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Lecture XIX: The State's Service of God

(Art. 24)

We confesse and acknawledge Empyres, Kingdomes, Dominiounis, and Citties to be distincted and ordained be God; the powers and authoritie in the same, be it of Emperours in their Empyres, of Kingis in their Realmes, Dukes and Princes in their Dominionis, and of utheris Magistrates in the Citties, to be Gods haly ordinance, ordained for manifestatioun of his awin glory, and for the singular profite and commoditie of mankind: So that whosoever goeth about to take away, or to confound the haill state of Civile policies, now long established; we affirme the same men not onely to be enimies to mankinde, but also wickedly to fecht against Goddis expressed will. Wee farther confesse and acknawledge, that sik persouns as are placed in authoritie ar to be loved, honoured, feared, and halden in most reverent estimatioun; because that they are the Lieu-tennents of God, in whose Sessiouns God himself dois sit and judge: Zea, even the Judges & Princes themselves, to whome be God is given the sword, to the praise and defence of gude men, and to revenge and punish all open malefactors. Mairover, to Kings, Princes, Rulers and Magistrates, wee affirme that chieflie and most principallie the conservation and purgation of the Religioun apperteinis; so that not onlie they are appointed for Civill policie, bot also for maintenance of the trew Religioun, and for suppressing of Idolatrie and Superstitioun whatsoever: As in David, Josaphat, Ezechias, Josias, and utheris highlie commended for their zeale in that caise, may be espyed.

And therefore wee confesse and avow, that sik as resist the supreme power, doing that thing quhilk appertains to his charge, do resist Goddis ordinance; and therefore cannot be guiltles. And farther we affirme, that whosoever denies unto them ayde, their counsell and comfort, quhiles the Princes and Rulers vigilantly travell in execution of their office, that the same men deny their helpe, support and counsell to God, quha, be the presence of his Lieu-tennent, dois crave it of them.


The title which I have given to the subject-matter of Article 24 of the Scottish Confession, “The State's Service of God,” sounds unusual and artificial. But when I consider both the context and the content of this article and the matter itself, I do not know any other way in which I could express myself. Reformed doctrine does not merely know the service of God rendered by the Christian life, and the church service in the narrower sense of the term, with which we have been occupied in the last two lectures. On a third level of thought and reality, it knows also a service of God rendered by the State. We shall be able to see this third level, once we reflect that the Christian life and the life of the church are enacted within the confines of a world which does not yet listen to the Word of God, which is still a stranger to the Lordship and judgement of Jesus Christ and which therefore cannot yet be claimed to be under the obedience of faith. Note that the Christians, too, belong to this world, even when church members and conscious and active members, in so far as it is true to say of them, too, that they are not yet under the obedience of faith, but are still constantly engaged in the conflict of the flesh with the spirit, a conflict in which the church herself is engaged in and with her members. What is to become of the world—and of the church in so far as she, too, is still in the world, belongs to the world and is herself worldly? The decisive answer must certainly be that the world may and must hear the Word of God. The world is the object of the church's mission, though the church will frankly own here that she herself is the very first to need the mission work which she has to perform. But the church by the very act of performing her mission towards the world—in principle the one and only thing which she can do for it—does thereby achieve to some extent an anticipation of what is to come. The existence of the church in the world, the fact that she must venture to speak the Word of God to it, means a sanctification of the world, preliminary but none the less real. It is preliminary because it is not to be confounded with the sanctification which can come about only when the world listens to God's Word, permits itself to be called to faith, and so becomes itself the church. But it is none the less real, a work of the Holy Spirit's, just as truly as the other is, but at present applied only externally and connected with the whole sphere of what is not yet under the obedience of faith. This sphere is in reality not yet the sphere of the Christian life or of the church. Here the argument of Article 24 is directed against those sixteenth-century movements, which overlooked this fact that the world is not yet under the obedience of faith, and which therefore thought that they could set up the kingdom of the Saints in cities and countries and that they ought to do so. What we are dealing with here are tasks other than that, and preliminary and subordinate to it. But neither is it true that Jesus Christ is not yet the Lord and moreover the only Lord and Judge in this sphere also. He is Lord and Judge manifestly, when the Word of God enters this sphere by its proclamation, and when faith in Him is confessed here. But he is present, too, secretly, wherever such proclamation and confession of faith is not yet to be heard. Wherever God's Word is proclaimed and confession of faith in Jesus Christ is made, there will certainly be proclamation and confession of the fact that His Kingdom has no end and that in this external sphere too there exists no law, truth or reality which can set bounds to the Church's task or can set aside or even check faith active in love. Thus in such places the anticipation referred to is of necessity brought about. And the world with its claim to be merely the world and to be its own law-giver is not taken seriously—either in the sense that it should be left to its own devices in its indifference or in its indignation, or in the sense that it should be granted a charter, under which it would be permitted to lead a life of independence. Here, too, Article 24 is directed against those sixteenth- century movements, which wished to urge the Christian to have no interest in the world, but to withdraw from it, and it is directed against those, which, like Lutheranism, wish to combine withdrawal from the world with the acknowledgement of a certain independence of the Kingdom of the world over against the Kingdom of Jesus Christ. According to Reformed teaching neither attitude is true—withdrawal from the world or recognition of the independence of the world; these two realms are indeed to be distinguished, but are none the less one, in so far as Jesus Christ is Lord not only of the church but also of the world. He is the Lord of the world in that quite different way mentioned above, in the form of the claim to the political order which He makes. Consequently the claim which that order imposes on every man is founded not on a special law governing the world, but on God's law, which is proclaimed in the church and holds good for the world also. It is founded “as God's haly ordinance,” and just to this extent it has a real and true foundation. The political order is not only of service for “the singular profite and commoditie of mankind.” On the contrary, it also serves “for manifestatioun of God's awin glory” and is, just to this extent, a real and beneficial ordering of human life as well. It is not yet the order of faith and love, but, as it were, the shadow which that order casts before it—the order of outward justice, outward peace and outward freedom. It is not yet the order of inward, spiritual justice and peace, nor yet the order of the freedom of the children of God. It is certainly not yet God's eternal Kingdom but is the promise of this latter in the midst of the chaos of the Kingdom of the world. That is the sanctification of the world through the existence of the church. That is the anticipation of what is to come, which the church brings about in relation to the world by proclaiming to it the Word of God. The church claims the order governing the world also, the political order as an order for the service of God. She claims it, that is, as an order, in which rulers and ruled are summoned to obedience to God and hence to thankfulness and penitence in the special, preliminary and preparatory way appropriate to this sphere of what is not yet under the obedience of faith. Only outward justice, outward peace and outward freedom can be brought about and preserved here and that only when recourse is made to physical force. What we are concerned with here can be only a sign pointing to life in Jesus Christ as the life of faith and love. But it is under these very conditions that God commands us to bring about such justice, peace and freedom and to preserve it. Therefore in these conditions there does exist a service of God in the world also, a service of God rendered by the State.


