Let me start by explaining that the way we react towards the world and the Church is different. The world lies in the power of Satan (1 John 5:19). The believer is delivered out of his power, but the whole world, including the wise, great and respectable, lies helpless in his power; all who are not by vital union in Christ. They do not understand the things of God and they do not view things through a Biblical worldview (1 Cor. 2:14). To judge them and to be antagonistic towards them, because they idolize Nelson Mandela, has no purpose. It rather distance believers from them. The only thing they need is the Gospel and believers should look for themes to connect with and bring the gospel to them. That is what Paul did in his speech to the Athenians (Acts 17:22-34). He did not condemn them and spoke harshly with them. He treated them as people who worship an unknown god and their idolatry is expected. Rather he used it as an opportunity to connect with them and explained the Gospel to them.
The world’s view of life in general is without Jesus Christ. Calvin said: “Man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.”  From this we can see that the mind without the revelation and knowledge of Christ as Lord and Savior is capable of all forms of idolatry. Paul in the epistle to the Romans put it like this: “no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Rom 3:11-12) and “There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Rom 3:18). It is therefore sinful man’s nature to be inclined to evil all the time (Gen. 6:5) and self-righteous deeds. This does not mean an unsaved person cannot do good deeds. It means from God’s perspective they are evil when done for self. Jesus said: “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). In the same way, every person who is not born again is under the control of the devil and his behavior will be according to the nature of Satan. Jesus pointed out that they will lie, murder and hate the truth and this will be manifested in various spheres of their lives. Although unbelievers are capable of good deeds, the Bible declares all their works outside of Christ as filthy rags, because it is done to justify oneself. It is done to the glory and honor of the person himself, because he does not live in obedience to Jesus Christ. God is only glorified in His Son.
When we deal with people in South Africa who idolize Nelson Mandela we should take the above into consideration. Although their behavior might aggravate us, we cannot react from our aggravation. We should love them and graciously with respect and wisdom, look for opportunities to bring the Gospel to them. Look at Paul’s reaction: ”Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols” (Acts 17:16). It is thus normal to feel provoked by what we see happening in South Africa. But look how Paul addressed them: “So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” (Acts 17:22-23). Although Paul was provoked by the idolatry, which he saw, he did not react angrily and rebuked their worship of idols. Paul spoke with respect to them and recognized their dedication, but he saw an opportunity within their idolatry to bring the gospel.
In the current situation in South Africa people are without hope. They lost their “messiah”, the one who they believed could brought them peace. He was a mere man who is now dead. They try to keep him alive by all sorts of memorials and talks of continuing his legacy. We should respect that and not speak of it in discontent in the public arena. We must not take part in it, although we share this world with unbelievers, we are not of this world. We should live among unbelievers in such a way that they can see Christ (1 Pet. 2:11-12). We should look for themes to bring the gospel. Like hope, death, the future and the true Messiah. We should engage them with respect, kindness, patience and understanding of worship to their “unknown god”.
The Church has the truth and it have the word of God. It is expected of Church to view things Biblically and accordingly teach their flock. Our reaction to them should be in an apologetic way where we should define and defend the truth. We should do as Paul instructed Timothy: “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2). And also: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). From these Scriptures we can see our reaction should be in season and out of season. This means we should always teach and apply the Word of God under the guidance of the Holy Spirit in every situation and under all circumstances. Our teaching and application should be reprove, rebuke and correcting with the purpose to grow in righteousness. But we should do it with patience as Paul instructed. Paul also said to Timothy: “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 2:24-25). From this Scripture we can see that Paul is saying we should not be quarrelsome. We must be careful that we do not fall into the trap of looking for arguments. The attitudes of our hearts should be honesty and care for the body of Christ. We should be kind to everyone and patiently enduring nasty comments they made toward us. We should be correcting them with gentleness and show them the truth from Scripture. We should understand that only God grant repentance. We should realize that only the Word of God can renew our minds.
