Tag Archives: Theology

“Raised to life for our justification” … Why do we need the resurrection to be justified?

In my circle of Christianity, when we talk about salvation, we tend to focus all our attention on the cross and neglect the role of the resurrection. Exhibit A is a book sitting on my shelf called The Cross and Salvation: 500+ pages of robust biblical and systematic theology on the doctrine of salvation. I was unable to find a single chapter or paragraph that dealt with the role the resurrection plays in salvation.

The book is excellent, but this lack of emphasis doesn’t seem to square with Paul and Peter’s emphasis on the resurrection. The resurrection played a key role in Peter’s early preaching and Paul saw it as essential (Romans 4:25, 5:10, 1 Corinthians 15:20-22).

It can be easy to believe that the entire salvation story is summed up in the cross: Humans sinned. Jesus paid for that sin. Since Jesus paid for that sin, we can be forgiven and reconciled to God, freed from the final judgment. In this story, the resurrection isn’t necessary. Or, it is only in this sense that it is evidence that what happened on the cross really matters.

On closer inspection, though, that’s not the “entire” salvation story after all.

The Whole Story:

So, why does the resurrection matter for salvation? What’s the whole story?

I want to tell three different and familiar stories.

First, there’s the story of humanity. We were made to live in communion with God, stewarding the earth for one another’s flourishing and God’s glory. Instead of living under his rule we tried (and try) to usurp his throne… and suffer disastrous consequences. This life of disobedience leads to death. This is the story of Adam.

Second, there’s the story of Jesus. At the incarnation Christ entered the story of humanity. He took on flesh. He faced the devil. He endured hunger and temptation. But, unlike the story of every human the preceded or followed him, he was obedient. He was even obedient to death on the cross.

Jesus took on himself, and completed within his own body, the story of humanity. On the cross he took the death that humans deserve. He took Adam’s death. But Jesus’s story doesn’t end there. He is raised from the dead to new life. He ascends to the throne of God.

Now here’s the third story: The story of little “Adams” who, through faith, move from being “in” Adam, to being “in” Christ. Jesus took our story – and our punishment – so that we could take his story – and his life.

When I’m “in” Jesus, I get his story. I get his death and I get his life. I die with him and I am raised with him. Because I die with him, my sins are forgiven. Because I live with him, I receive a new life by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Imagine, then, what salvation would look like if Jesus was never raised from the dead. If Jesus was not raised from the dead we could share in his death, but not in his resurrection. We could die with him, but not live with him. Without the resurrection, Jesus’s story is incomplete and so is our salvation.

On the Logic of Romans 4:25

This post started while I was reading through Romans with an eye towards Easter. In my reading I came across this puzzling text: “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Romans 4:25).

I opened up John Stott’s commentary on Romans. It offered me this important reminder: Paul believed that we were “justified” at the moment we believed God “who raised Jesus Christ from the dead” (Romans 4:24). In Paul’s language we are justified when we believe God. We are justified by Jesus’s blood (Romans 5:9). And, Jesus was “raised… our justification.” How do these pieces fit together?

Paul equates justification with “being credited righteousness.” We are credited righteousness when we believe God. But how can we sinners be credited righteousness? It can’t happen through works (“there is none righteous”). It has to come as a gift from God. It has to come from Jesus. It has to come through his obedient life, his death, which atones for our sins, and his resurrection, which is the “new life” by which we share in Jesus’s life.

We can’t stop reading Romans after 5:8. Romans 5:9ff spells out a present/future salvation that is only available because Jesus was raised from the dead. We are justified through his blood (5:9), but we also “shall be saved through his life” (5:10)! His life here is the life available in the power of the resurrection, with which we come to share when we have faith: “Just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (6:4). “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his” (6:5).

