An old friend called unexpectedly in mid-January to talk about the economy. He has been in the bullion and numismatics business for decades, and he is usually optimistic. But now he was deeply concerned about the future, and for the first time in his life he was “paranoid.” His economic prognostications were bleak, he explained, because God promises to bring judgment on a faithless nation. Since the United States is grossly immoral, he could only expect tough times ahead.
Many Americans have been frightened by economic news over the last year. Stock market and investment losses have clobbered retirement portfolios. Business losses, banking debacles, employee layoffs, and speculations about the recession have further alarmed Americans. Bailouts and stimulus packages stretching toward a trillion dollars underscore the socialist and Keynesian mindset of Washington’s statist politicians. Why shouldn’t we panic?
Despite these calamities, Christians shouldn’t despair over the churning events of the day. God is still in charge of the destiny of nations and His people. The shaking of the current economic order, however painful, is long overdue. In times of crisis, Christians should be driven to reflect honestly on the status quo and reevaluate their fundamental commitments. They have a perfect opportunity to provide a coherent alternative to the liberal agenda. When the statist worldview flounders, Christians must be ready to offer Biblical solutions. What follows are scriptural principles that provide hope for the future.1
Remember God’s Sovereignty
Christians must put their trust in the Lord. They know that they are completely dependent upon God. The Lord gives life and breath and is the one in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:26–28). The Lord is ultimately the one who provides our daily bread (Matt. 6:11).
The simple petition of the Lord’s Prayer for daily bread defies the thinking of modern socialists, who see prosperity and security descending from the beneficent hand of the state. Have an economic problem? “Well,” the statist says, “we have a stimulus package for you worth hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars!” Psalm 146:3 gives a simple warning: “Do not put your trust in princes” (NKJV). Men are mortal, the psalmist warns, and they and their plans perish. The believer’s confidence must be in the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth, who provides for the poor, executes perfect justice, and reigns forever. Christians cannot look to Washington for salvation; their hope is in the Lord.
On the eve of the American War for Independence, John Witherspoon preached an earnest patriotic sermon. Witherspoon was a Presbyterian minister and the president of Princeton, and his “Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men” emphasized the sovereignty of God. But before advancing national issues, Witherspoon stressed spiritual concerns. As important as American independence was, he believed that the patriot’s first obligation was to trust in God.
His evangelist emphasis is particularly appropriate for our modern crises. “I would take the opportunity to press every hearer to a sincere concern for his own soul’s salvation. There are times when the mind may be expected to be more awake to divine truth, and the conscience more open to the arrows of conviction than at others. A season of public judgment is of this kind … I would therefore earnestly press the apostle’s exhortation, ‘Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.’ There can be no true religion, till there be a discovery of your lost state, and an unfeigned acceptance of Christ Jesus, as he is offered in the gospel.” Unless Americans placed their trust in God, Witherspoon argued, their short-term prospects were bleak—and their eternal prospects were even worse.2
Christians must remember that God rules the nations. Anxious about political, economic, and military crises, they sometimes forget that God is in control. In doing so, they become practical atheists or deists, envisioning a world cut off from the providential power of God. Isaiah gives excellent reminders of God’s sovereignty: “For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like Me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things that are not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will do all My pleasure’” (Isa. 46:9–10 NKJV).
Paul makes the same point in Athens, emphasizing God’s comprehensive rule of all human history. “God, who made the world and everything in it … has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings” (Acts 17:24, 26). American Christians can be confident that the omnipotent Lord will accomplish all His purposes.
In view of our modern threats of terrorism and militant Islam, it is worth revisiting Samuel Davies’ great sermon, “The Mediatorial Kingdom and Glories of Jesus Christ.” It was preached in 1756, during the French and Indian War, when colonial Christians worried about the threat of Romanism, France, and the Indians, France’s agents of terror on the frontier. Davies offered comforting reminders of God’s sovereignty, His providential governance of history, and the certain progress of the gospel of Christ.3
Put Your House in Order
Christians should never be apathetic or fatalistic in the face of crises. Robert Dabney frequently made that point in encouraging and challenging beleaguered Southerners after the War.4 When difficult times come, Christians must examine their lives and consider ways of renewing their obedience.
