Immigration: What's a Christian to Think?


Nearly everyone seems to agree that we have an immigration problem in the United States. The exact nature of the problem, though, is heatedly disputed.


From one perspective, our nation is facing an unprecedented invasion of  “illegal aliens,” who violate our laws upon entry and then become a drain on social services and public education systems, depress wages and displace native-born American workers, and then contribute to increases in poverty, crime rates, and even terrorism.

A campaign flier for candidates for the Carpentersville, Illinois, city council some years ago expresses the frustrations of many Americans:

  • Are you tired of waiting to pay for your groceries while Illegal Aliens pay with food stamps and then go outside and get in a $40,000 car?
  • Are you tired of paying taxes when Illegal Aliens pay NONE!
  • Are you tired of reading that another Illegal Alien was arrested for drug dealing?
  • Are you tired of having to punch 1 for English?
  • Are you tired of seeing multiple families in our homes?
  • Are you tired of not being able to use Carpenter Park on the weekend, because it is overrun by Illegal Aliens?
  • Are you tired of seeing the Mexican Flag flown above our Flag?

Others see the current state of immigration as a problem for very different reasons. They see millions of people who have, usually for economic reasons, accepted displacement from their home countries to pursue a better life for themselves and their families in the United States, just as generations of immigrants have done before them.

Tragically, from this perspective, these people are not welcomed into our society but are scapegoated and forced into a shadowy existence by broken immigration laws, even though they contribute to our nation’s economy by performing a host of jobs, most of which few native-born Americans would be willing to do. Undocumented immigrant Elvira Arellano spent a year living inside a Methodist church in Chicago in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to avoid deportation that would separate her from her eight-year-old, US-citizen son. She became something of a spokesperson for this perspective:

Out of fear and hatred of an enemy you cannot find you have set out to destroy our lives and our families. As you knocked on my door, you are knocking on thousands of doors, ripping mothers and fathers away from their terrified children. You have a list of . . . Social Security no-match numbers, and you are following that list as if we were terrorists and criminals instead of workers with families. You are denying us work and the seniority and benefits we have earned, and you are taking the property we have saved for and bought.

From either of these perspectives, the immigration dilemma seems frustratingly simple. As both sides rail against the other, and against the government, where Congress has proposed competing bills but has yet to pass into law any substantial changes in immigration policy, we are left with the status quo—essentially the same status quo we faced a decade ago when we wrote the first edition of this book: an estimated eleven million people with no valid immigration status living and, usually, working in the United States. After the presidential campaign of 2016, in which immigration became a central issue, the debate over how to respond to immigrants in the country illegally seems more polarized than ever.


Since the first edition of Welcoming the Stranger, another category of “stranger” has become particularly controversial: refugees, who have long come to the United States with legal status at the invitation of our federal government, have joined immigrants without legal status as a uniquely suspect category of “foreigner” in the minds of many Americans.

As with the debate over illegal immigration, the refugee debate seems frustratingly simple to those on either side: to some, it is foolhardy to admit anyone into our country from nations plagued by terrorism, lest we welcome terrorists themselves. To others, welcoming the persecuted and oppressed is an unqualified good, integral to our national character. The two sides have a hard time understanding the other, as evidenced by harsh words shared over social media and even over family dinners and church potlucks.

Less vocal in these immigration debates are the many who suspect that immigration is actually a complicated, nuanced issue. Partisans of a particular policy position are apt to view the issue as very simple—right versus wrong, us versus them.

Yet, as political scientist Amy Black notes, it is these “easy” issues that often prove the most complex and the hardest to resolve since our presumptions keep us from hearing the other side. Within this debate, a growing middle recognizes this is not a simple issue. They want a more thoughtful, informed understanding of the issues than offered by the two-minute screaming matches by advocates of differing perspectives on cable news channels and talk radio.


Those of us who seek to follow Christ, in particular, face a challenge in sorting through the rhetoric to understand how we can reflect God’s justice as well as his love and compassion in designing a national immigration policy, and in the ways we relate individually to the immigrants in our communities. On first glance at the issue, we recognize that immigrants are people made in God’s image who should be treated with respect; at the same time, we believe God has instituted the government and the laws that it puts into place for a reason, and that as Christians we are generally bound to submit to the rule of law. Many are left conflicted, unsure of what our faith requires of us on this pressing issue.

