“Put your trust in God, but keep your powder dry.”
- Oliver Cromwell1
To sum up what has been outlined so far – a philosophy of righteous civil resistance is articulated in the Bible – from the time of Moses who resisted Pharaoh’s armies – to the time of Israel’s Judges – through the days of young David’s resistance to King Saul – to the days of Daniel who faced the lion’s den and the fiery furnace rather than submit to a pagan government that would force God’s people to violate His Law – and into the era of the New Testament when the disciples of Jesus resolved to “obey God rather than men.”
This was developed into a theology of civil resistance by Luther, Calvin and Knox through the doctrine of the interposition of the lower magistrate. It was put into practice by the English and American Puritans and then formed the foundation for a new nation in 1776. Today, we are seeing the beginnings of a new resistance movement with the powerful understanding that we need do nothing more than follow the words set out in our own Constitution in the rights – through the civil doctrine of nullification.
It has been said that drastic times call for drastic measures. The good news, of course, is that our Constitution allows for measures that are no more drastic than simply allowing the people to exercise their own rights and ignore civil tyranny. Today, we have a situation in our nation in which civil authorities will not uphold the moral law of God. Together with covenant-breaking policies of the current presidential administration, we have new federal laws, foreign to the philosophy of the Puritans and our founding fathers, directed against Christians who would champion the moral law of God. Ultimately, the Church believes not in revolution, but in regeneration and reformation.
There have been many instances of societal reformation led by the Church that may be viewed as models for our present situation. What we are seeing today in the reemergence of Christian conservative activism is an instinctive gut reaction. We know that lawlessness in our society is prominent and we sense a need for godly leadership. But we need to have a long term, principled, theological response to the situation. With the recent groundswell of political conservatism in the Church, we must also have a revival of Neo-Puritanism, an understanding of the authority of the Law of God, and a covenantal model of government.
Of course, this model needs to begin in the churches. But our age is an antinomian age. When Paul says, “For you are not under law, but under grace” (Romans 6:14), for so long that has been interpreted to mean that the moral law of God does not have any effect on our lives.
But Paul was saying that the Law was not over us in a sentence of death because we have been justified. We do not adhere to the Law as a basis for justification. But after we are justified, the Law is the standard for sanctification. The Church has to understand and preach the law of God as the only standard. We can’t undo over 150 years of antinomianism in the Church in two or three years. It has to be done incrementally.
If we are to have reformation in society, first there must be a Neo-Puritan revival in the Church. We say that this revival must be “Neo-Puritan” because only the revivals of this strain have brought lasting societal transformation in past centuries. The “revival” movements of the past 150 years have been sadly pietistic and mystical, lacking the transforming power of the Great Awakenings. What passes for “revival” in modern times is too often a whimsical, man-centered, post-modernist, experience-oriented religion.
A crucial step in promoting a Neo-Puritan awakening in our society would be the institution of a civil government that would return our nation to the constitutional limits of federal authority. This would be an excellent place to start, but the steps toward reconstructing our culture to reflect Christian moral principles are enormous tasks.
First, there has to be greater unity in the Church. We would do that not by getting rid of distinctives, but by establishing the bare minimum distinctives. Unity would be based on historic orthodoxy found in the councils and creeds of the early Church. Councils or presbyteries could be formed on the basis of a Church covenant between local churches of specific regions. All churches could work together – from Reformed to Baptist, Methodist, Independent, Charismatic – to whoever affirmed the core elements of Christianity.
Second, a national synod (or council of churches) could be called several times a year. A number of representatives from each local presbytery could be sent. These could include pastors, church members, and also representatives who currently hold elected and appointed civil offices. The first step would be to get together and hold a national conference to discuss the platform and goals of the Christian Commonwealth. Then representatives could be elected with consent of their local church bodies.