The Christian life without the resurrection

It might seem hard to imagine Christianity without the resurrection, but I fear that sometimes our preaching – if we neglect the resurrection – can lead to a Christian life without the power of the resurrection. How many people have walked down an aisle or said the sinners prayer with a shortened gospel story, a story that tells of the forgiveness of sins, but doesn’t tell of the new life available in Jesus, that invites us to share in Jesus’s death, but not in his resurrection, that rejoices in Jesus our Savior but ignores his life-giving Spirit? May it not be.

This Easter, rejoice in the full story of salvation. Rejoice in the cross. Oh, may we never neglect the cross! But rejoice also in the resurrection, not just as proof of the power of the cross, but as power to live in the life of Jesus.

Prayer and the knowledge and sovereignty of God. What’s the point?

Q: What’s the point of prayer? After all, if God already knows what we need before we ask, why do we need to ask?

A: First, prayer includes more than simply asking God for things. It also includes praise, thanksgiving, and confession of sin. Still, it’s right to focus on specific requests, since such prayers dominate Scriptural examples and instructions.

As to the question about God’s knowledge: Prayer – even the request – is not simply a way of getting what we want/need from God. It’s a means of forming a personal relationship with him. God knows what we need, but he wants us to ask him for it. In doing so, we learn to be dependent on him. We learn the proper relationship between Creator and created. We need. We ask. God has. God gives.

Q: I have heard it said: “We pray, not to change God, but so that we ourselves might be changed.” Is that what you’re saying above? Is the primary purpose of prayer to bring about an internal change?

A: Prayer does change us, and it’s good that it does. But I’m hesitant to say that the primary purpose of prayer is internal change. That’s simply not how the Bible usually puts it. Take, for instance, Paul’s instruction in Ephesians 6:18-20. Paul asks the Ephesians to pray for the Lord’s people, and to pray specifically for him, that he would preach the gospel without fear.

Now, there’s the possibility that by praying in this way the Ephesians would be changed internally: They would become more dependent on God. They would see God’s hand in missions. They would become less self-focused and more others-focused. They would see the need for boldness themselves. Etc.

But Paul’s main point isn’t that they be changed, but that their prayers for him would lead to his boldness in sharing the gospel. In other words, Paul is implying a cause and effect relationship here. The Ephesians pray. God answers. Paul preaches fearlessly.

Q: I’m uncomfortable with using the phrase “cause and effect” relationship when talking about prayer. It seems too much like magic. Are you saying the Ephesians’ prayers caused Paul’s boldness? Does that mean that without the Ephesians’ prayer Paul wouldn’t have been bold?

A: That seems unlikely in this case, given that Paul’s whole ministry prior to his work with the Ephesians was characterized by boldness. Still, it does seem that there might be some instances where God will only give us something if we pray for it. James writes “you do not have because you do not ask.” (James 4:2)

I don’t think that Paul is drawing such a straight line between the Ephesians’ request and Paul’s boldness. Perhaps we could say that the Ephesians’ requests “contributes” to Paul’s boldness. But even then, it isn’t the request itself that contributes, but God’s response to that request.

Here it’s important to remember that God is not a formula but a personal being with an independent will. We are called to address him as Father and the father-child relationship is the lens by which Jesus instructs his disciples to approach prayer. The Father is not bound to our requests, but neither is he deaf to them. He hears and then chooses his own response. To the extent his response is connected to our request, our request contributed to that response. But we must always remember that God is able to act apart from our request.

Q: You speak of God “responding” to our prayer requests. Does such language impinge upon God’s sovereignty? Is it right to say that the Creator responds to his creation?

A: It may be that we are now in the realm of mystery, where language begins to fail us, but this is the way the Bible speaks. God is outside of time, but we experience God in time. And, in time, in relationship, we see an interplay. God’s people call out for help. God hears. God acts. If “response” is not the right word to describe what we experience, I do not have a better one.

Q: It still doesn’t make sense. How does God’s sovereignty relate to our prayers? God knows all things and can do all things. Why should prayer matter?

