A Root of All Kinds of Evil

2 Kings 5:19-27

Wouldn’t you like to be rich? Of course you would. Doesn’t everybody? But before you make your millions there’s something you should know: “Those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs” (1 Tim 6:9-10).

Elisha’s attendant Gehazi is a great illustration of this principle. Gehazi had great advantages. He was the chief companion of the prophet Elisha. He helped deliver God’s message to his people. He was an eye-witness to God’s resurrection power when Elisha raised the Shunammite’s son from the dead. He saw the regenerating power of God’s grace when Naaman washed in the Jordan and was cleansed from his leprosy. He had these great advantages, but he was seduced by the desire to get rich. He did exactly what the Apostle Paul wrote about. He fell into temptation and a snare and into many foolish and harmful desires. In his eagerness for money he wandered from the faith and pierced himself with many griefs. 

The most piercing grief was God’s judgment pronounced by Elisha. “The leprosy of Naaman shall cling to you and to your descendants forever.” The joy of Naaman’s cleansing is contrasted with the agony of Gehazi’s sickness. It invites us to consider how it is that we respond to God’s grace in his promise to cleanse us of our sin. 

  1. Rationalizing Sin/Greed

The first thing we want to note is the danger of rationalizing greed. We can also think of it more generally as ways that we rationalize sin. Naaman had traveled from Syria to Israel so that Elisha could cure his leprosy. Once he was restored, Naaman wanted to give Elisha a reward. 750 pounds of silver, 150 pounds of gold, and ten garments. Elisha refused to accept even one coin from Naaman and the two men parted ways. 

The offer of the reward money planted the seed of covetousness in Gehazi’s mind. The more he turned it over in his mind the more he was convinced that Elisha had bungled things. How could he turn down the riches of Syria? Think of all the good we could do with that money! That old prophet has his head in the clouds – was never very good with the practical things. Sure he raised the dead, but he can’t read a balance sheet! 

So when Naaman had gone only a short distance he determined to run after him. We get a snippet of his inner thoughts. He said to himself “See, my master has let that Aramean, Naaman off too lightly, by not accepting what he offered.” What is he doing here? “That Aramean” is a racist label. It was a way to dehumanize Naaman. Don’t see him as an individual. Certainly don’t see him as your neighbor. See him only as a foreigner. The implication is that if he were a neighbor then you would be obligated to have a care for his financial well being. Dehumanizing is an essential step in greed because greed is the desire to possess something at the expense of others.

The second rationalization is the idea that Naaman got off “too lightly.” This is an appeal to fairness. It’s not fair that this foreigner should be rich while I am poor. It wouldn’t be wrong if I got his money – after all I deserve it more than he does. This is the lie that Gehazi tells himself. The third rationalization is found in his oath: “as the Lord lives.” He cloaks his greed in religious language as a way to sanctify it. He makes appeal to God’s name, but his attitude is that of contempt for the free grace of God. This Syrian shouldn’t get something for nothing. It’s not fair! If Jesus had appeared before him he would have said “why are you envious just because I am generous. Is it not my right to heal this poor man without it being a market transaction?” 

These three rationalizations all attempt to make greed into a virtue. The movie Wall Street was a seminal film of the 80s. The high point of the movie was Gordon Gekko’s speech “Greed is good.” Greed is what makes the world turn. It is the grease in the wheels of the economy. But it is not true. Progress is made only insofar as we are able to yoke human ambition with the good of others. Bernie Madoff’s fifty-billion dollar Ponzi scheme, the Wall Street collapse, the AIG scandal, and the bursting of the housing bubble – all built on the unbridled greed of investors and lenders – and a thousand other examples that increase by the day – illustrate ways that greed diminishes prosperity. This is why in the Bible greed consistently makes the short list for the worst sins. 

“Every man for himself” can become greed disguised as the American dream. It is not freedom; it is selfishness unleashed. A person who is consumed by greed becomes utterly fixated on the object of his greed. Life in all its richness and complexity is reduced to little more than a quest to accumulate and hoard as much as possible of whatever it is that he craves. Even though he has met his every reasonable need and more, he is unable to adapt and reformulate his drives and desires. 

