“Is the Fourth of July a Religious Holiday?”

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I had a friend in Christian College who loved comic books. His collection was amazing.  But he was ashamed of this passion.  He pursued it only in the shadows of his life, keeping it hidden, especially from his Christian friends.  And when I asked him why, he told me that when his grandmother – a devout Christian woman he absolutely adored – found him looking at his comic books one day when he was just a kid, she spoke words that got forever branded on his soul – “If you have time to read that kind of trash, then you’ve got time to read your Bible!” And that’s the day he said that he began to shield his passion for comic books from the eyes of others, especially his Christian family and friends.  He’d been conditioned to think that comic books and God were fundamentally incompatible.

Personally, I love major league baseball and college football, action movies, the music of Mozart, the paintings of Van Gogh, Lee Child’s novels, Carl Dennis’ poems, and here recently, I’ve been developing something of a passion for Broadway musicals, especially one about a porous yellow sponge that lives in a pineapple under the sea. None of these things are “Christian,” and sometimes, even while I am enjoying one of them, I will faintly hear the whisper of my friend’s grandmother – “If you’ve got time for this trash, then you’ve got time for Bible Study, Church, prayer or whatever other ‘Christian’ activity you might think of.” Now, there’s something really important, and very dangerous at work in this.

I don’t know why, maybe it’s that separation of church and state mentality that’s been so carefully ingrained into us, but we’ve gotten really good at compartmentalizing our lives as Christians into “sacred” and “secular” bins.  Sunday mornings are “sacred,” Monday mornings are “secular.” Hymns are “sacred,” but the music you listen to on your radio driving to work is “secular.” How we earn our money is “secular,” giving some of it to the church is “sacred.” Reading your Bible is “sacred,” reading the newspaper is “secular.” Talking to God and ministers is “sacred,” talking to the teller at the bank or the cashier at the store is “secular.” We seem to instinctively know how this works. There are parts of our lives that God gets, and there are parts of our lives that are none of His business.

Just like you, this is how I was brought up to think and act. I certainly wasn’t raised to be dismissive of God. We said grace before dinner every night and we were in church every Sunday morning when I was growing up, but we weren’t fanatics about it. There was a place for God, and we were pretty good at keeping God in His place. Then Abraham Kuyper came along and ruined this all for me. Abraham Kuyper was an early 20th century Dutch theologian who founded a new Christian denomination and was the Prime Minister of the Netherlands for a while.

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If I were 40 years younger I think that I would try to learn some Dutch and then go over to the church-related University that Abraham Kuyper founded in Amsterdam where I could study his ideas even more closely. Anyway, when I was 40 years younger I stumbled across something that Abraham Kuyper said, and it forever rocked my worldview – “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” This is what it means when we say that “Jesus is Lord,” and we say this not just when me make the Good Confession and join the church, but every Sunday morning when we break the bread and drink the cup at His Table in remembrance of and in obedience to Him. To say that “Jesus is Lord” is to say that we believe that He’s in charge and involved in all of life, or at least, that He is actively engaged in the struggle to get back in charge and be involved in every part of our lives. And once this idea gets hold of you, then that old “sacred/secular” divide that we’ve been raised with starts to crumble.

Now, we don’t usually think of the Fourth of July as a Religious Holiday, do we? It’s not on the church calendar like Christmas and Easter are.   In fact, I have friends in ministry who will make no reference whatsoever to this being the weekend of the 240th celebration of the birth of American Independence. They argue that their affirmation of the Lordship of Jesus Christ prohibits them from making too much of a fuss about any of the lesser loyalties in their lives, things like citizenship, especially at church, during worship, lest it become idolatrous. And so they throw the Fourth of July into the “secular” bin and quickly move on to more “spiritual” things. And while I certainly “get” what they are saying, and even share their very real concern for idolatry, ironically, I find that it is my very affirmation of the Lordship of Jesus Christ that actually compels me to reflect on the religious implications of a national celebration like the Fourth of July.

