On Russell Moore, Evangelicals, and Political Engagement

[Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on January 27, 2014.]

The sharp-sighted cultural commentator Russell Moore strikes again. In “Evangelical Retreat?”, published in the December edition of First Things, he responds to the concern that younger Evangelicals’ drift away from conservative political activism is underlain by closet liberalism, political disinterest, or perhaps some other infelicity.[1] His answer, which I think is correct, is that most young Evangelicals are not withdrawing; instead, they are engaging in ways which are more deeply theological and ecclesial.

Moore begins by noting certain concerns expressed by Christians outside of the Evangelical orbit: “Dispensationalist fascination with prophecy has waned in recent years, as Evangelicals seem to be recalibrating to the larger church tradition on eschatology. But I find that in talking to Catholic and Orthodox friends, some of them fear a Rapture of a different kind. They worry that Evangelical Christians will soon evacuate not the earth but the public square” (p. 46). The concern stems from several factors, and central among them is the breakdown of the religious right as a centering force for Evangelical cultural impact. In the wake of this breakdown, where and how will Evangelicals engage the culture? Will they try? This is a concern held not only by Catholic friends, but also by old veterans of the Moral Majority.

Moore notes that “engaging the culture” has changed in Evangelicalism because the present generation defines these terms differently from previous generations. No longer does “engage the culture” mean “get out the vote.” Rather, young Evangelicals regularly engage the culture at the congregational level primarily and the political level secondarily. As Moore points out, “They focus on helping the poor by, among other things, working for marriage stability [the healthy union of one man and one woman], family accountability [including the sanctity of life], and personal responsibility [the practice of purity and community]” (p. 46). These actions are underlain by deep and profound theological and ecclesial concerns.

For this generation of Evangelicals, faithful and appropriate public action sprouts from the rich soil of orthodox theology. Moore observes:

As Evangelicalism grows increasingly estranged from American culture––especially from the evaporating culture of the Bible Belt––it grows increasingly committed to the ‘strangest’ aspects of the evangel itself: atonement, resurrection, reconciliation, and so on. Some younger Evangelicals’ flight impulse from issues deemed ‘political’ isn’t a move to the political left as much as a move to the theological right. (p. 46)

In this case, “engaging the culture” will not look like Evangelical public action of the past. “As a matter of fact, today the center of American Evangelicalism is, theologically speaking, to the right of the old religious right.” Evangelicals have begun to realize slowly “that they are no ‘moral majority’” in America (p. 47). So a more expansive theology, rooted especially in the Reformed Tradition, has replaced extensive campaigning.

Such theology also undergirds a more rigorous church polity and accountability. “Unlike the Bible-Belt congregation of the twentieth century, the new kind of Evangelical church has strict membership requirements . . . The pastor typically preaches forty-five minutes to an hour of verse-by-verse exposition . . . He is pro-life and pro-marriage” (p. 47). The challenge for many “young Evangelical” pastors and elders (a growing trend, too) is not whether to teach all that Jesus has commanded (Matt 28:19–20), but whether public engagement fits within the mission of the local church. This is because he has most likely seen attempts at packaging “a transcendent message for decidedly worldly, and often cynical, purposes of pulling the levels of power” (p. 47).

With every theology and polity comes a worldview, or vice versa. As such, Moore observes, “To understand the Evangelical tension on public engagement, one must understand that Evangelicals are a narrative-driven people.” This refers to the biblical narrative but also to personal narratives. Personal testimonies demonstrate the reasons young Evangelicals worship, for example, in Reformed and liturgically oriented churches. These churches are decidedly different from, for example, the theologically vacuous and/or super casual churches in which they grew up. And as Moore notes, “What’s true at the personal level is true also at the level of the movement” (p. 48).

Moore also clarifies that the term “young Evangelical” is also confusing for many. The theological conservatives of whom he speaks are quite different from the “young Evangelicals” often sought out by the national media. “It would be a mistake to lump the convictional Evangelicals of whom I speak with the professional dissidents who make a living marketing mainline Protestant shibboleths to Evangelical college audiences by questioning everything from biblical inerrancy to a Christian sexual ethic” (p. 46). So “liberal” does not describe the “young Evangelicals” of whom Moore writes.