We have seen, throughout the second part of our lectures, how the Christian life and the life of the church is in a state of crisis brought upon it by the question about the true service of God, and by the question about the true nature of the Christian life and of the church. We have seen how every individual and thus also the church as a whole would be lost if Jesus Christ did not answer this question ever anew in their favour. And we have seen how this question none the less means for the men in the church also a problem which is continually raised and a task which must never be neglected. We can have no cause for surprise if a corresponding statement must be made about the service of God rendered by the State, which is to some degree co-ordinate with the life of Christians and of the church. The political order is from time to time in the hands of definite political powers and rulers. Paul makes use of an expression which is clearly sacred and not profane, when in Romans 13, 6 he describes these rulers as ministers of God (λειτουργόι) who are ordained of God to the administration of the political order (Rom. 13, 1). They are manifestly ordained to their position in precisely the same way as the church and her members are ordained of God as the assembly of believers for the proclaiming and hearing of the Word of God. But just as the church is constantly asked if she is what her name signifies, so also the same question is put even more insistently to the State, to the political order in the concrete form in which it is administered by specific political rulers. That it is ordained of God protects the State from this question just as little as it protects the church. The political order stands or falls with the Grace of God and here again that does not preclude but involves its being something which must be constantly sought and found by men. Its significance as service of God can be clear in one place and obscure in another.

It does not become clear by rulers professing the Christian faith and indeed being known as men who personally are sincerely pious. When this is the case, one can rejoice at it for their sakes, and perhaps for the sake of the church also. But that in itself does not make clear the significance of the political order as service of God. That significance was often very obscure where one would have thought it could have been seen most clearly, in view of the acknowledged Christianity of the rulers in question. And conversely it does not necessarily become obscured through rulers having no church connection or at most a doubtful one, though we may be sorry for that for their sakes. Rather under certain circumstances this significance can become very clear even then, clearer in fact than where the State seems to have a very Christian appearance.

