Two Cities – Part 2 – Obvious and Undeniable

Augustine’s first parry in response to those who took a swing at Christianity as the cause for Rome’s destruction was to point out an obvious and undeniable truth: If it weren’t for the fact that these petulant refugees feigned obedience to Christ, they wouldn’t be alive to spout their specious claims.

The sack of Rome featured a tactic altogether unique in the annals of warfare. The Gothic invaders, having broken into the city, began at once to round up all the Christians, going door to door to tell the believers to go to their church. But it wasn’t what the Christians might have thought. The barbarians intended to spare them from slaughter, and so they instructed them to stay in their churches, promising they would be safe. And they were.

This unusual tactic did not escape the notice of Rome’s wrong believing aristocrats and sophisticates. As soon as they realized what was happening, they hurried to the nearest church and, presenting themselves as Christians, were given refuge among the faithful. Thus, their lives were spared. How ungrateful, disingenuous, hypocritical, and disgusting it was, Augustine insisted, for them to vilify the very faith that saved their lives! As he put it, “But whereas Christ’s name alone was of power to procure them their undeserved safety, that they do scorn to acknowledge; and being mad with sacrilegious petulancy, they practice their foul terms upon His name, which, like false wretches, they were before glad to take upon them to save their lives by; and those filthy tongues which, when they were in Christ’s houses, fear kept silent, to remain there with more safety, where even for His sake, they found mercy; those selfsame, getting forth again, shoot at his deity with all their envenomed shafts of malice, and curses of hostility.”

Oh my!

A curious promise from two places in the Old Testament helps to account for this strange behavior on the part of the enemies of the Church. The first appearance is in Psalm 66.3 where we read:

Say to God,
“How awesome are Your works!
Through the greatness of Your power
Your enemies shall submit themselves to You.”

The meaning of this is further clarified by the second instance of this same idea, in Psalm 81.13-15:

“Oh, that My people would listen to Me,
That Israel would walk in My ways!
I would soon subdue their enemies,
And turn My hand against their adversaries.
The haters of the LORD would pretend submission to Him,
But their fate would endure forever.”

When it was in their own best interest, the wrong believing pagans in Rome took shelter in the faith of the Christians. There was nothing sincere in this, of course. They only did so because they recognized the reality that in the present circumstance, as the fires and destruction grew around them, only those who held to the faith of Christ could be sure of being safe. If they must pretend submission to save their lives, they certainly would.

The history of the world since the beginning of the Christian faith reflects this same tendency. The city of man depends on the city of God, even though it will only reluctantly admit it. Those who deny God and want nothing to do with Jesus recognize that within the framework of right belief are elements of safety, prosperity, beauty, goodness, and truth. All notions of order, of the knowability of things, of charity and care for the least among us, of marriage and family, of use and care for the creation—all these and more have their roots in the Scriptures; yet such ideas and practices are brazenly borrowed by those who deny right belief because the truth and value of them cannot be denied. No worldview organized around petulant and capricious gods or notions of chance and mere materiality can account for such essentials.

This continues today. Everyone who denounces, denies, scorns, or vilifies right belief in Jesus must nonetheless depend on elements from within that framework to make sense of and enjoy safety for their own lives. It’s why the Law of Moses is carved in bas relief on the façade of the United States Supreme Court. It’s why people deck out their homes and lavish their loved ones with gifts each Christmas. It explains all calls for freedom, rights, and justice. Those who have adopted an approach to life that boasts in individual sovereignty and worships an endless panoply of idols must nonetheless flee to the shelter of right belief to make their lives make sense.

And it falls to us, as it did to Augustine, to point out this obvious and undeniable fact.

Today, see how many examples of this you can identify. Where is it obvious that people in all walks of life are pretending to submit to God by depending for their wellbeing on truths that derive from true belief in Jesus? You would do well to write these down and become increasingly familiar with them, as Augustine did.

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