But before this can be attempted, there is the strong necessity of unity. Theological dialogue and education on all levels is a prerequisite. Holding these national synods to confront evil in the civil sphere, as did John Knox and the Church of Scotland, could lead to instituting a shadow government, as did Oliver Cromwell and the English Puritans. We could begin by issuing proclamations to the leaders of the country and to people who are involved in promoting instances of gross evil – such as funding the abortion industry. These proclamations would state that they are in violation of the moral law of God by promoting abortion and other ungodly injunctions. Our civil legislators would be called upon to repent or suffer the wrath of God.
The filing of these “covenantal lawsuits” presupposes that the Church has specifically endowed power from the Lord according to Matthew 16:19 that “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven.” The Church is an earthly extension of the heavenly throne room. When we are operating according to the Word of God and we make declarations, they mean something – not just in heaven but on earth. We are saying that authority is given to us in heaven and also here on earth because we are the Church of God. John the Baptist shook his finger in the face of King Herod’s adultery and said, “It is not lawful for you to have her” (Matthew 14:4). The Church needs to do that as well.
A national synod could be called several times a year for the purpose of issuing various statements in opposition to the ruling power. For instance, if a president of the United States signs executive orders supporting fetal tissue research, the “Christian Commonwealth” could issue a proclamation stating disagreement.
A Knoxian-Cromwellian Revolution is coming!
The Church needs to be prepared to directly confront the civil government through representatives who are born-again and hold to covenant theology. This presupposes that the Church is responsible for training civil leaders who will not only take a stand for righteousness, but who also have a covenantal theology undergirding their legislative activism. Once again, we need to throw off the crippling notion of the “Divine Right of Kings.” Many modern evangelicals falsely believe that all powers that exist are ordained by God. Scripture clearly indicates that only those powers that are covenantal are ordained of God. The Church must reform, resist and, if necessary, overthrow powers that are lawless. This is what the Presbyterians and Puritans did in Scotland, England and America. It is what we must begin to do again today.
We also need modern day Oliver Cromwells who can correctly discern the weaknesses of the current “army” of political and social activists. There is a biblical basis for the Church to personify Wisdom “crying out in the gates of the city.” The Christian Commonwealth should state emphatically from the outset that we would take every conceivable step to avoid every violent conflict with a hostile government. However, we ought to throw off the Ghandian pacifistic notion that armed conflict is wrong in all circumstances. Christians especially those living under tyrannical governments need to be prepared to defend themselves if wrongfully attacked. Cromwell became responsible to form armed militias that defended families and communities from a tyrannical government under King Charles I in the 1600s, as did also the pastors of many Congregational, Baptist and Presbyterian churches at the time of the American Revolution.
Another important strategy is for both church and civil leaders understand that there is a covenantal basis for separate Church and State spheres of government, as did the American Puritans. In this way, we would be able to fully articulate our views in the “public square” when those who enforce power unlawfully would attempt to intimidate United States citizens and rob them of their God-given rights and duties in the civil arena. As John Hancock, Samuel Adams and Thomas Jefferson were civil leaders who were educated by the church as to the civil leader’s duties, today’s statesmen would be constrained to legislate according to the moral law of God.
Today we are seeing the downfall of secularism in post-modern history. As we survey recent history, we see the tyrannical dictatorships that were overthrown in the 1990s; Muslim countries are currently being shaken by far reaching cultural and political changes; and many third world and former communist bloc countries are looking to the West – especially to America – for a model upon which to base their political and economic systems.
The sweeping changes we have seen in Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, China, and the Middle East in the last 25 years were a natural fruition the principles laid down at the time of the Reformation. In the West, we may very well see a complete breakdown of secularism within the next few decades. The preaching of the Gospel coupled with the collapse of the secularist state under the weight of its own lawlessness is preparing the way for the most significant paradigm shift since the first coming of Jesus Christ.
