The Gospel of the Kingdom (2)
As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. Galatians 1.9
The Gospel compromised
In four ways the Gospel of the Kingdom was compromised by the Judaizing preachers who followed Paul about.
These false teachers obscured the grace of God by preaching that salvation was, at least in part, a matter of faith and works. They minimized the work of Christ by making some human effort a partner in the work of salvation. In the process the Judaizers imposed false obligations on the believers in Galatia – obligations Paul insisted had passed away with the coming of the Kingdom. And they muddied the hope of the Gospel by encouraging people, if only indirectly, to seek something other than the glory of God.
Wherever we observe such teachings in place, people are hearing something other than the Gospel of the Kingdom which Jesus and the Apostles proclaimed.
But there are other ways of knowing that some gospel other than the Gospel of the Kingdom has gripped the hearts of the followers of Jesus Christ. Among these is the lack of compelling evidence for a Kingdom presence within the churches.
There has to be an explanation why so many millions of people claim to be born-again followers of Jesus Christ, attending nearly 250,000 churches, and around 3,000 of those mega-churches, with a vibrant and growing Christian subculture of music, television, books and literature, education, Internet presence, and even their own Yellow Pages – as I said, there has to be an explanation why, given all this, the morals and culture of America continue to decline away from the teaching of Scripture, the young are abandoning their Christian upbringing in growing numbers, and the public square continues practically devoid of any far-ranging, seriously-taken Christian voice. There simply has to be an explanation for this.
And I think I have it. It harks back to a Chesterton (I think) comment back around the turn of the 20th century. It’s not that the Gospel of Jesus Christ has been tried and found wanting. It’s that the Gospel of Jesus Christ – the Gospel of the Kingdom – has not been tried.
The Gospel of the Kingdom
Jesus came preaching a particular message to the people of His generation. The gospel writers refer to it as “the Gospel of the Kingdom.” The Good News that Jesus announced had as its focus an objective reality which the New Testament refers to as the Kingdom of God (Matt. 4.23; 9.35). What is that?
The Kingdom of God is the divine rule which Jesus came to bring into the affairs of men. It is an administration of righteousness, peace, and joy which we may enter by the Holy Spirit, through the new birth which comes by grace through faith (Rom. 14.17; Jn. 3.1-16).
The Kingdom of God centers on Jesus, Who is its King, and on His call to follow Him in a life of self-denying service to the glory of God (Mk. 10.42-45). To enter this Kingdom is to be born again to a life set apart for God, characterized by obedience to the Law of God (1 Jn. 2.1-6).
God gives His Kingdom to those who truly love Him, who renounce the desires, doodads, and deeds of the world and the flesh, and who invest their strength in becoming rich in faith (Jms. 2.5). The Kingdom of God is not just a reality to be acknowledged and confessed; it is a realm of power, real spiritual power, in which, increasingly, all things are made new and every aspect of a person’s life is reconciled to God, unto the praise of the glory of His grace (1 Cor. 4.20; 2 Cor. 5.17).
They who enter this Kingdom may be identified by their fervor in seeking to realize more of its presence and power (Matt. 6.33), their prayers for its coming on earth as in heaven (Matt. 6.10), their dutiful obedience to the holy and righteous and good Law of God (Ezek. 36.26, 27; Rom. 7.12), and their faithfulness in living as witnesses to their risen and reigning Lord (Acts 1.8).
Where the Kingdom of God takes root in a person’s heart, transforming grace begins to exert real spiritual power to make all things new, and to turn a person’s world rightside-up before the Lord (Acts 17.1-9).
It seems clear, by the paucity of the qualities outlined above, that many churches are teaching, and many Christians have embraced, a gospel other than the Gospel of the Kingdom. But any gospel other than the Gospel of the Kingdom is no gospel at all.
Liberal Christianity, most readers will agree, is not Christianity at all, or, at best, is a corrupt version. As J. Gresham Machen argued so eloquently in the last century, liberal Christianity has many appealing features, and much to commend it. In many ways it is a quite fascinating and alluring religion. It even uses all the language of Christianity and holds Jesus in high esteem.
