The kingdom of God, part 4

This is part 4 of a 6-part series by Gary Deddo on the important, yet often misunderstood, topic of the kingdom of God. For additional articles in this series, click on the corresponding number: 1, 2, 3, 5, 6.

Last time we looked at how the promise of the yet-future fullness of the kingdom is a source of great hope for believers. Now we’ll explore in greater depth how we relate to that hope.

Our relationship to the coming kingdom of God

How should we understand our relationship, as believers, to a kingdom that the Bible says is now present, but is yet to come? Borrowing from Karl Barth, T. F. Torrance and George Ladd (others could be included) I think we can describe it this way: We are called to experience now the blessings of and embody a witness to Christ’s coming kingdom in partial, provisional and temporary ways.

Our present experience of the kingdom, including our actions, as they are joined to Jesus’ ongoing ministry in the power of his Spirit, stand as a witness or sign of the coming kingdom. A witness bears testimony not to itself, but to a reality of which the witness has first-hand knowledge. Similarly, a “sign” does not point to itself, but to another and far greater reality. As Christians, we bear witness to the thing signified—the coming kingdom. Thus our witness is important but has certain limitations.

First, our witness is only a partial indicator of the coming kingdom of God. It does not, because it cannot, bear the whole truth and reality of the kingdom. Our actions cannot uncover the depth and scope of Christ’s full reign, which, for now, remains largely hidden. Our words and actions may even obscure some aspects of the kingdom while pointing to other aspects. Our various acts of witness may, under fallen conditions, not seem to be entirely consistent with each other, or possibly even seem to contradict each other. A perfect solution to every problem may not be achievable by us, no matter how sincere or committed or skilled. In some cases, every available choice may involve some unavoidable combination of advantages and disadvantages. A fallen world does not always allow a perfectly ideal solution, not even for the church. So the church’s witness in this age will be partial.

Second, our witness provides only restricted vision that looks off towards the future and gives a glimpse of the coming kingdom. But it does not bring into the present an apprehension of its total reality. We see “dimly in a glass.” That’s what is meant by saying it’s “provisional.”

Third, our witness is temporary—what is accomplished comes and goes. Some of the things done in the name of Christ may remain viable longer than others. Some of our acts of witness may only be momentary and not be able to be sustained. However, as signs, our witness need not be permanent for it to do its job of pointing to what is permanent, the eternal reign of God through Christ in the Spirit.

Our witness then, is not absolute, not perfect, not total and not permanent, though it has great and even indispensable value just because its value is gained by being relative to the coming reality of the kingdom, which is absolute, perfect and eternal.

Two false resolutions to the complex already-not yet kingdom

Some may ask, “What is the point, then, of our present experience and witness, if it is not the kingdom itself? Why bother? What good will it do? If we can’t establish the ideal, why invest any great effort or resources in such a project?” Others may respond by saying, “God would not call us to get involved in anything less than achieving the ideal and realizing perfection. With God’s help we can consistently make progress towards bringing the kingdom of God to earth.”

Responses to the complexity of the “already but not yet” kingdom have most often, down through the history of the church, resulted in divergent answers much like the two indicated above. This has been the case even though there have been consistent warnings against both of these approaches, declaring them to be serious errors. Their formal names are quietism and triumphalism.

Triumphalism

Some who are not comfortable with merely experiencing and enacting signs insist that we do indeed build the kingdom—although with God’s help. They insist, for example, that we can be “world-changers” if only enough people would become really committed to the cause of Christ and would be willing to pay the price called for. If enough people try hard enough and are sincere enough and know the right techniques or methods, then gradually our world will more and more be transformed into the complete kingdom. Christ will then return as the kingdom is gradually brought to completion by our efforts. This is to be achieved, of course, with the help of God.

Although not overtly put this way, this way of thinking about the kingdom assumes that what we achieve is based on the potential made possible (but not actual or real) by the earthly ministry and teaching of Jesus Christ. Christ has triumphed in such a way that we now work out—actualize, or make real—the possibility established by Christ.

The triumphalist response tends emphasize those efforts that bring changes in the spheres of social justice and public morality, over changes in private relationships or personal morality. Enlistment of Christians in this program is often promoted on the basis of indicating that God somehow is depending on us. God is looking for “heroes.” God has given us the ideal, the blueprint, the plan of his kingdom, so now all it takes is for the church to make it real and actual. The idea is that we have the potential to realize the ideal—if only we are convinced that this is true and are really, truly and radically committed and ready to show God how truly thankful we are for all that he has done to make our reaching the ideal possible. We have the potential to close the gap between the “real” and God’s ideal—so sign on right away.