They must, for instance, pay their tithes. Christians who acknowledge that their whole sustenance comes from God could not do otherwise. The tithe represents the firstfruits of our earnings, and it acknowledges our dependence upon God. In times of economic crisis, it should be a first step toward recovery.
As a pastor, I surprised one parishioner who sought counsel on how to extricate himself from financial trouble. “It is easy,” I said. “Pay your tithes.” It is presumptuous to expect God’s blessing when one systematically steals from the Lord. And conversely, the Lord has promised His blessings upon those who honor Him with their tithes.
Malachi 3 gives straightforward direction about how to avoid financial disasters, both personal and national. The Lord charges that His people have robbed Him through stolen tithes and offerings (v. 8), for which they will receive a special curse (v. 9). The Lord invites a test. If His people bring the full tithe, He promises to open the windows of heaven and pour out a blessing (v. 10).
The failure to tithe has economic consequences. Samuel warned that the monarchy, the new centralized government of his day, would exact its own tithe from the people (1 Sam. 8:15), usurping the place of God. People inevitably tithe. It may be a Biblical tithe, voluntarily and thankfully given to the true Lord. Or it may be some hyper-tithe mandated by a king or the current statist entities. When that happens, Samuel warned, people will suffer under the tyranny of the new lords they have established.
Perhaps churches could propose a “Biblical stimulus package” for the American economy. Want to see national economic recovery and prosperity? It’s easy! Pay your tithes and let God take care of the rest! There is, obviously, more involved. People who tithe embrace a complete Biblical worldview, including commitments to personal discipline, stewardship, and long-term investment, all of which have profound economic consequences. (Unbelievers will discount this as a simplistic solution—even as they promote a trillion-dollar humanistic stimulus package to revitalize the economy with massive grants for Planned Parenthood and other liberal boondoggles.) A nation could do worse than follow the Malachi Plan (Mal. 3:10).5
Christians should, furthermore, ditch their personal idols. Americans live in a materialist age, and we are tempted to worship wealth and prosperity, even as we are tempted to idolize the state.
The “City on a Hill” sermon, preached by John Winthrop in 1620 at the start of the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony, was the first great sermon in American history. It draws on covenantal themes of the Old and New Testaments and closes with a passionate appeal to Deuteronomy 30. If the people obey and follow the Lord, Winthrop argues, they will receive His blessings. If they repudiate Him and His Word, they will receive His curse. The closing admonition is powerful: “[O]ur hearts shall turn away, so that we will not obey, but shall be seduced, and worship other Gods, our pleasure and profits, and serve them … [W]e shall surely perish out of the good land.” Winthrop’s warning about “other Gods, our pleasure and profits” has a contemporary ring. American society is largely hedonistic and materialistic; we have pursued idols. Winthrop’s closing exhortation is also relevant today: “[L]et us choose life, that we and our seed may live, by obeying His voice and cleaving to Him, for He is our life and prosperity.”6
Christians should be frugal, especially in times of economic stress. A friend once described a vivid sermon illustration, where the pastor announced that he had a simple solution for the economic woes of the congregation. After a dramatic pause, he produced a small paper sack. The pastor described the savings the average parishioner would realize by packing a sandwich, rather than purchasing lunch, and avoiding buying Cokes at the vending machine. Daily frugality would account for substantial annual and lifetime savings. The lesson on economizing was simple enough, but I suspect it was largely unfollowed.7
In the “Dominion of Providence,” Witherspoon stresses the importance of industry and frugality for American patriots. The riotous and wasteful man, “whose craving appetites make him constantly needy, is and must be subject to many masters” since “the borrower is servant to the lender.” On the other hand, Witherspoon insists, the frugal and moderate person is able to help others and give aid to his country.8
Christians must also avoid debt. In marriage counseling, I tell young couples that financial struggles put great stress on marriages. They should not go into debt, certainly not long-term debt, and never for depreciating items, especially for nonessential items unrelated to productivity. Scripture teaches that the borrower is the lender’s slave (Prov. 22:7). Why would anyone voluntarily place himself in bondage, especially for a television, or boat, or automobile? As those who have been bought with a price, Christians must never become the slaves of men (1 Cor. 7:23).
