Some Christians maintain that they are not able to participate or serve in government faithfully as a Christian. They might say that politics is inherently dirty and corrupt. Therefore, to engage in politics sullies us and our witness. Or perhaps they will claim that government is a secular institution which cannot be mixed with our commitment to live by faith.
However, I would argue that this is not the case. Political involvement can be a good enterprise for Christians to engage in. One way which can help us think through this biblically is to view political involvement through the lens of good works.
What are good works?
First, we must ask what good works are. In John 6:28-29, Jesus is asked, "What must we do, to be doing the works of God?" He answers, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent." Therefore, as Martin Luther put it in his Treatise on Good Works, faith in Jesus Christ is "the first and highest, the most precious of all good works.”
Yet, as Christians, we also understand that genuine faith in Christ produces subsequent good works (James 2:14-26). The Apostle Paul, while emphasizing that that our salvations comes by grace alone through faith alone, nevertheless also tells us that we are “created in Christ Jesus for good works.” (Eph. 2:8-10)
So, when we think of good works, we must not only think of our faith in Christ but also the works which proceeds from our faith.
A helpful definition of good works is given in the The Heidelberg Catechism. Question 91 asks, "But what are good works?" It answers, "Only those which proceed from a true faith, are performed according to the law of God and to his glory; and not such as are founded on our imaginations, or the institutions of men." This definition rightly captures three essential elements of good works: that they proceed from our faith in Christ, uphold God’s law (what makes them ‘good’ works), and are done with the purpose of glorifying God, not ourselves. By upholding these 3 principles, we can avoid our works being guided by our own vain imaginations or being done in accordance with man’s rules and institutions as opposed to God’s.
Politics as good works?
Can works done in the political sphere measure up to such a definition? I believe they can. Let’s look at each of the 3 principles laid out in the Heidelberg:
1. Proceeds from a true faith
Can works in politics proceed from true faith? To answer this, we have to evaluate the nature of government itself. Romans 13 says that the governing authorities are "instituted" and "appointed" by God (vv.1-2), being called God's "servant" (v.4) and "ministers of God" (v.6). The reason God establishes government is to maintain moral order in society, to punish evil, and to promote good (Rom. 13:3-4; 1 Pet. 2:14).
Even back in Genesis 9:6, we can see a prototype of government when God commands Noah, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” God intended mankind, on some level, to use the power of the sword for good. Thus, the foundation and purpose of government are God-ordained, and therefore are good. There seems to be nothing in government’s nature that would intrinsically prevent Christians from being able to do works in the political sphere.
2. Performed according to the law of God
Can works in the political arena be performed according to the law of God? It would seem that if government is given a God-ordained purpose, then it can be carried out in such a way that it pleases him. We are given examples in Scripture of righteous kings like David and Josiah, ministers in government who follow God’s law like Daniel and Nehemiah, and even godly citizens such as Paul.
Of course, we must also recognize that Scripture and history are replete with governments and people who use the power of the sword unjustly and do not uphold the law of God. This does not negate the fact that the power of the sword can be used in accordance with God’s will.
3. Performed for God’s glory
Can political works be done for God’s glory? If one has a heart after the Lord like David, and one’s actions coincide with God’s law, then the glorification of God would be a natural byproduct. However, with the nature of media today, it seems even more difficult to keep political leadership separated from self-aggrandizement. Yet, it is not intrinsic to political leadership any more than it is for a businessman to be greedy. Is the temptation always there? Yes. But can one still have a heart to glorify God and serve him faithfully in those capacities? Yes. The key to this endeavor, as in all things, is to saturate your heart in God’s Word and the fear of the Lord (Deut. 17:19-20; 2 Sam. 23:3-4).
Because government has a God-ordained foundation and purpose, Christians are able to enter the political sphere with confidence that they can do good works in their various capacities, either as an elected or appointed official through governing or as a citizen through voting. Like other good works, Christians should seek to approach their political works through the lens of their faith as a Christian. By doing this, their political works will be motivated by the desire to uphold God's law with the result being God's glorification. Though many difficult theological and ethical questions will arise, who is better equipped than Christians full of God’s Spirit to help sort through our modern cultural and political context?