Christian Living

Treating the Symptoms and the Disease

Author Greg Koukl Published on 07/11/2013

Followers of Jesus Christ face two extremes in the discussion of Christianity and citizenship. Do we aggressively invade culture, offering political solutions, or divorce from culture, trusting the Spirit to change hearts? The biblical approach is not one or the other; Christians must do both.

Followers of Jesus Christ face two extremes in the discussion of Christianity and citizenship.

One side seeks a divorce from culture. Arguments don’t persuade, they say. That’s the job of the Spirit who works most effectively through the simple preaching of the Gospel. Let God first change the hearts, then the culture will follow. Treat the disease, not the symptoms.

Radical activists, on the other hand, aggressively invade culture with political solutions. Christians are to be politically active, is their motto, salt and light to a dying world. Return America to its Christian roots and restoration will follow. Don’t ignore the symptoms. Change hearts by providing the proper political and moral climate.

The biblical approach, though, is not either one or the other. Christians must do both.

When a patient is sick, a doctor’s ultimate goal is to bring healing by curing the disease. Yet, he doesn’t ignore the pain, anguish and debilitation the disease causes. He must treat the symptoms and the disease. Both are necessary for a suffering patient.

In the same way, we must recover an interest in our culture, becoming involved citizens seeking not a Christian nation, but instead establishing a just government. As Christians we must also be fully committed in word and deed to our creed, reliably outlined for us in the Scriptures.

Evangelical author Michael Horton has said,

“Political solutions are not ultimate for the same reason that medical solutions are not ultimate. In the end, we all die from something. That does not mean that we ignore the symptoms, nor that we refuse to follow the doctor’s instructions and do what we can to remain alive, but it does mean that we do not treat them as the answer to life’s greatest questions.” [Michael Horton, Beyond Culture Wars, (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), p. 59.]

In short, government cannot can’t cure the disease by making people good in an ultimate sense. It can, though, control the symptoms somewhat by restraining sinful men from being as bad as they can be. And this is a good thing.

The Difference Between Symptoms and Disease

Sometimes well-meaning Evangelicals confuse things by campaigning for political solutions to solve what are essentially spiritual problems. The way to avoid this is to carefully distinguish between Gospel, moral teaching, and partisan political viewpoints.

Gospel defines what is necessary for Christians to believe in order to attain salvation. It answers the question, “What must I do to be saved?” The answer is not political, but personal and theological.

Moral teaching consists of conduct that is obligatory for obedient Christians, yet does not determine their salvation. Christians are saved by God’s unmerited grace, not by properly casting their vote in an election.

Political viewpoints are developed by applying moral convictions and personal preferences to issues of the public good.

Confusion results when Christians hold political views that seem to be inconsistent with biblical principles or morality. The temptation is strong to make “Christian” political correctness the litmus test for faith. No particular political view, however, is a requirement for salvation. Our Christianity is determined not by our view of the deficit, or taxes, or even of abortion, but by our view of Christ.

One caveat here. Though political viewpoints per se should not be a test of the faith, there are some positions that seem to be profoundly un-Christian since they conflict so directly with a biblical view of the world. Abortion and homosexuality immediately come to mind. It’s possible to be a Christian and hold these views, but something is clearly wrong. If their Christianity completely fails to inform their political life, then it may not be relevant to the rest of their life, either. If this is a pervasive pattern, their claim to be Christian is meaningless.

Interacting Positively with Culture While Speaking the Truth

Christians are not going to “take America back.” America is lost and only God can save it. Christians can be used by God, though, to treat the symptoms through positive interaction with culture. They can also play a redemptive role in the lives of individuals to cure the disease by being faithful to speak the truth.

This does not mean making a “Christian nation” in which the theological doctrines of the Bible are explicitly woven into the fabric of government, or by giving Christians a preferential place in the public square. Rather, it involves working together with our neighbors to create a just nation concerned for the common good.

Acrimony and shrill histrionics won’t accomplish that. Instead, we must recover the art of persuasion. Moral and rational appeals done incisively, yet graciously, can go a long way to replace coercive political action.

The Bible has been rejected by many as an authority. Merely quoting chapter and verse amounts to throwing Scriptural rocks at people’s heads. It just makes them angry. Paul told the Colossians to, “Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned, as it were, with salt, so that you may know how you should respond to each person” (4:6). This is good counsel for us, too.

We can form our arguments on the basis of common grace and natural revelation, rather than on the basis of church and redemption. We can make our point in public by natural law and not by Scripture. It’s the same truth, just a different tactic. We can accommodate our language, though not our message. We can blend with our culture and become “all things to all men,” yet still maintain the values and conduct of the Christian faith.

Christians have no trump card in the debate on public policy. The legitimacy of our views in the public square comes solely from our appeal to the common good and justice for all in faithfulness to the commands of Scripture.

Yes, we must continue to proclaim the simple Gospel—the faith of the Fathers—which alone can cure the disease of sin. When it comes to politics, though—to treating the symptoms—our message isn’t the faith of our Fathers, but rather the moral and political philosophy of our Founders.