The 20th century psychologist Abraham Maslow observed that humans have a hierarchy of needs. At the bottom of our needs pyramid is our most primal needs for food, rest and health. Next comes the needs for safety, shelter and stability. Only at the top of the pyramid do we turn our thoughts toward development, the meaning of life, and the deeper spiritual issues. The problem with greed is that it grounds us on the lower two levels and prevents us from experiencing the higher joys of life. Greed prevents us from communing with ourselves and with God. Greed is a form of idolatry that forsakes the love of God for the love of the self and of material things, and forsakes the eternal for the temporary.

2. Greed Ensnares in a Web of Sin

The second lesson here is that greed ensnares in a web of sin. Again, we think of Paul’s warning: that the love of money is a root of all kinds of [other] evil. As soon as Gehazi gave in to greed, he started telling lies and more lies. As soon as Naaman noticed someone running after him he stopped to meet him and said “Is all well?” Literally, he asked him whether there was still “shalom” – peace. Gehazi said there was, although we know that there was no peace in his heart. Gehazi then began to fabricate a false story. “My master has sent me to say, “There have just now come to me from the hill country… two young men of the sons of the prophets. Please give them a talent of silver and two changes of clothing.” 

This story was clever. It explained everything, including Elisha’s sudden change of mind. Elisha doesn’t need the money for himself, but so that he can host visitors. It also plucked at the heartstrings: how could he refuse to support a couple of seminary students in need of financial aid? He also based his lie on Elisha’s credibility. Gehazi is careful also to not be too greedy. Naaman was generous and had been prepared to offer ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten changes of clothes. Gehazi wanted only one talent of silver and a pair of clothes. Naaman bought the story. “Have two talents of silver!” I can imagine Gehazi acting modest. “Oh, two is too much… although it might come in handy… Okay, Naaman, only because you insist.” 

Once Gehazi got the goods, he told yet another lie. This time the lie was a cover-up: “When he came to the hill, he took [the silver] from their hand and put them in the house, and sent the men away, and they departed. That way, no one would ever know where the money and clothes had come from. Or so he thought. 

One imagines that Gehazi must have been out of breath when he came back to Elisha. Chasing after the chariot, running back to his house to hide his loot, and meeting up with Elisha to act as if nothing was up. “Where have you been, Gehazi?” Elisha asked. “I haven’t [pant], you know, [pant] been anywhere.” Where have you been, Gehazi? “Ummm, I’ve, ahhh, been here and there.” “Where have you been?” “Your servant went nowhere.” 

By this point Gehazi was so committed to his sin that lying seemed like his only option. “Those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare.” Gehazi was trapped in his web of lies: Fabrication, deception, cover-up, and false denial. He was boxed in by his deception on every side. 

Seeing his lies exposed reminds us to be honest in everything we say or do. This starts by seeing our deception for what it is. Every time we speak untruth, every time we hide a sin, every time we exaggerate for personal advantage, we show ourselves to be aligned with the one who was a liar from the beginning. 

Truth is one of the marks of the Christian. We are called to be true because our God is true. His Word is truth. His Son is true. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Truth. If we are in the true God, then we should be true people. We are not like Pilate who exclaimed “what is truth!” We are saved and sanctified by the truth. Therefore, we ought to speak and live the truth.  

Deception is a common outcome of greed, as is envy and spite. Greed is also associated with negative emotional states such as stress, exhaustion, anxiety, depression, and despair, and with behaviors such as gambling, hoarding, trickery, and theft. By overcoming reason, compassion, and love, greed undoes family and community ties and undermines the very values on which society is founded. 

3. Greed/sin leads to self destruction 

The third lesson is that the sin of greed leads to self-destruction. There is an obscure verse in Numbers. It says, “Your sin will find you out” (32:23). We can often hide our sin. We can run from it’s consequences. But it will at some point catch up with you. For Gehezi judgment came sooner rather than later. 

