One of John Keble’s more famous sermons is called “National Apostasy” (full text available here). It was preached in 1833, and translated the story of 1 Samuel 8-15 into some basic principles for evaluating the spiritual health of a nation, and the call for Christians (corporately and individually) in such times of spiritual decline. Much of what he had to say was very pertinent to our early 21st century situation, plus his scriptural base in the middle of 1 Samuel makes this a good time for me to share some thoughts on his sermon, since our church has just gone through those parts of the book this month (see the previous two posts).
Setting the stage
Keble begins his sermon with a discussion of some of the challenges of abusing the Old Testament – that of taking it too literally in terms of application to the present day, as well as the opposite view of thinking it as useless for Christians today. He points that both extremes reveal a fear of the God-guided conscience and thus an extreme search to place moral responsibility out of our reach. Instead, he points us to Samuel who shows us what Christian patriotism really should look like: faithful to God despite the pressures of society, and steadfast in his leadership position despite the demands of the people.
When the Israelites demanded a king, they were revealing their preference to replace God with someone else. Other nations, after all, were doing perfectly well without God, so why should Israel’s leadership be tied down to God? Keble, then, sets out to answer two questions: 1) “What are the symptoms, by which one may judge most fairly, whether or no a nation, as such, is becoming alienated from God and Christ?” 2) “And what are the particular duties of sincere Christians, whose lot is cast by Divine Providence in a time of such dire calamity?”
#1 Symptoms of national apostasy
In the case of England in 1833, their government had recommitted to the fact that God is the true sovereign only a couple centuries earlier, but now they were seeing more and more “practical atheism” in government – that is, people who called themselves Christians but lived as if God did not exist. Keble draws a parallel between this movement and the impulse of the Israelites to replace God with a human king. Such changes that move away from Christian religion and spirituality typically are made with the excuse of various dangers (be it invasion of Ammonites or government corruption in need of reform or whatever), but at the core it’s a lack of faith that pushes people away from God’s lordship (see 1 Sam. 8:7-8).
From this, Keble makes a remarkably insightful statement:
One of the most alarming [symptoms] is the growing indifference, in which men indulge themselves, to other men’s religious sentiments. Under the guise of charity and toleration we are come almost to this pass; that no difference, in matters of faith, is to disqualify for our approbation and confidence, whether in public or domestic life. Can we conceal it from ourselves, that every year the practice is becoming more common, of trusting men unreservedly in the most delicate and important matters, without one serious inquiry, whether they do not hold principles which make it impossible for them to be loyal to their Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier? (emphasis mine)
In other words, “toleration” is one of the banners of a form of liberalism that seeks liberation from the rule of God himself. Non-Christians wouldn’t have a problem with this, of course, because it’s a distinctly non-Christian impulse. When a supposedly Christian nation (or God-fearing Israel in the biblical story) seeks to act like a heathen (or gentile) nation, then its apostasy is clear.
I do not now speak of public measures only or chiefly…. But I speak of the spirit which leads men to exult in every step of that kind; to congratulate one another on the supposed decay of what they call an exclusive system.
Is this not the very same battle we see today? The “exclusive” conservative Christian Church is being rejected and degraded by societal forces in favor of “tolerance” and “liberalism.” Jesus’ words in Luke 10:16 are quite sobering at this point: those who reject the Church are rejecting God.
King Saul is given as an example of this tendency: under pressure from the people, he gave in to a ‘liberal’ attitude of ‘toleration’ toward the Amalekites despite God’s clear instructions on how to deal with them. (I addressed this event in my sermon this past Sunday.) As Keble concludes on this first question:
God forbid, that any Christian land should ever, by her prevailing temper and policy, revive the memory and likeness of Saul, or incur a sentence of reprobation like his. But if such a thing should be, the crimes of that nation will probably begin in infringement on Apostolical Rights ; she will end in persecuting the true Church ; and in the several stages of her melancholy career, she will continually be led on from bad to worse by vain endeavours at accommodation and compromise with evil. Sometimes toleration may be the word, as with Saul when he spared the Amalekites ; sometimes state security, as when he sought the life of David; sometimes sympathy with popular feeling, as appears to have been the case, when violating solemn treaties, he attempted to exterminate the remnant of the Gibeonites, in his zeal for the children of Israel and Judah (2 Sam. 11:2). Such are the sad but obvious results of separating religious resignation altogether from men’s notions of civil duty.
#2 Christian response to apostasy
John Keble uses the Prophet Samuel as a positive role model for how Christians ought to respond in times of a national movement away from God.
