John Piper

Why Did God Stigmatize the Disabled?

Audio Transcript

Welcome back! In the next two episodes, we’re talking about personal suffering. Suffering so often feels meaningless; suffering feels pointless — “feels” being the key word. But no matter how our suffering feels to us, it’s not meaningless. Not for the Christian. That’s our topic next time, on Monday.

But today, if you’re reading your Bible along with us using the Navigators Bible Reading Plan, for the second half of February we’re in the thick of it, reading through Leviticus. It’s a hard book — a notorious book that ends a lot of well-meaning Bible readers at this point in the year. But stick with it. It’s worth it. And as you stick with it, in our reading tomorrow, we read Leviticus 21:16–24, a difficult text that makes any Bible reader scratch his head and wonder, Why did God shun the disabled in the Old Testament? One such Bible reader is a listener named Gina.

“Hello, Pastor John. I’m reading through Leviticus in my Bible reading plan. One thing that has confused me is why God would not allow people with physical defects to approach the altar in Leviticus 21:16–21. The tone changes drastically in the Gospels. There Jesus, the true Temple, welcomes the blind, the lame, and the diseased right into his very presence. So, why would God in the Old Testament not allow them near the altar? It seems sad to me, and it compounds their suffering. Those people would have felt worse for it, and likely experienced heightened social alienation, too. I’m thankful for the New Testament because there are so many of us with physical defects. But why this discontinuity? To what purpose?”

Good, good, good, good question. Leviticus 21:16–24 deals with whether priests — it’s about priests, but her question is still really valid — who have physical disabilities or deformities can enter the Holy Place to do the work of a priest. I think Gina is probably right that, in reality, when priests with facial defects or crushed genitals or injured feet or a hunched back or scabby skin were forbidden from parts of the priestly service — not all of them, but some of them — probably they would have felt sad and discouraged at times, and maybe even resentful. That would be a normal human response, at least in our culture. We sure feel that. And my guess is that’s pretty basic to human nature.

“God has provided a way, by Jesus Christ, to have the very perfection that we must have to approach him.”

Gina asks, “Why does God in the Old Testament apply such external restrictions for the priesthood, and in the New Testament we don’t have that same kind of restriction? They don’t assume the same excluding effect.” Let me try to give an answer that I think honors the intention of both the Old Testament and the New Testament, because I think both are the inspired word of God, and what God did when he did it was right to do when he did it, and he had reasons for doing it, and it may not be right for us to do it today because such profound things have changed. But let’s look at the key passage. There’s a ground clause that helps us crystallize the issues.

Perfect God, Unblemished Sanctuary

Here’s Leviticus 21:16–24 with just a few verses left out. I’ll collapse it down so you can see the clause.

No man of the offspring of Aaron the priest who has a blemish shall come near to offer the Lord’s food offerings; since he has a blemish, he shall not come near to offer the bread of his God. . . . He shall not go through the veil or approach the altar, because [and our ears should perk up] he has a blemish, [in order] that he may not profane my sanctuaries, for I am [Yahweh] the Lord who sanctifies them.

In other words, God says, “I am the one who sets priests apart for my service; I sanctify them. I have ordained — I have decreed or instituted or decided — that a blemished priest will not blemish or profane my sanctuary.” In other words, God wants to make the perfections of the sanctuary so symbolically and visibly clear that he establishes a correlation between the deforming of the physical body and the deforming of the sanctuary. Or, to say it another way, he insists that there be a correlation between the perfections of those who approach the sanctuary and the perfection of the sanctuary itself, which is a reflection of his own perfection.

It’s entirely possible that the most godly and the most humble, deformed priests would not be offended by this divine order of things, but would gladly acknowledge that it is fitting for those who approach a perfect God to be free from outward and inward imperfections. So, I don’t think there’s anything intrinsically wrong with God’s Old Testament ordinances in this regard.

Utter Holiness, Overflowing Grace

The question is, What’s the ultimate meaning of it, especially in relation to New Testament changes? My answer goes like this.

In the Bible as a whole, there are two dimensions to God’s nature that shape the way he deals with mankind. One is unapproachable holiness. That’s one massive truth throughout the Bible. God is holy. Sinners can’t approach him. Nothing imperfect can approach him. Nothing evil can approach God without being destroyed. And so, it’s fitting that, in the presence of God, there can only be perfection — both moral and spiritual and physical — which of course means no one qualifies. It’s not like some of these priests were perfect. The other dimension of his nature is his overflowing mercy and grace.