The question here is rather the very simple one, as to what the authority in question wills and does. It is thus that the question has been put in the Scottish Confession. Does the political power—this king or that magistrate—do what it is its business to do? Does it abide by God's commandments? Does it remain within the bounds of justice and within the bounds of its task? Does it therefore, by showing this attitude, possess legitimate “authoritie”? That is the question. Is it not one which can and must be raised constantly in connection with every political power? This question is certainly asked by God. The other alternative could also come about; the holders of political power could fail to do their duty. They could violate and destroy the justice, freedom and peace which they ought to safeguard. Their power could become tyranny, as is explicitly stated in Article 14, and they could in one way or another fail to display any legitimate “authoritie.” In such a case the significance of the political order as service of God becomes manifestly obscured, ceases to be credible, indeed, becomes a mockery, and is made a mockery by the very people who administer it and who are ordained of God. What significance has it now that they are ordained of God, that God sits in their sessions and that they claim His authority? Even though all these things remain the same, it has clearly quite a different significance from the previous case, where the political powers make clear what they now make obscure by their actions. Just because there is no alteration in the Divine appointment of the political order, it is now manifestly true that “God Himself dois . . . judge even the judges themselves” and that the sword they wield is turned against themselves.

And now the Scottish Confession has rightly raised a second question alongside the first one. The second question, however, ought to be formulated somewhat more exactly and more carefully than has been done by the Confession. The Confession maintains that the right use of political power will show itself unambiguously in its administration in relation to the church. This is to go too far. Indeed a certain theological error is involved in the demand made of the State, that it should not merely defend the true church but that in a given case it should also undertake the reformation of the church and therefore the restoration of the true church and in this way follow the example of the Old Testament kings in suppressing all idolatry and all superstition which arises in the church. To maintain this is to go too far and indeed to do so in a way that is dangerous. Spiritual perversity must be overcome with spiritual force and not with political. If the church fails to recognise that, who is going to guarantee what reformations may one day be demanded of her by means of political force by some Josiah or other? If this view were true, Hitler would be right in his attempt to reform the church. But fortunately it is not the task of the State to reform the church. But it is correct to say that the significance of the political order as service of God becomes clear where the State provides and preserves freedom for the church. The church requires nothing more and declines anything further. But she does require full freedom to pursue her own task, which is a different one from that of the State. Forgiveness of sin is something different from justice. And eternal life is not the same as peace and freedom. The church requires scope to deliver her own message about forgiveness of sins and eternal life in the name of her Lord. The significance of the political order as the service of God is obscured where the State refuses the church this scope or sets limits to it. It is obscured where the State demands of the church that she subject and adapt herself to the aims of the State. It is obscured when the State furthers the false church in opposition to the true. It is obscured where the State, perhaps by making its own aims absolute, as in Germany to-day, becomes itself a church, a church which will without doubt be a false one and the most intolerant of all churches. The question then which the State cannot evade is: does it make clear or obscure the significance of the political order as service of God? Is it on the way to becoming in its sphere what Romans 13 calls God's representative and priest or is it on the way to becoming the beast rising up out of the sea of Revelation 13? It is either one or the other.


The answer which is given to the previous question determines the attitude which we are required to take up within the political order. I say explicitly within the political order. The political order qua political order and the necessity for it is not something open to question, whatever the conduct of the political power may be. And the significance of the political order as service of God is not affected by its being made clear at one point and obscured at another. Consequently our attitude under all conditions can only be an attitude within this order. But when the significance of this order is clear, the attitude which we take up within it will be different from the one which we take up when it is not clear.

There is no universally valid demand whose purport is that we should have to put our positive co-operation at the disposal of the political powers in the tasks and aims which are for the moment theirs. The Scottish Confession has rightly drawn a very clear distinction here between lawful and unlawful authority. We can afford the State such positive co-operation only when the significance of the State as service of God is made clear and credible to us by the State itself, by its attitude and acts, its intervening on behalf of justice, peace and freedom and its conduct towards the church. That is the condition which the Confessio Scotica is right in constantly laying down. If that condition is not fulfilled, then, to speak for the moment in general terms, we can only endure in the same way as we must endure other evil forces which we cannot avert. The significance of the political order as service of God remains, even when those who administer it make it a mockery. But in that case we can take no share in their responsibility, we cannot further their intentions, we cannot wish to strive with them to attain their aims. We cannot do it under any conditions or on any pretext. We have to put to ourselves the question mentioned above. And it means a responsible decision of faith and love, when we venture in point of fact to take up an active position within the political order, and not merely endure it.