A: We might as well ask why anything we do matters. God knows I need food and he has the ability to make it appear on my table. Does that mean that my work for that food is useless? Obviously not. We have the capacity to see that two things contribute to my stomach being filled: (1) God’s divine provision and (2) human actions. God’s provision is the ultimate source of food. Human action is often the means by which God provides. It’s a secondary, but usually necessary step. We see that God is able to work apart from human action, but he often works through it. The two actions – human and divine – are not mutually exclusive – but find harmony in the will of God.

This principle is harder to see with prayer, but it’s still there. I think it’s hard to see because prayer sits at the intersection between human action and God’s action. That is, when we pray we act, but our action is indirect, it’s merely a request for God to act. Perhaps this is why prayer can seem confusing to us. Still, the principle applies. Like other human action, prayer becomes the means by which God acts in the world. God can act apart from prayer, but sometimes he uses it in a more direct way, as we see throughout the Bible.

Q: Ok, it’s starting to make sense. Can you summarize this for me?

A: It’s good to see how prayer fits into a robust picture of God’s sovereignty, but the primary lens Jesus gives us to see prayer is the parent-child relationship. My own children have taught me a lot about prayer (good and bad). They come to me with requests all the time. This demonstrates dependence. It shows that they understand that I can provide. As a father, I won’t always give them what they ask for, because I know that they don’t always ask for things which are (ultimately) good for them or for others.  Often, I give them things without them asking for them. But there are some things that they only get if they ask for them.

There could be a danger in thinking of God too much like a human father. Human fathers can be manipulated and worn down. Human fathers sometimes need their kids to ask because they don’t already know what their child needs. Human fathers lack the perfect will of the heavenly father. “God is not a human” (Num 23:19).

Dangers noted, and with proper reverence in our hearts, we ought to come to God as our Father, through the Spirit, in the name of His Son. Understanding these relationships ought to help us understand prayer. Hopefully, it also helps us pray.

On Comparisons between King David and Presidential Candidates

Several years ago a church in our area went through a very nasty split. The pastor had been caught in serious sin but refused to let go of the church or give up the pastorate. This pastor, and those devoted to him, warned detractors that they faced the judgment of God if they went up against the “Lord’s anointed.” His call was not from men, but directly from God. When other leaders in the church objected that his sin disqualified him from ministry he compared himself with King David and thus only accountable to God. The church eventually expelled him from ministry (and is doing great as far as I can tell) and this pastor planted a new church, right around the corner from my house. While this whole thing was going on a friend asked me to weigh in on how the comparison between the role of pastor and the role of King of Israel. As a response I wrote the post “Dear Pastor, You are Not King David”, which is still one of the most viewed posts on this blog.

I’m seeing this same comparison to King David a lot recently. This time it’s not in the context of the role of pastor, but the role of President. I have seen this comparison used, so far exclusively, to defend Donald Trump. I really do understand why some reasonable people feel as though it is responsible (though messy) and necessary (though painful) to vote for Donald Trump in order to prevent Hillary Clinton from appointing judges who will set back both religious liberty and abortion laws for decades. I disagree with this argument (as stated here and here) but I can understand it. But what pains me as a pastor is when I see sloppy, and dangerous, interpretations of Scripture, used purely for political reasons. I have become too numb to try to argue with anyone to vote or not vote for a particular candidate. But I am still passionate that Scripture not be abused for political reasons. If I had seen this argument once I would have ignored it, but it has become prevalent enough to warrant a response.

Allow me to restate how the argument is framed: God has used all kinds of people throughout history to carry out his will, even people who were morally sketchy. He used David, who committed adultery and murder. He used Samson who was hot tempered and easily seduced. Maybe God is using Trump in the same way. Trump has good policies (so the argument goes, though I personally have serious issues with some of them) and his character is not great, but God has used people of poor character in the past so we shouldn’t worry about Trump.