So, those are the two: unapproachable holiness and overflowing mercy and grace, which reaches out to the physically, morally, spiritually imperfect, and finds a way in Jesus Christ to declare them to be perfect. But the resolution of these two dimensions of God’s nature is not that the first one is replaced by the second one, like holiness is kind of blunted and decreased in its importance because mercy is going to be the main thing now. That’s not what happens — as though the doctrine of justification by faith alone would be sufficient to create the new heavens and the new earth, where God is present among justified sinners without his holiness being compromised. That’s not going to happen.

No, God also undertakes, by sanctification and then by the re-creation of everything that’s broken — physical dimensions of the world and moral dimensions of the world — to make everything in his presence perfect forever. Not just justified sinners are going to be in God’s presence, but no sin is going to be in God’s presence. There won’t be any people who sin in God’s presence. There will be no defects morally, there will be no defects physically in the presence of God in the age to come.

Made Perfect Forever

So, I think God highlighted the demands for perfection in the Old Testament in an outward way so as to make really clear that no form of imperfection would ever stand in God’s presence permanently. That’s how holy he is.

He would one day not only justify the ungodly and be willing to touch lepers — reach out and actually touch lepers, God himself touching lepers in the flesh — but he would also utterly transform the ungodly into sinless, godly people, and take away every leprosy and every disease and every disability and every deformity. So, the Old Testament and the New Testament make both of these dimensions of God’s character plain (it seems to me) by putting the emphasis in different places.

“We need the Old Testament to sober us about how holy God is, and we need the New Testament lest we despair.”

The Old Testament is, as it were, standing on tiptoes, looking over the horizon of the future, waiting and wondering how God could ever create a people, all of whom could come boldly into his presence. And God had put such amazing limits in the Old Testament. So, the Old Testament rightly makes this seem extremely difficult. I think that was the point. He wanted it to look like this can never happen. You can never have anybody with an imperfection walking in here. It’s just not going to happen. God has put such amazing restrictions on it.

And then, in the New Testament, the glorious reality dawns that God has provided a way, by Jesus Christ, to have the very perfection that we must have to approach him now. And he has provided by his Spirit the sanctification and resurrection and perfection of bodily and spiritual newness in the age to come so that we can be in his presence forever.

So, my bottom-line conclusion is this: we need the Old Testament to sober us about how holy God is, and we need the New Testament lest we despair of any hope that we could survive in the presence of such a holy God, let alone enjoy him forever.

Why Did God Stigmatize the Disabled?

In Leviticus 21, God forbids men with physical defects from participating as full priests. How do we reconcile this prohibition with Jesus’s approach to the disabled?

Our High Priest

Part 6 Episode 226 Why must we understand who Jesus is and what he’s done for us on the Bible’s terms? In this episode of Light + Truth, John Piper looks to Hebrews 4:14–5:3 for the categories Scripture provides for knowing Christ.

Enjoying God in His Gifts

How do we enjoy pizza, friendship, or any other good gift without committing idolatry? Not only by enjoying God more than his gifts, but also by enjoying him in them.

Enjoying God in His Gifts

Audio Transcript

Welcome back to the podcast. In our Bible reading this week, we hit Psalm 43. And within Psalm 43 we find one amazing little verse that unfolds into all sorts of implications, leading to a wonderful question from a pastor named Robert, who lives and ministers in Wisconsin. “Hello, Pastor John, and thank you for the way you have served and encouraged pastors like me, from a distance, over the decades through your faithful labors. I love Psalm 43:4, a life verse for me, and one I want to better understand. I know you love this text as well. ‘Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy.’

“If I remember correctly, somewhere I heard you translate the Hebrew of this text like this: ‘Then I will go to the altar of God, to God the joy of my joys.’ God is the joy of our joys. I cannot find where you said this, but you’re not the only one, as I have come to see this in other interpretations of this verse from Puritan Thomas Goodwin in the seventeenth century (Works, 4:392), to William de Burgh in the nineteenth century (A Commentary on the Book of Psalms, 380), to classic Hebrew scholars today (David J.A. Clines, Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, 8:166).