Through the work of World Relief, the Christian ministry where we both work that serves refugees and other immigrants throughout the United States, we might find ourselves on a regular basis in a church, speaking with people about issues of immigration and citizenship, or in a congressperson’s office, talking with staffers about the need to fix the immigration system. Sometimes we speak in Spanish or with translation in Lithuanian, Arabic, or Cantonese to an audience of immigrants eager to naturalize or fearful of what a newly announced immigration-enforcement policy will mean for them and their families. Other times we are speaking in front of a predominantly nonimmigrant church group, answering questions about immigration policy. When we are in front of an audience of nonimmigrant evangelicals or before congressional staffers who are helping our political leaders form immigration policy, we find that many are asking the same questions we have often asked ourselves. This book seeks to address some of the most common questions and misconceptions that we and other Christians have wrestled with as we consider the immigration “problem.”

This book is written out of our own personal experiences with this dilemma, tracing through much of the investigation our own questions have led us to in seeking to understand immigration policy—and, more important, immigrants themselves—through the lens of our faith. While it would be disingenuous to pretend that we do not have strong opinions about how we (as individuals, as the church, and as a society) should approach this issue, our foremost interest is not to convince you of the virtue of any particular piece of legislation. Rather, we hope this book will encourage our sisters and brothers to take a step back from the rhetoric and combine a basic understanding of how immigration works, and has worked in the United States, we do not believe there is one Christian prescription to solve the immigration issue (though there may be decidedly un-Christian ways to view the issue), and there is plenty of space within the church for charitable disagreement on issues such as this.

Taken from Welcoming the Stranger by Matthew Soerens, Jenny Yang, and Leith Anderson. Copyright (c) 2018 by Matthew Soerens, Jenny Yang, and Leith Anderson. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Matthew Soerens serves as the US church training specialist for World Relief, the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals. In that role, he helps local churches and denominations to address issues of immigration from a distinctly biblical perspective.

Jenny Yang is vice president of advocacy and policy for the refugee and immigration program of World Relief in Baltimore, Maryland.

The Surprising Antidote to Your Doubt


Editor’s note: This month at GCD you will be seeing articles from our team of Staff Writers and other contributors on a handful of topics that Jonathan Edwards introduced in his own Resolutions. The aim of this series is to help you see how a gospel-formed resolution can help you flourish in your love for Christ and for others next year. Click here to see all articles in this series.

If you ever wonder how to get a bad rap with posterity, you need look no further than Jonathan Edwards, one of modernity’s favorite Puritan whipping boys. An 18th Century pastor, theologian, and missionary, Edwards has gained a negative reputation as the foremost of hellfire-and-brimstone preachers and the paragon of everything our culture finds faulty with religion. If it’s considered anathema today—like a repressive puritanical morality, an overemphasis on sin, guilt, and judgment, or a sadistic glorification of divine violence—it’s probably been pinned on Jonathan Edwards at some point.


My first exposure to Edwards came in high school literature with the assigned reading of his famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Tackling the sermon as a read-aloud, our teacher prodded the class to preach with zeal: “Read it with passion! With fury in your eyes and fire in your belly!” His appeal to dramatic flair was mostly lost on a languid group of hormonal juniors, none of whom were eager to stand out amongst their peers. But the bias against Edwards—and the old-fashioned, bigoted, puritanical religion he represented—was clear.

In recent years, a popular backlash against “angry God” Christianity has risen not only from secular quarters but also from within the walls of the church. Consider a recent title from Brian Zahnd entitled Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, one in a long line of attempts to correct what is believed to be a backward and destructive theology and replace it with a non-violent, singularly loving, atonement-free gospel.[1]

For many of us, the appeal of a gratuitously loving God in the face of Edwards’ seemingly angry and bloodthirsty deity is irresistible. The angry, severe, cold god we grew up with has left us harboring neuroses too various to number. The god many of us have pictured from childhood was more like a domineering or demanding father than a gentle and loving friend. He reigned with an iron fist, rode on a heavenly cloud, and longed for a chance to exact vengeance on sinners and saints alike. This is a god whose stratospheric expectations left us cowering in fear, hopeless victims of his capricious anger and violent wrath.

