Tuesday, May 19, 2020

The Kingdom of God 2

This is the second post in my series, "What is a Christian?' The first post asked:

1. What is a human being?

The Kingdom of God
1. There is a danger in posing the question, "What is a Christian?" The danger is that we fall into the trap of individualism and subjectivism. These are the waters in which the typical Western Protestant swims, so I may gravitate toward an individual description without thinking.

However, the focal point of Christianity is not me. It is not even us. The focal point is God, who looks at us first before we ever look back.

This is a danger in thinking about the gospel in Western Protestantism. We easily assume, unthinkingly, that the heart of the gospel is about getting saved and salvation. But Christ is the center of the good news. [1] The good news is the gospel of Jesus Christ, God's royal Son, who was designated Son of God in power by the resurrection of the dead (Rom. 1:3). My salvation is good news, but it is only part of the good news.

2. A Christian is a servant in the kingdom of God. A Christian is also part of the family of God, a member of the people of God. But the kingdom of God was the language that Jesus used primarily in his preaching when he was on earth.

In the kingdom of God, God is king and the creation are God's servants. As Christians we are more than God's servants, but we are also God's servants. Jesus is also king Jesus, the anointed one, the Messiah, the Christ. We are co-heirs with Jesus of the kingdom, which puts us as Christians in a special place in the kingdom indeed.

3. Within the kingdom, the primary posture of the Christian is that of faith. This is not faith as in belief, although belief in the king and the kingdom is clearly an assumption. It is faith as in allegiance to the Lord and to the King. [2]

"If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and have faith in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved" (Rom. 10:9).

When you confess someone as Lord, it is not a mere mental assent. It is a commitment. Faith is not merely belief but we must "keep faith" with our Lord. Someone is not a Lord simply on a quiz. "Check yes or no." Someone is a Lord if we obey them, if we serve them, if we surrender to them.

A Christian is someone who has confessed allegiance to Christ as Lord.

4. The posture of surrender is difficult. We are more accustomed to seek our own power, our own freedom, our own rights and what we have coming to us. We can even use God as an excuse not to submit. "I defy you because God told me to," when I get to decide what God thinks.

Yet as a servant of God my primary posture is one of submission. When my life outside of the kingdom first comes into contact with the kingdom, acts of confession and repentance are natural. I confess that I have not lived in loyalty to the king. I repent of my past misdirection and turn toward the King.

Then I make another confession, this time not a confession of sin but a confession of faith. I swear allegiance to the King and to the Anointed One. I become part of the kingdom, part of the people of God. From then on I am a loyal servant. I am more than a servant, but I am a servant.

5. It is gracious of my Lord to grant me entrance to the kingdom, after living outside in rebellion. It is a gift I cannot merit. Entrance comes with the power to live as a loyal subject. I am not left to flail on my own as a miserable failure to live up to the expectations of all citizens of the new Jerusalem.

Nevertheless, allegiance remains a requirement of the kingdom. It would have made no sense in biblical times to say, "I am in the kingdom though I act with regular defiance of the King." The expectation of faithfulness remains. "If we continue sinning willfully after receiving a knowledge of the truth, there remains no more sacrifice for sins" (Heb. 10:26). The King does not eject us for any failing, but it is absurd to think we can remain in a kingdom to which we have no true allegiance. This is simply not the way grace worked in the New Testament world. [3]

6. God's kingdom is an exclusive kingdom. God will not suffer any other lords but God alone and his Christ. "A double-minded person is unstable in all their ways. That person should not think they will receive anything from the Lord" (James 1:8). The path of the person with divided loyalties to the kingdom is a path toward expulsion from the kingdom. "Throw this worthless servant into outer darkness, where there will be weeping and wailing and the gnashing of teeth" (Matt. 25:30).

Many of us do not realize our divided loyalties. They can lead us outside of the kingdom before we hardly even realize it. "You cannot serve God and wealth." The American church often cannot tell the difference between Christ and capitalism. But rest assured, God and the New Testament couldn't care less how much money you have.

Syncretism is the mixture of elements into our faith that do not belong, in fact that are contrary to its essence. The love of money is a potential syncretistic element. Though Scripture says that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil (1 Tim. 6:10), we somehow baptize the economic system of capitalism, which is based on self-interest.

But rest assured, whatever good there is in capitalism, it is only insofar as it leads to overall human thriving. This is a much different purpose than the goal of individual, personal wealth or my own acquisition of material goods. The latter goals have nothing to do with the kingdom of God.

7. Nationalism and racism are also syncretistic elements. There is nothing wrong with loving your country (patriotism) or loving your ethnic heritage. But there is no place in God's kingdom for someone who exalts their people over other peoples. "In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek" (Gal. 3:28).

No earthly kingdom is righteous enough to be confused with the kingdom of God. Although God is merciful in the face of our blind spots, the flag of no human kingdom has a place in God's sanctuary. God is merciful, but it is intrinsically blasphemous to confuse any earthly polity with the divine polity.

God is not a Republican. God is not a Democrat. Even to think so suggests blindness and a syncretism of human thinking with kingdom thinking. The same impulse in Jesus' day that confused the tradition of the elders with God's values is present in the confusion of conservatism with the kingdom. By the same token, the world's idea of progress is just as beset with confusion and blindness.

God's kingdom is not of this world, although it will come to this world. It is inaugurated in this world but not consummated. Our blindness to our own culture will always threaten a syncretism of worldly values with heavenly ones.

8. God loves the immigrant as much as the natural-born citizen. God loves the Iranian as much as the person of European descent. The law-breaker who breaks the speed limit and the law-breaker who crosses a border are no different in God's eyes. "All have sinned and are lacking the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23).

God sees through our excuses. We divert. But what about this other kingdom issue? Yes, your eyes are open to that issue. That issue is easy for you to talk about because it is not a temptation for you. But at this moment God is talking to you about something else, something that is not easy for you. Right now God is speaking to you about something that you do not want to open your eyes about.

God is not fooled by our diversions. Nor can you talk God out of the values of the kingdom. You can fool yourself. You can fool others. You cannot fool God. God is not elected. God grants you the freedom to rebel against the kingdom for now. But a Day is coming when "every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord" (Phil. 2:10-11).

On that day the true motives of our hearts will be laid bare (Heb. 4:13). There will be no negotiations. There will be no rationalization or excuses. All the excuses not to love our neighbors and enemies will be exposed without rejoinder. Anything that conflicted with our love of God will be seen for what it was.

A Christian is a servant in God's kingdom. We are more than servants. But we cannot be Christians for long if we are not surrendered to our Lord.

[1] Cf. Scot McKnight, King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016).

[2] Cf. Matthew Bates, Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017).

[3] Cf. John Barclay, Paul and the Gift (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017).

1 comment:

Martin LaBar said...

Another good one. Thanks.