“So, can you walk us through the Hebrew briefly, and then explain what this means that God is the joy of our joys? I’ve historically thought of this text as saying what the ESV here implies, that God is the most exceeding joy above all other joys — a comparison. But you seem to indicate that this text is speaking of source — God is the joy, that is, the giver of all other joys. That changes the text completely. If so, expand on this. This seems like a huge discovery!”

Well, that’s not quite what I mean. I totally love what he loves here and want to get at it, because there is something really quite right. I don’t mean source when I say, “joy of our joys.” What I mean is, God is the essence of our joys. God is the substance of all our joys. He’s the best part of every joy if we are enjoying things rightly. So, he’s not only supreme joy — which is what the ESV brings out: our “exceeding joy” — but he is also the best part of all other joys. He is to be what makes all our joys most enjoyable. That’s what I mean.

‘Joy of My Gladness’

Let’s see if that’s so, and get the verse in front of us here. The psalmist is crying out to God, and he says,

Send out your light and your truth;     let them lead me;let them bring me to your holy hill     and to your dwelling!Then I will go to the altar of God,     to God my exceeding joy. (Psalm 43:3–4)

So, the psalmist identifies God as his exceeding joy, which the ESV, the NASB, the King James Version all translate “exceeding joy.” The Hebrew (śim-ḥaṯ gî-lî) has two different words for joy or happiness or pleasure. Literally, then, the phrase could be translated, “the joy of my gladness,” which in fact is exactly what’s in the margin of the old King James: “the joy of my gladness.” So, the question is, What does that literal phrase — “the joy of my gladness” — mean?

The ESV and the other versions take it to mean that, at least, he’s my best gladness. “The joy of my gladness” means, of all my gladness, he’s the best. And surely that’s right. I mean, at least it means that. God is supreme. God never made anything more valuable or more enjoyable than himself. So yes, God is our exceeding joy. That’s what it means to be God, I think, and that’s what it means to love God. But the question remains, Is that all the phrase means? Is there more implied in the phrase “joy of my gladness”?

Avoiding Idolatry

So, way back — I’m guiding our friend to where I actually said that (he said he couldn’t find it). Well, on February 26, 2006, it’s on the DG website on this text. I preached on this, and I remember it so clearly because it was twelve days after my prostate-cancer surgery. I chose this text precisely for that. So, way back on February 26, 2006, I preached on this, and here’s what I argued. I’ll quote two sentences:

God, who in all my rejoicing over all the good things that he has made, is himself, in all my rejoicing, the heart of my joy, the gladness of my joy. Every joy that does not have God as the central gladness of the joy is a hollow joy and, in the end, will burst like a bubble.

Now, the reason that insight is so important is because, without it, all our enjoyment of God’s gifts — the things that he’s made — would not honor God the way that enjoyment should. Or to put it in the form of a question, What keeps our enjoyment of pizza or friendship from being idolatry? That’s the question. Now, you could answer, “Because we always enjoy God more than pizza, and we always enjoy God more than friendship, and that keeps it from being idolatry.” And that’s true and that’s crucial. God is our exceeding joy, supreme joy.

“God is the best part of every joy if we are enjoying things rightly.”

But I think God intends to be glorified not only by being enjoyed more than pizza and more than friendship, but by being enjoyed in the very enjoyment of pizza and in the very enjoyment of friendship. I think God intends for us to enjoy his sweetness in the sweetness of chocolate, his saltiness in the saltiness of french fries, his juiciness in the juiciness of a sizzling steak, his friendship in the company of our friends, his brightness in the sunrise, and so on.

When Paul says in 1 Timothy 6:17, “Set [your hope] . . . on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy,” I don’t think he meant only, “Make sure you enjoy God more than everything he made,” but rather, “Make sure you enjoy God in everything he made” — under everything as the source of joy, over everything as superior joy, and in everything as the best part of the enjoyment of everything.

Thankfulness Is Not Enough

Now, you could also say that — and this is true — thankfulness for God’s gifts is another key to keep the enjoyment of God’s gifts from becoming god, to keep ourselves from becoming idolaters. To be consciously thankful that every legitimate pleasure in this life is a gift of God is a good thing. That’s a right thing. By all means, we should be thankful. It’s a sin to be ungrateful for every good thing God gives. Paul said in 1 Timothy 4:4, “Nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.”

