The primary role of the saints in the Church is to display faith in Jesus Christ as their Lord and savior. Faith is displayed through works; faith without works is dead. As the “hall of fame” of faith reminds us, acting in faith resulted in: kingdoms conquered, justice enforced, promises obtained, mouths of lions stopped, the power of fire quenched, the edge of the sword escaped, strength made out of weakness, becoming mighty in war, and foreign armies being made to flight. Acting in faith also resulted in: torture, mocking, flogging, chains, imprisonment, being stoned, sawed in two, death by the sword, and much more. All of these works, and the persecutions for such works, were done because of faith in Jesus. Though those in the Old Testament did not yet know Him and His work through the cross, they were saved by faith, evidenced by works, none-the-less (James 2:18-26).
Such acts are possible through faith because it “is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen”. Death, torture, armies, tyrants, pestilence, plagues, and mobs can all be faced head on by saints who’s hopes are so set on their eternal union with Christ that they would prefer it to remaining in this life. Yet, while in this life, such faith resulted in courage, bravery, fervency, zeal, and the addition of the very salt and light that are supposed to emanate from believers in the world. Through faith, saints survived fires and a lion’s dens, walked on water, would pick up serpents and drink poison yet remain unharmed (Mark 16:18), and even minister to the sick during the bubonic plague.
Martin Luther, in a writing titled “Whether One May Flee From A Deadly Plague”, discusses a proper Christian response to arguably the most deadly pandemic to ever hit mankind. Somewhere between 30-60% of Europe’s population was wiped out by the plague, with the full death toll being unknown, but with estimates ranging between 25 – 90 Million deaths. “Mortality rates for plague outbreaks ranged from 30 to 90 percent or even higher … The plague could sweep into a city or village overnight and kill its first round of victims in less than a day … The plague could spread by the briefest touch, and yet some people who cared for victims were constantly exposed but never infected.” [Sundheim]
Luther takes a decidedly stern tone in many sections of his writing as he tackles the two spectral extremes of responses to the deadly plague. On one hand, he discusses what would be the “disgraceful flight” and sin of saints in positions of duty to their neighbors, who ought to stay and minister to the sick and fulfill the roles placed upon them; he says this of magistrates and church leaders. On the other hand, he discusses the down right “negligence” of those who would deny their faculties of intelligence, avoiding medicine as if it brought merit, and who went about as if to showboat their independence. Display of faith and disposition of the heart were of key focus to Luther. Those who remained out of a sincere faith, a confidence in the Lord and His promises, and in service to their neighbor were to be seen as an example. Strong faith was especially commended for Church leadership, those whom the flock are to look towards as having a faith to be imitated (Hebrews 13:7). Those who remained for showboating, merit, negligence, or down right ill-intent were rebuked for the former, and labeled as murders for the latter.
Some of Luther’s clearest words in regards to the Church’s response to such a deadly epidemic were:
“Now if a deadly epidemic strikes, we should stay where we are, make our preparations, and take courage in the fact that we are mutually bound together (as previously indicated) so that we cannot desert one another or flee from one another. First, we can be sure that God’s punishment has come upon us, not only to chastise us for our sins but also to test our faith and love — our faith in that we may see and experience how we should act toward God; our love in that we may recognize how we should act toward our neighbor. I am of the opinion that all the epidemics, like any plague, are spread among the people by evil spirits who poison the air or exhale a pestilential breath which puts a deadly poison into the flesh. Nevertheless, this is God’s decree and punishment to which we must patiently submit and serve our neighbor, risking our lives in this manner as St. John teaches, “If Christ laid down his life for us, we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” [1 John 3:16].”
Stay where we are, take courage, don’t desert one another, and risk our lives for our neighbors; through both the “hall of fame” of faith, and displayed most perfectly through Christ’s death on the cross for our sins, we see loving our neighbors as serving and sacrificing while continuing to fulfill our duties of ministry to which God has called us in faith. The saints do not fear death and the ones who cannot kill the soul; as Luther says, “Death is death, no matter how it occurs”. It is the duty of the Church and the faithful not to display fear, and to teach our neighbor of fear only if it means fearing the one who has the power to destroy their body and soul in hell (Matthew 10:28). By grace, through faith, it is in hope and confidence of receiving the Lord’s promises that the saints engage, whether it be in conquering, war, opposing tyrants, or ministering to and serving our neighbors in times of needs, like in plague or famine. When emergencies and trials hit, the saints go marching in to display faith and lack of fear as they submit in reverence and trust to the Lord who has numbered their days. Though they may become sick, chastised, harmed, scorned, and even labeled for treason (2 Kings 11:14-16), they move in faith so that the Lord may display through them works which He prepared beforehand.
