Who Will Stop the Killing?

Law enforcement officials investigate a mass shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, on Sunday, Nov. 5, 2017. NICK WAGNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

This past Lord’s Day (Nov 5) a (non-Islamic) terrorist walked into an unassuming country church. Armed with a Ruger AR-556 (or AR-8515?) rifle, he murdered 26 persons and injured an additional 20. He killed or wounded nearly everyone present that morning. This happened only one month after another (non-Islamic) terrorist unloaded into a sea of persons attending a country music concert in Las Vegas, killing 58 and wounding over 600. On and on the list goes and on and on these examples will continue. We have become numb to mass murder, but we must cry out “who will stop the killing?”

I have seen comments from other Christian pastors on this subject. They say that the true problem is spiritual. The source of our national sickness finds its source in the sinful heart of mankind. “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse – who can understand it?” (Jer 17:9). They conclude that the solution is therefore not political or sociological. Only repentance toward God and faith in Jesus Christ can take away our hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh, wherein God’s law is inscribed on our hearts through the power of the Holy Spirit. Wars and violence will continue to the end of the age. At long last King Jesus will return and usher in universal peace and righteousness. Swords will be beaten into plowshares and violence will be no more.

At first blush this seems like a good Christian answer. It is true that violence springs from the evil within the human heart. It is true also that utopian dreams and the perfection of human society will elude us this side of heaven. Finally, it is true that the shooter Devin Kelly was an outspoken atheist (and ex-Christian) that surrendered to his nihilistic beliefs. The error is the fatalistic attitude that suggests there is nothing anyone can do other than to pray and point sinners to Jesus.

The suggestion that American gun violence is an exclusively spiritual problem that requires an exclusively spiritual solution is an implicit denial of fundamental Christian doctrine. All Christian traditions affirm this teaching. In Protestant circles we refer to this teaching as the first (Lutheran) or second (Reformed) use of the moral law.

In Reformed dogmatics we distinguish three uses of the moral law. The first is the theological use, wherein God’s law is our taskmaster that exposes our sin, convicts us of our guilt and drives us to Jesus in order to find grace and forgiveness (Rom 3:19-20; Gal 3:23-24). The third use of the law is the rule of obedience for the Christian. In the knowledge that we are loved by God as his children, we are motivated by love and gratitude to obey God’s commandments (John 14:21; Rom 8:4). What then is the second use of the law?

The second use of the law is the civil use. A function of the moral law is to act as an external restraint on sin. This use of the law is directed to the impenitent who give no thought to God and who would rush headlong in violating the life and liberty of others apart from this external restraint. The restraining use of the law is St. Paul’s emphasis in 1 Tim 1:9, where he teaches that the law is given “for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful.”

There are two interlocking concepts that comprise our view of the second use of the law. The first concept is that God reveals his moral law universally and immediately in the human conscience (Rom 2:14-15). Our consciences, which accuse us when we sin and excuse us when we do right, are a gift of God by virtue of our being created in God’s image. Although we have been corrupted by sin and no longer retain original righteousness, yet the vestiges of a properly working conscience remains. Even so, we are able to suppress the truth and harden our consciences, thereby giving ourselves over to evil.

The second concept is that God has given to us civil government for the express purpose of restraining evil and promoting good in the body politic. God has ordained the human institutions of government “to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right” (1 Pet 2:14). We know that all human government is corrupt and ineffective in greater and lesser degrees, and yet God’s purpose in civil government has not completely failed. The Roman state in the days of the apostles was characterized by gross corruptions and miscarriages of justice, yet St. Paul could still say, “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad,” and “For it is God’s servant for your good” and again, “for the authority does not bear the sword in vain!” (Rom 13:3, 4).

An emphasis of the Protestant Reformation was the honorable vocation of the public servant. The Reformers affirmed the temporal authority of government, and the magisterial duty before God in supporting the rights of the poor, restraining the ambition of the wealthy, and maintaining law and order, so that the life and liberty of all may be protected.