But here’s the issue. I want to push into this. Thankfulness is not enough to keep the enjoyment of God’s gifts from becoming idolatrous. Think with me about this. Why is that? Why is thankfulness not enough to keep God’s good gifts from being idols to us? It’s because we all know that someone may give us a gift we enjoy more than we enjoy the person who gave it. We know this.

Being thankful to God or anyone does not mean we love the giver more than the gift. It doesn’t. A cranky, mean-spirited old man may give you the gift you’ve wanted all your life, and you’re thankful. Yes you are. But you don’t like him. He’s cranky. He’s a mean-spirited old man. You’re not sure why he gave it to you, but he gave it to you, and you’ve wanted it all your life, so you’re thankful for it. If we’re going to glorify God in the enjoyment of his gifts, we have to go beyond thankfulness.

Taste and See, Smell and Feel

So, back to Psalm 43:4. “God is the joy of my gladness” means not only that he is better than the gladness I have in other things — that is, “my exceeding joy” — but that he is the best part of the gladness I have in other things. He’s the joy of my gladness. He is what makes the enjoyment of those other things more enjoyable.

When the psalmist says in Psalm 73:25, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you” — wow, what a statement — he might mean, “I desire nothing above God.” He might mean that. But it sounds like he means, “I don’t desire anything on earth of which God is not the chief part.” “I don’t want to enjoy anything,” he’s saying, “which is not also an enjoyment of God.” I want to enjoy God in friendship. I want to enjoy God in eating. I want to enjoy God in the pleasures of the marriage bed. I want to enjoy God in music and reading and rising early to see the dawn.

Now, if we’re onto something here, let’s see what some other significant Christian thinkers have said about this. Here’s the way Thomas Traherne put it: “You never enjoy the world aright, till you see how a sand exhibiteth the wisdom and power of God: And prize in everything the service which they do you, by manifesting His glory and goodness to your Soul” (Centuries, 13–14). That’s not mere thankfulness. This is enjoying God in our enjoyment of what he has made. Every part of creation is designed by God to communicate something of God. And when we enjoy that part of creation, we are to savor God in it.

Here’s the way Augustine put it in his prayer: “He loves thee too little” — speaking to God — “who loves anything together with thee, which he loves not for thy sake” (Confessions 10.29.40). Now, “for Thy sake” I take to mean this: we love what is not God properly by loving it for what we taste of God in it — not just out of thankfulness, but what we taste and see, smell and feel of God in it.

So, let us go with the psalmist to the altar of God — that is, to the cross of Jesus Christ — and enjoy the forgiveness of sins that he purchased there. And through that gift, let us know and enjoy God as our exceeding joy — yes, and as the gladness of all our joys.

What’s the Essence of Love?

How do Paul’s travel plans relate to the Trinitarian depths of God’s love? Pastor John shows how ultimate reality undergirds the love between the saints.

What’s the Essence of Love?

Audio Transcript

Hello and welcome back to the podcast on this Thursday. Well, what is love? That’s a timeless question. As you know, Pastor John, from time to time we get questions about the nature of love — God’s love for us, our love for God, our love for each other — and what it means that “God is love,” as 1 John 4:8 tells us. On top of this, we get questions about how joy relates to love, too, which is part of what we mean by Christian Hedonism. You mentioned a while back that you were working through 2 Corinthians recently and saw something that relates to all of these questions that I just mentioned and ties them all together in a surprising way. Can you summarize your discovery from 2 Corinthians and explain how it touches on all those questions about love and joy?

I can try. And it was surprising not only because, for being so simple, it has vast implications for the very nature of God himself, and how he loves himself, and how we love him, and how he loves us — but also, it was surprising because what I saw was not found in some high-soaring part of Paul’s writings, but rather in a very down-to-earth, practical interaction with the Corinthians about his travel plans. You don’t expect to find vast implications about the nature of reality as somebody’s talking about their travel plans.

Paul’s Joy and Theirs

Let me read 2 Corinthians 2:1–4 and make three observations as we go through this text. And these three observations are just mind-blowingly vast in their implications.

1. Their joy is his joy.

Here’s what he wrote: “I made up my mind not to make another painful visit to you.” And then he gives the reason for why he’s not going to make a sorrowful, painful visit to them. He says, “[Because] if I cause you [sorrow], who is there to make me glad but the one whom I have [grieved]?” (2 Corinthians 2:1–2).