As Christians we are one body and God has put us together with different gifts to build the body (1 Cor. 12:12-27). The Bible also says as iron sharpens iron, in the same way one person sharpens another (Prov. 27:17). We should not be wise in our own eyes (Rom 12:16). As believers we need to engage each in humility and willingness to listen to each other on the matter of Nelson Mandela. By doing this, it is possible that our mistakes can be pointed out by one another. God does work through us to change each other. We should submit to one another (Eph. 5:21). We should esteem the other person higher than ourselves in humility of mind when engaging one another (Phil. 2:3).
In his letter to Romans Paul wrote: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12:2). As Christians we are together part of this process to renew our minds away from the world but towards the Word of God. It is a process of reforming continuously back to the Word of God. Our basis in dealing with this issue of Nelson Mandela must be Scripture alone. It is only through Scripture that we will know the will of God.
How do we as Christians apply the above to our current situation in South Africa with the death of Nelson Mandela?
I see many Christians who make Nelson Mandela a spiritual hero, one that we can strive to follow as an example. Last week Friday after the death of Nelson Mandela was announced I heard over Christian Radio how a person explained that we as Christians can model the life of Nelson Mandela. Churches held memorial services to the honor of Nelson Mandela. In a conversation someone said to me Nelson Mandela’s life is an example of Jesus’ prayer: ”Father forgive them for they do not know what they do”. Someone else mentioned that Nelson Mandela’s life depict what Paul said: “Follow me as I follow Christ”. Is this all true? Can we conclude that Nelson Mandela is a Christian and therefore we can follow him as an example and honor him as such?
Does good deeds show my beliefs?
Nelson Mandela had the appearance of a very good and friendly person. That is the way the media portrayed him to us. That might also be the way he really was. He appeared very loving and gentle. He appeared full of love to everyone irrespective of his or her gender, race or religion. Does good deeds show my beliefs? Look at this quote from Tim Challies about Pope Francis: “Commendable actions can flow from abhorrent beliefs. And, indeed, Francis is the head of a false church that is opposed to the true gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone to the glory of God alone. I do not wish to issue a call to hate the pope or his followers, but we do need to despise and reject the falsehood he promotes. Even while Francis washes the feet of prisoners and kisses the faces of the deformed, he does so out of and toward this false gospel that leads not toward Christ, but directly away from him. Good deeds done to promote a false gospel are the most despicable deeds of all.”  I agree with the point Tim Challies make that good deeds may flow from abhorrent belief. Gandhi was a very good person and he also opposed a system of discrimination. He also gave his life for the oppressed people around him and he also was a very loving and good person. In many ways, he probably lived a better life than most Christians. He even did not engage violent struggle but believed in peaceful opposition. Yet he rejected Christ .
What did Nelson Mandela believe?
Nelson Mandela did not confess his repentance and rebirth in the open. He did make some comments about Christ such as the following: “May this Easter bring with it the blessings of our risen Messiah” . But in the same speech he also said: “Those who exclude from the sight of God`s grace, people who profess another faith with their religious intolerance” . He also honored Muhammad as a prophet in a speech to Sheikh Gabier and the Muslim community on the birthday celebrations of Prophet Mohammed . From this it can be seen than Nelson Mandela had a strong interfaith approach, which was fueled by his deep desire for human rights for all. So although he made some confessions to the effect of Christ being the Messiah, he also said that all religions have the same access to God under his grace. This is not what Jesus taught when He said that He is the only way to God and that no one will be able to come to the Father but through Him (John 14:6). Nelson Mandela also legalized abortion and over a million babies is already aborted in South Africa . He never publicly repented from the deaths and violence he directly commanded and accepted responsibility for. He never openly confessed Jesus Christ as his Lord and gave glory to God for his salvation through the grace of God. Jesus said: “And I tell you, everyone who acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God, but the one who denies me before men will be denied before the angels of God” (Luke 12:8-9). Nelson Mandela also said: “Religion is one of the most important forces in the world. Whether you are a Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Jew, or a Hindu, religion is a great force, and it can help one have command of one’s own morality, one’s own behavior, and one’s own attitude” . He also said: “It enables me to go to bed with an enriching feeling in my soul and the belief that I am changing myself” . From what Nelson Mandela said I can conclude that he viewed the belief that Christianity is the only true religion and all other religions are false, as discriminatory. It appears to me that for him Jesus Christ was not the only way to God, because this would mean that we discriminate against another faith that is different. He regarded other faiths as equal in terms of truth. Regarding this, he said: “Those who exclude from the sight of God`s grace, people who profess another faith with their religious intolerance! Those who wish to keep their fellow countrymen away from God`s bounty with forced removals! Those who have driven away from the altar of God people whom He has chosen to make different, commit an ugly sin” . Mandela regarded it a sin to say there is only one religion and the others is wrong.