Let’s see what’s wrong with this argument:

First, it ignores the big differences between Israel and America in terms of government and selection of leaders. Israel was a theocracy. God ruled the nation through the king which he directly appointed, first through the prophet Samuel and then through family succession. In America, we have a democracy selected by the people. In Israel, the individual people took no responsibility for the selection of its leaders. In America, we do. We are called to act responsibly, seeking to love God and love our neighbors.

Second, and relatedly, it confuses God’s sovereign will with God’s moral will. Since these are theological terms, I will take some time to explain. In short, God’s sovereign will is what he actually does in history.  One of those things is the establishment of authorities. God established David and Solomon. He also established Barack Obama. I know that God set up Barack Obama as the president because that’s what happened in history and God is sovereign over history. If Trump becomes President, then that’s who God made president. If it’s Clinton, then a Clinton presidency is within God’s sovereign will. In accomplishing God’s sovereign will he will sometimes establish good leaders and he will sometimes establish bad leaders. Sometimes it’s a blessing for the nation. Sometimes it’s an act of judgment. (It’s hard to not view this election in terms of God’s (well deserved) judgment on our nation.) We don’t know God’s sovereign will until it happens.

God’s moral will, on the other hand, is what God wants us as humans to do. He wants us to love Him. He wants us to love our neighbors. He wants us to obey his commands. God has revealed his moral will to us in Scripture and he commands us to live in accordance with his moral will. To do this requires discernment and wisdom. We have to act on what we know is right and wrong and we have to act during times of moral ambiguity. Sometimes we have to think “what is most likely to occur?” or, perhaps, “what from Scripture tells me what I should expect will happen?”

Let’s bring this back around to the comparison between Donald Trump and King David. The comparison points to God’s sovereign will – God has, throughout history, used morally suspect leaders for a good purpose. This is, of course, true. And we should thank God for his mercy. But the conclusion – we should not worry about morally suspect leaders – does not follow. We should instead be asking the question – what from Scripture should we expect will happen if we elect a wicked person?

That brings me to number three. These comparisons cherry pick David and forget both the consequence of his sin and the history of Israel. Israel’s history is a pretty bleak one. The nation was quickly divided and conquered by outside forces. Why? What happened? Again and again the nation was ruled by kings who turned away from God and thus incurred his judgment. They were idolaters. They were wicked. They were proud. And they caused the nation to fall. And where did that seed of wickedness and judgment begin? There were seeds of it already in David. Does this in some way nullify God’s sovereign action? Am I saying God made the wrong choice? By no means. What I’m saying is that the moral character of the leaders of Israel contributed to its ultimate downfall.

I think we have reason to expect the same thing in this case. Let’s consider two more pieces of Scripture. First, take note of a pair of Proverbs in chapter 28. Verses 12 and 28 basically say the same thing: “when the wicked rise to power, people go into hiding.” Why do people go into hiding when the wicked rise to power? Because wickedness leads to injustice, and injustice to suffering. There is a direct correlation between the wickedness of the leader and the fear of the people. Second, it is wise to note that there are qualifications given for elders and deacons and that those qualifications have to do with the character of those being selected for leadership. Why are those qualifications in place? Because for a church to survive it needs leaders who have character. A wicked church leader guts and destroys a church, even if his theology is otherwise excellent. He will bully the flock. He will take advantage of it. Can God still use such a man for good purposes? You bet, and he has, but God has given his church the responsibility to act in accordance with his moral will.

But, you say, we aren’t looking for a pastor (or elder or deacon), we’re looking for a President. We don’t need someone who is a choir boy. Those qualifications for elders/deacons don’t apply here. You’re right. Those qualifications don’t apply. But the principle still applies. Character matters in leadership. Maybe there is a different set of qualifications, but character still matters.

