Word from the Center: Friday, August 17, 2018

Welcome to “Word from The Center” FRIDAY, a Two-Kingdom, practical reflection on the issues of the day from the Lutheran Center for Religious Liberty. I’m Gregory Seltz. Today’s topic/issue…

For Liberty’s sake, Facing up to Human Depravity is Key!

Thomas Sowell said in his article, “Utopia versus Freedom,”

There are still some voices of sanity today, echoing what Edmund Burke said long ago. “The study of human institutions is always a search for the most tolerable imperfections,” according to Prof. Richard Epstein of the University of Chicago. If you cannot tolerate imperfections, be prepared to kiss your freedom goodbye.

Liberty is a precious gift, both the temporal and eternal kind. Eternal liberty is something Christians are given freely, by grace alone, through faith in Christ Jesus. This is freedom from the Law’s condemnation and coercion, and freedom to gladly love and serve Him and others (Gal 2:4; 5:1; 5:13; 1 Pet 2:16). Temporal freedom is a gift of God’s gracious providence that we have received in our country. It consists of our liberties as American citizens, namely, the freedom to worship, speak, assemble, and seek to change government (petition government) according to conscience—and to vote freely either for or against candidates for office.

Sowell’s comment has to do with temporal freedom. Our first president offered a similar thought. As George Washington said,

Few men are capable of making a continual sacrifice of all views of private interest, or advantage, to the common good. It is vain to exclaim against the depravity of human nature(emphasis added) on this account; the fact is so, the experience of every age and nation has proved it and we must in a great measure, change the constitution of man, before we can make it otherwise. No institution not built on the presumptive truth of these maxims can succeed.[1]

A Two-Kingdom, biblical perspective fully grasps the reality that human beings, though created in the image of God, are fallen, depraved, and bent towards their own self-interest. The realization of human imperfection is a necessary presupposition for a concrete, temporal liberty (indeed for our eternal liberties as well!). When people ask me what makes America unique, I tend to say that it is the founder’s realization of the breadth of human depravity and the danger that comes when power is coalesced in the hands of a depraved few. As such, federal, overarching government was to be limited in its scope and clearly defined in its activities. Power was to be limited or balanced, by the separation of executive, legislative, and judicial powers from one another, but also by means of the liberty of free citizens who were able to exercise their own power by means of the vote and also by the free exercise of religion, speech, assembly, and petition.

The separation or better, the differentiation of Church and State in the American experiment, stemmed from recognition of the need for self-disciplined, religious individuals to provide a limit on the coercive powers of the state through the vote and through the freedoms to publicly worship, speak, assemble, and petition government. Constitutional protections for such freedoms were fundamental to the pursuit of happiness in a world of imperfect, fallen people.

Biblical differentiation of God’s work in the Two Kingdoms of His rule goes one step further. It adds the compelling love of Christ (not just the guide of moralistic religion) received freely by faith in the message of the Gospel as the ultimate motivation for all service, not only in the right-hand kingdom of the Church, but also in the left-hand kingdom work of God in society.

When Jesus differentiates God’s work in the world by saying, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s,” He forever delineated the priority and significance of each work in each realm. Although all government of every time and place exercises authority as God’s own representative (Rom 13), the American experiment uniquely structures the delineation of what is God’s and what is Caesar’s by expressly limiting the government and giving certain civil liberties and powers, to the governed. Recognizing human depravity—that both the governed and those who govern are self-interested, sinful, people—individual freedom was to be constitutionally protected so that religious, free, and morally motivated people, whether in or outside of government, could address abuses, corruption, and injustice even as they could pursue happiness for their sake and the sake of the ones they love.

It’s amazing to think about the fact that such an honest assessment about human nature and its limitations could lead to more concrete freedom here and now, even as it leads Christians to understand that lasting freedom comes by faith in Christ alone. That’s something worth celebrating, even defending… for liberty’s sake, now and forever.


[1]To THE COMMITTEE OF CONGRESS WITH THE ARMY [Head Quarters, January 29, 1778.]