The first book I ever read by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones was his classic preaching text Preaching and Preachers. Since reading that book I have read his expositions of Scripture for most of my Christian life and have listened to every recording of him I could get my hands on (there are not many). A short time ago, I picked up his Living Water: Studies in John 4 and I was shocked at how much he had to say about racism and the gospel (you can read that here). My curiosity about what else Lloyd-Jones said about Christians and social engagement led me to his lecture “The French Revolution and After,” that he gave at The Westminster Conference in 1975. The lecture was later published in the volume The Christian and the State in Revolutionary Times containing all of the lectures from the conference.
The lecture provided what I believe to be an almost perfect balance for Christians to think about their life as a citizen of the Kingdom of heaven and a citizen of a particular nation-state. Lloyd-Jones warns against both political disengagement and the type of political engagement that places too much hope in the political system and political change. Balance is not a popular word in our hyper-tribal politically ubiquitous social media saturated culture that demands blind defense of one’s own tribe on all issues and the at-all-cost annihilation of any and all who represent any other tribe.
It seems that any public comment a Christian makes today regarding a social/political issue results in social media gangs declaring the Christian to be a member of one of three stereotypical groups: (1) The America is Christian Zion, wrap the cross in the flag crowd (2) The who cares about politics and social justice, it’s like wasting time rearranging chairs on the Titanic crowd or (3) The liberal Social Justice Warrior Christian Marxist crowd. The question for the social media gangs is not if you are defined by one of these camps, the only question is which one they decide that you represent. Of course, few Christians are actually defined by any of these caricatures, but for some, there is no time for any kind of nuance because then you’d be losing time that would be better served vilifying the other camps.
Below, I add my own headings in an attempt to provide some structure to Lloyd-Jones thoughts about Christians, the church, politics, and social justice from his lecture. Under the headings are direct quotes from the lengthy and insightful Lloyd-Jones lecture. I find his thoughts helpfully instructive and perhaps you will as well.
The Discussion of the Role of the Church in Society and Politics Demands Humility
I must add, immediately, that it is equally clear, surely, from the study we have been making that we all tend to be creatures of our times and much of our thinking is conditioned by the age in which we live. (101)
We are not merely to be gramophone records of anyone he who has lived in the past however august he may have been. That seems to me to be another inevitable conclusion. (101)
A State Church is a Curse that Only Harms Both the State and the Church
Perhaps the thing that stands out the most prominently is that what has be-devilled this whole question, and caused the greatest confusion throughout the centuries, has been the idea of a State Church. That has been the greatest curse in the history of the church and of the world! … I suggest that this association between church and state has been responsible for many of the greatest calamities, directly, and also because of the violent reactions they have produced. (101)
Christians Must be Concerned about Personal Salvation and a Christian Worldview
The Christian is not only to be concerned about personal salvation. It is his duty to have a complete view of life as taught in the Scriptures. (101)
Another general remark at this point is that a lack of political and social concern on the part of Christians can very definitely alienate people from the Gospel and the church. (106)
If we give the impression that we have no concern about political and social matters we shall alienate people; and I suggest that we have done so, and so the masses are outside the church. (107)
Social Justice is a Gospel Issue for Christians, Social Respectability is Not
The first is that we must never allow ourselves as Christians to be thought of as merely defenders of the status quo. I put that first because historically it has been the greatest danger. (101-102)
[Wesley and Whitefield] were both horrified at the possibility of rebellion in America, and we have to confess that the record of Whitefield as regards slavery was very poor indeed. How human and fallible we are! Many also in America who from 1773 to 1776 and after spoke and fought so strongly for their own liberty as against England and the oppression that England was guilty of, did not seem to see that the same applied to the poor black slaves whom they continued to buy and sell and to employ for nearly a hundred years afterwards. This shows the limits of human understanding. (102)
For some strange reason one of the greatest temptations to a man who becomes a Christian is to become respectable. When he becomes a Christian he also tends to make money; and if he makes money, he wants to keep that money, and resents the suggestion that he should share that money with others by means of taxation etc. Looking at history it seems to me that one of the greatest dangers confronting the Christian is to become a political conservative, and an opponent of legitimate reform, and the legitimate rights of people. (103)
Are evangelicals in the United States clear in this respect in their attitude to the colored people? I have met some who base their whole attitude toward the colored people on the fact that the latter are the descendants of Ham. These are serious matters in a revolutionary age. Without our desiring to do so we can be jockeyed into a position in which we are regarded as merely defenders and advocates of the status quo…. So, the impression has gained currency that to be a Christian, and more especially an evangelical, means that we are traditionalists, and advocates of the status quo. I believe this largely accounts for our failure in this country to make contact with the so-called working classes. Christianity in this country has become a middle-class movement; and I suggest that is so because of this very thing. (103)
So in many countries today the Christian can do nothing but indulge in passive resistance, and he must continue in that until the point arrives that his government tries to interfere with his relationship to God, or his worship of God. His resistance must then become an active resistance. But should he live in a country where a large number of people are agreed about reform and improvement, and that seems possible, I would say that it is his duty to join them and belong to them. (109)
Social and Political Engagement Will Not Grow the Church or Christianize Society
I hasten to add, on the other hand, that a demonstration of great interest in political and social matters never succeed in attracting people to Christianity…. I well remember certain men who were concerned about social and political matters, and who constantly preached on such things, and packed their chapels for a while, but only as long as they preached politics. The moment they began to preach the gospel truly the crowds and left them. Politically-minded people are always ready to make use of the church, but they always abandon and shun her when she ceases to be of any value to them. (106)
On the other hand, if we think we are going to fill our churches and solve our problems by preaching politics and taking an interest in social matters we are harboring a very great delusion. (107).
The world can never be reformed. Never! That is absolutely certain. A Christian state is impossible. All the experiments have failed. They had to fail. They must fail. The apocalypse alone can cure the world ills. Man even at his best, even as a Christian, can never do so. You can never make people Christian by acts of Parliament. You can never Christianize society. It is folly to attempt to do so. I would even suggest that it is heresy to do so. Man must be “born again.” How can they live the Christian life if they have not become Christians? Good fruit can only come from a good tree, a good root; and the idea that you can impose a Christian life or culture upon non-Christian people is a contradiction of Christian teaching.
Nevertheless, government and law and order are essential because man is in sin; and the Christian should be the best citizen in the country. But as all are sinful, reform is legitimate and desirable. The Christian must act as a citizen, and play his part in politics and other matters in order to get the best possible conditions. But we must always remember that politics is the art of the possible; and so the Christian must remember as he begins that he can only get the possible. Because he is a Christian he must work for the best possible and be content with that which is less than fully Christian. (108)
No Christian Should Ever Pin Their Ultimate Hopes on Politics or Social Transformation
The Christian must never get excited about reform, or about political action…. I would argue that the Christian must of necessity have a profoundly pessimistic view of life in this world. Man is “in sin” and therefore you will never have a perfect society. The coming of Christ alone is going to produce that. The Christian not only does not get excited, he never pins his hopes to acts of Parliament, or any reform or any improvement. He believes in improvement, but he never pins hope in it, he never gets excited or over-enthusiastic; still less does he become fanatical or bigoted about these matters. (108)
So the Christian is left with this profound pessimism with regard to the present, but with a glorious optimism with regard to the ultimate and the eternal future. (109)
“What is your life? It is but a vapor.” “In this tabernacle we do groan being burdened,” and we shall continue to do so until the king comes, and “the kingdoms of this world shall have become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ.” (110)
[D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “The French Revolution and After,” The Christian and the State in Revolutionary Times, published by The Westminster Conference 1975, 94-110.]