Fourth, these comparisons are inevitably paired with a minimization of sin. I don’t think they necessarily have to, but they always are. Trump’s language isn’t abusive and lewd, it’s “locker room talk.” He’s just not PC. He can be “a little rude,” or “a little crude.” He “has faults.” He’s “not polished.” Sorry, but this minimization of sin is not becoming for believers in the gospel. Vote for him if you must but at least be honest. It’s a harsh conclusion I know but from my judgment Trump is a “wicked” man. He is a bully. He is full of pride and arrogance. His sexual liaisons and speech prove not only that he is unfaithful, but that he is a “fool” in the biblical sense of the word. He is a chronic liar. Friends, let’s not minimize this. If we seek to justify him because he has the “right policies” then we lose our credibility and prophetic voice, and we desperately need both of those. We’re called to speak truth to the powerful and the weak, to our enemies and our allies. Let’s do that. Let’s not cover up what is going on here.

As soon as these comparisons happen (either for pastors or Presidential candidates) I see Christians turn off their moral radar and begin justifying sin. Every time. Either it’s that the sin isn’t so bad (he just fell once, we need to show mercy, let he who is without sin cast the first stone) or it suddenly doesn’t matter because we’re not dealing with an ordinary individual. We’re dealing with God’s chosen. We’re dealing with the “anointed.” We’re dealing with someone who is called be God to sweep in and save America from evil Hillary.

Yes, those were words I read, and they were written without a hint of irony. Trump took the place of God in Isaiah 40. Trump became, for this “Christian” writer, the one through whom God would save, through whom God would reign. Friends, such words are borderline blasphemy. Our anointed Savor and Lord is none other than Jesus Christ and Him alone!

So, where does that leave us? I believe that character matters. Must the President be perfect. No, I don’t think so. But we need to use wisdom and judgment to ask, what characteristics are necessary for him to act in such way that will provide justice for my neighbor. I think honesty matters. Faithfulness. Humility. A teachable spirit. Fairness. Care for others. A willingness to be wrong. Coolness under pressure. Etc. All of these things will affect how a President leads and thus whether or not such a presidency would be good for my neighbor.

Judge for yourself. We are in difficult times and the situation is complex. Search the Scripture and search the heart of God. But whatever you choose, seek God’s moral will. God will handle his sovereign will. Thanks be to God that he can use anyone for any purpose. But make your decisions based on his revealed Word.

God bless,


Three dangers to Christian community

Welcome to 2016. This is a big year for American politics with another presidential election on the horizon. I’ve probably never been as disenchanted with the political process or the rhetoric of politics as I am this cycle, though it’s possible that I feel that way every time. Still, while I’m pretty pessimistic about American politics, I’m not pessimistic about life in general. I’m not worried because I trust in a God who reigns over the whole stream of human history and who is able to raise up and tear down both kings and nations. And so while I’m interested in what is going on in politics, I have bigger concerns. I probably won’t be blogging much about politics this year. I have better things to think about, like the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer lived in a time when politics played a huge role in human history. He lived during the time of Nazi Germany. He was involved in the underground “confessing church” and even in a political (failed) plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. He understood more than most the role that the theology and the church played in politics and he paid for his convictions with his life, executed just days before the camp in which he was being held was liberated by Allied troops.

Yet, despite the fact that Bonhoeffer lived at such a crucial time in history his writings, at least the books which I have read, are not consumed with the political musings. Instead, he writes about theology. He writes about discipleship. He writes about community. He writes about Christian ethics. He writes about topics which are edifying to the church universal in every day and age. He wrote to the church and for the church, bringing the truth of the Word of God to bear on those who would take up the task of following Jesus.

One such book, Life Together, is an exploration of Christian community. In this post I will be summarizing portions of Chapter 1 of that book. For sake of summary, I have constructed this post a little differently than Bonhoeffer constructed his chapter. Here are three dangers which Bonhoeffer sees as damaging to Christian community.

Loving the ideal more than the actual: Bonhoeffer begins his exploration of Christianity by rooting the reality of Christian brotherhood in the work of Christ for us. “What determines our brotherhood is what the man is by reason of Christ. Our community with one another consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us” (25). Our Christianity community is always no more nor more less than this.

