July 24, 2015

Royal Assent

When we speak of God as Lord and King, we must remember that these are not merely figurehead titles. Christ’s lordship is real and active, and calls all men to account. 

Canada, like her older sister Great Britain, is a constitutional monarchy, where the Queen remains the head of state. In June 1953, at the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, the Archbishop of Canterbury handed our Queen the Bible with the words:

Our gracious Queen: to keep your majesty ever mindful of the Law and Gospel of God as the Rule for the whole life and government of Christian Princes, we present you with this book, the most valuable thing that this world affords. Here is Wisdom; This is the royal Law; These are the lively oracles of God.

With these words, the church and state set forth clearly the historic Christian doctrine of God’s sovereignty. In biblical faith, God’s word is the royal law because He is sovereign over all with absolute authority over every sphere. If we deny total sovereignty to God over men and nations, we deny that He is God, and if we deny that He is the sovereign God, we have actually denied the gospel. The sovereignty of God is at the heart of the Christian gospel, for the Triune God is the creator, the Lord of history, redeemer and king; and not only the hearts of men in salvation (John 6:65), but the hearts of kings in government, are in His hands (Prov. 21:1). As the King of all kings, God is no less sovereign over rulers of nations in history, than He is sovereign in our salvation. Through the Psalmist, God commands all the nations to worship and honor His name and prophesies that all nations shall worship Him and His enemies submit to His reign (Ps. 66:1-4).

Moreover, in the same Psalm, the complete rule of God is declared: “He ruleth by his power for ever; his eyes behold the nations: let not the rebellious exalt themselves. Selah. (Ps. 66:7). This fact is central to the gospel, for the apostle Paul declares that Jesus Christ, God’s Son, “is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of Kings and Lord of lords … to him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen” (1 Tim. 6:15-16).

Christendom, by and large, recognized the significance and implications of these biblical claims. The earliest document written in English is the Law code of Ethelbert, and is deeply informed by biblical truth and law. The Common Law system developed during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries that decisively shaped the English-speaking world was equally indebted to biblical revelation. For some, these realities might be disregarded as irrelevant anecdotes from ancient history, but the fact that the rule and reign of the God of Scripture has, as recently as the Coronation, been acknowledged constitutionally by our head of state, is something that makes many uncomfortable, including many professing Christians. Dr. Daniel Strange, Academic Vice-Principal and Professor of Culture and Public Theology, at Oakhill College, London has noted:

While there are those in all sectors of our society who wish it were not so, one cannot deny the relevance, role and yes, even rule, that the Bible has explicitly played in the shaping of British life and culture. This may be obvious to some, but for many, including many Christians, there are severe cases of historical myopia and amnesia that need remedying.

Of course, a constitutional monarchy means serious limitations on the power of the monarch. She is legally the sovereign, has a Governor General in Canada who gives royal approval (attestation only in Canada) to acts of Parliament, and she has to give royal assent to acts passed into law in Britain. This is typically done by letters patent, and occasionally in a more formal ceremony. Though our Queen is constitutionally permitted to withhold royal assent in Britain, this has not happened to an act since Queen Anne vetoed the Scottish Militia Bill in 1707 on the advice of her ministers.

Historically in Europe, monarchs often vetoed bills in the exercise of sovereignty, and periodically dismissed a government. In 1834, King William the IV removed the government of Lord Melbourne, but the king finally conceded in the ensuing crisis. Clearly, royal power has been greatly diminished over the past three hundred years, to the current point where our Queen has not refused royal assent to bills she finds morally objectionable. As such, most today view monarchs as simply figureheads who can be paraded out for formal occasions and disappear back into the palace again as required. In short, in a constitutional monarchy, the monarch reigns, but she does not rule.

The great tragedy of our time is not that earthly monarchs have seen their power decline, but that we have reduced the role of the living God in our thinking to that of a constitutional monarch for the universe. As someone deeply engaged in cultural apologetics, seeking to help remedy the amnesia that has afflicted our culture in regard to the role of God and Scripture in public life, I can say that the task is made much harder by the fact that all too many Christians have a god no bigger than a paper queen or governor general, obliged to give assent to the demands of the people. God is expected to appear and disappear as required – paraded out on Sundays for a ceremonial role in church and pushed back into his heavenly palace with no relevance to the other spheres of life, Monday through Saturday. In church and state, his royal law does not command us. He is permitted no veto on our social acts of self-will, and he may dismiss no lawless usurpation of authority by human government. To our own harm, our constitutionally-limited god must play no role in law, education, or public life and policy. In essence, he is banished from shaping the culture in terms of his will and purpose.