Here was a man who was the disciple of the prophet Elisha. He witnessed the power of God. Yet he was greedy. He was a liar and a thief. He dishonored Elisha by including him in his lie. He blasphemed God because he committed these sins in the name of the Lord when he swore the oath: “as the Lord lives.” But this complex of events revealed his true heart. In his heart he despised the grace of God and in his greed he sold out the gospel. 

The lesson here is very similar to two other stories in the New Testament. The tragedy of Gehazi is very similar to Judas. Judas was one of the 12 disciples. He had his share in their ministry. He also witnessed miracles. Perhaps he even performed some himself! He also was greedy and pilfered from the treasury. Ultimately he revealed the full extent of his corruption when betrayed his Lord for 30 pieces of silver. Although enjoying close proximity with Jesus for several years he revealed himself as a “son of perdition.” Likewise, we are reminded of Ananias and Sapphira. They were among the first Christians. Perhaps they had seen the resurrected Christ. If not, they at least personally knew the eye-witnesses. In a combination of greed and the desire to be perceived as generous, they sold a property, kept back some of the proceeds, but they lied to Peter by claiming that they donated 100%. Peter said, you have not lied to me but to the Holy Spirit. Satan has filled your heart. And God’s judgment fell on them immediately.    

There is a form of counterfeit faith, where one is in close proximity with the Church of Jesus Christ, and they may be members of a visible church, but in their hearts they have denied the gospel. Paul writes “The work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done.” Again he writes that God, “will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive commendation from God.” 

The main lesson of this chapter is about God’s grace in the healing of Naaman. It is about how wide his grace is, reaching all the nations of the world. it is about how powerful God’s grace is, cleansing the most defiled. It is about how free grace is. Naaman came to Israel carrying half the treasury of Syria, but Elisha refused to take even a single shekel in exchange for the free gift of God’s grace.

The Spirit of God had revealed to Elisha every thing Gehazi had done. But of all the sins that Elisha could have mentioned, he singled out Gehazi’s timing. “Is this the time?” Is this the time, when Naaman had just experienced the cleansing power of God’s grace? Is this the time, when a sinner has received the free grace of the gospel? 

In saying this, Elisha was doing something more than rebuking Gehazi for poor timing; he was condemning the man for selling out the gospel. How could Naaman learn that God’s grace is free if he had to pay for it? How could he understand that God’s grace is not for sale when Gehazi was trying to shake him down? 

Gehazi had been careful to not ask for too much. But according to Elisha, he might as well have asked for the entire fortune, because once we add anything to God’s free gift, it is no longer a free gift. 

Because his greed stood against God’s grace, the man sold out the gospel. His chilling punishment shows how jealous God is of his grace. When it comes to the gift of salvation, how could God take anything less than full credit? He is the one who designed the plan of salvation. He is the one who sent his Son to die on the cross for sinners and sent his Spirit to grant us the gift of faith. 

The religions of the world always try to add something to the grace of God. And some forms of Christianity also add works to grace as the grounds for justification before God. The true and living God – who offers cleansing for sin only through the death and resurrection of his Son – exercises a holy jealousy over his grace. 

Gehazi’s apostasy was the ultimate logical consequence of his greed. He set himself against the character of God, presenting him as a taker rather than a giver. But the Father gave his only Son for our Salvation, the Son gave up his heavenly glory to die for our sins, and the Holy Spirit gives us the free gift of eternal life. If this is true, then how can anyone who has received the free gift of his grace be greedy to “get something?” Should we not rather look for every opportunity to give of ourselves, so that other people can experience the gifts that flow from our gratitude for the grace of God? In this way we follow the example of Christ. “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9).  