With such displays of faith being the calling and duty of the saints, we must ask ourselves this:
Why are the saints considering abandonment of duties and displays of faith when Coronavirus is overwhelmingly not a deadly plague?
Echoing some remarks made recently by Rep. Tom McClintock to congress, the CDC reports that anyone age 49 and under has a 99.92% survival rate, those over 70 have a 94.6% chance of recovery, and that 40% of people who are infected won’t display any symptoms. Compared to the Bubonic plague, coronavirus is a bit worse than the flu; the overwhelming majority of the population, including those 70+, will pass through this virus unscathed. Surely then, it cannot be fear over one’s own life that is causing the consideration of flight and abandonment, the shutting of church doors, and attempts to virtualize the body of Christ, as if it were in any way sufficient to the needs of the body. No, and I doubt most would cite such to be the case, though I think if all were honest and sincere with themselves, fear has indeed been allowed to slip into the hearts of many. More likely than not, it is an argument of “love for thy neighbor” that would be first to defenders lips, as would be the prompt response of well-meaning saints with knowledge of the two greatest commandments. However, if we are going to consider the 2nd greatest commandment, then we first must consider the meaning of the 1st of the two greatest commandments. We must consider what it means to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your mind and with all your soul.”
To love God with all of our heart, mind, and soul is to please Him; to please God is to walk by faith:
“And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” – Hebrews 11:6
The above verse is nestled right in the beginning of chapter 11 in Hebrews, a chapter titled, “By Faith,” and the very chapter from which we see displayed the great works accomplished by those who operated in faith. It was pleasing to God that His people should oppose tyrants, stand for true justice, conquer kingdoms, prepare for famine, and continue on with church services and ministerial duties in the midst of Bubonic Plague.
To love our neighbors is to display works of faith, because that is what it means to love God.
To love our neighbors is to teach them not to fear death by placing their hope in the right savior, but how can we do so when we ourselves don’t display works of faith pleasing to Him?
In the midst of Bubonic plague, Martin Luther kept open his church’s doors. In the midst of Bubonic plague he preached publicly, exhorted the church to gather to hear the Word, administered the sacraments, and prepared them to minister to the sick who were so unsightly to see, that he wrote:
“When anyone is overcome by horror and repugnance in the presence of a sick person he should take courage and strength in the firm assurance that it is the devil who stirs up such abhorrence, fear, and loathing in his heart.”
It is through faith that Luther and his peers remained unharmed as they taught publicly and ministered to this sick, almost as though they had drunk poison and yet remained unharmed. If we are not doing what would be pleasing to God in faith, then certainly we are not loving our neighbors. Jesus tells us of the many who will say “Lord Lord”, who have many “works”, but to whom He will respond: “I never knew you, depart from me, you workers of lawlessness”. Though they had many “works” for their neighbors, they had no faith, no heart to do and stand for what is pleasing to the Lord. When he separates the goats from the sheep, the sheep are the ones who, through a desire to please the Lord in faith, will have had many great works. The only legitimate way in which we can fulfill the 2nd greatest commandment is to fulfill the first; we do not toss out the meaning of faith and pleasing the Lord in the name of loving our neighbors.
Therefore, it is through faith and hearts that desire to please the Lord from which we must ask ourselves:
What does it mean to display faith to my neighbor as if he/ she were possibly the Lord Himself, or an angel (Hebrews 13:2), to which I may be ministering? Where is a display of faith needed?”
Is it any display of faith, or of any love to my neighbor, that I should perhaps tell Christ Himself to stay home from the temple, from teaching, healing, weeping, praising, worshiping, administering the sacrament, and caring for souls, for fear that a virus may be spread amongst others who willfully, voluntarily attended the temple seeking encouragement and community amongst the body of believers?