In the next few years, we may see the world system of secular liberalism in the West begin to undergo its own demise. We may be shaken as we see scenes reminiscent of the downfall of the communism played out in our own country. By the time we are ready to pass on the baton to the next generation, we might see the debris of 250 years of secularism strewn behind us. God’s judgment will have been measured out equally on the materialistic secularism of both East and West. The questions God’s people ought to be asking at this time: “Are we prepared to weather God’s nation-shaking changes?” and “We will be ready and equipped to rebuild a society based on the covenant of God once the sifting has taken place?”
Today, believers in Christian orthodoxy have an opportunity to assist the emerging free nations of the world who are breaking the shackles of tyranny for the first time. The political role of America during this time in world history can move in only one of two corresponding directions.
There are two viable options for future American statesmen proceeding with foreign policy in the world. Our nation can push towards a New World Order of messianic statism – one in which the state robs the individual of his natural sovereignty and independence and assumes the role of family, church and, yes, even God. The other role for our nation is for a global Neo-Puritan reformation – one in which the state assumes a minimal role and assumes that the individual, family and church are sovereignly governed under the moral law of God.
Our nation can move forward in its current position of agnostic secularism and attempt to secure our status militarily and economically as the most powerful nation in the world; or we can reclaim the Christian heritage of our Puritan beginnings and strive to rebuild America as an example of strength and prosperity built on the ideals of the biblical law and government.
The entire Puritan experiment in America was aimed at creating “a city set on a hill for all the world to see” – a model republic based on biblical law and “Christian charity” for the whole world to emulate. The Puritans also believed in the concept of “patient gradualism” – that they might not live to see the fruit of the field they had planted. They understood the Kingdom of Heaven as being progressive and having a gradual growth, as a stone cut without hands, which becomes a great mountain and fills the earth. The kingdom of Heaven was to attain universal dominion but through slow degrees with gradual progress. The Puritans understood that the Messiah would thus be gradually magnified until He became the omnipotent ruler in the world. Thus the battle cry of the reformation – “No king but Christ” – would become a temporal reality.
King George was appalled at the American Revolution, not because he saw that there were colonists who were rebelling against the rule of parliament, but because he saw the covenantal implications. He called it the “Presbyterian Parson’s Rebellion.” He saw it as a continuation of the Scottish rebellion against his father some twenty years prior in which the covenanters rose up and established certain standards against which the king could not act. In other words, they were saying that there is but one Christ and Savior who wears the crown of all authority over all the nations of the earth. There is but one King of kings and Lord of lords. The king of Great Britain didn’t much like that notion. He thought that he had a divine right to rule. The American Revolution was drawn from covenantal concepts that held the king in check and required action for justice when the king stepped beyond his bounds (George Grant, God’s Law and Society).
Almost 400 years to the day when the Pilgrim forefathers first set foot on Plymouth rock, we seem to be stepping onto the threshold of realizing the Puritan hope. And we should not confine this hope to America alone. The future course of many nations could be determined by the voice of the Church prophetically warning against personal ambition and entangling alliances; but encouraging instead a historical optimism with the reality of God’s covenant established among the nations to ensure lasting peace.
As James Russell Lowell wrote in “This Present Crisis,” we must recapture the spirit that drove the Pilgrims and Puritans.
New occasions teach new duties;
Time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must upward still, and onward,
Who would keep abreast of Truth;
Lo, before us gleam her camp-fires!
We ourselves must Pilgrims be,
Launch our Mayflower, and steer boldly
Through the desperate winter sea,
Nor attempt the Future’s portal
With the Past’s blood-rusted key.
And we, as Christian individuals, families, schools, businesses, ministries and churches, can work for the emergence of Christian culture throughout the world. If we recover this Puritan Hope, we will see Christians working in covenant together for global revival and reformation with the “Word of God growing mightily and prevailing” (Acts 19:20).
1 Attributed by William Blacker, who popularized the quote with his poem “Oliver’s Advice,” the attribution to Cromwell appears in a footnote describing a “well-authenticated anecdote” that explains the poem’s title. The repeated line in Blacker’s poem is, “Put your trust in God, my boys, but keep your powder dry.”