Wash and Be Clean

2 Kings 5:1-18

The same message of salvation is taught in the Old and the New Testaments. This is why Jesus said that “Abraham rejoiced to see my day” and that “Moses wrote of me.” The difference between the testaments is chiefly this: that the Old Testament teaches us by way of pictures – illustrations of the salvation that would be revealed in Jesus Christ. It looks forward to and anticipates this reality and it is itself a shadow of that reality. In as much as the Old Testament is a series of pictures and shadows of this reality, it teaches us indirectly what the New Testament teaches us directly. 

We have a wonderful illustration in the story before us of Naaman the Syrian. His cleansing from leprosy illustrates for us the way that sin spoils life and how God’s grace cleanses us from our sin. Naaman is commanded to “Wash and be clean.” Interestingly, this is the same command that Ananias gave to Paul. “Get up, be baptized, and have your sins washed away, calling on his name.” 

  1. Sin Spoils Life

The first lesson we learn is that sin is that which spoils life. Many people think that the Bible is not practical, and that they are too busy with “real life” to bother with the Bible. But the Bible is all about real life. Our life, our talents and all good things are gifts from God. That which spoils these good gifts is sin. Leprosy is a fitting illustration and symbol for sin. I am not interested to what extent the leprosy in the Bible corresponds to what we call leprosy today. It was clearly a contagious skin disease that turned one’s flesh white and scaly. It was painful. It caused one to be “unclean.” Their quarantine disrupted their relationships with family and neighbors. It also prevented them from the activities of community worship. Like sin, it spoils the relationship with God and with other people. 

Naaman was a Syrian. He was a great man in that he was the general of the Syrian army. He was in high favor with the king on account of his prowess in battle. Strength, courage, valor, leadership are words that described him. Through him they had victory over their enemies, including Israel. But, he had leprosy. It spoiled the enjoyment of life. He would happily give all his wealth and position to be rid of it. 

What a fitting description of sin. It spoils the enjoyment of life. It spoils our relationships. It diminishes our ability to enjoy God’s good gifts. What do you know of the biographies of great men and women? Isn’t this a constant theme of such biographies, documentaries or bio-pics? The sources of trouble come both from within the individual and externally from those around them. Think of the great king or political leader who sleeps uneasily because of those who are scheming for his downfall. Think of the ultra-successful business tycoon who is unable to purchase happiness and whose ambition has alienated family members and close friends. Think of the Hollywood actor who, at the height of their career, struggles with severe depression and dark and suicidal thoughts. Think of the brilliant artist and musician who does not enjoy success because they have succumbed to addiction that leads to their self-destruction. On and on we could go. The more you know about the great men and women in society and throughout history, the less you will envy them. In their lives we can see clearly the myriad of ways that sin spoils God’s good gifts. 

Naaman’s greatness was incapable of remedying his disease. He was best buds with the king, who was also incapable of helping him. Doubtless he had spent his resources on local doctors or even faith-healers, but they couldn’t offer relief. Likewise, there is no human remedy for the sin that spoils our lives. 

Secular minded people proposed that enlightenment through universal education was the answer to what spoils society. But universal education did nothing to prevent two World Wars and the greatest bloodshed in human history. Germany was one of the most advanced societies on earth, and also one of the most the wicked. We used our advancing knowledge in part to create new weapons of war: tanks, airplanes, submarines and even the atomic bomb. In the Great Depression we were told that it was inequality and poverty was that which spoiled life. In the years that followed WWII through the 1970s we saw a great and unprecedented economic expansion focused especially on expanding the middle class. By the time the Boomer generation came of age they decided that it all seemed too easy and too shallow. What’s the point of it all? They dropped out, tuned in and searched for a greater purpose in life. Some then told us what spoiled life was too much affluence and leisure! 

Of course, many find their way into, or back into the church, and find their answer. But the World at large will look everywhere but in the right place for the solution. They will look to government, or to a political revolution. Wherever there is a revolution, disillusionment follows in its wake, as the new boss is the same as the old boss. They look to the educators, the economists, the scientists, the philosophers or the poets. They look to money, or success, or fame, or power, or pleasure. And they never find what they’re looking for. 

