Shoprite Store for a few years, which was great, as the local people could then get almost everything they needed at one stop. But its owners in South Africa became suspicious that embezzlement was taking place, and before they could investigate the whole building burned to the ground.

On the flight from Nampula to Johannesburg I sat next to a white woman who grew up in Zimbabwe. She looked much older than she was. She and her husband, who are Christians, have tried to start several businesses throughout their lifetime, but all to no avail. Customers often don’t pay for services rendered. Moreover, each time they acquired a few earthly possessions, thugs broke into their home and stole it all—even down to food from the cupboard and drinks from the fridge. They have been left “penniless many times,” she said. Now they are in dire straits and pray daily for God’s provision.

To go from the poverty of Nampula to the luxury of the Johannesburg airport is a bit of a culture shock. The 17-hour overnight flight from South Africa to Washington, D.C. (with one drop down in Senegal), went well despite my exhaustion. I enjoyed editing Dr. Andrew Woolsey’s doctoral dissertation on the development of covenant theology. What a ground-breaking book this is! I am so glad that Reformation Heritage Books is going to publish it.

My flight landed three hours late in Washington D.C., so I missed my flight to Chicago. That was the beginning of a strange 10-hour saga in which I tried to get tickets to Chicago and on to GR—first, successfully; then, unsuccessfully, as my boarding passes didn’t register after all. Meanwhile, Mary called me and told me that my dear mother was dying, which made getting home all the more urgent. Finally, I got on standby to Chicago. Because the plane stayed at the gate for an extra hour to take on additional customers, I then missed my Grand Rapids connection.

All the Chicago-Grand Rapids flights were full for the remainder of the day and evening, but in God’s kindness, I managed again to get on by standby. The fact that my mother was dying did not help at all, but having “Silver Elite” status as a “frequent flyer” did, as I was put at the head of the standby list on both occasions. Had that not been the case, I would not have been able to make it home at all that day. As it was, I didn’t arrive home until 8:00 p.m. It took me 39 hours to get from Mozambique to Grand Rapids—the longest airport trek of my life. One could fly around the world in that amount of time!

Our family went straight from the airport to Kalamazoo to see my dying mother. After praying, singing, and talking, we said a second tearful goodbye, telling her that we would meet her on the other side, God willing, to spend an eternity together praising Christ. We then drove up to Grand Rapids to see Johanna Mast, who was in the same condition as my mother. After visiting with them, and working our way through pre-arrangements for a potential funeral, I finally arrived home just before midnight.