“In the fellowship of the Trinity, before there were any people to love, God was love. God was loving God.”

So, the first observation I make is that the reason Paul decides not to make a painful visit is because, if their joy goes down, Paul’s joy goes down, which implies that their joy is in some measure Paul’s joy. He finds his joy in their joy. If theirs goes up, his goes up; if theirs goes down, his goes down. That’s observation number one. Paul’s joy is in some measure theirs, or theirs is in some measure his, so that if theirs goes down — which a painful visit would cause — his would go down. He doesn’t want that, so he doesn’t go.

2. His joy is their joy.

He goes on, “And I wrote as I did” — so he’s writing this letter instead of going — “so that when I came I might not suffer [sorrow] from those who should have made me rejoice.” Now, why did Paul not want to be made sorrowful? I mean, you might think, Well, that’s obvious. But no, it’s not obvious. Listen — why did Paul not want to be made sorrowful? He says this: “[Because] I felt sure of all of you, that my joy would be the joy of you all” (2 Corinthians 2:3).

So, my second observation is that the reason Paul wrote a letter instead of making this painful visit is that his joy was their joy. That’s what he says. I’m not even drawing it out as an implication. He just says it: “my joy would be the joy of you all.” So, if his joy goes down by a painful visit, their joy is going to go down, because his joy is, in some measure, he says, their joy. That’s my second observation.

3. Love finds joy in others’ joy.

Now, here’s the rest of the text, 2 Corinthians 2:4. He describes the same desire now — not to make a painful visit, but to write instead — only this time in terms of being motivated not by joy but by love. Here’s what he says: “For I wrote to you out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you [sorrow] but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you.”

So, my third observation is that, in Paul’s mind, love means finding our joy in the joy of the other, the beloved. He didn’t want their joy to be undermined because their joy was his joy. And he didn’t want his joy to be undermined because his joy was their joy. And then he steps back and says, “That’s what it means to love you.”

We know Paul is writing as a Christian and, from other things that he says even in this book, that Christian joy is joy that has God in Christ as its focus. So, the definition of love that he gives here is this: love is finding our joy in the joy of the beloved in God. When they have joy in God, that’s our joy, and we’re willing to lay down our lives to bring about their joy in God. God is willing to lay down his life to bring about our joy in God.

Love Within the Trinity

Now, we need to step back and test this, to see if we’re onto something here, and I think we’re onto something vastly significant.

Let’s start by testing it with ultimate love. “God is love” (1 John 4:8). Before there was creation, God was God, and God was love. Which means that in the fellowship of the Trinity, before there were any people to love, God was love. And in the fellowship of the Trinity — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — God was loving God. In Matthew 3:17, God says to his Son, “This is my loved Son” (my translation). And then he says, “With [him] I am well pleased” — that is, delighted, joyful. That’s what it means for the Father to love the Son. “I enjoy my Son infinitely. He is perfectly enjoyable, and that’s what it means to love him.” It says the same thing in John 14:31 about the Son loving the Father.

So, within the Trinity, to love is to be infinitely pleased, infinitely delighted, infinitely joyful with each other. And what makes them pleasing? What is it that makes the Father pleasing to the Son and the Son pleasing to the Father? What makes them pleasing is that they are the kind of person — each one of them is the kind of person — who is perfectly pleased by what is perfectly pleasing. That’s what it means to be righteous, holy, just, good — namely, God. They find their joy in the joy of the beloved in God. The Father delights in the Son because the Son is perfectly delighting in the Father (and vice versa). So, the definition that Paul used works eternally in the Godhead.

Love Between God and Us

Now, what about God’s love for us? Here’s Psalm 147:10–11: “[God’s] delight . . .” Get that fixed in your mind: God’s delight. What delights God? “[God’s] delight is not in the strength of the horse, nor his pleasure in the legs of a man, but the Lord takes pleasure . . . in those who hope in his steadfast love.” Now, if hope is longing for and expecting something in the future that you delight in — that would make you happy — then this psalm teaches that God delights in those who delight in him. That is, divine love for us is God’s finding his joy in our joy in him. And we may add then, acting: God acts to secure our joy in him, and he acts at the cost of his own Son’s life, which is what the Bible underlines about the amazing aspect of this love.

“Love is finding our joy in the joy of the beloved in God — and our willingness to die to bring that about.”