In Naaman’s case, the solution was hiding in the most unlikely place. A little servant girl from Israel – a girl who was kidnapped and taken captive as part of the “spoils of war,” was now a slave that served Naaman’s wife. She had the answer, although he never would have thought to ask. They regarded her as insignificant – as nobody. We’re not even given her name. She knew of Elisha in Samaria. Naaman is desperate for a solution, but he is still looking in the wrong place. He sends a letter to the King of Israel who interprets it as a threat. It’s as if the United States send a demand to Canada to cure cancer by a certain date… or else. The king interprets it as a pretext for a war of aggression. 

This little girl is part of the pattern in the Bible. “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.” So it was when the Pharaoh of Egypt had a premonition and none of the wise men in Egypt could interpret it, but there was Joseph in prison, in obscurity, unknown to the Pharaoh until that fateful moment. It was much the same with Daniel, a captive of war in King Nebuchadnezzar’s court. And think of Jesus. The wise men from the East somehow knew that God would reveal the Messiah to Israel. Naturally, they traveled to the royal capital of Jerusalem and spoke with the King. But the King knew nothing about it. The king asked the theologians and they told him, not in Jerusalem but in the little town of Bethlehem the Messiah would be born. 

This same pattern continued in the church. Jesus didn’t choose the great scribes and scholars of the day but the most unlikely group of misfits: unschooled fisherman, a tax collector, a zealot. Yet they turned the world upside down.

2. Characteristics of God’s Grace

Our next lesson is on God’s revealed solution to Naaman’s leprosy. Here we have an illustration of some characteristics of God’s grace. One principle is that God’s grace is shared. Naaman could not have known about God’s power revealed through the prophet Elisha if the little slave girl hadn’t spoken up. She was no theologian. She was not a scholar or a public speaker. She was not skilled in argument or persuasion. Yet, she had to speak up. An angel wasn’t going to do it for her. And God used her to bring healing to the Syrian general. All she did was point the way. 

That is all we do. We point fellow sinners to Jesus. We know that his grace is powerful and sufficient. My parents pointed me to Jesus at a young age, even as I have done with my own children. But my parents had fairly secular upbringings. I know that my father often reflects on that person who first planted the seed of faith. He was a little boy and there was an elderly woman that would give him candy if he memorized a Bible verse. That was the extent of his religious exposure until well into adulthood. This lady never knew, this side of heaven, the effect that she had. That seed took several decades to sprout. The next step came after my parents were already married, and college friends, who had experimented with drugs and been on their own quest for enlightenment, became new Christian converts. They pointed the way. At the same time the Holy Spirit used their simple testimony and made it effective. We cannot keep the good news to ourselves. 

A second characteristic is that God’s grace is wide. Naaman is a Gentile, an outsider. He is a natural enemy of Israel. He is a soldier, a killer. Their servant girl was Israelite. He was a kidnapper! Yet God chose to reveal his grace to him as an example to us. It is a foreshadowing of the gospel being proclaimed to the entire world and all peoples placing their faith in God’s Messiah. God’s grace isn’t just for the children of Abraham. By faith we are all Abraham’s children. This is a minor theme throughout the Old Testament. But this theme becomes central in the New Testament. It begins as a trickle. The wise men from the East. The Samaritan woman by the well. A few Godfearing centurions. The Greeks during Passover week. Then, after the resurrection of Christ, it soon becomes a flood. First, Cornelius the Centurion. Then Paul and Barnabus are sent to the Gentiles. A mass movement kicks in from every nation and tribe and tongue come into God’s Kingdom. 

More than that, God’s grace is wide for those who are outsiders. Jesus goes to those who are shunned by the powerful: to women, to slaves, to the handicapped and disadvantaged, to the poor, and to little children. 

God’s grace is wide for those who are great sinners. Tax collectors, prostitutes, and the demon possessed were among the company he kept. To the thief dying on the cross he said “today you will be with me in paradise.” For the soldiers who nailed him to the cross he prayed “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” To Peter who betrayed him he said “feed my sheep.” To Paul, who persecuted the first Christians he said, “I have chosen you to be my witness.” God’s grace is sufficient for you also. 

