The Church and State and God's Gifts

By Rev. Donavon Riley

I will hear what God, the LORD, will proclaim
– for He promises peace to His people and to His saints;
Only do not let them fall again into folly.
His Salvation is near to those who fear Him, that glory may dwell in our land.
Faithful loving kindness and Truth will meet together,
Righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
Truth will spring out of the earth, and Righteousness will look down from heaven.
The LORD will give every good thing, and our land will again give its increase.
Righteousness will go before Him as he sets out on His Way. (Psalm 85:8-13)

This psalm holds up the great gifts of God. In these six verses we are shown all the spiritual blessings of salvation. First, there is salvation itself. Then there is God’s faithful loving kindness and Truth. Next, righteousness and grace. Finally, glory and prosperity—with the LORD blessing all these gifts by delivering them to us Himself. However, this psalm is not about earthly gifts. This is not a message for use as a patriotic national anthem.

As Jesus says, “ ... this Gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all nations; and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14). Here the function of the Church and the churches is clearly defined. Yet, many have tried to establish a church that dominates the state. Most of these state churches have crumbled. Why? Because Christ’s kingdom is spiritual and will remain that way. Even when the churches are a blessing to the state, they continue to be distinct from the state. So we decline attempts to translate God’s gifts by earthly definitions of power, glory, success, and so on. Men will never establish a heaven on earth. We cannot build a “Christian nation.” History rolls on toward the resurrection and there’s nothing anybody can do to speed it up or sidetrack it.

This psalm stands out as an example. God had favored His people in past times with His Word and good governance. Now, as the Psalmist writes, He is angry. God has given them over to false preaching in the congregations, wicked counselors surrounding the throne, and the people are grumbling. The Psalmist sees all this, so he prays for the return of God’s favor. These verses are the sum of his prayer: a description of God’s gifts to His believing and faithful people...if they will only listen to Him.

But they won’t listen. They have mixed up heavenly and earthly things: government, peace, authority, the cause of good harvests, even their worship. Therefore, they are afflicted by God. He’s withdrawn His favor. He doesn’t speak to them anymore, because they won’t listen to Him. The affliction and their unfaithfulness hang together.

The Psalmist then prays that God will speak [again] so his people will not fall [again] into destruction. They are impatient, so they blaspheme God’s Name. They are ignorant, so they go searching for other gods to worship. They are upset, so they look for peace, unity, truth, and love elsewhere: the national pulse, homespun wisdom, smooth-talking priests and sweet-talking prophets.

The real issue is that they choose idolatry, which is death, and they rebel against the call to faithfulness: participation in the life of God. There is no third way. Mixing up heavenly and earthly things turns them toward idolatry—the ceaseless attempt to save their life from death by earthly means. They try to carve meaning out of earthly things—food and drink, clothing and life. These are the things which captivate them. With them they dig for a real life which never turns up.

At their root, all of these ideas are mistaken. God sends no prophets to bend the national ear. He is not about to rehabilitate their homes. Patriotic sermons are a sign of faithless preachers. Idol worship is always about God, but never delivers His gifts “for you.” Listen to the words of the Psalmist. He prays his people will turn from their foolishness and be saved. He exhorts them to listen to God’s promises that are always “for you.” Look at God’s holy hill. Look at whom He’s set on the heavenly throne. Listen to what He says to you today:

Therefore, “Kiss the Son so that He will not be angry and you will not be destroyed ... because His anger burns easily. Blessed is everyone who takes refuge in Him!” (Psalm 2:12)

The Psalmist points them to the source of all God’s gifts: His holy hill. Calvary. Calvary is for them, from Him—a gift. There, and nowhere else, they are shown all the spiritual blessings of salvation. Therefore, blessed are those who are given eyes to see God’s blessings at Calvary. They are God’s saints, “the poor in spirit” of the first Beatitude. If there is any hope of salvation it can only come from God. The poor in spirit wait on the Lord. His giving to them is not hindered by the false hopes they have crammed together and would use for bargaining.

Blessed are those who are given to by God. Blessed are those who receive gifts, even affliction and death, as a gift from His hands. Nothing slips out of His nail-pierced hands. This is the Good News of the kingdom of the Gospel that stretches through Israel’s history to the present and on to the Last Day. By His affliction and death you are blessed. In affliction and death you are glad.

God’s kingdom is for “the poor in spirit,” “His saints,” and, “those who fear Him.” This is its limitation. Whether a nation is godly in part or wholly ungodly this psalm still applies. Political prosperity doesn’t determine when God’s promises will be fulfilled. History shows wonderful nations who never knew God or feared Him. Their earthly power and greatness was unequaled. God’s saints dwelt in that land, too. They were most often politically insignificant, and far inferior to their neighbors in wealth and power. However, their glory consisted of God’s mercy, truth, righteousness, and peace. Their comfort, then, as it is for Christians today, is that the church does not exist for the sake of glorifying the state. Rather, the state is established by God to hold back His disfavor, and protect the preaching of the Gospel of the kingdom. This is a great gift of God.

Rev. Donavon Riley was born and raised in Minnesota and earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Concordia University, St. Paul, Minnesota. Rev. Riley and his wife recently celebrated the birth of their fourth child. 
He can be reached at