But this portrayal of God is a gross caricature of Edwards and his theology. In contrast to this popular depiction, we might consider one of his seventy “Resolutions”:

“25. Resolved, to examine carefully, and constantly, what that one thing in me is, which causes me in the least to doubt of the love of God; and to direct all my forces against it."

We get a glimpse here of a young man—about 19 years old at the time of writing—enraptured by and devoted to God’s love. This might surprise anyone whose truncated impressions of Edwards have been informed by critics rather than a fair hearing of one of America’s greatest (and most warm-hearted) thinkers.

At root, Edwards had a comprehension of God’s love far richer and deeper than our modern understanding. The kind of love we expect and demand from God is lacking in anything negative, unattractive, or displeasurable. We desire a God who requires nothing of us, corrects nothing in us, and gives us everything we want. However, when we begin with ourselves and measure God by our own desires, we have a tendency to force him into a mold of our own making. We want a god that fits in our pocket—one we can take out when we want him, and put back when we’re through.


But the God of Edwards—and, I would argue, of the Bible—doesn’t fit in our pocket. He neither exists nor acts primarily for our self-esteem. He acts for his own glory. And sin is, ultimately, an affront to that glory. The God with whom we have to deal is nothing like us. He is completely holy and requires absolute obedience. This is the God Edwards found in the Scriptures—the God who caused him to tremble and who is not to be trifled with.

It is only against the backdrop of the fierce wrath of God that divine love poured out on God’s enemies makes sense. Indeed, the central paradox of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is that “God hath had it on his heart to show to angels and men, both how excellent his love is, and also how terrible his wrath is.”[2] This theme of God’s patient kindness and love—a kindness that leads to repentance (Rom 2:4)—motivates and animates the entire sermon with Gospel power.

C.S. Lewis elucidated the relationship between wrath and love along a similar vein:

“I quite agree that the Christian religion is, in the long run, a thing of unspeakable comfort. But it does not begin in comfort; it begins in the dismay I have been describing, and it is no use at all trying to go on to that comfort without first going through that dismay.”


In my own life, I have often struggled to accept God’s love for me. I've questioned how he could possibly love me, given my unworthiness and constant failure. I assume God foregoes actual affection for me and settles for mere tolerance. I feel like I'll end up sitting at the kids’ table at the Wedding Supper of the Lamb.

All of this self-abnegation, of course, seems humble, but it's actually a false kind of humility undergirded by a pride that says: “God’s grace is not big enough for me. His love is not expansive enough to fully include me.” I think my sin—as heinous and wrath-deserving as it is—is more powerful than God’s justifying grace. But this kind of passive pride actually degrades the work of Christ and undermines a biblical understanding of grace.

And this is where Edwards’ twenty-fifth resolution helps me. When I doubt God’s love—a weakness the 19-year-old Edwards apparently shared with me—the place I am directed to look is to the wrath of God. Why? Because when I truly understand the wrath of God against his enemies, then I am able to truly understand my desperate place without God’s merciful intervention. It is only God’s unmerited favor and gracious pleasure—that is, his free and inscrutable love towards me—which is able to save.

And what does it save me from? According to the Scriptures, God’s love saves me from God’s wrath: “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God” (Rom 5:8-9).


Here is a profound and freeing truth: the love of God saves us from the wrath of God through the death of the Son of God. God’s love is excellent in itself, but it becomes exceptional and incomprehensible to human sinners in light of the wrath from which we are saved.

When you are prone to question God’s wrath or doubt his love, the antidote for both is to look to the cross, not as a place where God affirms your infinite worthiness, but as a place where he displays his infinite wrath against sin in concert with his infinite love for his fallen creation.

Whenever you doubt the love of God, look to the cross. For the cross is where God’s wrath is appeased, his love is displayed, and his enemies become his children.

[1] Derek Rishmawy offers a helpful (but long) review of Zahnd’s book here.

[2] Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” July 8, 1741.



Mike Phay serves as Lead Pastor at FBC Prineville (Oregon) and as an Affiliate Professor at Kilns College in Bend, OR. He has been married to Keri for 20 years and they have five amazing kids (Emma, Caleb, Halle, Maggie, and Daisy). He loves books and coffee, preferably at the same time.