Rev. Dr. John J. Lolla, Jr.
July 2, 2017
Text: Rom. 7:22, O.T.: Psalm 45:1-7, N.T.: Rom. 7:15-25a
Among the constellation of America’s founding fathers, no luminary shines brighter than George Washington. Washington was the face of the American Revolution. Reverence for Washington began while he led a ragtag army of idealists to victory against the greatest military power on earth. Reverence for Washington grew from his humility and wisdom when he served as the nation’s first president.
George Washington dedicated his life to serving the God-given right to liberty. He disdained despots. He was anxious that national appreciation for his leadership would alter the presidency into a monarchy. He was reluctant to serve a second term in office and wrote a farewell address to the nation with James Madison’s help.
But this address wasn’t published until he refused a third term as president. Washington’s Farewell Address continues to be read in the U.S. Senate Chambers on the observance of his birthday.
We are gathered on the Sunday before the 241st anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. It’s well to remember the counsel given by our nation’s first president when he left public office. Washington wasn’t a saint. But he did know the Bible. Biblical wisdom gave him insight into American independence that deserves consideration today for the quality of our civic life together.
Washington wrote in his Farewell Address that religion and morality are indispensable for American democracy. Without religion and morality, the passions of political parties and sectional disputes will threaten the nation’s union. He warned the passions of political party spirit and regional competition would lead the republic to want a despot to impose national unity on America.
Religion and morality counteract self-interest in political parties and sectional demands. Religion and morality restrain impulses in human nature that seek power at the expense of your neighbor. Washington wrote in his Farewell Address,
Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensible supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens.
Washington noted free people need religion and morality to define social righteousness. He asked
. . . where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in Courts of Justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. . . reason and experience forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.
Washington proposed in his First Inaugural Address that justice can’t exist without laws designed by a higher authority than self-interest and liberty.
. . . we ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of Heaven, can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained.
Unbridled self-interest makes demands at another person’s expense. Righteous justice starts with belief in God, belief in God’s righteousness, and belief in God’s expectations of all people. It treats all people as equals.
Social righteousness needs God to govern a free conscience.
“Love your neighbor as yourself . . . Do onto others as you would have them do unto you,” are twin pillars of Christian morality. Jesus Christ’s teaching about morality is God’s will that guides the conscience of Jesus’ disciples. The free Christian conscience is a social conscience obeying Christ’s Golden Rule.
Christ’s teaching on morality inspired George Washington’s Farewell Address. He understood, like few law-makers and jurists today understand, how critical Christ’s teaching is for uniting a democratic republic.
America exists because our nation’s founders pointed lovers of liberty to faith in God and deference to God’s righteousness. We’re here because faith in God’s righteousness inspired patriots’ hearts to join a holy quest to forge a nation around the vision of God’s covenant with His people.
The country’s founders were inspired by a Godly vision that elevated freedom above the dangers of self-interest in self-government. America has faced civil war, global evil, and social revolution with Christ’s lessons from the Golden Rule tempering self-interest. God’s wisdom in Christ’s teaching is the sacred trust our republic should honor in its 241st celebration of independence.
George Washington was sophisticated in his understanding of human nature. He knew self-interest perverts a nation’s law. Civil law should illuminate the deficiencies in self-interest just as God’s law to Moses exposes the evil in human sin. Debate in a democracy about what’s lawful is debate over the degree to which citizens’ self-interest is permissible before it’s detrimental for everyone.
Law does not prevent self-interest. It bridles self-interest. Laws protect people from self-interest implicit in the will of the people. As John Calvin wrote, law convicts us of our sin, law punishes sin, and law exhorts sinners to be holy.
Law in a democratic republic represents the will of the people. It needs a greater source for justice, a greater vision for obedience than what people want. People’s wants are corrupted by sin. A nation can be corrupted by sin when it’s law is corrupted by sin. Law needs God’s righteousness. It needs the goodness of God’s Spirit inspiring people to unite and live as a holy nation – under God.
George Washington understood God as a God of grace. He knew God’s character through Jesus Christ’s Gospel. He may have been a deist. But his belief in God’s merciful justice came from Christ’s teaching of morality.
Christ’s teaching authority comes from what the Creator did when raising Jesus from the dead. The resurrection elevated Jesus’ teachings from a mortal’s moral opinion to God’s moral imperative. We have no choice but to consider our neighbor’s best interest if we believe Jesus Christ is Lord of our conscience as a free people.
The blessings from Jesus’ Spirit – blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the meek, blessed are the pure in heart, blessed are the peacemakers – lies beyond a civil law compelling citizens to obedience. The spirit of Christ’s blessings comes from a conscience formed by God’s love for all people. A Christ-shaped conscience unites Jesus’ followers and their neighbors as one people.
A liberty that relied on religious morality inspired George Washington beyond human reason. He saw in Paris’ streets the results of worshipping human reason. France’s leaders lost their heads in the name of human reason. The liberty of an anarchist mob in France’s Republic did not inspire Washington.
Washington’s belief in self-government and liberty rested in a vision from God in the Bible. A nation united by God’s love safe-guard’s independence. God’s loving spirit inspires people of various sects, races, economic classes, and nationalities to respect one another. Mutual respect guarantees freedom for all.
Faith in Christ’s example of God’s love helps a free conscience limit personal liberty so others can enjoy God’s blessings of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Self-government needs a spirit of compassion from a religious faith to have domestic tranquility.
Today, America is being challenged to remember the pillars of our independence rest upon the religious belief we have in God’s authority over our nation. America’s moral righteousness, our national respect for law and justice, our personal freedom depends on each citizen honoring Jesus Christ’s teaching role in defining what is moral and good.
Beyond the nation’s laws, beyond the law of Moses, Christ’s Spirit frees us to serve the holy cause of independence – to be one people who are only subject to God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. Without religion and morality, without faith in Jesus Christ, and following His ethic, our experiment in self-government will be corrupted by the sin embedded in self-interest.
The greatness of our social experiment in liberty needs men and women of Jesus Christ’s Church to stand for the importance of Christ’s moral teaching for our national unity. We must remind our leaders that Washington’s Farewell Address is not merely a nostalgic piece of Americana for Congress, the Presidency, the Supreme Court, educators and citizens to dismiss as historical sentimentalism.
America’s first president calls each generation to be accountable to God for its worship and morality. This is a democratic government’s greatest challenge. The world watches to see if we continue to honor the pillars of our independence.
Washington summarized our binding responsibility as a nation to worship God and practice the morality God expects of His covenant people.
No People is more bound [by their obligation] to acknowledge and adore the invisible hand which conducts the Affairs of men than the People of the United States. Every step by which we have advanced to the character of an independent nation, seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency.
To God be the power, to Christ be the glory, to the Holy Spirit be the honor! Amen.