On Memorial Day: All Christians Are Historians

In the United States, Memorial Day is day for remembering those who died in the service of the US military. It began as Decoration Day in 1868, on which day 5,000 people decorated the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. Over time Decoration Day became Memorial Day. In 1971 it became the three-day holiday that we know today. Remembering those who died in the service of the country is a good thing. It reminds the nation that we did not get here by ourselves, that the liberties given to us by God (not the state) and recognized in the Declaration of Independence and the protected by the Constitution were also preserved by citizens who paid for those freedoms with their lives. Memorial Day is a reminder to Americans that we are not alone, that none of us created this nation or the liberties to which it is fundamentally committed. We, who are alive today, must preserve them against enemies foreign and domestic and transmit them to our children and grandchildren.

Christians, however, live in a twofold kingdom, with both secular and sacred spheres. Memorial Day is an annual secular day of remembering. In this country we have no state religion, no national or state church. As Christians we are also citizens of an eternal, everlasting kingdom of which Jesus declared to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). That fundamental truth, Jesus explained, is why his disciples were not fighting against Pilate and the Jewish authorities. Much to the disappointment of Judas Iscariot and others, Jesus never came to establish a this-worldly power. That is not to say that Jesus’ kingdom has no manifestation in the world. Where ever else Jesus’ kingdom may be manifested (a question of some debate in modern Reformed theology since the late 19th century) it is certainly manifested in the visible, institutional church. It is to the visible church, after all, that Jesus gave the “keys of the kingdom” (Matt 16:19). It is the visible church that preaches the gospel, administers the holy sacraments, and church discipline (Matt 28:18–20; 18:15–20). It was with our citizenship in the Kingdom of God that Paul said, “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil 3:20). Like Abraham, we are looking forward to “the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Heb 11:10). Just as we rightly remember those who died in the service of the temporal kingdom, as citizens of the Kingdom of God we also rightly remember those who went before us in the service of Christ.

Remembering is the essence of history. Historians are professional rememberers. Good historians remember well. They tell the truth about the past. Some of us focus on the history of doctrine and some of us focus on institutions and events but the best of us keep those two connected. The events cannot be properly understood without paying attention to the ideas that inspired them and the ideas cannot be properly understood without the circumstances that shaped them. As proper as it is for us to have professional historians Christians should understand that all of us are or ought to be historians.

Our faith is grounded in a series of claims about history. We say that God created the world. We say that the fall is a historical episode, with spiritual consequences for all humans. We say that the Triune God redeemed a people out of slavery and that out of that people came a Savior, God the Son incarnate, who is true God and true man, who obeyed as the substitute of his elect, who died in their place, who was raised for their justification, who ascended, and who is now ruling at the right hand of his Father. We say that Pentecost is a historical episode. In other words, our faith is shot through with claims about historical events, persons, and doctrines. The apostle Paul staked the entire Christian faith upon historical claims:

But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied (1 Cor 15:13–19; ESV).

The act of remembering is an essential part of the Lord’s Supper. Our Lord himself commanded us: “this do in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). To be sure, the Supper is more than a memory but it is no less. Our Lord commanded us to “remember Lot’s wife” (Luke 17:32). He commanded us to remember his teaching that a servant is not greater than his master (John 15:20). Paul commanded Gentile Christians to remember that we were once strangers and aliens but by the sovereign grace of Christ, we have been brought near and included into the covenant of grace (Eph 2:11–16). This list, of course, omits the many times that we are commanded in the Old Testament to remember. One of the chief acts of piety is to “remember the Sabbath day” (Ex 20:8). The Israelites were to remember that they had been helpless slaves in Egypt and that Yahweh had graciously redeemed them (Deut 15:15).

It is particularly important for American Christians to practice remembering. We are a busy, industrious people but remembering takes time and reflection. It can be difficult for us set aside the time and to reserve the energy required to remember properly but it is something we must do. The benefits of remembering are obvious. You and I are not the first to believe the faith. We are the latest in a long line of believers that stretches back thousands of years. We did not create the faith. We received it. Remember is, as they say, baked into the cake of Christianity. We can no more be Christians without remembering than we can be humans without breathing. It is essential to who and what we are. The only question is whether we will remember well or poorly. When we remember poorly, when we tell ill-informed stories (the historical equivalent of fake news), we become confused about who we are, who we believe, and, in turn, confused about how we ought to live the Christian life. We could easily be overwhelmed by examples of the unhappy consequences of remembering poorly. Most doctrinal errors and heresies depend to some degree or other upon remembering badly. When we forget that God made the world out of nothing or were we to forget that God made humans in his image or that he made a covenant of works with Adam before the fall and a covenant of grace after the fall, we should experience no end of theological and practical trouble as indeed we have.

Because we Christians remain fallen, we are prone to bad history. We are prone to forget or to obscure the truth about the past. The bad news for sinners is that God never forgets. In Matthew 12:36–37 the Lord promised, “I tell you, son the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (ESV). Those who are outside of Christ should be justly terrified by such a prospect and those of us who are united to Christ by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), should be chastened by this solemn warning.

The good news for sinners, however, is also that God never forgets. He never forgets his covenant promise to save his people sola gratia, sola fide. He promised to our first parents that he would send his Son to crush the head of the serpent, even as the serpent struck his heel (Gen 3:15). He re-stated that promise through Abraham in typological (forward-looking anticipations) terms of land and seed (Gen 12, 15) and most wonderfully “to be God to you and to your children” (Gen 17). Through the prophet Ezekiel, he re-stated the Abrahamic promise:

…yet I will remember my covenant with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish for you an everlasting covenant. Then you will remember your ways and be ashamed when you take your sisters, both your elder and your younger, and I give them to you as daughters, but not on account of the covenant with you. I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall know that I am Yahweh, that you may remember and be confounded, and never open your mouth again because of your shame, when I atone for you for all that you have done, declares Adonai Yahweh” (Ezek 16:60–63).

Adonai Yahweh has remembered his covenant. He has made atonement for us. He has poured out his Spirit upon us. He has made us ashamed of our sins. He has graciously given us new and true faith in the promised Savior. He has established his covenant, the covenant he made with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, the prophets and finally fulfilled by his well-beloved Son, our Savior. He has made us, who broke the covenant of works, who were outside the promises, who were dead in sins and trespasses, to know that he is Yahweh, the Lord, and we are his people.

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