Another principle is that God’s grace is simple, yet effective. Naaman waited on Elisha’s doorstep. Elisha sent instructions with his servant. “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh will be restored and you shall be clean.” Naaman was offended. It was too simple. He wanted the prophet to wave his arms about and to say something dramatic. No. Just wash. No other rituals needed. God has given to us the ministry of the Word and sacraments as his means of grace. The ministry of the word isn’t made effective by human wisdom or by great skill in speaking. It’s just saying what the Bible says. And the sacraments are likewise simple. “Wash away your sins, calling on his name.” And “This is my body, do this in remembrance of me.” I appreciate that our Directory for Public Worship says that we celebrate these sacraments “without any added ritual.” There is a tendency to want to fill these out and add to what God has appointed. Should we “spit on the Devil,” incorporate “anointing oil” or dress in white garments? No. Just celebrate them in their simplicity, as they were instituted by Christ.

Naaman hopes in vain that Elisha will heal him through a mystical experience. Mysticism is a form of human-made religion that tries to find a way back to God through the contemplative life. It is a type of legalism. Through a complicated process, usually with much fasting and prayer, the worshipper traverses through the dark night of the soul and emerges in the beatific vision. The Apostle Paul addressed this in Romans 10 when he teaches us that salvation is not far off so that one does not have to journey to hell and to heaven in order to attain it. No. Instead, the word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart. For if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and you believe in your heart that he is raised from the dead, you shall be saved. It’s simple. 

Naaman is also offended by the muddy Jordan because the rivers of Syria are far greater. The Church of Jesus Christ can be a lot like a polluted river. There are better speakers elsewhere. There are better musicians elsewhere. There may be nicer people elsewhere. People may say, “Are not our philosophers greater than the Apostle Paul? Are not our poets greater than King David? Are not our legislators greater than Moses?” But God’s promise is in the muddy water of the Jordan. Naaman’s attendant pleaded, “If the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it?” Naaman consents and his skin is restored like that of a young child. 

A fourth principle is that Grace is free. Now that Naaman is healed he tries to offer payment for his healing. He was willing to sell his investments and property and empty his bank account in exchange for his health. We understand this. Medical care can be expensive! He tries to give Elisha 750 pounds of silver and 150 pounds of gold and ten changes of clothes. This feels to me like a game show where the contestant wins a new house, a new car and a nifty spatula. Grace is a free gift. If we can pay for it or earn it then it is no longer a free gift. This represents the legalism of activism, or a works-based salvation. Again Paul addresses this in Romans 10 which he describes as the desire to travel from one end of the earth to the other to find salvation. 

The principle of justice is “an eye for an eye” and “as you sow, so shall you reap.” But grace operates on a different principle. Love interrupts the consequences of your actions. The point of the death of Christ is that Christ took on the sins of the world so that what we put out does not come back to us, and that our sinful nature does not reap the seeds of death that we have sown. “By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” If we want to be saved from our sins, we can only come and ask God for the gift of his grace, freely given in Jesus Christ. Then we will have nothing to boast about, so that all glory can go to God. 

The final characteristic of God’s grace is that it is life changing. Naaman can no longer be the same person he was before. Immediately we see that Naaman makes a profession of faith. “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.” He also begins wrestling with the implications of his new found faith. What does it mean to serve Yahweh in Aram-Damascus? There are no easy answers. Naaman’s first proposal is a bit embarrassing and I think it is indicative of his newbie faith. He wants to bring home a couple loads of Israelite dirt. Lurking behind this is animistic thinking where different deities are in charge of different lands. There are gods of the mountains and the rivers, of different lands and peoples. So, in order to worship the God of Israel in Damascus, Naaman thinks, he should bring a chunk of Israel home with him and make an altar out of it. Elisha allows it; which I think is a remarkable concession to a newbie believer. Perhaps this is a lesson for us to be extra charitable towards new believers with mixed up ideas. 

