The word “religion” has various meanings. One dictionary gives the following meanings; “That sense of duty which we feel from the relation in which we stand to some superior power; and acknowledgement of an obligation to God accompanied by a feeling of reverence and love; practical piety; godliness; devotion; any system of faith and Worship”. These definitions, while good as far as they go, are very general and hardly express the meaning of the word in the title of my address.
It is religion in the Christian sense that is meant, and the essence of such religion is a right attitude toward God and His Son Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord. And this is true whether we speak of national religion or family religion or personal religion. This being so, it follows that religion is a most important matter in every sphere of life. It brings about great changes for good in the individual and the family and the nation. It has a great transforming influence. Its spread throughout the Whole world is surely a consummation devoutly to be wished and sought. The Psalmist prayed:
Lord bless and pity us; shine on us with Thy face; That th’ earth Thy way, and nations all, may know Thy saving grace.
What do we understand by national religion, which the title of my address suggests is closely associated with personal and family religion? Can a nation or the government of a country become Christian? For that is what being truly religious really means. Has a nation or government anything to do with Christianity, or the true religion? Have politics and religion anything to do with each other? Have civil duty and religious belief any connexion? Those who hold the secular or “voluntary” theory of civil government would answer these questions in the negative. But this theory is, we hold, completely at variance with the teaching of Scripture. In the Old Testament dispensation the Jewish nation, or the nation of Israel, was a nation in covenant with God, and was required to acknowledge God and render obedience to His law in its national capacity. And so long as that nation served God—in other words, practised His religion—it enjoyed God’s favour and blessing, and a large measure of prosperity; but when it became unfaithful to God, broke His covenant and His laws and became idolatrous or irreligious, it forfeited God’s favour and blessing, and merited and received His disapprobation and punishment. In the New Testament it is clearly taught that the exalted Mediator Christ Jesus has been clothed by His Father with all power and authority over men in all relations of life; that He is not only Lord of the individual, but Lord of the kingdom of the Church and the kingdom of the State, and that men in all spheres of life are required to acknowledge and serve Him. “God also hath highly exalted Him, and given Him a name which is above every name: that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philipp. ii, 9—11).
Some of the names or titles given to Christ in the Scriptures suggest and imply His Mediatorial dominion over nations. He is spoken of as “the Governor among the nations” (Ps. xxii, 28); as “ the Prince of the kings of the earth” (Rev. i, 5); as “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Rev. xvii, 14, xix, 16). These are no empty titles. The Bearer of them must be the supreme Ruler of nations as such; and therefore they must not ignore, but acknowledge and serve Him. And the time is predicted when the nations of the earth shall place their crowns at His feet: “And the seventh angel sounded, and there were great voices in Heaven, saying, The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ” (Rev. xi, 15).
How, then, shall a nation become a truly religious nation, or a truly Christian nation? Has it become such when its citizens, generally, are professing Christians? Has it become such when its laws are, generally, just and equitable? When toleration or liberty is allowed in such matters as Divine Worship and Church government; When provision is made for the opening of the sessions of Parliament in prayer, or when some Churches receive financial aid out of the national exchequer? No; these a important and commendable so far as they go, but something more is required to make a nation truly religious and truly Christian. In its constitution or fundamental law, whether written or unwritten, a nation to become truly religious or Christian, should explicitly acknowledge God as the source of all national and His Son Jesus Christ as supreme King, and His law as the proper standard in all legislation and administration, and not political expediency. It should require moral and religious qualifications in its rulers according to the Scriptures: “He that ruleth over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God” (2 Sam. xxiii, 3); “Moreover thou shalt provide out of all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness, and place such over them to be rulers” (Ex. xviii, 21). It should enter into covenant with God to serve Him and His Son Jesus Christ. Israel of Old was a covenanted nation, and it was in this and many other respects a type and pattern of what all nations which sought the light of Divine revelation should be.
The Reformers of Scotland had clear conceptions of what made a nation religious or Christian. “National Religion was one of the main pillars of the Reformation structure “ – to quote a sentence from the paper of Rev. Dr. James Kerr, of this city, on “The attainment of the Church of the Second Reformation”, read at the last Convention of Reformed Presbyterian Churches, forty-two years ago. The Reformers were not satisfied merely with a Reformed Church. They worked for reformed nation as well. The Second Reformation extended to the nation, and when the National Covenant of Scotland was renewed in 1638-three centuries ago – the Reformers had to a large extent realized their great aim and desire – a nation, as such, truly religious and truly Christian. That was the high-water mark of the Second Reformation in Scotland, and while the attainments then reached were faithfully maintained this land stood high in the Divine favour and enjoyed a large increase of prosperity. Scotland at that time might fitly have been named Hephzibah, the Lord’s delight, and Beulah, a land married to the Lord (Isa. lxii, 4]. Then, in 1643, not only Scotland, but England and Ireland also entered into the Solemn League and Covenant.
It is true that the high religious character then reached and professed by the nation did not last long. After the Restoration of Charles II, in 1660, there came a lamentable overturning. The high attainments of the Second Reformation were ruthlessly flung away by Charles and his party, but not without the most strenuous opposition on the part of the faithful Covenanters, many of whom won the martyr’s crown in the terrible conflict. At length, after years of faithful contending, the Revolution under William, Prince of Orange, came; but the “Settlement” expected fell far short both nationally and ecclesiastically of the attainments of 1638 and the years immediately following.
