During the United States’ July 4th season, certain conversations in Christian circles often (re)gain a particular intensity and prominence. Is America a “Christian nation?” Is “Christian nationalism” a threat to society and the church? And so on.
These are long-standing conversations, resulting in numerous arguments I can’t resolve here. However, I would like to reflect biblically on the concept of a “Christian nation.” What is a “Christian nation,” exactly? What would one look like? What significance would such a thing have for the church?
Two kinds of ‘Christian nation’
I imagine two different kinds of “Christian nation.”
In the first, the vast majority—perhaps even all—of the nation’s citizens have repented of their sins, put their faith in Jesus Christ, plugged in to healthy local churches, joined together to advance the gospel, and committed themselves to lives defined by love of God and love of neighbor.
In this kind of Christian nation, God has done a mighty work of grace among the nation’s people. The Holy Spirit has worked in the hearts of millions of individuals to convict them of their sins and bring them to faith in Christ (John 3:5-8; Titus 3:5-6).
In the second kind, the nation’s various major institutions recognize and reflect Christian values. Most or all of the citizens identify as Christians and regularly attend church. Numerous public policies are in place that protect or even advance Christian interests. Popular culture and public opinion are widely favorable to Christianity.
What, exactly, is the difference between these two kinds of Christian nation? In the first, the people are spiritually alive in Christ. In the second, it is possible many, most or even all of the people are self-deceived and spiritually dead (Matthew 7:21-23; 1 Corinthians 3:18).
Law and gospel
The first kind of Christian nation is the result of God changing people’s hearts through the power of the gospel in the Holy Spirit, bringing them to faith in Christ and transforming the nation from the inside out. Hearts have been changed. In the second kind of “Christian nation,” only institutions, laws, and cultural norms have been changed.
In 2 Corinthians 3:6, Paul makes the famous statement, “For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (CSB). In context, Paul is talking about Israel, the Law, the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. Paul’s point is God’s law expressed in “the letter” kills, whereas God’s gospel applied by the Holy Spirit gives life.
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This law/gospel distinction is fundamental to understanding Scripture properly. “The Law,” which refers not simply to certain Old Testament prescriptions but to God’s righteous requirements more generally, cannot save us. God’s law can expose our sin, reveal our need for a savior, partially restrain wickedness, teach us about God’s character and teach us how to live rightly.
But only the gospel can save us (Acts 4:12; Romans 1:16).
The gospel is God’s gracious provision of what we cannot supply ourselves. Specifically, the gospel is God’s gracious provision of his Son, Jesus Christ. Christ’s righteousness, substitutionary death for our sins and resurrection from the dead are a pure gift we receive by faith, and this gift alone brings true salvation from sin and death. (Romans 3:1-4:25; Galatians 2:15-21; Ephesians 2:1-10).
The example of Israel
But what does this law/gospel dynamic have to do with the idea of a Christian nation?
Let us consider the example of biblical Israel. The nation of Israel in the Bible was an earthly nation directly and uniquely instituted by God. Biblical Israel is the only earthly nation in the history of the world to enjoy a special covenant relationship with God. God himself wrote Israel’s laws and set up their government.
In other words, Old Testament Israel was the ultimate paradigm of the second kind of “Christian nation” I describe above, if you’ll excuse my anachronistic use of the term “Christian.”
Yet Israel’s history, as described in the Bible, is absolutely full of spiritual—not to mention literal—death, idolatry, apostasy and all kinds of wickedness. God poured out his wrath on the nation numerous times. At various points in Israel’s history, only a miniscule fraction of the people remained faithful to God (1 Kings 19:1-18).
Why? Because God’s perfect law, even as presented in an accommodated “easy mode” specially designed for Israel’s needs (Mark 10:5), could not give spiritual life to God’s people. Across the entire Bible, the spiritual and eternal life we need comes only as a gracious gift from God, our need for which is revealed by God’s righteous law.
Creating a Christian nation
I would love to see the United States—and every other nation on earth—become a Christian nation of the first kind, with billions of lives around the globe transformed by the Holy Spirit bringing people to faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Unfortunately, Christians can be tempted to try to produce the first kind of Christian nation by attempting to create the second kind of Christian nation. We can be tempted to focus on changing institutions, laws and such. We can be tempted to think—consciously or unconsciously—that through making concrete changes in politics, economics and popular culture we can turn our nation to Jesus Christ.
Sadly, however, we can create earthly change without producing spiritual change. In such a case, we not only could fail to advance the gospel; we potentially could deceive countless people into thinking they know Christ when they really don’t, because they confuse the “cultural Christianity” we’ve instituted with genuine faith in Christ.
I am not saying public policy and popular culture don’t matter. They do matter and are worth engaging (Jeremiah 29:7; Romans 13:1-7). But changed policies and laws and changed cultural norms are not the same thing as changed hearts. Christians can win an election without winning a single soul.
God brings people from death to life through the gospel, even if those people’s nation is against Christ legally, politically, culturally and more. But a nation cannot and will not genuinely turn to God without the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Joshua Sharp is the pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Orange. He is a graduate of Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Mo., and Truett Theological Seminary in Waco. The views expressed are those of the author.