What about our love for God? First Timothy 1:11 says that God is a happy God, a blessed God (makarios). And we’ve seen that, in the fellowship of the Trinity, God is a happy God. He’s delighting in the fellowship of the Trinity. God is an eternally happy God. So, for us to love God is to be glad that he is God. To love God is to say, “God, you are God, and I am glad, and you satisfy me. You are wonderful. You are perfect. I adore, I treasure, I am satisfied in you.” And our love for God, then, is to find our joy in God’s joy, which is joy in God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Love Between Us and Others

One more application. What about our love for each other? In 2 Corinthians 8:2, Paul says that the Macedonians had an abundance of joy in the grace of God. It was abundant; it was overflowing. And then he calls it love in 2 Corinthians 8:8 when this joy — this joy in grace, in God’s grace — overflows in generosity to the poor saints in Jerusalem.

And what is generosity? Generosity is the eagerness to give so that others experience more joy. That’s what you do when you’re generous. You want people to be bettered. You want them to have more joy, more lasting joy, deeper joy in what should give them the deepest joy — in this case, more joy in life (they were poor, they were suffering, they were dying). He wants more joy in life and more joy in God as they live. So, love is the overflow of the Macedonians’ joy as it expands to include the poor saints in Jerusalem in that very joy in God’s grace.

So, to my amazement, Tony — and I’m still blown away by this — a simple definition of love, turning up in Paul’s explanation of his travel plans in 2 Corinthians 2, turns out to be just about as profound and far-reaching as it can possibly be. Love is finding our joy in the joy of the beloved in God — and our willingness to die to bring that about — which proves to be the essence of love in the Trinity, love in God for us, our love for God, and our love for each other. And it shows how central joy is in defining ultimate reality.

Your Apostle and High Priest

Part 1 Episode 221 Why does it matter that Jesus is called both the apostle and high priest of our confession? In this episode of Light + Truth, John Piper turns to Hebrews 3:1–6 to show how these two titles meet our two greatest needs.

Political Flag-Waving Isn’t Enough

Christians have not only the right but the calling to speak truth to power. But such speech differs greatly from mere political flag-waving.

Political Flag-Waving Isn’t Enough

Audio Transcript

Welcome back to the podcast. We regularly take up questions on things like church-state separation, on political activism, on Christians and patriotism, on US flags in the sanctuary — things like that. Here’s another question on this theme from a listener named Matthew in Cincinnati.

“Pastor John, hello to you. Years back, you posted a tweet online that I printed out, kept, and would like you to expand on now. You posted the following on April 17, 2021, starting with Mark 6:18: ‘For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.”’ A very bold text of John speaking truth to power to confront Herod’s adultery. Then you said this: ‘By all means be willing to lose your life to speak the truth to power. But always keep in mind the vast difference between this and political flag-waving.’ Can you expound on this? What marks this vast difference between speaking the truth to power and political flag-waving? What factors distinguish the two, in your mind? And is this mainly an unseen heart issue we must be warned about?”

Let me begin by giving six descriptions of what I mean by “political flag-waving” that should be avoided, and then turn and try to say something constructive about speaking truth to power.

Don’t Wave That Flag

So, in the tweet, I said, “By all means be willing to lose your life to speak the truth to power. But always keep in mind the vast difference between this and political flag-waving.” And here’s what I mean by “political flag-waving” in that assertion.

Keep in mind that I’m treating political flag-waving here as a bad thing, even though I know that there is a definition of political flag-waving that’s not a bad thing. I’m not talking about that. So, to make that clear, I’m going to use the word bad to designate the political flag-waving I’m talking about. And I’ll describe good political flag-waving in just a minute. Here’s what I mean by bad political flag-waving.

1. Bad political flag-waving means waving the flag of partisan loyalty — that is, party loyalty — as a final allegiance and ultimate allegiance. That’s bad.

2. Bad political flag-waving means asserting a moral or social position without making a clear difference between standing for the position and standing for the party that may also stand for the position. Are you standing for the position, or are you standing for the party? Make the distinction.

3. Bad political flag-waving means expressing an undue hope for the common good in the strategies of partisan politics. Now, there are aspects of common good that can indeed come through partisan politics. Yes, there are. But there’s also an undue, unwarranted level of hope that is to be avoided.