Is it any display of faith, or of any love to my neighbor, that I should teach even Christ Himself to shut down the body’s primary functions in hopes that I may somehow save cells from a sickness that has entered it? Is it not of greater risk to the spiritual body as a whole if I shut down its primary faculties of life for the soul, than it would be to provide supplement and special care for the at risk and vulnerable?
Is it any display of faith, or of any love to my neighbor, that I would teach even Christ Himself to toss out his faculties of reason, common sense, and intellect in discerning personal risk and responsibility in going about his duties and living, seeking to please the Lord in the face of pestilence; especially in regards to discerning the spiritual and material needs of one’s own household?
Is it any display of faith, or of any good to my neighbor, that I should turn away perhaps even an angel for fear that a largely non-lethal pestilence may spread to me or my household, or to the one seeking hospitality or care? (if it is even possible that an angelic being could transmit such a pestilence, I do not know)
Is it any display of faith, or of any good to my neighbor, that I should hide away and allow a spirit of fear to permeate my community, brought both from overblown concern from a virus and social unrest untamed by the magistrates?
Is it any display of faith, or of any justice to my neighbor, and therefore love, that I should teach culpability and responsibility of the seemingly healthy, who have no evidence of being sick, for continuing on in their duties to God, and therefore their duties to family, society, and economy, requiring of them instead isolation and restriction?
Will there be any opportunity left for display of faith or hope once our use of technology has completely neutered the very essence, purposes, and duties of physical human community; is it not the scriptural purpose of meeting together that we may show faith, stirring one another up to encouragement and good works (Hebrews 10:24-25)? Some neglect to meet out of habit (Hebrews 10:25), but is this the purpose for which the command is given? Did God give the commandment “Don’t murder” solely because it would be the habit of some that He didn’t want us to look like? Did He not give the commandment because of its moral purposes in condemning us all under the law, and to provide orientation for our regenerated hearts of faith? So too, the express purpose for which it is commanded the Church meets together is for stirring one another up to love and good works for the sake of our faith. Surely it is no “good work” or act of faith to quench the Spirit and shut down the very Church body within which it lives ( 1 Thessalonians 5:19 ).
Nay, it cannot be under good senses, intellect, or in faith that one would consider stifling the Spirit of the Church body from its upbuilding, duties, and works as though it is in any way good for the body or loving to thy neighbors. Let us consider, then, another force at work amongst this viral outbreak; I suspect it is one that has greater influence on fear, decision making, and displays of faith than any would care to admit. Under the allowance of our Lord, and concealed under the cloak of a mild viral outbreak, Satan’s true vector of attack against the faith of the Church is more than likely: the government.
Were it not for the mandates of magistrates within various states, I suspect the responses from many churches would look quite different, and likely more in line with the aforementioned displays of faith, reason, common sense, and true love for our neighbors. At the risk of appearing as unloving or inconsiderate to our worldly neighbors, who know not what faith and pleasing the Lord means, many in the Church have been cudgeled into the mandates of the State. Or perhaps, under interpretation of Romans 13 and being “subject to the governing authorities”, churches have genuinely thought it was good and honorable to listen to the State unequivocally without consideration to the instituted purposes of the State, namely being a terror to bad conduct, not to good (Romans 13:3). If this be the case, then the Church knows not how to act when the State becomes a terror to the good, nor the implications of loving our neighbors as it relates to their governance. Whether in misunderstanding, blissful ignorance, naivety, or actual fear, this appears to be the true scheme of our enemy: convincing the Church that loving our neighbors is the abandonment of our true duties to God and our neighbor.
Is not voluntarily worshipping God good? Is not public teaching and gathering of the saints declared good? Is it not good for the saints to care for the sick, even at great risk to themselves? Are not displays of faith good? Are not the saints commended for having works of faith? Is not the very essence of loving our neighbors seeking to please the Lord in faith as we teach all of our neighbors to obey as He commands? Is it not the duty of the saints to inform the State what is good and what is evil? Do we assume that unbelievers who wake up every day to govern are simply supposed to discern for themselves what is good and what is bad? Is it not the job of the Church to inform the world of morality, God’s perfect law of liberty (James 1:25), to shine as lights and be the taste of salt, a moral and holy people set apart for the world to see?