This theological idol, when expressed in the church, typically affirms that God reigns, but like all constitutional monarchs, denies that he really rules. At best he might hold sway in the sanctuary, but he has no realm or jurisdiction. The monarch has no sceptre; the king has no kingdom outside the palace gates. God is reduced to a figurehead, even in the church, and so in national constitutions like Canada’s it should be no surprise that the preamble affirming the ‘supremacy of God’ is considered by her lawyers a dead letter. But for the church to obfuscate the absolute sovereignty of God is to deny Scripture; it is to deny that He is King, and to do so is a denial of the gospel itself.

For leading evangelicals in the past, God was not reduced to having to assent to man’s lawless will. Rather His word was seen as commanding kings in their royal proclamations. To mobilize Britain’s social and moral leaders, the great abolitionist, William Wilberforce, was the driving force behind an important royal proclamation against all vice. His motivation was clear when he wrote, “In my opinion the strength of a country is most increased by its moral improvement, and by the moral and religious instruction of its people. Only think what a country that would be, where every one acted upon Christian principles.” This was not born out of some naive idealism; as he wrote elsewhere:

I know that by regulating the external conduct we do not at first change the hearts of men, but even they are ultimately to be wrought upon by these means, and we should at least so far remove the obtrusiveness of the temptation, that it may not provoke the appetite, which might otherwise be dormant and inactive.

For Wilberforce, God was sovereign over all and He required the reforming of the entire framework of society as both God and King. As William Hague put it in his noted biography of Wilberforce, “If carried out successfully, it would make more difference to daily life and save more souls when they came to account for their lives before God than any number of well-intentioned acts of Parliament.” And so, largely at Wilberforce’s behest, on 1 June 1787 King George III issued a new proclamation that lamented the progress of immorality, profaneness and licentiousness in the land as a scandal against the Christian faith, and commanded judges, mayors, sheriffs and justices of the peace to address themselves to the lawful discipline of the populace in terms of biblical standards, including drunkenness, restraining blasphemy and profanation of the Lord’s Day. Wilberforce and many other evangelicals believed that cultural leadership by people convinced of the righteousness of God’s Word and the attendant blessings of obedience, could deeply impact the heart, mind and salvation of individuals as well as the progress, peace and prosperity of the nation as a whole. Christ the King was sovereign to such men, and His Word was royal law, given for the rule and blessing of His subjects in all creation.

This unswerving biblical commitment to the King of kings in so humble, faithful and effective a man seems a world away from contemporary Christianity’s contentment with a largely constitutional monarch; a god consigned to a figurehead role in the church and utterly peripheral to society. But God will not be reduced, and cannot be reduced to a constitutional monarch. He rules and reigns and no man can hold back His hand or say, what have you done (Dan. 4:35).

It is a Christian renaissance of faith in the sovereign Lord Jesus that is so desperately needed in our time. A faith that dares to believe that the same God who – centuries before the reign of Christian princes in England – turned the heart of the mighty Darius to issue his own royal proclamation, can change the hearts of rulers, peoples and nations again. It was by the conviction and obedience of God’s faithful servant Daniel that Darius was led to declare, “I make a decree, that in all my royal dominion people are to tremble and fear before the God of Daniel, for he is the living God, enduring forever; His kingdom shall never be destroyed, and his dominion shall be to the end (Dan. 6:26). The scriptures are clear that, whether by Daniel or by Wilberforce, it is God’s sovereign word to which kings must give their royal assent as vice regents, and to which all peoples must joyfully submit.

The marvelous implications of God’s total sovereign authority are unambiguously summarised by Charles Spurgeon:

We know that our enemies are attempting impossibilities. They seek to destroy eternal life, which cannot die while Jesus lives – to overthrow the citadel, against which the gates of hell shall not prevail. They kick against the goads to their own wounding and defiantly charge against God to their own hurt. We know their weakness, what are they but men? … They roar and swell like waves of the sea, foaming out their own shame. When the Lord arises, they shall fly as chaff before the wind and be consumed as crackling thorns … Above all we know that the Most High is with us, and when He clothes Himself in armor, where are His enemies? If he comes forth from His place, the fragments of the earth will not long contend with their Maker. His rod of iron shall dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel, and their very remembrance shall perish from the earth. Away then all fears – the kingdom is safe in the King’s hands. Let us shout for joy for the Lord reigns and His foes shall be as straw for compost.

Our God not only reigns, He rules. This is our faith, our hope and our confidence.

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