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April 8: The Confrontation of Moral Absolutes and the Triumph of Christianity

Edward Gibbon: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and the Triumph of the Christian Faith

Vision Viewpoint’s Christian radio program looks at the powerful influence of Christianity, and how it not only has the power to change hearts, but also to cause the downfall of great – though Christless – empires such as Rome. Vision Viewpoint is a ministry of Reformation Hope Church in Hartford, WI.
 
Edward Gibbon, in his multi-volume work The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the classic work of the history of imperial Rome and the empires that rose right out of its bosom, mentioned in the powerful and famous fifteenth chapter: "The Roman Empire, for all of its strength, did not know how to confront the lowly Christian church."
 
It was, in fact, that lowly Christian church that overwhelmed the Roman Empire. It was not that the church conducted a siege of generals directing soldiers, chariots, and javelins – not at all. It was a different kind of confrontation, one in which Christ told His disciples would confront the world’s sin with righteousness and judgment.
 
The message of sin goes to the fact that God confronts us with moral absolutes. Gibbon noted this fact. Mankind has always preferred moral relativism: we don’t want to be bound by the word of God – none of us do. It is only when God gives a new heart to a man or a woman through the means of the historic gospel, thus producing a testifying faith in Christ. There is a change that takes place, and that change is affected by the Lord Himself.
 
Remember, Gibbon was an agnostic – he was not a believing man. But as a historian, he recorded the fact that Christianity used its worldview, which was much more powerful and overwhelming than the Roman Empire itself. It was Gibbon who said, "A rational inquiry into the progress and establishment of Christianity shows that Christianity may be considered as a very essential part of the history of the Roman Empire. While that great body was invaded by open violence or underminded by slow decay, a pure and humble religion gently insinuated itself into the minds of men. It grew up in silence and obscurity, derived new vigor from opposition, and finally erected the triumphant man on the cross on the ruins of the capitol."
 
The Christian faith, in Gibbon’s opion, triumphed because it actually gave hope to the people of Europe and beyond, especially by means of emplementing its system of moral absolutes. "Moral absolutes" is actually a rather weak phrase. What is actually the issue are the laws of God. The laws of God were never designed for salvation, they were designed for instruction in righteousness. They were designed as a schoolmaster to lead men to Christ – but first, to lead men and women through the obstacle of their sins.
 
The Roman Empire was confronted with sin and righteousness and the preaching – and the martyrdoms of Christians. The Roman Empire reacted with persecution; the church, history and Gibbon note, grew in such persecution. "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church," as the renowned pastor and theologian Tertullian once stated.
 
"Every perspective in philosophy and in the multitiude of hundreds of religions throughout the empire attacked Christianity, yet Christianity left their temples empty as converts made their way to lowly churches, in the humility of the first day of the week’s worship each and every Lord’s Day." This is not my statement. It is the statement of Julian the Apostate, the Roman emperor who lashed out against the Christian faith and finally, tradition tells us, died in a battle after raising the sword to a figure that referred to Christ, saying, "Thou hast conquered."
 
Whether or not that particular story was historically true, Julian the Apostate, as history records him, knew that the Christian faith had defeated the institutions, disemboweled the idolatries and worldview thinking of the Roman Empire, and had lead many of its people to true hope in Christ. Even in the bloody martyrdoms of the arena, the Christian could raise his prayer unto God and praise God for the victory he had obtained.
 
The Christian radio program Vision Viewpoint is a ministry of Reformation Hope Church in Hartford, WI.

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