But neither have we a universally valid duty nor even indeed a universally valid right to refuse the State our positive co-operation and our participation in its responsibility. We would have the duty to refuse this if the character of the political order as service of God were in fact made obscure to us. But—and on this point the Scottish Confession is perfectly plain—we have not even the right to refuse this, so long and so far as this character of the political order is made clear to us in concreto. In that case our duty is to co-operate with the political power. We are then bound to put our assistance and ourselves at the disposal of the State for the carrying out of its service. If in that case we were to refuse to do our duty as citizens, we should be denying God just as much as if we were to disavow our Confession in the church. Once again we are faced with the question mentioned above. And once again it means a responsible decision of faith and love, should we really venture to adopt the other, the passive attitude within the political order.


There is a particular passage in Article 14 of the Confession, in its exposition of the sixth Commandment, to which we must now return and which compels us to go one step further in this connection. It is explicitly stated there that to the fulfilment of the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” belongs also the command “to represse tyrannie” and not to allow the shedding of innocent blood when we can prevent it. What does this mean? It means that, according to the Scottish Confession, under certain conditions there may be a resistance to the political power, which is not merely allowed but enjoined by God. John Knox and his friends have supplied the unambiguous commentary to this by their words and deeds. This may be not only a passive resistance but an active one, a resistance which can in certain circumstances be a matter of opposing force by force, as did occur in Scotland in the sixteenth century. It may be that the repressing of tyranny and the prevention of the shedding of innocent blood can be carried out in no other way.

What are we to say to this? I think, all things being considered, we must agree with the Confession here. We certainly cannot escape obedience to God and to the political order. Nor can we evade praying in accordance with 1 Timothy 2, 1–4 for those who administer that order, whoever they may be and however they may do it. This prayer and this obedience may not cease, no matter whether the significance of the political order be clear or obscure. But in certain circumstances the form which this obedience and prayer take as regards the actual administrators and representatives of the political power, may be not that of the active or passive position mentioned above but a third alternative. Obedience not to the political order, but to its actual representatives can become impossible for us, if we wish at the same time to hold fast to faith and love. It could well be that we could obey specific rulers only by being disobedient to God, and by being thus in fact disobedient to the political order ordained of God as well. It could well be that we had to do with a Government of liars, murderers and incendiaries, with a Government which wished to usurp the place of God, to fetter the conscience, to suppress the church and become itself the Church of Antichrist. It would be clear in such a case that we could only choose either to obey this Government by disobeying God or to obey God by disobeying this Government. In such a case must not God be obeyed rather than men? Must it not be forbidden us then to desire merely to endure? In such a case must not faith in Jesus Christ active in love necessitate our active resistance in just the same way as it necessitates passive resistance or our positive co-operation, when we are not faced with this choice? Must it not necessitate this in precisely the same way as in corresponding circumstances it necessitates reformation and therefore a breach in the church, the breach between the true and the false church? Must not the prayer for this Government, without ceasing to be intercession for them personally before God, for their conversion and their eternal salvation become quite plainly the prayer that as political rulers they may be set aside? And in such a case would we not have to act in accordance with our prayer? Against this it may be asked, can we and have we the right as Christians to take part in the use of force in certain circumstances? This question recalls once again the position with which we began the whole subject in this chapter. We are here as we deal with church and State, so to speak, on the edge of the church in the sphere of the world not yet redeemed. To live in this world and to obey God in it is to take part in the use of force directly or indirectly. It is not first of all in connection with this last case of active resistance to definite powers that the question of force arises.

Let us be quite clear; by obeying the political order in accordance with God's command, we have in any case directly or indirectly a share in the exercise of force. We have a share in this even when we feel it is our duty to choose that middle way of passive participation. And whether the repressing of tyranny will be a matter of forcible resistance or not, is not something which can be decided in advance. But active resistance as such cannot and may not be excluded out of fear of the ultima ratio of forcible resistance. And the possible consequence of forcible resistance may certainly not be excluded in advance.

We may and should pray to be spared that choice, or, if that be not possible, at least to be spared the ultima ratio of forcible resistance. And we should and must examine our responsibilities here, indeed, if possible, even more carefully than in the decisions previously mentioned. But there is one thing which must not happen. We may neither pray nor wish to be spared obedience to God in this worldly sphere either, to be spared the political service of God as such. And since we now have been claimed for it we may not take flight from any of its consequences demanded of us. The world needs men and it would be sad if it were just the Christians who did not wish to be men.