Legislating Morality: The Political Enthusiasm of Christians

On How the Law Fails and the Gospel Succeeds

This post comes to us from Johnny Walker:

Most Christians work with the assumption that their faith in Christ must have some consequence for their political lives. For many this assumption is left more or less uninterrogated and runs its course with only minimal reflection, but for some the political character of the Gospel, once discovered, becomes a matter of great enthusiasm and focus. In theology this is often seen in the eagerness with which theologians declare that the church, or some doctrine or passage of scripture, is “political,” this term being invoked with an air of satisfaction and moral seriousness. While this might surprise some who associate politics primarily with expediency and compromise (think All the Kings Men), for those who are escaping from a vision of Christianity as a solely individualistic message of how-to-get-to-heaven-when-you-die, a statement like “the Gospel is political” can carry with it a dazzling sort of grandeur.

Now, there is a temptation in this Christian enthusiasm for the political that I want to explore here, and readers of Mockingbird should not be surprised that it has something to do with the difference between the Law and the Gospel. Martin Luther thought that one of the worst things a preacher could do was to turn the Gospel into a form of the Law, transforming God’s free declaration of love and pardon to the sinner into a demand for moral performance, replacing Christ the Savior with Christ the Legislator — and with tougher laws than Moses ever dreamt of! For Luther, this was disastrous, because not only did it lock away grace and leave the guilty in despair, but it also failed to bring about any genuine moral transformation. In fact, Luther thought it was more likely to have the opposite effect.

The Law, according to Luther, doesn’t just reveal that you are a sinner; it makes you one! Either leading to despair, shameless defiance, or feverish attempts at self-justification. While it can be an effective means of compelling conformity and obedience (keeping people from killing each other), it doesn’t reach the human heart and free it for love of God and neighbor.

What does this mean for politics? Obviously, that depends on how you construe politics. Nonetheless, it should be uncontroversial to say that politics is in the business of laws. And the Apostle Paul and Luther have something important to tell us about the way laws work on human beings that we shouldn’t forget when we reflect on politics. Namely, that the Law cannot bring about true transformation of individuals or communities. The Anglican theologian Joan Lockwood O’Donovan summarizes what John Calvin, who was here following Luther, thought public laws could accomplish:

Their aim is the achievement of peace as external order, the outward harmonization of wills, the visible correction of wrongdoing and rectification of injustice, the avoidance and termination of strife. Although they may furnish the context and even the external form of correction, although they may induce fear and shame in the sinner and drive him toward repentance, they cannot of themselves bring about the inward moral regeneration, the inward reconciliation and communion of formerly antagonistic wills, promised to those who, by faith, are incorporated into Christ’s earthly body, and have available the benefits of his reconciling work.[1]

While she is here talking about human law, the impotence of human law to effect true transformation is bound up with the inability of the Law as such to bring about transformation. The Law and its use in politics does have a divinely ordained role (Rom 13) that demands honor; however, it also has limits. As Paul says,

For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Rom 8:3-4)

The point is not that we should focus on individual needs instead of communal needs, but that community itself is finally only restored through the radical encounter with God’s grace in Christ. It is as people are formed into the body of Christ, knit together by his Spirit, that a community of more than just external conformity can be achieved — rather, one of shared conviction and participation in the love of God and God’s creation. The enthusiasm to exchange the Gospel for political currency leaves us with nothing but legal tools to shape our common life, legal tools that are by nature alienating even if necessary. So while Christians should certainly be about the task of pursuing a more just political society, we must avoid confusing this political task with the proclamation of the Gospel, unless we wish to turn Christ once more into a Legislator — a new, progressive Moses!

No law, no matter how prudent, compassionate, or divine, can provide the basis for a community that is genuinely of one heart and mind, where love rules freely and without coercion. The Gospel alone can do this, for the Gospel alone can renew the human heart, setting us free from an existence centered on ourselves and preoccupied with our own justification.

The Gospel, in placing us in communion with Christ and granting us all the riches of his life, brings us into the renewed community that is his body. This is a community founded not by Law, but by the grace of Christ that comes apart from the Law — a community animated not by social pressure or punitive threats, but by the irresistible love of God “poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Rom 5:5).

[1] Joan Lockwood O’Donovan, “Human Dignity and Human Justice: Thinking with Calvin about the Imago Dei,Tyndale Bulletin 66.1 (2015), 134-135.

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One response to “Legislating Morality: The Political Enthusiasm of Christians”

  1. NHE says:

    really good

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