There is a reason we call the revelation given to us from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22 the “Bible.” The Greek word biblos (βίβλος) — from which we get the English word Bible — means “book.” The Bible is one book even though it has 66 (39 + 27) individual parts.
No single verse can be properly explained and understood without considering it in the light of the whole Bible. No verse can or should stand on its own. For example, the Hebrew word el and the Greek word theos are translated “god” in the Bible. Without a whole-Bible context, they can refer to pagan gods (Deut. 10:17) or Satan himself (2 Cor. 4:4). You only know the difference by studying the immediate context and the context of the whole Bible.
I bring this up because of the article “The Salt of the Earth” written by Phil Johnson for the January 2012 edition of Tabletalk magazine published by Ligonier Ministries. Johnson begins his article by citing the following verses:
“You are the salt of the earth… . You are the light of the world… . Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:13–16).
Then he offers these comments:
That text is often cited as if it were a mandate for the church to engage in political activism — lobbying, rallying voters, organizing protests, and harnessing the evangelical movement for political clout. I recently heard a well-known evangelical leader say, “We need to make our voices heard in the voting booth, or we’re not being salt and light the way Jesus commanded.”
That view is pervasive. Say the phrase “salt and light,” and the typical evangelical starts talking politics as if by Pavlovian reflex.
But look at Jesus’ statement carefully in its context. He was not drumming up boycotts, protests, or a political campaign. He was calling His disciples to holy living.
Let’s take Johnson’s comment that Jesus was “calling His disciples to holy living.” A good point that we can agree on. Where do we go to find out about holy living and how broad and comprehensive holy living is? Does it include politics, economics, raising children, church life, walking your dog, crossing the street, playing baseball, teaching a Sunday school class, pasturing a church, doing evangelism, creating music and art, developing a computer program?
Johnson can’t say from the verses he cited since Jesus doesn’t give any details. Nothing is included or left out. Johnson is reading into the verses things that aren’t there. Or I should say that he is leaving out items that are found elsewhere in Scripture.
The writer to the Hebrews does something similar. He tells his readers that by this point in their Christian walk they should be “teachers,” they “need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God,” needing “milk and not solid food” (Heb. 5:13). He goes on to write that it’s through practice that their senses are trained to “discern good and evil” (5:14). Like Jesus’ words in the portion of the Sermon on the Mount that Johnson references, there are no particulars. There is no need for them, since earlier he wrote the following:
For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart (Heb. 4:12).
There is nothing in this passage that indicates that the realm of politics – civil government – is excluded since the when the whole Bible is read, there is a great deal said about the subject. This is supported by the apostle Paul in his letter to Timothy:
All Scripture is God breathed and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. (2 Tim. 3:16–17).
Of course, as we read on in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus mentions a number of moral particulars, but these three chapters do not exhaust what it means to live a holy life, especially when we read the above passages in Hebrews and 2 Timothy.
Why can’t we shine the bright light of all of God’s Word (Ps. 119:105) on the world — including civil government (“a minister of God”: Rom. 13:1–7) — like we do for self-government (“self-control”: Prov. 25:28), church government (“an overseer must be above reproach”: 1 Tim. 3:2), business (“just weights and measures”: Lev. 19:36), journalism (“do not bear false witness”: Ex. 20:16), and everything else in life?
Consider these words from John MacArthur. I’m bringing MacArthur into the discussion because Johnson is the executive Director of Grace to You, a Christian tape and radio ministry that features the preaching ministry of John MacArthur. Phil Johnson has been closely associated with MacArthur since 1981 and edits most of MacArthur’s major books. The following is from “You Are the Light of the World,” a sermon that MacArthur preached on Matthew 5:14–16:
I think God wants us to confront the world. Just because the world persecutes us, reviles us, and says all manner of evil against us falsely, just because it seems impossible that, in a country where the Constitution says no law could ever be passed that takes away any of the freedom of religion at all from anybody, we’re facing the fact that you can’t have a Bible study in your house without a permit. I really don’t think that it will get any easier. I don’t think that just because the world makes it tough on us that we should crawl in a hole or keep our mouths shut or hide. We should be like verse 13 [of Matt. 5], salt and light in the world.
MacArthur references the Constitution and that its original purpose was that “no law could ever be passed that takes away” anyone’s freedom of religion. This seems to be a reference to the First Amendment. How did the First Amendment get into the Constitution? It was Christians who worked for it. They weren’t satisfied with the text of the Constitution as it was drafted in 1787, so they pushed for a Bill of Rights to limit the power and authority of the newly constituted national civil government even more than the Constitution itself did.
The First Amendment is a political statement designed to keep Congress from interfering with religion at the state level. Following Johnson’s logic, Christians who lobbied for a constitutional provision that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” was, to us his words, “lording it over” people, exercising “political dominion,” and making “society righteous through legislation.”
I suspect that most people would praise our Christian founders for putting into law the protections listed in the First Amendment to insure that churches can speak, write, and assemble about religion (all found in the amendment). That same First Amendment also gives citizens the right to “petition the government for a redress of grievances.” Might not that include “boycotts, protests, or a political campaign”?
We’re not subjects to Rome. “Render to Caesar the things that belong to Caesar” (Matt. 22) only applies to us in principle since we don’t live under Caesar. If anything, the Constitution is our Caesar, and it gives us the right and responsibility to boycott, protest, and campaign to change our government by changing those elected to office who violate their oath of office and legislate contrary to the Constitution.
People like Phil Johnson are living off borrowed capital. They denounce Christian involvement in politics but reap the benefits of generations of Christians that made it possible for them to enjoy the freedoms they have in this nation to preach the gospel unhindered. If we lose that freedom, it will be because Christians like Johnson and those who share his philosophy advise the church that to push for certain legislative remedies is an attempt to make “society righteous through legislation.”
That’s like saying working to pass a law to make buying and selling slaves illegal is an attempt to make society righteous through legislation. The purpose of the law is to protect people from being bought and sold. Must we wait for the nation to become righteous before such a law is passed? Not according to the Bible:
But we know that the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully, realizing the fact that law is not made for a righteous man, but for those who are lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers and immoral men and homosexuals and kidnappers and liars and perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching, according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, with which I have been entrusted (1 Tim. 1:8–11).
If everybody had to be righteous before a law was passed, we could never pass a law and slavery might still be legal. The passage and enforcement of laws keep most unrighteous people from acting out their unrighteousness because they know that painful sanctions are meted out for law breakers.
This is not to say that all immorality can be curtailed by passing laws or that there should be a law for every unrighteous deed. Even the Bible doesn’t go that far. Prohibition is an example of trying to remedy a lack of self-control through legislation. By biblical standards drunkenness is a sin, but there is no call in the Bible to legislate against drinking alcohol.
I’ll conclude my comments tomorrow.