Recruitment for the triumphalist program will often be fueled by the critique that the reason non-believing persons are not joining in, not becoming Christians or Christ-followers, is because the church does not do nearly enough to make the kingdom real and actual—to make God’s ideal way of life a present reality. The argument continues: There are so many nominal (in name only) Christians and outright hypocrites in the church who don’t love and pursue justice as Jesus taught, that unbelievers won’t join—and they have every right and reason not to! It is further claimed that the blame for why non-believers don’t become Christians is essentially because of half-hearted, compromised or hypocritical Christians. The solution to this problem, therefore, is to get all Christians “fired up,” turning into really committed and truly radical people who begin living fully the kingdom life here and now. Only then, as Christians exemplify to a much greater extent God’s will and way, will the gospel of Christ become persuasive to others as they come to see and believe in the glory of Jesus Christ. To back up the point, people often (improperly) bring in Jesus’ saying, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” The implication is that if we don’t love enough, then others can’t or won’t come to faith. Their coming to faith depends upon the extent of our being loving as Christ was. [1]

Quietism

At the other end of the spectrum, the quietist response, some have addressed the already-not-yet complexity by deciding that there is nothing much that can be done now. They assume the glory is all in the future. Christ secured the victory in his earthly ministry, and he alone will bring it entirely to consummation at some time in the future. We are now simply waiting for Christ to return and to take us to heaven, perhaps after some years of reigning on earth. While Christians will experience some spiritual blessings now, like the forgiveness of sins, creation, including nature itself and especially all social, cultural, scientific and economic institutions, are simply fallen, captive to evil. These things cannot and will not be saved. They have no good purpose, as far as eternity is concerned. These things can only be condemned by the wrath of God and brought to a total end. People for the most part have to be removed from this fallen world to be saved.

Sometimes in accord with this quietist approach, a kind of separatism is taught—we must remain apart and be disconnected from the earthly endeavors of this world. For other quietists, the fact of the hopelessness and helplessness of this world means you can take advantage of it in many ways, since in the end it won’t matter—it’s all going to come under judgment. For yet others, a passive or quietist approach means that the best that Christians can do is be an example set apart, individually or in community. The emphasis is often on personal, family and church morality. But direct attempts to influence or change things outside the Christian community are for the most part discouraged or sometimes even condemned. It is held that directly engaging the unbelieving surrounding culture could only amount to compromise and ultimate failure. So personal devotion and moral purity are the dominant themes.

Often, in this mode, the end of history is regarded as the termination of creation. It is destroyed. Created time and space are no more. Some people, those who believe, will be rescued from its dissolution and be taken away to the ideal, purely spiritual reality of an eternal heaven with God.

These two extremes are representative of tendencies. Many sub-variations and in-between positions operate in the church. But most operate somewhere along this continuum and tend to lean toward one side or the other. The triumphalist side tends to attract optimistic and “idealistic” personalities, while the main appeal of the quietist is among those who are more pessimistic or “realistic.” But again, these are large generalizations and are not meant to identify any particular groups that strictly conform to one extreme or the other. These are tendencies that in effect, one way or another, attempt to simplify the complexity of the already-not-yet truth and reality of the kingdom of God.

An alternative to triumphalism and quietism

But there is a more biblically and theologically viable alternative that not only avoids either extreme, but regards the very idea of such an either-or polarity as false—as not doing justice to the whole of biblical revelation. The triumphalist and quietist alternatives, and the debates between their respective representatives, both assume that the complex truth of the kingdom puts us in a situation in which a tension needs to be resolved. Either God does it all, or we make it real. These two views make it seem we have to choose between being activists or being relatively passive, or figure out how to reside somewhere in the middle.

The biblical view of the already but not yet kingdom is complex. However, there is no tension that needs to be resolved. There is no balance to be achieved or some middle or moderate position between the two poles to be found. The present age is not in tension with the future coming age. Rather, we are called to live in this already-fulfilled-but-not-yet-consummated situation. We are situated now in a state of hope that, as we saw in part two of this series, the image of inheritance seems to represent quite well. We live securely now in confident possession of our inheritance, even though we don’t have access to the assets we will one day fully benefit from.

In the next article in this series, we’ll explore more of what it means to live now in hope of the consummation of the coming kingdom

____________________

[1] This saying of Jesus (John 13:35) does not declare that others will become believers, only that they will identify these disciples as belonging to Jesus since they love like he does. He’s indicating that our love can be useful in directing others to him. That’s wonderful. Who would want to miss out on that? However, this saying does not assert that the belief/salvation of others depends on the extent of the disciples’ love. On the basis of this verse, it is logically false to turn it into the negative claim that if the disciples do not love, then others cannot know they are disciples of Jesus and so will not believe in him. If that were the case, then God could never be more faithful than we are. It would not be true, then, that “if we are faithless, he remains faithful” (2 Timothy 2:13). All those who have ever come to faith have realized there are some inconsistencies and imperfections in the church as a whole and its individual members. They entrusted themselves to their Lord because they also realize the distinction between the One who is worshiped and the ones who worship. Simply consider your own faith and see if this isn’t so. God is greater than our witness to him. God is more faithful than we are. Of course this is no excuse to be unfaithful witnesses to the perfect love of Christ.

One thought on “The kingdom of God, part 4”

  1. Another excellent article! Thanks, Gary. Looking forward to part 5 and part 6…

    Blessings,
    Santiago and Elke

Comments are closed.