Should it ever happen… that the Apostolical Church should be forsaken, degraded, nay trampled on and despoiled by the State and people… I cannot conceive a kinder wish for her, on the part of her most affectionate and dutiful children, than that she may, consistently, act in the spirit of this most noble sentence…
The sentence he refers to is 1 Samuel 12:23; “As for me, God forbid that I should sin against the Lord in ceasing to pray for you: but I will teach you the good and the right way.” This verse sets forth two examples: prayer (intercession) and teaching (remonstrance).
The Church would, first of all, have to be constant, as before, in INTERCESSION. No despiteful usage, no persecution, could warrant her in ceasing to pray, as did her first fathers and patterns, for the State, and all who are in authority. That duty once well and cordially performed, all other duties, so to speak, are secured. Candour, respectfulness, guarded language,— all that the Apostle meant, in warning men not to ‘speak evil of dignities,’ may then, and then only, be practised, without compromise of truth and fortitude, when the habit is attained of praying as we ought for the very enemies of our precious and holy cause.
The insight here is still familiar to our ears today: praying for our enemies is the first step toward loving them, and once we learn to love our neighbor, we’re less apt to sin again them in return for their sins against us! John Keble even gives a hint of specific advice: praying the Psalms regularly (as Church tradition encourages all Christians to do) helps us to develop that godly perspective described in Psalm 37:1-2, 8; “‘Fret not thyself because of the ungodly, neither be thou envious against the evil doers : for they shall soon be cut down like the grass, and be withered even as the green herb. . . . Leave off from wrath, and let go displeasure : fret not thyself, else shalt thou be moved to do evil.”
With that first duty of prayer in place, we can then move to the second exhortation: be living examples (what he calls remonstrance).
REMONSTRANCE, calm, distinct, and persevering, in public and in private, direct and indirect, by word, look, and demeanour, is the unequivocal duty of every Christian, according to his opportunities, when the Church landmarks are being broken down.
Keble elaborates by further comparing the situations of Samuel and the modern Christian.
After the accomplishment of the change which he deprecated, his whole behaviour, to Saul especially, is a sort of expansion of the sentiment in the text. It is all earnest INTERCESSION with God, grave, respectful, affectionate REMONSTRANCE with the misguided man himself. Saul is boldly rebuked, and that publicly, for his impious liberality in sparing the Amalekites, yet so as not to dishonour him in the presence of the people. Even when it became necessary for God’s prophet to show that he was in earnest, and give the most effectual of warnings, by separating himself from so unworthy a person,—when Samuel came no more to see Saul’ (1 Sam. 15:35)—even then, we are told, he still ‘mourned for him.’
On the same principle, come what may, we have ill learned the lessons of our Church, if we permit our patriotism to decay, together with the protecting care of the State. ‘The powers that be are ordained of God,’ whether they foster the true church or no. Submission and order are still duties. They were so in the days of pagan persecution ; and the more of loyal and affectionate feeling we endeavour to mingle with our obedience, the better.
This reflects a relationship between Church and State that perhaps we don’t think about in the USA all that often: the Church knows the function of the State better than the State does (because we know what Scripture says about godly leaders in both Old and New Testaments), and thus there’s a degree to which a godly State (a national leadership comprised of Christians) gives deference to the Church. This does not imply a subordination of either Church or State to the other, though – God ministers through both in different ways.
As such, proper Christian patriotism is about being loyal to the governor as a “minister of God” without compromising one’s primary obedience to Christ in His Church. When the State goes bad, and God is rejected, the Church is persecuted; that’s just how it works in a fallen world. But, Keble reminds us, our call to perseverance amidst suffering is unlike any other cause.
I do not see how any person can devote himself too entirely to the cause of the Apostolical Church in these realms. There may be, as far as he knows, but a very few to sympathize with him. He may have to wait long, and very likely pass out of this world before he see any abatement in the triumph of disorder and irreligion. But, if he be consistent, he possesses, to the utmost, the personal consolations of a good Christian : and as a true Churchman, he has that encouragement, which no other cause in the world can impart in the same degree:—he is calmly, soberly, demonstrably, SURE, that, sooner or later, HIS WILL BE THE WINNING SIDE, and that the victory will be complete, universal, eternal.
And so we can share in the attitude of the Apostles and praise God with psalms in the midst of persecution as we read in Acts 4:23-28…
When they were released, they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them. And when they heard it, they lifted their voices together to God and said, “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, who through the mouth of our father David, your servant,said by the Holy Spirit,
“‘Why did the Gentiles rage,
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers were gathered together,
against the Lord and against his Anointed’—
for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.