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Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, was instituted to honor Union soldiers who died in the Civil War. After World War I, the purpose of the day was expanded to include all men and women who died in U.S. military service. Today, Memorial Day is mainly thought of as the unofficial start of summer–a long weekend with a car race, playoff basketball, and brats and burgers on the grill.

It is always tricky to know how the church should or shouldn’t celebrate patriotic holidays. Certainly, some churches blend church and state in such a way that the kingdom of God morphs into a doctrinally-thin, spiritually nebulous civil religion. But even with this dangers, there are a number of good reasons why Christians should give thanks for Memorial Day.

1. Being a soldier is not a sub-Christian activity. In Luke 3, John the Baptist warns the people to bear fruit in keeping with repentance. The crowds respond favorably to his message and ask him, “What then shall we do?” John tells the rich man to share his tunics, the tax collectors to collect only what belongs to them, and the soldiers to stop their extortion. If ever there was a time to tell the soldiers that true repentance meant resigning from the army, surely this was the time. And yet, John does not tell them that they must give up soldier-work to bear fruit, only that they need to be honest soldiers. The Centurion is even held up by Jesus as the best example of faith he’s seen in Israel (Luke 7:9). Military service, when executed with integrity and in the Spirit of God, is a suitable vocation for the people of God.

2. The life of a soldier can demonstrate the highest Christian virtues. While it’s true that our movies sometimes go too far in glamorizing war, this is only the case because there have been many heroics acts in the history of war suitable for our admiration. Soldiers in battle are called on to show courage, daring, service, shrewdness, endurance, hard work, faith, and obedience. These virtues fall into the “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just” category that deserve our praise (Philippians 4:8).

3. Military service is one of the most common metaphors in the New Testament to describe the Christian life. We are to fight the good fight, put on the armor of God, and serve as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. When we remember the sacrifice, single-minded dedication, and discipline involved in the life of a soldier, we are calling to mind what we are supposed to be like as Christians in service to Christ.

4. Love of country can be a good thing. As Christians we have dual citizenship. Our first and ultimate allegiance must always be to Christ whose heavenly dwelling is our eternal home. But we are also citizens of an earthly country. We will stand before God not as individuals wiped clean of all earthly nationality, but as people with distinct languages, cultural affinities, and homelands. It is not wrong to love our distinct language, culture, or nationality. Whenever I’m at a ball game I still get choked up during the singing of the National Anthem. I think this is good. Love for God does not mean we love nothing else on earth, but rather that we learn to love the things on earth in the right way and with the right proportions and priorities. Love of country is a good thing, and it is right to honor those who defend the principles that make our country good.

5. This may be controversial to some, but I believe the facts of history will demonstrate that on the whole, the United States military has been a force for good in the world. Obviously, as a military power, we have blundered at times, both individually and corporately. But on the whole, the men and women of our armed services have fought and are fighting for causes that promote freedom, defend the rights of human beings, and reject tyranny. War is still hell and a tragic result of the fall. Praise God for his promise to one day end all human conflict. But in a world where people are evil by nature and leaders are not always reasonable and countries do not always have good intentions, war is sometimes the way to peace-at least the best peace we can hope for between peoples and nations this side of heaven.

So thank God for a day to remember God’s common grace to America and his special grace in enlisting us, poor weak soldiers that we are, in service to Christ our Captain and conquering King.

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14 thoughts on “Remembering Memorial Day”

  1. Curt Day says:

    What is missing from this post is any mention of our leaders’ and their motivations for sending our troops in harm’s way. And it seems to me that we really cannot give our troops the honor they deserve without vigilantly examining why our troops are sent where they are. And this means that we must question our leaders with the same passion we have in supporting our troops. And the evidential reason for questioning our leaders is that since WW II, we have intervened in over 50 countries regardless of whether democracy was there.

  2. Adam Powers says:

    Thanks for this RevKev, it’s a helpful reminder that Memorial Day is more than a day to grill out or go to the beach. Amen!

  3. JohnM says:

    All good points. I think love of country can be connected in some way to love of neighbor. Your country after all, whether native or adopted, is where you are. It is where love of neighbor can be most immediate and actual, and correspondingly less abstract. Love wants to protect.

