When Politics Predominates

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When the church is a political actor, the gospel doesn’t have the final word.

Among the many great insights of C. F. W. Walther’s The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel is his counsel to preachers that the gospel must predominate in every sermon. Scripture is the manger that holds Christ. We can’t forget to preach the law because it’s the thing that leads us to him. The law’s work of judgment and condemnation hands us over to the Christ, who saves us from sin and death. The work of the law is not the last and final thing but is always penultimate – awaiting its end and fulfillment in the gospel.

Politics is provisional. It belongs in the old world in which sin, death, and the devil reign.

The gospel must predominate because it is the destination, endpoint, and conclusion of the story of Scripture. The work of the law is provisional. If the law predominates in preaching, sinners will either be confirmed in their self-righteousness or left in despair over their failure to achieve what the law demands.

The fact that the gospel must predominate shapes how Christians should engage with politics, and for Americans, this fact is especially relevant right now, having just endured yet another election season. The gospel and politics aren’t the same thing – even though we are frequently tempted to confuse them. The predominance of the gospel means that politics must be put in its proper place because it belongs to the work of the law. Politics is provisional. It belongs in the old world in which sin, death, and the devil reign. God works through various political arrangements (see Rom. 13:1–7), to be sure. But the allure of politics is hard to resist because the law is always a temptation for the old Adam.

When politics predominates in the church’s preaching, the law gets the last word. To live well in the old age under the power of sin, we require the law’s discipline. Yet the law is not the final word God has to speak, and so it must yield to the proclamation of the gospel.

When the church is a political actor, the gospel doesn’t have the final word.

Two temptations have usually attended Christian engagement with politics throughout the history of the church. On the one hand, Christendom united the political and the spiritual such that the church and the state operate hand in glove. The church implicates itself with worldly, political purposes. But as the Lutheran reformers correctly observe, the priest who administers the forgiveness of sins cannot also be judge, jury, and executioner. The two kingdoms – church and state – have discreet authorities (both from God) but must be distinguished. When the church is a political actor, the gospel doesn’t have the final word.

Christendom has problems that run in the other direction as well when the state implicates itself with spiritual purposes. When the law is conceived of as the means of moral improvement, then politics and salvation are united. Human social life no longer concerns the management of sin in a fallen world, as God intends for politics. Rather, it becomes the means by which people acquire the virtues that will be completed in the future heavenly life. The gospel is subordinated to the law when politics is united to salvation.

Things aren’t much better when the church and the political realm are separated. Here, the church becomes an alternative society to all worldly politics. There is much that is appealing about withdrawing completely and setting up a church society all its own. But here again, the church becomes a political agent by crafting a uniquely Christian culture and way of life apart from the state. The church again exercises political authority but simply does so by creating its own government apart from secular authority. The predominance of the gospel fares no better when the solution to Christendom is for the church to withdraw from the earthly realm.

Christians should therefore have modest aspirations for political ends. The state’s purpose is to manage sin and promote virtue, but it will never achieve a perfect society. Human fellowship will not, in this life, arrive at the heavenly reality that awaits. Human political arrangements will inevitably be imperfect, fallen, and corrupt – despite being institutions ordained by God for imperfect justice and penultimate human flourishing.

But to make the proper distinction between law and gospel, the church must preach the law to lead sinners to Christ. The church doesn’t wield the sword or manipulate the state to achieve desirable outcomes – however admirable they might be. The church preaches judgment against sin to bring repentance; the state exercises judgment to restrain sin and make life livable for the time being. Only in this case does the gospel get the last word.