The current status and ethos of Evangelicalism, then, reflects a return to the evangel. “Evangelical Christianity, it seems, is moving back to a confessional centering on the Gospel.” But this does not mean that such “Gospel-centered Evangelicals” should retreat from public engagement (p. 48). The past mistakes caused by divorcing the Gospel from the kingdom cannot and must not be repeated. How then do we engage?

Moore argues for prophetic distance and prophetic engagement. He contends that the increasing secularization of America “ . . . will ensure that Christianity must either capitulate or engage. The engagement will not be at the level of voters’ guides or consumer boycotts––and thank God. The engagement will be first congregational . . . ” (p. 49). Moore also encourages Evangelicals to look to Rome for help: “Rome’s witness to a Christian sexual ethic will keep the question alive . . . .” Likewise, though, Evangelicals can remind Catholics that natural law is as good as far as it goes, but that the universe “is shaped around the Gospel of Jesus Christ” (p. 50). So Evangelicals are still here, still engaging, albeit in new, more theological ways. “You can call that a ‘Rapture’ if you want, but don’t call it a ‘retreat’” (p. 50).

I agree with Moore’s assessment, and add only a few thoughts.

First, I hope that Evangelicals in general, and Southern Baptist Evangelicals in particular, will take Moore’s lead, learning from him how to engage in public political conversation in ways that are not only theologically robust but also gracious and kind. If we fail to do so, the resulting combination of theological vacuity and dispositional snark will kill our gospel witness. If we succeed in doing so, the potent combination of truth and kindness in civil discourse portrays the gospel faithfully and strengthens our ability to be persuasive.

Second, I hope that Evangelicals will not neglect the fact that politics is a function (and a part) of culture, and at the heart of culture is religion. Religion’s influence expands outward across the entirety of culture (through the arts, the sciences, business, schools and universities, sports, home life, the public square, etc.), and it is this entire culture-religion complex which influences and underpins the political sector. For this reason, Christian “political” involvement must be “political” in the very broad sense (concern for the public well-being, including the spheres of culture listed above) as well as the narrow sense (concern with public policy, public administration, etc).

Third, such broad-based political engagement does not, of course, preclude activism, but such action must always come from something deeper and broader. We have a hope that paves the way for us to simultaneously move forward with boldness and lay down our swords to pursue interactions in a civil manner. We aren’t fighting to protect a Kingdom that is dependent on us for its very survival. We are on mission as part of a Kingdom that is already here.

[1] Russell Moore, “Evangelical Retreat?” First Things (Dec 2013: 45–50).


Guest Post (Charles L. Quarles): Amazing Grace (Part 3): “Through many dangers, toils, and snares”

[Editor’s Note: This is the final post in a three-part series by Dr. Charles Quarles, Vice President of Faith and Learning, Dean of the Caskey School of Divinity, and Research Professor of New Testament and Greek at Louisiana College. Dr. Quarles served as a pastor for ten years and then as a missionary in Romania for three years before coming to Louisiana College. He is a noted New Testament scholar and co-author (with Southeastern’s Scott Kellum and Andreas Köstenberger) of The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown (B&H). We at BtT believe his experience and skill in academic and pastoral ministry makes him a fine person to write on God’s amazing grace.]

John Newton wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace” in 1779. His hymn was more than a theological reflection on the grace that he found described in Scripture; it was a profound expression of thanksgiving for the grace that he had personally experienced.

Newton knew that his salvation was entirely a tribute to God’s astonishing grace. Newton expressed this conviction in the title of his autobiography, An Authentic Narrative of Some Remarkable Particulars in the Life of *******.

The previous sentence is not a typo. Newton refused to use his name in the title of his own autobiography. In fact, he went to considerable pains to preserve his anonymity in telling his life story.

Newton wanted to state loudly and clearly that the amazing account he penned was not designed to promote his reputation, but to prompt others to praise God for His great grace.

A comparison of the hymn “Amazing Grace” with Newton’s autobiography shows conclusively that the hymn is likewise autobiographical.

I have previously highlighted the connection of the first and second verses of the hymn to Newton’s personal testimony. The third verse of the hymn is also a description of Newton’s own experience of God’s grace.