Is the Church simply supposed to shut its doors and unequivocally listen to the State when Governors place the infected into nursing homes with the most vulnerable, resulting in upwards of 40% of the deaths in some states? Is the Church simply supposed to be quiet and listen unequivocally to the State when they defund law enforcement and the lives of our neighbors are threatened in anarchy zones and riots? Is the Church displaying any semblance of faith or love for our neighbors when we allow the State to control and close private businesses like gyms, houses of worships, and restrict medical care facilities, but leave open liquor stores, run the lottery, and defund those who would intervene in the rising cases of domestic disputes and violence? It is not then the duty of the Church to disobey tyrants who do evil (1 Samuel 23, Proverbs 28:15-16), even resist them outright (2 Kings 11:13-16), to stand for true justice (Leviticus 19:15, Hebrews 11:33), to proclaim God’s perfect law of liberty throughout the land (Leviticus 25:10, James 1:25), and do it all even while honoring those in authority (1 Samuel 24, Romans 13, 1 Peter 2:13-25)? Is it not the duty of the Church, when necessary, to say “With all due respect, what you are doing is evil! We will do what is good!”?
Would Luther not have disobeyed any authority that had mandated his church close during the Bubonic plague? Knowing the Church’s place of faith in matters of eternal life or death, would he have allowed any say from the State over the Church’s role in such a catastrophe? He would not have; in fact, he did the opposite and informed the magistrates of their duties!
“Accordingly, all those in public office such as mayors, judges, and the like are under obligation to remain. This, too, is God’s word, which institutes secular authority and commands that town and country be ruled, protected, and preserved, as St. Paul teaches in Romans 13 [:4], “The governing authorities are God’s ministers for your own good.” To abandon an entire community which one has been called to govern and to leave it without official or government, exposed to all kinds of danger such as fires, murder, riots, and every imaginable disaster is a great sin. It is the kind of disaster the devil would like to instigate wherever there is no law and order. St. Paul says, “Anyone who does not provide for his own family denies the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” [1 Tim. 5:8].”
“A great sin” Luther says it would be for government officials to allow murder, riots and fires (a.k.a property destruction); what a great sin, then, have a litany of mayors and governors committed against American citizens in the midst of this outbreak as they have allowed, and even celebrated or encouraged, such anarchy and lawlessness. God in His graces surely has restrained Satan in unleashing the fullest degrees of anarchy, tyranny, and death that would surely result had Coronavirus been any worse than it is; we the people have elected magistrates utterly unfit or prepared to handle such chastisement, and we the Church have done little, if any, of our duties to inform the magistrates and the people of their place before God, because we have known not our role to do so.
It is only when the Church’s role within society has been lost upon itself, when it has lost true understanding of its eternal duties to its neighbors, and is therefore in sin, that God brings such forces of tyranny and anarchy upon His people and their neighbors. It is the duty of the Church to inform the government of morality and its role in society, of what is good and evil; it is the duty of the Church to teach equitable justice, justice that is partial to no one, wealthy or poor or black or white (Leviticus 19:15), rather the impartial assessment of one’s heart based on their actions. It is the Church that is to instruct on showing grace and mercy when lawbreakers display repentance, change of heart, and good character, the very essence of belief in the Gospel, not mercy on the basis of societal marginalization or material inequity. It is the duty of the Church to teach the people not to form self-righteous mobs against their peers (John 8), to allow for due process and systems of justice to take their course, and for evidence on the ground of two or more witnesses (Deuteronomy 19:15) to be used to assess motive in court. It is the duty of the Church to inform society of the meaning of sound money and honest units of measurement (proverbs 20:10, etc.), which prevents the plundering of the lower classes through corrupted monetary policy and fiat currency. Most importantly and eternally, it is the Church that is supposed to teach of God’s perfect law of liberty (James 1:25).
