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Collin Garbarino  of Houston Baptist University has reacted  to Southern Baptist Convention President Fred Luter’s offhand suggestion on a radio show that North Korea’s recent military threats represent divine judgment on America for pondering same-sex marriage. Luter later retracted the comments.

According to Garbarino, such a suggestion rests on a belief common among many American Christians that Old Testament promises to Israel apply to modern nation states. He counters that,“If you read the entire Bible as testifying to the life and work of Christ . . . the promises and warnings to ancient Israel apply not to America, but to the church.”

Garbarino judges that such assumptions are pharisaic for thinking that righteous behavior will usher in God’s Kingdom. Christians should instead think of the Kingdom as not political but “spiritual and eternal,” based on Christ’s own “eternal sacrifice.” Constantine’s conversion and the Christianization of the Roman Empire confused thinking for many, for which St. Augustine offered corrective.

“The church isn’t on earth to lobby Washington in an attempt to recreate the Garden of Eden in the Land of Nod,” Garbarino wrote. Instead, its task is to make disciples. Christ didn’t redeem a nation-state, just the Church, transforming lives but not so much laws. He concludes: “I pray that more and more Americans will escape the coming judgment through having a dual citizenship in heaven.”

Garbarino is certainly correct to caution against quickly linking any earthly unpleasantness directly to divine judgment for sin. The rain falls on the just and the unjust. And all of us, absent God’s grace, are intrinsically unjust, relying completely on God’s constant mercy.

But Garbarino goes too far in seeming to suggest that God redeems only the Church without any apparent providential purpose for other institutions. God is sovereign over all. And his purposes ultimately employ all persons, individually and corporately, whatever their own intent, as well as all matter and events within the cosmos.

God the Father reveals himself through his Son Jesus Christ, and the universal Body of Christ, the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, offering salvation and sanctification. Other human institutions cannot replicate this salvific purpose but they certainly fall under God’s rule. So he surely uses and interacts with nation-states, families, corporations, labor unions, baseball leagues, swim clubs, neighborhood associations, and all human groupings.

Any human group potentially can succumb to God’s judgment or become an instrument of his favor, as he chooses. It is not necessarily heretical or presumptuous to surmise that a tennis association, for example, if it becomes particularly nasty in its human interactions, could suffer dire consequences, as it willfully breaks God’s laws, which are binding on all, and if God as an act of mercy determines he must restrain or end it because it is a hindrance to human good. Likewise, if the tennis association fosters good will and healthy vigor, it arguably becomes a means of God’s grace, broadly defined, and God may bless and perpetuate it.

What is true for a tennis association, or book club, or even a Facebook group, can also be true for nation-states. Surely God, who knows when a sparrow falls, is involved in the temporal affairs of nations, and bends them ultimately to his purposes, in some mysterious way revealing himself in their rise and fall. These nations may not have the cosmological significance of the ancient Hebrew people, who uniquely served as God’s redemptive agent for the world. But they may yet still have great consequence with eternal implications.

One of the prominent anti-Hitler conspirators suggested that their witness against their genocidal dictator could resemble the potential ten righteous men in wicked Sodom whom the Lord bid Abraham seek so that the city might be spared. Is that conspirator’s thirst for a righteous example from the Bible flatly wrong? Or was the German Roman Catholic archbishop who denounced the Nazi extermination of the Jews as a “crime that cries out to heaven” wrong to suggest divine wrath against his nation?

World War II–era Nazi crimes are extreme examples. But if the Lord judges nation-states for mass murder, might he also not judge them for other sins? Famously, Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address suggested the Civil War was divine judgment upon the nation for three centuries of slavery. Was he wrong to do so? Is it not potentially morally instructive for nations and all human groups to acknowledge possible divine reaction to terrible evils? No less, might Providence not bless and encourage righteous works that are themselves extensions of his goodness?

Gerald McDermott, an ordained Anglican who teaches at Roanoke College, addressed these ideas in a 2003 book edited by D. G. Hart called  The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards: American Religion and the Evangelical Tradition . “For us to conclude that it is illegitimate for Christian thinkers to reflect on this possibility [of God’s working through human history],” he says, “is to revert to the Enlightenment dogma that history must be hermetically sealed off from the fullest ranges of faith.”

McDermott emphasizes that “it is one thing for God to have purposes for a nation’s history, and quite another for the church to be able to discern those purposes.” He notes that humans are “inordinately inclined to self-deception” and “probably less prone to misjudgment when we claim that God is judging us rather than congratulating us or judging others.” And he suggests that examining “historical events can help the church resist jingoism and the church’s cooption by nationalism or partisan politics” by understanding that blessings can be prelude to judgment. Discerning Providence in human events should always include a humble “perhaps.”

Luter’s unscripted suggestion that North Korea is God’s instrument of judgment upon sinful America somewhat recalls the infamous comments from Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, also later retracted, surmising that 9/11 was divine retribution for abortion, homosexuality, and feminism. At the time, Jewish intellectual Irving Kristol, speaking at the American Enterprise Institute, noted that discerning divine punishment upon the nation in public cataclysms was routine fare in American religion until very modern times. Somewhat irenically, Iristol waxed a little nostalgic for that earlier era. He probably appreciated the humility of a nation at least admitting its sin, in contrast with the contemporary, therapeutic preference for constant self-affirmation, which prefers only condemning others’ sins, especially ancestors.

Claiming a direct link between particular national sins and divinely ordained national disasters can be theologically presumptuous and obviously rhetorically dangerous. But denying the possibility altogether potentially limits God’s sovereignty, including both his justice and his mercy.

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