Grace brought Newton “through many dangers, toils, and snares.” I recently reread Newton’s autobiography placing sections under each of these three categories: dangers, toils, and snares. The exercise was illuminating.

Newton recounts a shocking array of dangers through which the Lord preserved him by His grace.

On the 10th of March, 1748, the ship on which Newton served was caught in a brutal storm. The ship was already in poor repair from a long and difficult voyage.

The sails were tattered, the cordage frayed. The hull was greatly weakened from the constant pounding of the waves.

Newton was awakened from a sound sleep when a huge wave filled the cabin with water that rose even above his hammock. The cry “all hands on deck” sent him scrambling up the ladder.

Newton’s ascent was stopped by the captain who ordered him to grab a knife. He slid back down the ladder and a mate went up the ladder in his place.

The instant that the man stepped on deck, a towering wave crashed over the buckling deck and swept him overboard into the dark foaming tumult, never to be seen again. Newton had escaped certain death by a split second (Letter VII).

When Newton returned to port after barely escaping drowning, shipwreck, and starvation, he went bird hunting with a group. His gun accidentally discharged while the muzzle was next to his face.

The gun blast blew away the corner of Newton’s hat, but he survived otherwise unscathed. He mused, “When we think ourselves in the greatest safety, we are no less exposed to danger than when all the elements seem conspiring to destroy us. The divine providence, which is sufficient to deliver us in our utmost extremity, is equally necessary to our preservation in the most peaceful situation” (Letter IX).

On another occasion, Newton had an unexplained violent seizure that left him completely paralyzed for nearly an hour. This occurred two days before he was scheduled to set sail as captain of a slave ship.

Newton’s physicians advised him to resign his command the day before the ship left harbor. The voyage from which he was spared proved to be “extremely calamitous.” The captain who replaced Newton, most of his officers, and many of his crew, died at sea and the battered vessel limped home, barely making it back to port.

These and many other remarkable experiences taught Newton that God had graciously spared his life in the face of death numerous times to grant him an opportunity for salvation and to display him as a trophy of grace.

Newton recounted that God “protected and guided me through a long series of dangers, and crowned every day with repeated mercies. To him I owe it that I am still alive, …it was he who delivered me” (Letter VI). These thoughts prompted Newton to sing, “Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come; twas grace hath brought me safe thus far . . . .”

Newton’s letters also give an account of the bitter toils that he endured.

While Newton was in port on the coast of Africa, he became an indentured servant to an English taskmaster to escape the abusive treatment that he had received at the hands of the officers on his ship.

Newton soon discovered that the treatment that he would receive at the hands of his new taskmaster was far worse that anything he suffered at sea.

His master’s wife was an African woman who detested Newton from the moment that she met him. He became severely ill almost immediately after she acquired him. She was furious that her new slave was unable to labor in her fields and she completely neglected his care.

Newton’s bed was a board; his pillow, a log; and his only sustenance, the scraps from her table. He was forced to fight off starvation by crawling into the fields at night, digging up roots, and eating the tubers. Eating these raw made him violently ill and further sapped him of his strength.

Newton would have starved to death had not other slaves stretched their chains to reach his mouth with their own meager rations.

When he traveled by ship with his master, Newton was shackled on deck from the time that the master left ship until the time that he returned. His only food was a single pint of rice on which he had to survive until the master returned, which sometimes took days.

Newton had no shelter from the blistering sun, the torrential rains, or the bitter gales. He barely survived this prolonged exposure to the elements. These experiences helped Newton identify with the plight of the prodigal son who sold himself to a pagan farmer, lived among the swine, and craved the slop that they devoured.

Newton admitted that his toils did not immediately lead to his conversion. He explained: “My haughty heart was now brought down, not to a wholesome repentance, not to the language of the prodigal; this was far from me, but my spirits were sunk” (Letter V).

However, after his conversion he commented: “In perusing the New Testament, I was struck with several passages, . . . but particularly the prodigal, Luke 15, a case, I thought, that had never been so nearly exemplified, as by myself; and then the goodness of the father in receiving, nay, in running to meet such a son, and this intended only to illustrate the Lord’s goodness to returning sinners,-this gained upon me. . . I saw that the Lord had interposed so far to save me, and I hoped he would do more” (Letter IX).