Many Christians say we do not know what happened the last few years when he was very silent due to his frail condition. That is true and we do not know if God did reach out to him in grace and if he was reborn and repented. That will always remain a mystery until the final judgement. Should we focus on what we do not know or should we focus on what we do know he confessed and lived for most of his life? Jesus said we as Christians can judge but we must make a right judgement (John 7:24). Jesus also said you will know them by their fruits (Matt. 7:16-20). As a Christian, if I look at the fruit of Nelson Mandela from what I know and he openly confessed, I could conclude that he had a humanistic, pluralistic and ecumenical worldview.
How should I respond towards him and his legacy?
There is nothing in his life that said: “Follow me as I follow Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). The people who we should follow are the ones who point us to Christ as Hebrews 11 shows. As a Christian I do not have to follow his example because his life speak against the Bible. He never pointed the way to Christ. We must respect him as the Bible commanded us and live in peace with everyone (Heb. 12:14). Our conduct towards unbelievers who idolize him should be with wisdom and grace (Col. 4:5-6). Our behavior should be sympathetic, compassionate, loving and patient (1 Pet. 3:8-9). The main purpose is for the sake of Christ and the Gospel so that we do not burn the bridges to bring the gospel.
How should we respond towards his death?
We must remember that God find no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that they should repent (Ezek. 33:11). This reveals God’s heart. God is not a sadist who enjoys the death of the unrighteous. We should have the same attitude towards the death of someone whose salvation we doubt. We should not repay evil with evil by finding pleasure in the possibility of hell in someone’s death due to his past evils (1 Pet. 3:9). We should not avenge ourselves by finding pleasure in the apparent judgement of an unbeliever, but we must leave it to the judgement and wrath of God (Rom. 12:19). To the contrary, overcome evil by doing good (Rom. 12:20-21).
Did God use Nelson Mandela?
Yes, God did. The Westminster Confession, Chapter 3 states it as follows: “God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.” . God is in control of everything. We should give all glory to God for accomplishing his purposes through Nelson Mandela. God used king Cyrus who was a pagan leader to rebuild the temple which He prophesied before through Jeremiah (Ezra. 1:1-5).
In conclusion, I would say that our response to the life and death of Nelson Mandela should be judging rightly according to the fruit of his life. It is equally unwise to declare him a Christian, as it is to say he is in hell. The main purpose should be to discern the legacy he left behind so that Christians should not be misled into the same form of humanism and interfaith believes which characterized him. We should look at the facts of his legacy about legalizing abortion, prostitution, gay rights and humanism with honesty and realize he was no faith hero to follow and must be viewed for who he was, a sinner in need of grace and forgiveness. However we should conduct ourselves in respect towards him and his followers as a witness to the Gospel. This does not mean we approve what he and his followers are doing, but understanding that without a God, man will be capable of various forms of idolatry. We should have the same heart as God who do not find pleasure in the death of the wicket but desire that they might repent.
1. African National Congress, Speeches, 1992, [link]
2. On Islam, Mandela’s Journey with Islam, 7 December 2013, [link]
3. Christian News, Legalizing Abortion, 8 December 2013, [link]
4. Ascension Gateway, Nelson Mandela Quote, [link]
5. Westminster Confession of Faith, Of God’s eternal decree, [link]
6. Goodreads, John Calvin, Quotes [link]
7. Sound Witness, A Critique of Gandhi on Christianity, [link]
8. Tim Challies, The People’s Pope, 11 December 2013, [link]