Martyrs“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”

Some 1800 years after Tertullian of Carthage wrote these words about Christian martyrdom at the time of Roman emperor, Septimus Severus, his prophetic utterance comes to mind at the news that radical Muslims murdered 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians on the same north African coast not 750 miles from Tertullian’s home. It is a sad reminder of the horrid conquest by Islam of the once thriving and dominant intellectual center of Christianity in North Africa. Pope Francis’ words were right. We, too, stand with all martyrs and confessors of Jesus, no matter what Christian church or confession. These men died with the words, “Jesus, help us!” on their lips. That is the fundamental confession of a genuine faith. We mourn with the Coptic community, not only in Egypt and North Africa, but here in the United States.

As Christians, we plead in prayer for secular leaders everywhere, and certainly for our own. We also plead in prayer for our brothers and sisters in the faith all over the globe, and particularly in the morass of the Mediterranean, the Middle East, Asia, Nigeria, and wherever else the irrationality of radical Islam and Islamic states threatens the lives of not only Christians, but also Jews and of anyone who dares to contradict the dictates of their insanity. As Christians we know Tertullian’s words are true. We know that, in the divine plan of the suffering and cross of Christ, the victory belongs to Christ. We know that martyrdom is the normal course of Christianity (Luke 21:12). “I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, ‘O Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Rev. 6:9–10). Even as we know the Lord’s recompense must come, we will continue to pray for the souls of those who are possessed of the devilish delusion that such murderous action is pleasing to God. “Pray for those who persecute you,” is a mandate of the Savior (Matt. 5:44).

We also stand and bear witness to the genius of Luther’s two-kingdom doctrine. Religion and government are distinct. “Our churches teach that lawful civil regulations are good works of God. They teach that it is right for Christians to hold political office, to serve as judges, to judge matters by imperial laws and other existing laws, to impose just punishments, to engage in just wars, to serve as soldiers, to make legal contracts to hold property . . .” (Augsburg Confession XVI 1–2). “The Gospel does not introduce laws about the public state, but is the forgiveness of sins and the beginning of a new life in the hearts of believers” (Apology of the Augsburg Confession XVI 58). “Therefore the two governments, the spiritual and secular, should not be mingled or confused” (Augsburg Confession XVIII 12). Governments do not possess authority over the mind and heart, and certainly not faith. “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Mark 12:17). We seek no Christian government per se. We seek governments that recognize the basic and universal dignity of all people, the right of free speech for all people, and the right of freedom of faith and worship for all people and all religions. Such freedom guarantees the free course of the Gospel. Islam’s “one-kingdom” dogma—that is, that state and religion are one—is a gross confusion of what God has determined ought be distinct and separate, and it threatens not only Christianity but free intellectual discourse as well as the rational functioning of the state in carrying out its divinely mandated and rationally determined functions. The state exists for the protection of life, property, and freedom. The governing authorities, according to the Bible, “do not bear the sword in vain” (Romans 13:4). No soldier or government official is criticized for his vocation per se in the New Testament (Luke 3:14). Governments are to punish evil and wage just war. Wanton violation of the rights of Christians, and any and all citizens in this world, demands the recompense of legitimate authority.

By all accounts, Christianity in America is following the path it has taken in Europe. Luther, whose death we commemorate today (February 18), prophesied that the Gospel is like a passing rain shower, which comes for a time and then leaves. He correctly foretold that after a time in Germany, the Gospel would leave, and they would have Islam. That is coming true today, even as many German Muslims are converting to Christianity. The reason the Gospel passes away, according to Luther? Thanklessness (Luther’s Works, 23:261).

On this Ash Wednesday, and during this Lententide, may the horrid events of the past days in Libya and beyond, remind us of what a precious treasure the Gospel is and the freedom to believe and act upon it as we see fit. Lord, have mercy upon us, and grant us ever thankful hearts.

Matthew C. Harrison
Ash Wednesday
February 18, 2015