God’s perfect law of liberty is first and foremost freedom from condemnation of His divine law which condemns us for sins. Freedom from this law can only be found through faith in His Son, Jesus Christ, as Lord and Savior. In finding salvation in Christ, we are set free from the condemnation of the law to love and obey our savior. Loving and obeying God’s law is the definition of living in liberty; to be at liberty is to live in this life exactly as God asks, and God asks us to live in faith and obey in love. This is the message we proclaim to the nations, the very essence of the great commission, and it is literally the law, spoken by God Himself in James 1:25, that we obey. Liberty must be lived; faith must have works. It is not merely some spiritual state that we wait to acquire in death, we have it now! Perfect liberty, God’s perfect law, reigns now through Christ to those who believe, regardless of what any civil government has to say about it. Thy kingdom come, they will be done! Liberty manifests now, and we stand for it before the nations and their governments!
We, the Church, bring liberty to the nations, and those of us in America live in a nation founded on belief in natural law, God, liberty, and justice. Many in the Church have complained, if not snarled, at such claims, not recognizing their own sin from lack of duty as the ones who are to educate and stand for such matters! The idea of patriotism puts a taste of disdain in the mouths of many within the American Church, yet they have done little themselves to reclaim and redeem its meaning as the logical extent of loving our neighbors; that is to say, standing for justice, liberty, rule of law, and properly instituted authorities are the very meanings of loving our neighbors! Just as exemplified in the hall of fame of faith!
Yes, it would seem that through the distraction of a virus that is marginally worse than the common flu, God is allowing the failings and faithlessness of His Church to be exposed. From not condemning the utter perversion of the meaning of justice, authority, and liberty by a large percentage of society, of which many within church congregations are participating, to not speaking out against the inversion of the meanings of good and evil by our magistrates, of whom many now celebrate, encourage, and support, the Church has not been fulfilling its duties. Now, in the face of almost guaranteed life to the Church and our neighbors, Satan has churches considering that hiding from their duties is the very essence of their duty; as Luther remarked, how disgraceful indeed. This is truly a cause for lament; as the Apostle James said in a passage titled “Warning Against Worldliness”:
“Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9 Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” – James 4:7-10
When the Church isn’t doing its duties, its light is hidden and its salt left untasted; now is a time for the Church to lament of its failings and rise into its duty. What the world needs right now is faith that is alive; what America needs right now is faith that has works. We need leaders who are willing to stand in faith; leaders who have the courage to do what is right, the bravery to stand for what is good, and sensibilities to denounce what is evil; the world needs to see the Church keep its doors open. Nothing would gladden Satan more than to see churches shut their doors at the whims of the state, misunderstood scripture, pressure from congregations, abandonment of duties in the name of loving our neighbors, or down right fear. From the onset of Coronavirus this has been the case, and some pastors have recognized the assault.
Since before the beginning of the outbreak and onward, pastors such as Cary Gordon, Doug Wilson, and Wang Yi in China, have displayed such sensibilities in displaying faith to their congregations and fulfilling their duties to inform the State of their instituted roles; Pastor Cary Gordon having called his governor’s office to inform them of their evil for trying to control the Church, and Wang Yi receiving a prison sentence for his words against the State in China. These pastors are just a few prominent examples of saints who have sought to rise up in duty in the line of fire; their examples of faith are ones we should seek to imitate. I would highly encourage listening to them speak on the matters discussed herein ( 1, 2, 3 ).
As with Luther, we should aspire and exhort all to display a strong faith, and ask ourselves what it means to display a strong faith in our circumstances and contexts. The circumstances and context of Luther’s words were imminent death and destruction from a plague indiscriminate to age, sex, or well being; it was a time and scenario where even the magistrates were abandoning their duties. Our context is different; the overwhelming majority of our lives are not under threat from the virus, our magistrates remain in power yet lawlessness and celebration of evil is rampant, and many of our churches are becoming subservient to the State instead of holding the State accountable to its instituted roles and duties. The only assured thing that remains between Luther’s time and ours is the duties and the role of the Church. Therefore, let us all act in a manner now wherein we do not leave the Lord looking at us asking:
“Where is your faith?”
“They uphold a good cause, namely, a strong faith in God, and deserve commendation because they desire every Christian to hold to a strong, firm faith. It takes more than a milk faith to await a death before which most of the saints themselves have been and still are in dread. Who would not acclaim these earnest people to whom death is a little thing? They willingly accept God’s chastisement, doing so without tempting God, …” – Martin Luther