Several years ago, the brilliant French writer Jacques Ellul wrote a book called The Political Illusion. It is a brilliant book, because it examines and exposes the mystique of political power. Ellul calls political power an illusion created by politicians, because they want to be thought powerful, and by the media, who feed on it. This is not the same thing as saying that the state is unimportant. God established the state to protect the innocent, secure the just punishment of the guilty, and defend its citizens against oppression—both from within and without. This involves power. But there is an illusion surrounding the political process, and it is this illusion of power which Ellul is debunking: the illusion that because a person possesses political office, somehow he or she can control events, change things and produce reformation in the world. Many people believe that, but it is not where true significant power is located. Otherwise, politicians would not be so sensitive to public opinion.
Power for change comes from another source entirely.
I was speaking about that at a meeting of the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology, and Charles W. Colson was present. When I finished and he began to speak, he picked up on a reference I had made to The Political Illusion, saying, “Ellul’s Political Illusion is the most important political book I’ve ever read. When I read it, I decided to send it to every friend I had in government. But when I went to buy it, I found that it was out of print, which is an indication that even the evangelical publishers have bought into the political illusion. Today you can’t get the one book that exposes the illusion for what it is.”
What is it that really changes the world? If I were speaking in secular terms to a secular audience, I could say, quite rightly, that it is always the power of an idea. It is not armies that change the world. Not really! They just put different people in charge of the problems. It is not money that changes the world, or even laws. Americans should understand that very well, because we passed a law forbidding the sale of alcohol at the time of prohibition and it did not eliminate drinking. As a matter of fact, it did the opposite, which is what Paul said laws tend to do. It encouraged people to drink, so that there was actually more traffic in liquor in those days than had existed beforehand. Laws do not change things. Only ideas change things. Changes occur when ideas possess people’s minds.
In the spiritual realm, real changes come when the Holy Spirit uses the Gospel to regenerate fallen men and women, causing them to repent of their sin, seek righteousness, and live for Jesus Christ. Changes follow in a big way when that happens. Then you have reformation.
3. It is a kingdom of truth. When Jesus stood before Pilate to be tried by him, the Lord described His kingdom by this term. He had been accused of setting Himself up as a king. Pilate asked if He was a king, and Jesus answered: “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place” (John 18:36). Pilate did not understand what this meant. So he said, no doubt in a questioning tone, “You are a king, then?”
This time Jesus answered in words Pilate could understand: “You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me” (v. 37). Pilate understood that, of course, but he wasn’t interested. He dismissed the notion of truth entirely.
This is what Jesus was talking about in Acts before His ascension to heaven, telling the disciples that they were to be His witnesses. Our English word “witness” comes from an old English word which we do not use very much anymore but which was used in Elizabethan times and afterwards. It is the word “wit.” “To wit” means “to know.” A “wit” is “a knowledgeable person.” So a “witness” is one who knows something and testifies to it. In the case of the disciples, these men were to be witnesses to who Jesus was and what He had done. Above all, they were to be witnesses to the truth of the resurrection. They were to advance Christ’s kingdom not by coercion, but by testimony to the truth.
In the evangelical church we often think that we can advance the kingdom just by raising money. Of course, we live in a world where money generally is a necessity. I am not against money. In fact, one of the blessings promised to the people of God in the Old Testament in a general sense—not always on a one-to-one basis, but generally—is material blessing. The problems come when we think that raising money is the way spiritual work must be done. We think that if we are able to raise $100,000 for an evangelical cause one year, that we can do twice as well the next year if we can only raise $200,000. When we think that way, we are falling into a trap. In fact, the more we think this way, the more dangerous our situation is.
I have always said that one reason why God does not give more of us more money is that He cannot trust us with it. He knows that if He gave us more, it would ruin us.
The second mistake we make is to think that we can advance the Gospel by law, which ultimately comes down to advancing it by force. I am not against trying to change the country’s laws as part of the political process. If we have bad laws, we should certainly attempt to change them for better laws. I think there are examples of where that might be done in our own country right now. But changing laws does not in itself advance the kingdom. Rather, it is the other way around. Where the kingdom advances, good laws follow. Why is it like this? God has made it like this because “law” always means force. Get a country to change its laws, and then what? Then the power of the state, which in the final analysis boils down to the power of the policeman with a gun, forces compliance. But even then it is only an external compliance that is achieved. Christians know, or should know, that spiritual changes above all can only be effected spiritually, and not by force of arms.