4. Bad political flag-waving means grounding moral stands in partisan platforms rather than in a biblical worldview.

5. Bad political flag-waving reflects a mistaken conviction that moral change will come to a population through political action or partisan advocacy. It won’t.

6. Bad political flag-waving means foregrounding partisan politics in settings where they do not belong — for example, in Christian worship. Making the case for a party’s political platform belongs, for example, at the national convention of the party. That’s where you can wave your flag properly, but not in Christian worship.

So, that’s some of what I wanted us to avoid when I said, “By all means be willing to lose your life to speak the truth to power. But always keep in mind the vast difference between this and political flag-waving.”

What Separation?

Now, what about truth to power? At this point, it seems to me we really need to clarify the phrase “separation of church and state.” Wherever you say, “Speak truth to power,” people wonder if you’re trying to establish your religion as one that the government should get behind with force and with the sword. Is that what you’re doing when you say, “Speak truth to power” — trying to insert your own religion as a religion that the government would use its sword to establish or defend?

“Speaking truth to power in a truly Christian way is always a call to repent and trust the forgiving grace of Jesus.”

So, we need to clarify the phrase “separation of church and state.” And it seems to me that this phrase is surrounded by confusion today. I think it’s always been surrounded by confusion, and I don’t think it’s anybody’s fault in particular. It’s just one of those American shibboleths that is intrinsically ambiguous. So, when we have a phrase like that — and there are lots of them — those who use them (like me right now) have an obligation to give some guidance as to what they mean by that phrase. You can’t just sling it about as if everybody knows what you’re talking about.

Last June, I published an article at Desiring God called ‘My Kingdom Is Not of This World’, in which I tried to give a careful, biblically argued statement of separation of government force and religious establishment, which I think is right at the heart of the issue. Here’s the thesis — I’ll just read it.

The thesis of this essay is that Jesus Christ, the absolutely supreme Creator, Sustainer, and Ruler of the universe, intends to accomplish his saving purposes in the world without reliance on the powers of civil government to teach, defend, or spread the Christian religion as such. Followers of Christ should not use the sword of civil government to enact, enforce, or spread any idea or behavior as explicitly Christian — as part of the Christian religion as such. . . . It is precisely our supreme allegiance to the lordship of Christ [not owing to any kind of secular neutrality] that obliges us not to use the God-given sword of civil government to threaten the punishment, or withhold the freedoms, of persons who do not confess Christ as Lord.

So, the implication of that is this: no human government should ever use its biblical right to wield the sword to enforce a religion or to oppose a religion as such. And the reason I used the phrase as such is to distinguish that bad action of forceful establishment or forceful maintenance of religion from the good action of creating laws that might fit the morality of a religion but not at all be part of prescribing or proscribing a religion as such.

Truth to Power — and Weakness

With that background in place, I say again that it is not only a Christian’s right but a Christian’s calling to speak truth to power and to speak truth to weakness and to everybody in between.

We should tell the president of the United States, and we should tell the panhandler on the street, “‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved’ (Acts 16:31). If you don’t believe, Mr. President, Mr. Panhandler, you are under the wrath of God. Stop killing babies in the womb. Stop doing drugs on the street. ‘Do justice . . . love kindness . . . walk humbly with your God’ (Micah 6:8).” We should say that and a hundred other things. We are the voice of Scripture when we faithfully read and speak what the Bible teaches.

Even though the kind of obedience that pleases God is only possible in the power of the Holy Spirit through faith in Christ, nevertheless, we call everyone — believer and unbeliever — to the highest biblical standard of attitude and behavior, because we call everyone to repent and trust Jesus and receive the Holy Spirit. We don’t just isolate behavior and pray that presidents and panhandlers would do right behavior. We want them to believe and to be full of the Holy Spirit, and then act that behavior in a way that pleases God through faith. Speaking truth to power in a truly Christian way is always a call to repent and trust the forgiving grace of Jesus.

Christians know that the greatest problem to be solved in every person’s life — from the president to the panhandler — is the problem of God’s wrath against them in their unforgiven sin. Therefore, the main thing that Christians speak to power is Romans 3:25: the propitiation of God’s wrath by the blood of Christ received through faith. So, I’ll say it again, just like I did in the tweet: By all means be willing to lose your life to speak the truth to power and weakness. But always keep in mind the vast difference between this and political flag-waving.

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