American indebtedness has reached critical levels.9 The current economic stimulus package would add hundreds of billions of additional indebtedness to the nation’s burdens. The consequences to the economy and national character will be horrific. As Robert Dabney once put it, “[T]he empty sack does not stand upright.”10 The American sack is quickly being emptied of its character and residual capital.
Dabney’s commentary on the post-Civil War crises of Reconstruction is enlightening. He saw a troubling centralization of capital and production in Wall Street, which would become the consolidated center of debts, loans, and revenues. His prediction of a pending “financial despotism” is sobering for those who now see a socialist order emerging in America: “‘The borrower is servant to the lender.’ The political subjection must, sooner or later, follow the financial.”11
Christians must also pursue their callings. Reformed Christians have followed the Protestant Reformers in emphasizing vocation. Adam was placed in the Garden with a clear mandate for work (Gen. 1:28). Though labor has become more difficult and frustrating after the Fall, calling is still vitally important. A man’s work is valuable and is to be done to the glory of God.
Our culture needs a revival of vocation. Too many young people are interested in jobs—employment to provide income. They should be more interested in vocations—callings based upon gifts and a sense of the Lord’s direction. In times of economic uncertainty, employers will seek workers possessing dedication and industry. I once heard excellent advice: “Make yourself indispensable to your boss.” This is a modern, axiomatic restating of Ephesians 6:6–8. Every Christian employee has a scriptural obligation to be hardworking and conscientious. It is especially prudent to do so in tough times.
Gary North’s recent reflections on his father’s death offer a testimony to the importance of calling. North differentiates between jobs and legacies. Since we have a limited time on earth, we should consider carefully what legacy we will leave. Every Christian should ask: “What will be my life’s work?”12 North’s comments are reminiscent of Psalm 90, where the transitory nature of human existence is compared to the eternity of God. “[T]each us to number our days,” Moses prays in verse 12, “that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.” The closing petition of Psalm 90 is the prayer of every Christian who takes his calling seriously: “And let the beauty of the LORD our God be upon us: and establish thou the work of our hands.”
Christians must invest wisely, as wise stewards of the resources God has given. Christian stewardship is, as the Westminster Larger Catechism (Questions 141–142) explains, an extension of the eighth commandment. Since the Bible teaches that the righteous man leaves an inheritance to his children and children’s children (Prov. 13:22), every Christian should be concerned about the stewardship of his earthly estate.
When my grandparents married in 1927, my great-grandfather made a curious offer. The newlyweds were given the choice of a piano or a cow. When Grandma told the story, she always added, “Of course, we took the cow!” It made perfect sense for a young couple starting a dairy operation. My great-grandfather’s offer was, intentional or not, highly symbolic. He offered either the symbol of middle class cultural attainment and status (the piano) or a means of production and estate building (the cow). Christians should focus on production and calling rather than consumption and luxury.13
In tough times, Christians should practice true Biblical charity. Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” sermon, or a “Model of Christian Charity,” called Massachusetts Bay settlers to be gracious to the needy. I once served in a church where all the deacons were required to read George Grant’s Bringing in the Sheaves and Marvin Olasky’s The Tragedy of American Compassion prior to ordination so that they could better fulfill the duties of office.
Biblical charity is very different from the promiscuous entitlements of the welfare state. As Olasky notes, Biblical charity identifies a deserving poor, differentiates between emergency assistance and long-term care, requires work from those who are able, encourages moral improvement, emphasizes personal interaction and discipleship, seeks to preserve family structures, and is done for the glory of God. Olasky also shows how Biblical charity, widely practiced in the nineteenth century, was tragically replaced by government agencies and cruel statist compassion. In times of crisis, Christians may again provide a Biblical alternative.14
Discern the Times
Churches should provide Biblically faithful commentary on the issues of the day. Scripture celebrates the sons of Issachar—“men that had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do” (1 Chron. 12:32). Christians must be equipped to contend with the prevailing culture. The church has a mandate to provide this training, since the Great Commission requires teaching the nations to observe all things that Christ has commanded (Matt. 28:20). At the very least, churches can link to ministries that specialize in a comprehensive Biblical and worldview analysis of contemporary events.15
The Bible, for instance, speaks to monetary issues with its repeated emphases on just weights and just measures. Businessmen who use phony weights to cheat the people are condemned (Deut. 25:13–16). Likewise, governments who use corrupted standards are marked for judgment (Isa. 1:21–26).