When Abraham Kuyper observed that “there’s not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ does not cry, Mine,” I think that what he was saying was that the Lordship of Jesus Christ is not just relevant for what happens in church on Sunday morning, but it’s also relevant for what happens in culture every other morning of the week. There is just one God who is sovereign over both church and culture, but – and here’s the real genius of Kuyper’s teaching as far as I am concerned – God is doing different things in and through the church than God is doing in and through culture. There’s no compartmentalization here in the sense that there are parts of life that God cares about and other parts of life that God doesn’t care about. No, God cares about and has a claim on “every square inch of the whole domain of our human existence.”

Rather, it’s a matter of understanding the different things that God is doing in and through His work with the church, and in and through His work with culture. Just as you wouldn’t go to a bank to get a loaf of bread, or take your dog to an auto mechanic to treat him for fleas, so while God is at work in and through both church and culture, God is not doing the same thing in both places. This is how Abraham Kuyper himself could be a theologian and church reformer in one part of his life, and the Prime Minister of the Netherlands in another part without confusing the two roles or blurring their responsibilities.

This is a gross oversimplification of what Kuyper taught, but we could say that the assignment that God has given to the church concerns the eternal needs of our souls as human beings, while the assignment that God has given to the culture concerns the temporal needs of our bodies. The Great Commission sets the agenda for the life and work of the church –

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:19-20)

And it’s something called the “Cultural Mandate” that sets the agenda for the work that God expects culture to do. The “Cultural Mandate” is what the first Creation story in Genesis chapter 1 is talking about when God told the first human couple to –

Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth. (1:28)

And it’s what the Second Creation story in Genesis chapter 2 means when it tells us that – “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it” (2:15).       “Filling and subduing” — “tilling and keeping” — that’s God’s assignment for culture. Creating and then maintaining the conditions that are most conducive to human thriving in this world, that’s the assignment that God has given to culture, and that’s what makes the Fourth of July “religious,” if you ask me.

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The American experiment to establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity,” had its birth 240 years ago when 56 men gathered in the sweltering heat of Philadelphia in July and signed a Declaration of Independence from Great Britain, mutually pledging to each other their Lives, their Fortunes and their sacred Honor.”  This is not about Christians doing the work of eternal salvation that God has given the church to do.  No, this was the work of some ordinary human beings doing the noble work of trying to make life better for people in this world, and that’s the assignment that God has given culture to do.  And I don’t have to confuse what happened in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776, with what happened on a cross and in a borrowed tomb outside of Jerusalem 2,000 years ago to be able to see and appreciate how the Fourth of July is “religious.”

I’m not much of a fan of wrapping up the cross in the American flag. But I am a pretty big fan of both the cross and the American flag.  And it’s because “there’s not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ does not cry, Mine,” that I find that I can hold in my head and my heart, simultaneously, a genuine appreciation for the ways that God is at work in the church, and for the ways that God is at work in the culture, without confusing the two.

And so I will celebrate the Fourth of July as a religious holiday of God’s common grace. As a Christian I can be truly grateful for the way that God has clearly been at work in this nation that “is my home, this country where my heart is.” It’s our historic commitment to “liberty and justice for all… under God” that inspires and that frankly still challenges me, in the words of Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg back in 1863, “to be dedicated… with increased devotion… to the unfinished work… [of securing justice and liberty for all] for which so many have given their last full measure of devotion.” But on the third of July I will be in worship at church. And even though our services that day will take note of the national holiday that this weekend has been set apart for us to celebrate, and even as we are thinking and talking about the religious ramifications of this nation’s stewardship of the “cultural mandate” that God has given to it, there will come a moment on Sunday morning when we will consciously turn from the flag to the cross; from thinking and talking about the work that God is doing in and through culture by common grace, to thinking and talking about the work that God is doing in and through the church by saving grace.

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The bread that we break and the cup that we share in church will be a reminder on this red, white and blue weekend that our final citizenship as Christians is in heaven from which we eagerly await our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ (Philippians 4:20). And so, while I’m truly glad to be an American in this life, I will be eternally grateful to be a Christian in the life to come. It’s the work that God is doing through culture that makes life so good and fulfilling for us here and now, and for that we should be truly grateful as Americans on this national holiday weekend.  We are truly blessed.  But it’s the work of the Gospel that God in Christ does in and through the church that makes life possible forever, and for that, as Christians, we will sing God’s praise throughout eternity. DBS +

 

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