The second problem Naaman faces is that official duties will require him to sometimes be in the temple of Rimmon. He requests permission to continue with this practice with the understanding that his heart is not in it. “May the Lord pardon your servant on this one count.” Elisha says, “Go in peace.” Again, this is surprising for me. I might expect Elisha to say, “You know, you should really consider emigrating.” I think the problem is that Israel at this time was equally as idolatrous as Aram. I think of the similar controversy in the New Testament where gentiles had familiar and social obligations in pagan temples. Paul instructed them not to dine in pagan temples, not because an idol was anything, but for the sake of a clear testimony to the truth. In this sense God holds us to a higher standard than this gentile general. Still, I think we can find some parallels of application for us. I think it teaches us that we should not be over-concerned if, for practical reasons, a church meets in a facility with images of Jesus, which we believe violates the second commandment. A number of our churches that meet in Seventh Day buildings have wrestled with this issue. Likewise, we can gladly attend a wedding or funeral service even if it is held in a church or temple of un-like faith and practice. 

Everyone who has been baptized into Jesus Christ must live a holy life. The exhortation of Romans six is a fitting conclusion to the message today. “How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (R 6:2-4). Amen.

Professor Berkhof Takes Us to School

The heirs of the Protestant Reformation are wrangling amongst themselves (once again) as to where the Church ought to stand on issues of social justice. Is “social justice” (however defined) merely the specter of Marxism and the Social Gospel, which threatens to seduce us from our mission of proclaiming Christ and the Gospel of grace? Or is opposition to social justice a form of hyper-spiritual quietism that straight-jackets the Christian life into an hour on Sunday mornings, and to the private life of the mind?

It strikes me that there is sloppy thinking on both sides of this discussion. I hope that we might achieve greater clarity if we examine how Professor Berkhof approached this question. Yes, Louis Berkhof, the systematic theologian.

Louis Berkhof is best known for writing perhaps the most successful modern Reformed Systematic Theology. Professor Berkhof’s Systematic Theology gained wide usage because of its unparalleled brevity and clarity. His definitions are precise. His arguments are cogent. His proof-texts are relevant to the point at hand. There is nothing bold or innovative. His work accurately and clearly presents the Reformed consensus. In spite of his colorless and encyclopedic approach his work is a joy to read. Every sentence is to the point.

Berkhof’s clarity is exhibited in all his writings. Lesser known is his book, Historical Theology, which charts Christian doctrinal development across the span of church history. Berkhof manages to squeeze a lot of information into a thin volume.

Perhaps under the category of “the Forgotten Berkhof” we can include his address, “The Church and Social Problems.” This lecture was published in 1913 when many conservative Christians were reacting against the Social Gospel of Walter Rauschenbusch. Berkhof begins by stating that Christianity has always had a positive influence on the social structures of society, especially in the Protestant Reformation. Berkhof proceeds to interact with Rauschenbusch and others at length. Rauschenbusch outlines the social injustices of his day and brings his indictment against the Church for not doing more to address these inequities. Berkhof agreed that Rauschenbusch has identified many true problems of industrialized society, but he rejects the idea that Marxism provides the only or the best solution. There are non revolutionary ways we can correct the injustices in society. Common sense reforms that are consistent with our traditions and institutions will provide the most effective remedies.

The central question for Berkhof, however, is “what is the role of the church in ameliorating the social problems of the day?”

Reformed theology teaches that there is no dualism between nature and grace, body and soul. The natural as a gift of God is just as good as the supernatural, only it has become subject to sin; it is in bondage. “The grace of God is a redeeming, liberating force. It seeks the redemption of man, body and soul; the removal of sin and its dire consequences; the sanctification of life in all its relations; the restoration of the world to its pristine beauty. This grace is both general and particular. Common grace restrains the evil forces working in the world, makes a well ordered life possible, yea even makes for refinement and beauty and virtue. Particular grace, revealed in Jesus Christ, exercises a saving influence. It implants in man the principle of a new, of a higher, of eternal life. It does not supersede common grace, but adds something to it, so that believers become partakers of both.” It follows that Christians, as citizens of heaven, remain engaged citizens on earth. We are to be the salt and light in the world.