The American monetary and banking system is a mess, and churches need to provide a clear testimony to scriptural standards. In the eighteenth century, John Witherspoon was a consistent voice for economic sanity, condemning government price controls and paper money systems.16 Martin Selbrede’s “Economic Crises and the Bible” is an excellent contemporary overview of the issue.17
Micah 6:8, for example, is a well-known passage on walking with God, loving mercy and doing justice. It is often taken out of context and given a sentimental and pietistic twist. As Selbrede notes, Micah condemns the “treasures of wickedness,” and the justice God demands concerns false weights (6:10–11). The humanistic state has produced a fiat monetary standard that is unstable and inherently valueless, and Christians need to argue for honest money.
J. Gresham Machen is an excellent example of a dutiful Christian confronting the culture on the basis of Biblical principles. Like other Princeton leaders, he was critical of public education that operated under state domination and was stripped of a religious core. Machen wrote extensively on Christian education and even testified before the U.S. Senate when it considered establishing a Department of Education.18
Machen is well known for his classic defense of orthodoxy in Christianity and Liberalism. The 1923 work also condemns the paternalistic materialism of the state, its socialistic drift, and the assault on individual liberties. He was particularly concerned about the “soul-killing system” of public education that buttressed modernistic statism. As Machen puts it: “[P]lace the lives of children in their formative years, despite the best convictions of their parents under the intimate control of experts appointed by the state, force them to attend schools where the higher aspirations of humanity are crushed out, and where the mind is filled with the materialism of the day, and it is difficult to see how even the remnants of liberty can subsist. Such a tyranny … used as the instrument of destroying human souls, is certainly far more dangerous than the crude tyrannies of the past.”19 We need a new generation of Machens who are able to use Scripture to discern the times and confront the culture.
Keep Christian Confidence
In times of crisis, Christians may grow discouraged. Their view of the future can be shaped by “newspaper exegesis”—as they behold one calamity following another—rather than the sure promises of Scripture. We must remember that the Lord can accomplish all things.
In 1798, American prospects looked bleak. The revolution in France had frightened many in the infant American republic, and there were rumors of war and disturbing reports of religious and moral declension. The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church issued a sober pastoral letter: “We perceive with pain and fearful apprehension a general dereliction of religious principles and practice among our fellow citizens, and a visible and prevailing impiety and contempt for the laws and institutions of religion, and an abounding infidelity, which in many instances tends to atheism itself. The profligacy and corruption of the public morals have advanced with a progress proportionate to our declension in religion. Profaneness, pride, luxury, injustice, intemperance, lewdness, and every species of debauchery and loose indulgence abound … The eternal God has a controversy with this nation.”
At the same time the pastoral letter was issued, however, there was already a stirring of revival in Virginia. And within a few years, the Second Awakening had a powerful impact on America. Even in the bleakest of times, the Lord was at work.
Lynchburg, Virginia, is a good example of what might happen in God’s good providence. In 1804, famous evangelist Lorenzo Dow was disappointed with his revival services in the town. As Dow put it, “I spoke in the open air in what I conceived to be the seat of Satan’s kingdom … Lynchburg was a deadly place for the worship of God!”20 Two hundred years later, Lynchburg is home to Liberty University, the largest evangelical university in the world.