Newton recognized that God’s gracious providence brought him through these toils to teach him of the profound love of the Father who loves and runs after prodigals. “Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come; twas grace hath brought me safe thus far . . . .”

Newton’s letters also give an account of the snares that Satan had carefully and cleverly laid for him to entrap him and prevent him from following Christ.

Newton warned that the believer lives “in a world that is full of snares, and occasions, suited to draw forth [his] corruptions; and he is surrounded by invisible spiritual enemies, the extent of whose power and subtilty he is yet to learn by painful experience” (Spiritual Letters on Growth and Grace, Letter XI).

While in Africa, the allurements of the black magic practiced by the natives nearly ensnared Newton. He became more and more infatuated by the mystical power of their practices and admitted, “In time perhaps, I might have yielded to the whole: I entered into closer engagements with the inhabitants, and should have lived and died a wretch amongst them, if the Lord had not watched over me for good” (Letter VI).

Satan’s efforts to ensnare Newton only intensified after his conversion. He wrote:

The enemy prepared a train of temptations, and I became his easy prey; and, for about a month, he lulled me asleep in a course of evil, of which, a few months before, I could not have supposed myself any longer capable. How much propriety is there in the apostle’s advice, “Take heed lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.” O who can be sufficiently upon their guard? Sin first deceives, and then it hardens. I was now fast bound in chains; I had little desire, and no power at all to recover myself. I could not but at times reflect how it was with me; but if I attempted to struggle with it, it was in vain. I was just like Samson, when he said, “I will go forth and shake myself as at other times;” but the Lord was departed, and he found himself helpless in the hands of his enemies. By the remembrance of this interval, the Lord has often instructed me since, what a poor creature I am in myself, incapable of standing a single hour without continual fresh supplies of strength and grace from the foundation head (Letter X).

Grace set Newton free from this snare. He would later thank the Lord that he:

was pleased to preserve me from what I knew was sinful. . . . The Lord was gracious to my weakness, and would not suffer the enemy to prevail against me (Letter XI).

Newton humbly acknowledged that he was an easy prey for Satan’s snares when relying on his own supposed strength. He was completely dependent on the grace of God to protect him from temptation and deliver him from evil.

Both Scripture and experience taught Newton that: “Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come; twas grace hath brought me safe thus far . . . .”

God’s frequent interventions to deliver him from dangers, toils, and snares assured Newton that God’s plan for him could not be thwarted. God would not fail to bring Newton to his destination and accomplish his purposes through his life.

At the end of a sea voyage during which Newton had frequent brushes with death, he wrote: “I was preserved from every harm; and having seen many fall on my right hand and my left, I was brought home in peace” (Letter XI).

Such experiences taught Newton that he could trust God to preserve him from spiritual threats and bring him to his heavenly home as well. Newton recognized that the same grace that protected him until the day of his conversion, would keep him secure to the day of his final redemption.

Newton “began to understand the security of the covenant of grace, and to expect to be preserved, not by my own power and holiness, but by the mighty power and promise of God, through faith in an unchangeable Saviour” (Letter XIII).

The Word and Newton’s own life story instructed him that “twas grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”

Newton’s testimony both through his letters and through his hymn should be an enormous encouragement to us. When we face dangers that seem to threaten our lives, our futures, or our sense of security, we need not fear. “Grace will lead me home.”

When a grim-faced doctor shares a shocking diagnosis and an even more alarming prognosis, we can have the confidence that “Grace will lead me home.”

When our toils seem more than we can endure and we lose heart in our labors for Christ, we can persevere when we remember: “Grace will lead me home.”

When we find ourselves ensnared by temptation and fall prey to Satan’s devices, we can rely on God to deliver us. “Grace will lead me home.”

Grace not only began our salvation by giving sight to the spiritually blind and teaching our hearts to fear; grace will complete our salvation by bringing us “thus far” and finally leading us home. Now that grace really is amazing!

