I actually toyed with the idea of going into politics for a while back when I was in high school. I needed something to do in the summer of 1968 and so my dad dropped me off at the precinct headquarters of the political party that he supported one day on his way to work, and then every day on his way to work thereafter for the rest of the summer. All that summer and well into the fall I stuffed envelopes, made phone calls, canvassed neighborhoods, attended precinct meetings, worked rallies, put up yard signs, met candidates, got invited to Sacramento to meet the Governor, got elected to the leadership team for the youth chapter of that political party in my region of Southern California and was eventually named the first runner-up in the contest for the junior member of that political party for all of Los Angeles County in 1970. I’ve still got the plaque. I enjoyed every minute of it, and that got me to thinking.
What if I went to the California State College in Sacramento, studied Political Science, and parlayed my political contacts there to get a job at the Capitol? What if some State representative or senator would “mentor” me? Maybe I could become somebody’s “protégé,” serve as part of his team and go where it took him. If I could just get in on the ground floor of some local politician on the rise, I calculated, it could open some important and strategic political doors for me later in life. And so I applied, got accepted at Sacramento State, and started making plans to go. I know this is what my folks, and especially my dad, expected me to do.
But in the fall of 1971 where I wound up instead was at a small Christian College in Eugene, Oregon. There I started studying the Bible for the first time in my life in a serious and sustained sort of way, and I began to prepare myself for a life of Christian ministry. And while there were lots and lots of reasons why this worked out the way that it did, right near the top of the reasons why was a book that I read that was written by Sherwood Wirt, then the editor of Billy Graham’s magazine Decision, right at that time when I was making the crucial choices about college and vocation.
That book was called The Social Conscience of the Evangelical (Harper & Row – 1968), and my tattered, coverless, dog-eared, highlighted and heavily underlined copy still sits on my shelf. Sherwood Wirt’s book was a call for Bible-believing Christians like myself to get more actively involved in answering the great social questions of those days – the Civil Rights Movement, the War on Poverty, the War in Vietnam, the Sexual Revolution, the Counter-Cultural Movement. His book was a sustained argument for faithful Christian involvement in the world and not for a retreat from the world.
Now, you might think that this argument would have been one designed to tip the balance and send me straight down the Sacramento State/Political Science trajectory that was wide open to me as a high school senior. But it didn’t, and the reason why was the last chapter in Sherwood Wirt’s book, a chapter he called “The Horse and the Cart.”
This chapter opened with a quote from Edward Beecher (1803 – 1895), the noted theologian who was a son of the preacher Lyman Beecher and a brother of the novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe. “Great changes do not begin on the surface of society,” he observed, “but in prepared hearts, in people who by their communion with God …give life to the community and tone to the public mind.” With this as his springboard into the question of how real change is effected in the world, Sherwood Wirt mapped out an approach to social transformation that I found persuasive way back then in 1968, and that I still do now almost 50 years later. Sherwood Wirt wrote –
The greatest fact about man is that God loves him in Jesus Christ. When a convert has “put on the new man” in Christ he starts putting legs under the compassion that God has sensitized. All the potential given to the original Adam, and lost, is now his again, because he is living in obedience as God intended him to live – not for himself but for his fellow. He looks at his fellow man in his magnificent misery through the eyes of Christ. He seeks to apply the redeeming Spirit of Christ to the hidden springs of man’s behavior, to the seat of motivation and activation that is known in God’s Word as the “heart.” (149)
What Sherwood Wirt meant by this was that he believed that the best way to change the world was by changing the hearts of women and men with the Gospel. He argued that when people become new creations by faith in Christ Jesus (2 Corinthians 5:17), that their new life would then get channeled “into avenues of service which are fruitful for Christ and beneficial for all of humanity” (151). The theologian Carl F.H. Henry in his book on Aspects of Christian Social Ethics (Eerdmans – 1964) called this “the spiritual dynamic for social change” (24), and he argued that “personal regeneration and redemption are inherent in Christianity’s hope for the renewal of the social order” (25).
The Gospel of Christ is the Church’s peculiar “dynamis” (Greek: “power”) for facing the entire world. Christian social action condones no social solutions in which personal acceptance of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord is an optional consideration. (25)
History shows that the thought of Christ on the cross has been more potent than anything else in arousing a compassion for suffering and an indignation at injustice… Evangelicalism, which saw in the death of Christ the means of free salvation for fallen humanity, caused its adherents to take the front rank as champions of the weak… Prison reform, the prohibition of the slave trade, the abolition of slavery, the Factory acts, the protection of children, the crusade against cruelty to animals, are all the outcome of the great Evangelical revival of the 18th century. (29)
Christianity knows – and it dare not forget nor let the world forget – that what the social order needs most is a new race of men – men equipped not simply with new textbooks (education) and new laws (legislation), but with new hearts (regeneration). (30)
I believe this. However, I’ve also been around the world and the church long enough now to know that conversion to Christ without subsequent formation in Christ, what we used to call “discipleship” back in the day, is just as inadequate a basis for real social transformation as is any attempt to change the world without a real concern for changing hearts by the power of the Gospel. In 1966 Dr. Horace L. Fenton, Jr. speaking at Wheaton College’s “Congress on the Church’s Worldwide Mission” said –
It is all too possible for an individual believer to fail to see the connection between his love for God and his responsibility to his fellow men, unless it is pointed out to him – not just once, but many times.
This is the “teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” component of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:20). Before Christians can penetrate social, economic and political systems like light in the darkness, salt in the soup, and leaven in the loaf with the Gospel’s concern for justice, righteousness, reconciliation and peace, those Christians must first have their own vision and values deeply informed, formed and transformed by the Gospel. It must penetrate them. As A.W. Tozer used to say – “Our Lord wants us to learn more of Him before we become busy for Him.” He explained –
The task of the church is twofold: to spread Christianity throughout the world and to make sure that the Christianity she spreads is the pure New Testament kind…. Christianity will always reproduce itself after its kind. A worldly-minded, unspiritual church, when she crosses the ocean to give her witness to peoples of other tongues and other cultures, is sure to bring forth on other shores a Christianity much like her own…. The popular notion that the first obligation of the church is to spread the gospel to the uttermost parts of the earth is false. Her first obligation is to be spiritually worthy to spread it. Our Lord said “Go ye,” but He also said, “Tarry ye,” and the tarrying had to come before the going. Had the disciples gone forth as missionaries before the day of Pentecost it would have been an overwhelming spiritual disaster, for they could have done no more than make converts after their likeness, and this would have altered for the worse the whole history of the Western world and had consequences throughout the ages to come. (Of God and Men, 35-37).
Before Christians can have a “significant Christian influence” in the world, they must first be “significantly influenced” by Christianity themselves. Donald Whitney illustrates the principle quite memorably –
Your mind is like a cup of hot water. A tea bag is like Scripture. Hearing God’s Word read in church on a Sunday morning is like one dip of that tea bag into the cup. Some of the tea’s flavor is absorbed by the water, but not as much as would occur with a more thorough soaking of the bag. Reading, studying, and memorizing God’s Word are like additional plunges of the tea bag into the cup. The more frequently the tea enters the water, the more permeating its effect.
Next week in the third and final installment in my pre-Iowa Caucus series on “Faith and Politics,” I want to explore how someone who has been “significantly influenced” by Christianity might think and act politically. When tea has fully seeped in a cup of hot water, how should it taste? DBS+
Next Week: “Faith and Politics – Part 3” – “Can my Vote be Christian?”