“Believe in Jesus” is the answer to the question, “what must I do to be saved?” When Christians suggest that “Jesus” is the answer to any and every question they descend into self-parody. They are like the child in Sunday School Student who thought Jesus was the answer to the question, “what has a bushy tail, lives in trees and stores acorns for the winter?” Even the historical antinomians affirmed the civil use of the law.

Our sin problem does find the final and ultimate solution in Jesus. But God has also given us temporal tools useful in restraining civil crimes like murder. Therefore, our sin problem is partially sociological and technocratic. An international comparison of social sins like murder, suicide, violence, theft, and abortion is illuminating. The uncomfortable fact is that the American gun violence is a perverse form of American exceptionalism when compared against other wealthy nations.

There can be no doubt that there are public policies that will significantly reduce murder rates in the United States. There is doubt, however, as to which policies will be most effective. Christians need to weigh the evidence and debate these matters. Those who are dismissive of such discussions claiming that “Jesus is the answer” are without a theological leg to stand on.

Are there gun safety measures that will save lives, or is the problem that too few people are packing at all times? Is the problem that we do not invest enough in mental health care? Or, do we have too much care in the form of over prescribed psychotropic drugs? Is gun violence related to a love for shoot-em-up video games and violent movies? This is unlikely, but there are some who take up that argument.

Christian theologians do not necessarily have the answer to gun violence or the other social ills. As it turns out, the Bible was written before guns were invented. But, as fellow citizens, it is good and right that Christians think carefully about social sins and their temporal remedies, even as we point to Jesus as the only, ultimate, and final solution.

Racism is Heresy

At the 2017 assembly of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in America overwhelmingly adopted an uncompromising resolution that condemned the ideology of the Alt-Right (= white ethno-nationalism) together with “every form of racism.” It is a resolution with which we are in full agreement.

The Southern Baptists have adopted anti-racist resolutions in years past as part of an effort to distance themselves from the sins of their denominational forefathers. The most current resolution, however, is a response to the alarming resurgence of “blood and soil” nationalism. What is most notable about the SBC resolution is that it condemns racism as a theological heresy that is contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is exactly right.

Racism and ethno-nationalism is a theological heresy that contradicts both the doctrine of creation and the doctrine of redemption. Moreover, these two themes are not separate; they are woven together. Central to the Christian worldview is the doctrine of the unity of the human race. All peoples on earth are traced back to two parents who were the special creation of God (Gen 2:7, 21-24). St. Paul found it necessary to teach Gentiles the proper doctrine of creation in preparation for the gospel message. “From one ancestor he made all nations” (Acts 17:26). Furthermore, God created this single human race “in his own image” (Gen 1:27), in true righteousness and holiness with dominion over creation. Even though sin has robbed us of this original righteousness, yet God’s image in humanity remains the basis for the universal dignity and respect (life and liberty) owed to all peoples regardless of ethnicity, religion, or even morality (James 3:9-10). God’s love for all peoples is the reason he sent the reluctant Jonah to the capital of Assyria, hated by all for their incredible cruelty. In the story the Lord asks the incredulous prophet, “Should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left?” (A reference to little children, 4:11).

It is often supposed that ancient Israel was an ethno-state that guarded racial purity. The facts are otherwise. When God brought Israel out of Egypt, it was already an ethnically mixed multitude (Ex 12:38). Diverse converts stood before Joshua, together with Abraham’s biological descendants and took the vows of the covenant (Josh 8:33). According to the law, all resident foreigners in Israel could become full-fledged Israelites by adopting the covenant (Ex 12:48; Num 15:14-16; Isa 14:1; 56:3-7). Ezekiel says, “You are to consider them [Gentile-converts] as native-born Israelites” (Ezek 47:22). There are a number of discrete examples of this. Moses married a Cushite (Ethiopian), Zipporah (Ex 2:22). Rahab was Canaanite (Josh 6:25). Ruth was Moabite, and she was also the great grandmother of King David! (Ruth 4:17). One of King David’s most faithful men was Uriah the Hittite (famously the first husband of Bathsheba).