Guest Post (Charles L. Quarles): Amazing Grace (Part 2): “Twas Grace That Taught My Heart To Fear”

[Editor’s Note: This is the second in a three-part series by Dr. Charles Quarles, Vice President of Faith and Learning, Dean of the Caskey School of Divinity, and Research Professor of New Testament and Greek at Louisiana College. Dr. Quarles served as a pastor for ten years and then as a missionary in Romania for three years before coming to Louisiana College. He is a noted New Testament scholar and co-author (with Southeastern’s Scott Kellum and Andreas Köstenberger) of The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown (B&H). We at BtT believe his experience and skill in academic and pastoral ministry makes him a fine person to write on God’s amazing grace. Check-in tomorrow for part 3.]

John Newton’s hymn “Amazing Grace” was written in England in 1779. Although it is now over two hundred years old, it has stood the test of time and remains a favorite of Christians both young and old.

The old cliché that “familiarity breeds contempt” certainly does not apply in this case. We can recite every line of the hymn in our sleep and yet it has still not lost its ability to stir our hearts.

Perhaps, though, familiarity breeds neglect. We may sometimes mouth the words of the hymn without reflecting deeply on the great truths that it expresses. Let’s think for a moment about the second stanza of the hymn:

Twas grace that taught my heart to fear and grace my fears relieved, How precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.

Newton wrote his Olney hymns to accompany his Thursday evening Bible studies. Hymn 41, now known as Amazing Grace, was Newton’s reflection on 1 Chronicles 17:16-17 in which David responded to God’s promise through Nathan that the Messiah would be born of David’s line.

The Scripture says, “Then King David went in, sat in the LORD’s presence, and said, ‘Who am I, LORD God, and what is my house that You have brought me this far?’”

David’s prayer of thanksgiving began with a confession of his utter unworthiness: “Who am I?” Newton recognized that the question was not prompted by an identity crisis. It was an expression of awe in the face of God’s astounding grace.

The prayer struck a chord in the converted slave trader’s heart and prompted him to ask, “Who am I?” “Who am I to receive the blessings of salvation.” “Who am I that the Savior should die for me?”

Verse One plainly answered that question. Newton was a “wretch,” an utterly despicable, contemptible person. He realized that his salvation was completely undeserved. It was a work of God’s mysterious and powerful grace from first to last.

The second stanza of the hymn recalled Newton’s own conversion experience. He was a callous sinner who had no fear of God or man until grace taught his heart to fear (Letter IV).

Newton’s autobiography, which has been assembled from his personal letters, shows that this hard-hearted and profane sailor aboard a slave trader’s ship first learned the meaning of fear when he found himself in the middle of a violent storm at sea.

As Newton fought the waves that threatened to shatter his ship, the Greyhound, he was haunted by Bible verses that his Christian mother had read to him many years before:

I, in turn, will laugh at your calamity. I will mock when terror strikes you, when terror strikes you like a storm and your calamity comes like a whirlwind, when trouble and stress overcome you. Then they will call me, but I won’t answer; they will search for me, but won’t find me. Because they hated knowledge, didn’t choose to fear the LORD, were not interested in my counsel, and rejected all my correction (Proverbs 1:26-30).

The raging sea tossed Newton’s fragile ship like a plaything, ready to capsize it with the roll of the next massive wave. The wind-driven rain pelted his face like tiny beestings as he strained to keep his footing on the slippery deck in his fight with the elements.

The dark starless sky warned of God’s displeasure and the ear-splitting claps of thunder seemed laced with bursts of heavenly laughter, “I will laugh at your calamity . . . when terror strikes you like a storm.”  The words from Proverbs seemed addressed directly to Newton.

Suddenly the one who “hated knowledge” and refused to “fear the LORD” found himself terrified at the prospect of death and judgment. Newton later wrote that at this season in his life he “sinned with a high hand” and did his best to entice others to defy God’s law along with him (Letter IV).

Newton confessed his “delight and habitual practice was wickedness” (Letter III). “I was exceedingly vile indeed, little if anything short of that animated description of an almost irrecoverable state, which we have in 2 Peter 2:14” (Letter IV).

Newton added, “My whole life, when awake, was a course of most horrid impiety and profaneness. I know not that I have ever since met so daring a blasphemer; not content with common oaths and imprecations, I daily invented new ones” (Letter VII).