A third Reformation is needed to sweep away much accumulated rubbish in Church and State, and bring back the nation to the feet of Christ in humble submission to His order and law. For the attainment of this third Reformation the Covenanter Churches of these lands must work and witness.
Blessed is that nation whose God is the Lord. (Ps. xxxiii, 12.)
But having said so much about national religion and the importance and blessing of it, I must try to show that there can be no national religion without personal and family religion. They are all three closely connected. A State or nation is made up of individuals, and unless the individuals composing it are themselves religious, that is, unless they profess the Lord Jesus Christ and are faithful to Him as Saviour and Lord, we cannot hope for a religious or Christian nation, as such. It has been said about the Scottish Reformers that their spirituality was their highest and brightest attainment; that while they were great public witnesses they were also men of God; that they were men not only illustrious as reformers but as Saints too; that they were men not only of lofty patriotism but of deepest piety. The historian Froude wrote of them: “They were men possessed of all the qualities which give nobility and grandeur to human nature – men whose life was as upright as their intellect was commanding, and their public aims untainted with selfishness; unalterably just where duty required them to be stern, but with the tenderness of a woman in their hearts”. Samuel Rutherford is perhaps better known today as a man whose love for Christ was a veritable passion than as one of the ablest champions of Reformation principles. Donald Cargill who was faithful as a Covenanting witness in opposition to tyranny and oppression in high places, even unto a cruel martyr’s death, uttered with his dying breath these memorable words: “I have followed holiness; I have taught truth; and I have been most in the main things”, that is, the things that concern the soul’s eternal wellbeing. And personal religion is still specially necessary in order to bearing a public testimony for Christ Jesus the Lord as the Head of the Church and King of nation.
Let us as Covenanters ever see to it that we are “ right in our own conditions ”—that we are humble and devoted followers of the Saviour, persons of genuine and earnest faith, who are bringing forth the fruits of faith in their daily lives. “ Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or ﬁgs of thistles P” (Matt. vii, 16).
Then personal religion tends to grow out into a public testimony for Christ as King and Lord. The sinner who has experienced the blessing of forgiveness will love Christ much. He will feel a deep sense of obligation to Christ, and out of gratitude the challenging question, “ What shall I render to the Lord for all His gifts to me?” will surely demand his serious attention and constrain him to obedience and service.
Speaking on the words, “Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness”, one has said: “We must never think that as long as our souls are saved, and we are sure of Heaven, it is no concern of ours what is done in the world, or that we can he right with God and Wrong with our neighbour. Christians ought to be discontented, unhappy, restless, so long as human affairs in any department are conducted on principles out of bearing with the mind of Christ. They must hunger and thirst after personal goodness, but also after social righteousness (and, we might add, after national righteousness). They must seek to make righteousness triumphant everywhere”.
But while personal religion is, as we have seen, closely and vitally connected with national religion, they are both connected with family religion. The family is a Divine institution, founded by God not only for the comfort and wellbeing of mankind, but also for the maintenance and perpetuation of His cause and truth in the earth. Many Christians in all walks of life will readily admit that they owe much to the training which they received from godly parents. In their homes was laid the foundation of their Christian character and usefulness. The example of private prayer, Bible-reading, Sabbath observance, and family worship they can never forget, nor over-estimate the debt they owe to those who set before them such a holy example.
Family religion is of the greatest advantage to a nation. The Christian home is the nursery of all that is best in the Church and in the State. The family is the earliest form of government. It is the origin of States. It is the most active influence in civilization. The promise was made to Abraham that he would surely become a great nation, and the reason assigned is: “For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgement” (Gen. xviii, 19).
A good son will become a good citizen. Every Christian family is a school of good citizenship. In the resolutions passed by the Convention of Reformed Presbyterian Churches in 1896, in this very building, there is one which refers to the family and the important place which it holds in the community. It reads: “To fulﬁl the high end of its institution as the nursery of individual life in its purest and noblest development, the family, as such, must acknowledge and Worship the God of the families of the earth. The family altar, with its daily united service of praise and the reading of the Bible and prayer, is the foundation of all truly Christian homes, in which husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sisters, masters and servants, contribute most effectually to each other’s welfare and happiness, and make the domestic institution a blessing to the more comprehensive orders of social life, the Church and the State, in which it has its integral place and potent moulding power”– there the connexion between national religion and family religion is clearly suggested and understood.
But while the goal of personal and family religion should be national religion – the subjection of the nations, as such, to Christ and His law – it is only too true that that goal has not yet been fully reached. And why? Is it not through the failure of professing Christians to carry their religion into the national sphere and apply the teaching of Scripture to it? It has been well said: “The best of man’s life is his relational life, and in all his relational life he belongs to Christ. By what argument shall we be justified in saying that while a Christian man is bound to submit himself to Christ’s authority, yield himself to Christ’s influence; and give himself to Christ’s inspiration in his domestic relations, in his social relations, in his business relations – that in performing the duties and bearing the responsibilities involved in his political relations he is justified in recognizing some lower law, and in acting under the impulses of some poorer motive? If a man belongs in the nation, he is bound to serve Christ there as much as anywhere. Shall he not here, if anywhere, acknowledge Christ’s authority and seek to do His will? Oh! how much Christ needs trained, accomplished servants, who have learned that there is no sphere in which they cannot serve him.”
By the Rev Samuel Kennedy, Rathfriland – 1938.