The church, however, is a holy institution, and a minister of God’s particular grace. The church does not establish common society and is therefore not directly responsible for its social problems, yet we cannot say that the church ought to maintain indifference toward such problems. We cannot “separate absolutely the natural and the spiritual” so as to “parcel out life in such a way that the Church as an institution would find her duty only in the spiritual sphere.”

We therefore affirm that the church, as an organization, “has a task in the movement for social reform.” Berkhof emphasizes the following points:

  1. “The Church should be the nursery of true, healthy, virile spiritual life.” We must not overlook that sin is at the root of our social misery and injustice. Sin is not restricted to sins of weakness (intemperance, vice), but includes sins of strength: the wealthy and powerful oppress, rob and do violence to the poor, in ways perfectly legal, of course. 
  2. “The Church should never forget the social message entrusted to her.” Our unique embassy is to prepare individuals for eternal life through the proclamation of God’s grace revealed in Jesus Christ. No other organization can do this. Pastors are not sociologists. They are not economists. They should not speak authoritatively about subjects on which they know less than what they think they know. Nor should they take a stand on every little issue. At the same time we recognize that the “Bible contains many directions for social life, reveals to us the principles that should control every movement for social reform…. and no sinister influence should ever induce the preacher to hide this light.” God obligates us to speak to the “broad underlying principles of social life” so that no one can lay to our charge that our teaching is exclusively “other-worldly.”
  3. “It is the duty of the Church to exemplify her teachings in this respect in her own social life.” A Christian church should be a microcosm of a just society. It is the family of God where social divisions of class and race disappear. To promote this unity God appointed the office of deacon whereby those blessed with material abundance may find their joy in ministering to the poor among them.   
  4. “The Church should not neglect to bring the gospel to the submerged masses in the downtown districts of our great cities.” If we send our missionaries to the farthest flung places on earth, surely we shouldn’t neglect our urban centers close to home.
  5. “The Church… ought to make a thorough study of all the problems that present themselves in social life and of the movements for social betterment, in order that she may know what stand to take.” Denominations should appoint study committees (ideally comprised of experts in the field) to study social conditions, problems and possible solutions in light of God’s word. Ministers and ministry students could study these reports and become more knowledgeable in social ethics. In turn, ministers will be better equipped to guide their congregations in thinking through these issues.
  6. “The Church should encourage the organization of her members on a distinctly and positively Christian basis for social and philanthropic purposes.” Individual Christians perusing their callings in the world with excellence, act as leaven permeating the dough, endeavoring to bring all of life under the Lordship of Christ. While praying “Thy Kingdom come” they should endeavor to do his will on earth, as it is done in heaven.

The Professor admits that the church has not always acquitted itself in an exemplary manner. At the same time many demand the church to act in a way that is not in harmony with her character and vocation. Church influence is naturally indirect. The Church “gives birth to new leaders, furnished them with their new ideas, developed for them their character, provided their inspiration, and was the recruiting ground for their battalions.” He cites many positive examples including the Social Creed produced by the Federal Council of Churches in 1908, which won broad support across Protestant denominations. The Social Creed defined a sixteen plank platform for social justice, and was subscribed by confessional Reformed and Presbyterian denominations. Berkhof praised the work of seminaries and denominations that were giving more thought to sociological issues and were proceeding along the lines he had indicated.

The professor concludes: “Let us not be caught napping. We need not become one whit less Calvinistic for it; perhaps just a little more so…. Calvinism faithfully preached and applied has been of momentous significance in the past. It has fostered in one nation after another political democracy. The liberty we enjoy in our country is in no small measure to the fruit of Calvin’s work. And Calvinism also contains the principles and forces that make for industrial democracy, for the establishment of God’s rule in every sphere of life, for the introduction of a better social day, and for an ever increasing fulfillment of the Church’s constant prayer: ‘Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’”