Even those who were not citizens, who were resident foreigners, were owed both justice and love. “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Lev 19:33-34). Note that the logic of redemption is woven into the commandment. This becomes a major theme in the Law and Prophets. Minorities are held up as persons of special concern to God. Since a resident alien is more likely to be poor, they are particularly vulnerable to exploitation, scapegoating, prejudice and injustice. Therefore, they are grouped together with the orphans and widows as the center of focus for the obligation of social justice (Ex 22:21; 23:9; Lev 23:22; 25:35; Deut 10:18-19; 16:11-14; 24:17, 19-21; 26:12; 27:19; Ps 94:6; 144:7; 146:9; Jer 7:6; 22:3; Ezek 22:7; 22:29; Zech 7:10; Mal 3:5).

God’s command for compassion toward minority peoples is grounded in Israel’s corporate experience of once being an oppressed minority in Egypt. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob also lived as sojourners in a foreign land. This has continued relevance for the Christian. Christians are often a maligned minority. Peter writes his letter to “elect exiles of the Dispersion” (1 Pet 1:1). Majority culture Christians can easily lose this perspective. Yet, concern for the marginalized was central to Jesus’ ethical teaching.

What does it mean to love your neighbor as yourself? The rich young ruler wanted to justify himself with a narrow definition of “neighbor.” The first century Roman Empire was a society brimming with racial pride. Identity politics were strong on all sides. The Jews had a dim view of Samaritans. They would not eat with them, speak with them or travel through their towns. Therefore, Jesus tells his parable of the Good Samaritan. A man robbed and beaten lay on the side of the road. A priest passes by without assisting. A Levite passes by without assisting. But a Samaritan saw him and had compassion and helped him. “Which of these three do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” The one who showed mercy. Jesus concluded, “You go, and do likewise.” It is clear, then, that Jesus teaches an unbound definition of the word “neighbor.” By no means may our empathy and concern be limited to our ethnic group (Luke 10:29-37).

When Jesus traveled to Jerusalem and witnessed the way that the Court of the Gentiles had been turned into a market, he overturned the tables in righteous anger. He appealed to Isaiah 56:7 saying, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations” (Mark 11:17). Rather than acting as a light to the nations, the religious leaders placed impediments in the way of Gentiles that discouraged them from coming to know the one God that created the world and all people in it.

On a hillside in Galilee Jesus commissioned his disciples. “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:19). It was clear that the Christian religion could not be limited to any one nation. In its essence it is an international, multi-cultural religion. But this didn’t answer the question of how Christ’s one church was to operate when various ethnic groups exist within close proximity. This became a stumbling block for the early church.

The Christian movement began first in Jerusalem. Then it spread into Samaria. These churches were culturally homogenous. But then the Apostle Peter received his strange vision where God commanded him to eat every form of non-kosher animal (Acts 10-11). When Peter protested, God’s answer was, that which God has declared to be “clean” must not be considered “unclean.” As Peter was pondering the meaning of this vision, messengers from a Roman Centurion named Cornelius came to fetch him. Cornelius had also seen a vision where God instructed him to seek out Simon Peter. Peter traveled to meet Cornelius, preached the gospel to him, and he believed. Those who were with Peter were amazed that the gift of the Holy Spirit was given “even on the Gentiles.” When news of this spread it scandalized the Jewish Christians. They accused Peter of defiling himself by eating with the uncircumcised. Peter defended his actions by relaying the whole story, and then concluded “The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us” (Acts 11:12).

