Most of the media coverage has followed the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John Kennedy. The T.V. specials, the recently released books, and newly espoused theories, are just more in the continuing fascination our nation has had with the events in Dallas in 1963. It occurs to me, however, that if President Kennedy had lived, he would still be dead-seeing that he was born in 1917 and would have undoubtedly gone the way of all flesh.
A much older anniversary will also be celebrated this week. One that continues to shape the way we think about our nation. With 272 words, in less than three minutes delivery, President Abraham Lincoln, at the dedication of the Battlefield Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, reminded the nation of its propositional roots and challenged it to live out its creed.
Fourscore and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.
It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us–that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion–that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth
His phrase, “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here”, seems like false modesty to us now, but there were those at the time that agreed with it. Within the week the opinion page of a Pennsylvania paper stated:
We pass over the silly remarks of the President. For the credit of the nation, we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them and that they shall be no more repeated or thought of.
Thankfully, the “veil of oblivion” did not drop over his remarks as these few words have come to be considered the most hallowed of speeches. Lincoln often had a spiritual quality about him. The subject matter of most of his public comments dealt with high moral issues, and there is more sound theology in his Second Inaugural address than comes from many pulpits today. So, what was he saying at Gettysburg that we have long noted, and what spiritual parallels can we draw? I would like to look at it with these three questions:
I. What was He Saying, and what do We Say?
II. What was his Authority to Say it, and what is Ours?
III. What was his Call to Dedication, and what is Ours?
Author Garry Wills, in his book, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America, notes that there was much Lincoln did not say. He did not mention the town where the battle was fought. He did not name any individual, officer, or hero. He even refrained comment on which side was victorious. He did not go to Gettysburg to deal with particulars. His mission was higher than that. Wills writes:
the discussion is driven back and back, beyond historical particulars, to great ideals that are made to grapple naked in the airy battle of the mind.¹
The great ideal of the mind that Lincoln wanted his hearers to take away that day is summed up in the propositional phrase, “all men are created equal”. Lincoln had said many times that he did not hold that all men were created equal in all respects, but practically they should be able ” to eat the bread, without leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns”.²
That’s what Lincoln said, what do Christians say? Christian Doctrine holds that all men are created equal and in a more complete sense. First, Paul, in the book of Romans says that, “All have sinned and come short of the Glory of God”. An ignominious equality to be sure; one that brings all down, rather than lifting all up. But the completeness of this equality strips away title, wealth, and social standing. It removes the hope in self-righteousness and ecclesiastical affiliation. All stand level before God; all stand condemned. It would appear all without hope before the Eternal Judge.
Yet, the Apostle John states that Christ is the light “which lightieth every man”. Christians rejoice in the saving grace of God that has been offered through Christ. But, we are often tempted to assume that grace is a blessing only for the spiritual elite; that God offers it because we are worth the saving. The Bible says no. It is an egalitarian grace to all of humanity. Each person, the well-bred and the ill-bred alike, has been given the grace of a knowledge of their sin, and a ray of hope for salvation. The Holy Spirit convicts each of their sin, and convinces each of salvation to be found in Christ.
The third aspect is an equal invitation. In what is undoubtedly the most familiar of all Bible verses, Jesus says,
For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have ever lasting life.
It was this offer of equality that so angered the religious leaders of Christ’s day. To them acceptance by God was simply a matter of birth. No volitional action was required. But here is a double aspect of equality. There is a universal offer to accept the grace of God, and each has an equal freedom to accept or reject that offer.
Lastly, there is an equality in Christ. The Apostle Paul writes in his letter to the Colossians:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.
Lincoln was pleading for equal conditions of culture. The Bible far supersedes that in matters of essence. It states an equal condemnation; an equality in the knowledge of our spiritual situation; an equal gracious invitation; and an equality in Christ’s salvation.
¹ Garry Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America (Simon and Schuster, 1992) p.37
² Abraham Lincoln, Speeches and Writings, vol. 1 (The Library of America, 1989) p.512
This is an edited portion of remarks given at Bloomington, Il., 11.17.2013