In Jeremiah 32, God commands the imprisoned prophet to purchase a plot of ground. It was a strange request since Jeremiah had prophesied that Judah would be overwhelmed by the Babylonians. Facing the certainty of impending judgment, Jeremiah couldn’t understand the reason for the command and, in a long prayer, sought God’s confirmation (32:25). Jeremiah was reminded that nothing was too difficult for the Sovereign Lord (32:27). After the promised judgment, there would be a restoration: “Just as I have brought all this great calamity on this people, so I will bring on them all the good that I have promised them” (32:42 NKJV). In the meantime, while awaiting restoration, Jeremiah was to carefully place the deed to his new property in a jar. While Judah faced short-term judgment, Jeremiah’s deed, secured in the jar, would be a long-term reminder of what God would still accomplish.
Americans face calamities today, and we don’t know the trajectory or duration of the present troubles. Christians should not focus on the turbulent problems of the day and must certainly not put their confidence in the programs of man. Instead they should fix their eyes upon the Lord and His commands and promises. We can depend on His promises for the future, confident that the Sovereign Lord will accomplish all His purposes.
1. For an interesting perspective, see Gary North, “Why I Appreciate Recessions” at http://www.lewrockwell.com/north/north139.html.
2. John Witherspoon, “The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men,” Political Sermons of the American Founding Era, ed. Ellis Sandoz (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Press, 1991), 545–546. Available at http://oll.libertyfund.org/index.php?option=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php?title=1878&Itemid=27.
3. Samuel Davies, “The Mediatorial Kingdom and Glories of Jesus Christ,” Political Sermons of the American Founding Era, 183–206. What is astonishing is that Davies’ sermon is preached to slaves—the least powerful of the colonial audiences (p. 206).
4. Robert L. Dabney, “The Duty of the Hour,” Discussions, Vol. IV (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1979), 118–119.
5. The best study of tithing is R. J. Rushdoony and Edward A. Powell, Tithing and Dominion (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1979).
6. John Winthrop, “A Model of Christian Charity,” at http://religiousfreedom.lib.virginia.edu/sacred/charity.html.
7. Some years ago a poor man in the neighborhood sought financial assistance from our church. The deacons were willing to give emergency assistance, but wanted to offer the man broader spiritual and budgetary counsel before giving substantial handouts. On a visit to the man’s home, they were stunned to see a big-screen television and to learn of the indigent man’s expensive cable service. The church could only help the man if he would put his house in order, which he refused to do. Too many Americans get into trouble because they have tiny resources but big-screen appetites. It’s time to get out the lunch sack!
8. Witherspoon, “The Dominion of Providence,” 557.
9. For a sobering view of the bank crisis and American debt, see the video at http://www.garynorth.com/public/4527.cfm.
10. Robert L. Dabney, “The New South,” Discussions, Vol. IV (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1979), 12.
11. Ibid., 7.
12. Gary North, “The Top Layer of the Cake,” http://www.lewrockwell.com/north/north670.html.
13. For a fascinating look at the piano industry, see Jeffery Tucker, “The End of the U.S. Piano Industry” at http://www.lewrockwell.com/tucker/tucker115.html.
14. In a recent Chalcedon podcast, Dr. Charles Roberts underscores the importance of Christian charity. Chalcedon also plans to release Rushdoony’s study of the diaconate, In His Service. Charles Roberts, “The Present and Future State of America, Part 1,” interview with Chris Ortiz and Andrea Schwartz, Chalcedon Podcast (January 23, 2009) at We.
15. The Chalcedon Position Papers address issues on economy, education, defense, and politics and are available at www.chalcedon.edu. These succinct summaries provide rich and readily accessible online resources.
16. Witherspoon noted the essentially statist direction of these proposals: “Remember, laws are not almighty. It is beyond the power of despotic princes to regulate the price of goods.” Quoted in Henry Steele Commager and Richard B. Morris, eds., The Spirit of Seventy-Six (New York: Harper and Row, 1967), 783–784.
17. Martin Selbrede, “Economic Crises and the Bible,” Chalcedon position paper (2008) at http://www.chalcedon.edu/papers/EconomicsCrises.pdf.
18. J. Gresham Machen, Education, Christianity, and the State, ed. John Robbins (n.p: Trinity Foundation, 1987).
19. J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1923; reprint edition, 1981), 10, 13–14.
20. James Elson, Lynchburg, Virginia: The First Two Hundred Years (Lynchburg, VA: Warwick House, 2004), 51.