But for all that, liberal Christianity just isn’t Christianity. Indeed, Machen argued, it’s not even close.
What about the gospel that is heard in so many churches today? The gospel that says, “Jesus died to forgive your sins and to bring you to heaven when you die”? Is that the Gospel? Rather, is that the whole Gospel? The Gospel of the Kingdom?
While that statement is certainly true, it doesn’t sound as rich, full, comprehensive, and all-engaging as what we outlined above as the Gospel of the Kingdom, and as we have considered in previous installments in this column.
And it is not widely apparent that those who have embraced this message are evidencing the kind of whole-life transformation Jesus demonstrated and promised, or that those first turn-the-world-upside-down Christians experienced.
But is it not true that the Gospel says that Jesus died for our sins so that we could go to heaven? Yes it does. But that is not the same as saying that Jesus’ death to grant forgiveness and eternal life to all who believe is the whole Gospel. And if that’s not the whole Gospel, but it is the heart and soul of what we preach, then can we say that it’s the Gospel at all?
The proclamation that Jesus died for our sins so that we could be forgiven and have eternal life is not, in fact, what C. S. Lewis referred to as mere Christianity – Christianity at its most basic. Rather, I would say that this message, which offers as its primary hope forgiveness and eternal life, and which offers these to all who merely profess belief in Jesus – this gospel which is roundly proclaimed in perhaps the vast majority of churches throughout the land – should be referred to as near Christianity.
The Good News that Jesus and the apostles proclaimed is a message so comprehensive, so altogether new and radical, that it requires deep-seated, heart-felt repentance, complete surrender to the risen Christ, and whole-hearted belief leading to obedience in every area of life. It is the message of the Kingdom of God.
Anything other than the Gospel of the Kingdom is not the Gospel at all, but a form of near Christianity that holds out promises germane to the Kingdom, prescribes means related to the Kingdom, but holds back on making the full vision and demands of the Kingdom clear to those who would enjoy the conditions of blessedness.
Such a message obscures the magnitude of God’s grace, minimizes the scope of Christ’s achievement, fails to nurture believers in the full obligations of Kingdom citizenship, and holds out a lesser hope – mere forgiveness and eternal life, rather than the glory of the living God.
Near Christianity, therefore, produces little in the way of Kingdom evidence in the lives and churches of those who embrace it. It leaves what it promises, and what people who embrace it desire: a sense of forgiveness, and the peace of mind that accompanies that, and a tentative hope of going to heaven when we die. As for power to transform sinful lives into beacons of holiness, goodness, beauty, and truth – well, that’s something to affirm, but not necessarily something to seek, much less to attain.
The Apostle Paul wrote to the Galatians, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting Him Who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel…” (Gal. 1.6). Did you catch that verb – deserting? It wasn’t that the Galatians denied that Jesus was Savior. Not at all. Or even that He was Lord. They simply chose to minimize the power of His saving grace by adding to the Gospel in certain ways and detracting from it in others. So, their professions of faith notwithstanding, Paul said that they were deserting the true Gospel, the Gospel of the Kingdom. They may have been Christians, but they were not living the Gospel of the Kingdom.
Anything other than the Gospel of the Kingdom may be like Christianity, or near Christianity, but it is not the Good News of Jesus and Paul. Near Christianity is not the Christianity of Scripture and, therefore, is no Good News at all.
For reflection or discussion:
- What are the primary differences between the Gospel of the Kingdom and “near” Christianity?
- Do you agree that this is a matter of serious concern? Why or why not?
- What difference does it make in the way we make disciples, whether we preach the Gospel of the Kingdom or the gospel of “near” Christianity?
If you’re just getting started in the Kingdom Civics series, you may want to get a quick overview of the Kingdom of God and why it matters. Here’s a brief meditation from Crosfigell, introducing the “Wondrous Kingdom” that Jesus brought near to men.