    On the other hand in a large and diverse nation-state it can all end up becoming quite abstract anyway. Yes, it helps when can think of our nation as doing what is right and good. I agree that on the balance America has historically been an (imperfect obviously) agent for good in the world. Americans who died in our wars were part (but not the whole, we should remember) of that good. I have to say I’m less sure the United States continues to be an influence for good in the world though.

  4. w. aardsma says:

    believe it or not just heard a sermon on this at my home church. i would like to add the same thing that i mentioned to my pastor – john the Baptist was actually calling on the soldiers to endure hardship, because pay in the Roman army was irregular even as late as Constantine’s time (approx. 300 years later), 2 – 3 years between payrolls was common. which puts a severe crimp on living, recreational and family expenses. leaders like Constantine and others kept their men loyal by paying them regularly, presumably this was not the common practice.
    B.T.W., a friend of mine who recently moved to south Georgia encountered Confederate Memorial Day, which i did not realize was still celebrated. When I lived in Florida in the late 1960’s, Memorial Day was not recognized by the state and in the common venacular was “a Yankee holiday.” Federal workers got the day off but not state or local governments. I don’t remember Confederate Memorial Day being celebrated, however.

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  7. Mike Winter says:

    You absolutely nailed it. Maybe the best article ever on the Christian virtue of military service. Thanks

  8. Zach says:

    In response to #5—What US military intervention in the last 50 years could be considered just?

    The US is rarely protecting its freedoms and instead meddles in everyone else’s business for self-gain. A prime example, the US created ISIS in order to overthrow the Syrian government.

  9. MRS says:

    @Zach – conspiracy theories are rarely helpful, and it has never been US policy to overthrow the Syrian government.

  10. Joe says:

    MRS – I’m not sure what qualifies one to be considered a “conspiracy theorist,” but throw the Guardian in there with Zach and check out this article that substantiates the core of his assertion.

  11. Steve Foltz says:

    John was not preaching to Roman conscripts when he instructed these “soldiers”. The only people who came to see John were Jewish film and these were temple soldiers (police aka security). The Romans did not employ or conscript Jews for service, since they were afforded special exemptions not given to that occupied peoples.
    In Matthew 5, Jesus says that intentionally planning harm to another person is murder. I am not sure how you can escape that definition of armed conflict, no matter the purpose. In the same chapter the Lord says, do not resist an evil person. I wonder why He said these things if there are loopholes for Christians?

  12. John Stefanyszyn says:

    They died for FREEDOM 4 each to do own will,own rights,to serv any god/no god. Bt the ONLY WAY to Life is Christ,Son of 1GOD

  13. Richard Cronin says:

    Unbelievable! Typical American Christians blinded to their own sin. Judgement cometh mes amis.

  14. Robert says:

    Whether military service is advisable for the Christian or not is probably a matter for the individuals conscience, however the reasons given by Kevin are hardly weighty.
    1. John the Baptist is telling his hearers what repentance will look like in their respective callings; it is not an endorsement of those callings. Using Kevin’s logic, one could come to the same conclusion regarding slave owners, who Paul calls to treat their slaves well.
    2. Yes it is true that Christian virtues can be shown in the various attributes of the military, yet the history of war is littered with the most awful wickedness, and military men have been involved in wholesale slaughter, plunder and rape.
    3. It is true that military service is used often as a metaphor for the Christian life, this it seems is more to do with the familiarity of the readers with military occupation than with the endorsement of the military, or perhaps Paul was extolling the virtues of Roman military occupation by using military metaphors? As with farming and athletics inspired writers used language and pictures the readers were familiar with.
    4. Love of country can be a good thing, but it can also be a bad thing (extreme nationalism) Christian love for ones neighbour and nation quite different from training to and putting that training into practice in the dismembering of your governments enemies and those who happen to be in the vicinity.
    5. This perpetuates the myth of American exceptionalism. Since world war two the American military has been involved in the slaughter of millions of innocent civilians and the maiming of tens of millions, in the poorest countries in the world. One must read the past 60 years of American history through the rosiest of red glasses to think otherwise. It is hard to see how a young Christian could consistently live according to the grace of Christ and partake in wholesale slaughter and deprivations of millions of people.

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. He is chairman of the board of The Gospel Coalition, assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), and a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have seven children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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