The unity of Christ’s one church requires that we work to tear down ethnic boundaries. This was a hard lesson for the early church. This was a hard lesson for Peter! The first truly multi-ethnic church was in Antioch. Jews and Gentiles were united to form a single church. They ate meals together and shared life together. Peter was among them. But then men from Jerusalem came to observe the work and they were scandalized by such race-mixing. For fear of offending his brothers Peter withdrew from eating with the Gentiles and adopted a separate-but-equal policy. Even Paul’s missionary companion, Barnabas, was drawn into this hypocrisy. The Apostle Paul fiercely rebuked Peter to his face. “Their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel” (Gal 2:14). If it were not for Paul’s radical leadership, the Christian church would have become segregated from the beginning. This would also be an implicit denial of the gospel. For “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:29).

Paul paints a picture of God’s people as an olive tree. Wild branches are grafted onto this one tree. This represents Jews and Gentiles from all over the world who believe in the one Gospel, who have received the same Holy Spirit and who are united in Christ’s one church (Rom 11:17-24). In another place Paul teaches that Gentiles are by nature alienated from God, without hope and without Christ in the world. But Jesus has torn down the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile; he calls people far and near, and brings all peoples into the covenants of promise. In Christ we are reconciled to God and reconciled to one another. “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph 2:11-22).

It is incumbent upon Christians to work in order to better express our unity. This includes standing up for the dignity of all of God’s image bearers, tearing down racial barriers, and standing up for justice. Because of the persistence of indwelling sin, we will only achieve imperfect unity on earth. One thing is for certain: all of God’s people will be perfectly united in heaven. “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tries and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Rev 5:9-10). We are a Revelation 5:9 church and we condemn racism as heretical.

Encourage One Another With God’s Abounding Grace

“Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.” (Romans 5:20).

Often Scripture exhorts us to encourage one another with the Gospel. This does not mean that we do not also encourage people by rebuke; rather that for the repenting Christian, the Gospel of grace has last word. Paul describes to the Thessalonians the Christian hope of our resurrection and writes, “For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing” (5:9-11).

We have a remarkable pastoral example from the pen of Martin Luther who was encouraging his friend George Spalatin, who, for political reasons, had approved of an immoral marriage, became convicted of his sin and refused to receive any comfort. Luther concurs that Spalatin actions were an affront to God.

Luther then counsels his friend,

“Listen to the blessed consolation which the Lord offers you by the prophet Ezekiel, who says, chapt. 33,11: ‘As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live.’ Do you imagine that only in your case the Lord’s hand is shortened? Is. 59, 1. Or has He in your case alone forgotten to be gracious and shut up His tender mercies? Ps. 77, 10. Or are you the first man to aggravate his sin so awfully that henceforth there is no longer a High Priest who can be touched with the feeling of our infirmities? Heb. 4,15. … It seems to me, my dear Spalatin, that you have still but a limited experience in battling against sin, and evil conscience, the Law, and the terrors of death. Or Satan has removed from your vision and memory every consolation which you have read in the Scriptures… Or it must surely be that heretofore you have been only a trifling sinner, conscious only of paltry and insignificant faults and frailties. … Therefore my faithful request and admonition is that you join our company and associate with us, who are real, great, and hard-boiled sinners. You must by no means make Christ to seem paltry and trifling to us, as though He could be our Helper only when we want to be rid from imaginary, nominal, and childish sins. No, no! That would not be good for us. He must rather be a Savior and redeemer from real, great, grievous, and damnable transgressions and iniquities, yea, from the very greatest and most shocking sins; to be brief, from all sins added together in a grand total. … Aha! You want to be a painted sinner and, accordingly, expect to have in Christ a painted Savior. You will have to get used to the belief that Christ is a real Savior and you a real sinner. For God is neither jesting nor dealing in imaginary affairs, but He was greatly and most assuredly in earnest when He sent His own Son into the world and sacrificed Him for our sakes.”

With these and many other remarks Luther encourages his friend to look to the glorious promises of the Gospel, which offers real forgiveness for real sinners by a real Savior.