In retrospect, Newton knew that only one force in heaven or earth could prompt one who sinned with such impunity to tremble before God’s power: “Twas grace that taught my heart to fear.”

God worked by his grace to prompt Newton to fear his holy wrath. It was this fear that drove him to find relief by casting himself on Christ’s mercy.

In Letter IX of his autobiography, Newton observed that the Greyhound’s encounter with the great storm had a very different effect on him than it had on his fellow-sailors:

. . . I felt a heart bitterness, which was properly my own; no one on board, but myself, being impressed with any sense of the hand of God in our danger and deliverance, at least not awakened to any concern for their souls. No temporal dispensations can reach the heart, unless the Lord himself applies them. My companions in danger were either quite unaffected, or soon forgot it all, but it was not so with me: not that I was any wise or better than they, but because the Lord was pleased to vouchsafe me peculiar mercy, otherwise I was the most unlikely person in the ship to receive an impression, having been often before quite stupid and hardened in the very face of great dangers, and always to this time had hardened my neck still more and more after every reproof.

In his Preface to his Olney Hymns, Newton wrote that he was “deeply convinced that no one can profitably understand the great truths and doctrines of the gospel, any farther than he is taught of God.” This theological statement provides the key to interpreting the second stanza of “Amazing Grace.”

Newton’s statement is an allusion to the words of His Savior in John 6:45: “It is written in the Prophets: And they will all be taught by God. Everyone who has listened to me and learned from the Father comes to Me.”

Everyone who is instructed by the Father in this powerful way comes to Jesus in faith. Jesus taught why this spiritual instruction by God was so critical in the previous verse: “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him.”

The Lord Jesus reiterated this truth only a few verses later: “No one can come to Me unless it is granted to him by the Father” (John 6:65). Jesus himself taught the absolute necessity of divine instruction in order to repent and believe.

Being “taught by God” would bear results that mere human lectures could never accomplish. Everyone who received this divine instruction would come to Christ.

In his autobiography, Newton intimated that “The best words that men can speak are ineffectual till explained and applied by the Spirit of God, who alone can open the heart” (Letter XI).

The Apostle Paul also taught that God must instruct sinners. Paul insisted that those who did not have the Spirit could not understand God’s truth: “But the unbeliever does not welcome what comes from God’s Spirit, because it is foolishness to him; he is not able to understand it since it is evaluated spiritually” (1 Corinthians 2:14).

Those who understand spiritual truths do so because the Spirit grants understanding to those who could not understand on their own: “Now we have not received the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who comes from God, so that we may understand what has been freely given to us by God” (1 Corinthians 2:12).

The Baptist Faith and Message 2000 refers to this powerful divine instruction in the article II on the Holy Spirit: “Through illumination, he [the Holy Spirit] enables men to understand truth.”

The verb “enable” is a powerful term. To “enable” means “to make one able to do something that he cannot do on his own.” The implication is that the lost sinner is unable to understand truth until he is enabled by the Spirit or, in Newton’s words, until grace teaches his heart.

My own conversion experience confirms the truths of our dear old hymn.

I vividly remember the sheer terror that I felt when the Holy Spirit awakened my conscience, convicted me of my sin, showed me the severity of his holy wrath, and warned me of the judgment that awaited me. “Twas grace that taught my heart to fear!”

I remember, like it was yesterday, crying myself to sleep because I recognized that if I died in my sleep I would awaken in hell. “Twas grace that taught my heart to fear!”

My terror was not due to psychological manipulation by a hell-fire and brimstone preacher. “Twas grace that taught my heart to fear!”

My stricken conscience was not the mere product of morbid introspection. “Twas grace that taught my heart to fear!”

Thankfully, the same grace that taught my heart to fear, taught my heart to repent and believe and instructed my mouth to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of the Father.

With Newton, I confess that I did not come to understand and believe the gospel that relieved my fears because of the power of my intellect or the superiority of my personal insight. “Twas grace that taught my heart” all of the truths that would grant peace to my troubled mind.

I heartily sing with Newton at the top of my lungs, “How precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.” And I hope that the next time you sing the old hymn, it will mean a little more to you too.