But in this there is always a desire for there to be more to Christian community than this objective reality in Christ. Or, rather, there is a dissatisfaction with this reality. We want Christian community to be based on more than this. Instead of giving thanks for the opportunity to fellowship together with believers, we seek some ideal vision of community, and speak angrily back at God when this ideal inevitably fails to be realized. We love the ideal community more than the actual community which God has already given us in Christ. Bonhoeffer summarizes the danger in this way:

“One who wants more than what Christ has established does not want Christian brotherhood. He is looking for some extraordinary social experience which he has not found elsewhere; he is bringing muddled and impure desires into Christian brotherhood. Just at this point Christian brotherhood is threatened most often at the very start by the greatest danger of all, the danger of being poisoned at its root, the danger of confusing Christian brotherhood with some wishful ideal of religious fellowship, of confounding the natural desire of the devout heart for the community with spiritual reality of Christian brotherhood” (26).


“He who loves his dream of community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial” (27).

You don’t have to be around the church long to see how great a danger this can be. As much as you might love your particular church family, it will never live up to the “ideal of Christian community.” But God doesn’t give us some ideal, at least not the one in our imagination. Instead, he gives us a community of people reconciled to God in Christ and tells us to love that.

Relying on human love instead of spiritual love: Next Bonhoeffer draws a distinction between “human love” (which he calls a “psychic reality”) and “spiritual love.” He defines the distinction this way: “The basis of all spiritual reality is the clear, manifest Word of God in Jesus Christ. The basis of all human reality is the dark, turbid urges and desires of the human mind” (31).

Human love is that love which relies on natural human affections and for Bonhoeffer it is not always evil in and of itself. It can exist quite naturally in devout men. But when this natural human affection becomes the basis for Christian community, even amongst devout men with the best of intentions, “the result is to dethrone the Holy Spirit, to relegate Him to a remote unreality” (32).

Human love can only take you so far. It enables you to love your friends and those who are like you but that is all. Human love turns to hatred when that love is not reciprocated or when it is rebuffed. It will not allow you to love your enemy.

A Christian community which relies on this human love as the basis of its existence fails theologically – it is dethroning the work of the Holy Spirit (see quote above) and it is denying the work of Christ, which is the actual basis for Christian community. It also fails practically. The Christian community which relies on human love, on natural affections, will necessarily be divisive, both towards those outside the church, and even within the community itself as factions form around personal preferences or as disagreements and slights go unaddressed and unforgiven.

Seeking direct access to another instead of access mediated through Christ: Most dangerously for Bonhoeffer, though, is that human love seeks to have direct contact with another soul.

This is one of the most interesting and unique elements of Bonhoeffer’s theology which I have come across. It shows up in both Life Together and The Cost of Discipleship. The basic principle is that Christ is our mediator. He is our mediator between us and God. And, for Bonhoeffer, he is also the mediator between us and everyone else. Or at least he should be. We shouldn’t seek to have direct access to another soul, only access that is mediated through Christ. What he means, I think, is that we are always interacting with people in relation to Christ.

What does it look like for someone to seek direct access to another person, not mediated through Christ? Direct human love wants to possess. It wants that person for its own sake. “It wants to gain, to capture by every means; it uses force. It desires to be irresistible, to rule” (34). This kind of love makes truth relative. It only uses truth in order to gain its ends, the affections of the other. It is ultimately coercive, even if it is not self-consciously so. “Human love constructs an image of the other person, of what he is and what he should become. It takes the life of the other person into its own hands” (36). When direct access to another soul is desired, the weak are overcome by the strong. Manipulation rules the day.

But spiritual love, that mediated through Christ, is of a different and alien kind. “Spiritual love loves [another] for Christ’s sake” (34). Instead of serving the self, spiritual love serves Christ alone. Spiritual love loves always in relation to Christ and to what God has done for that other person. In the case of Christian brotherhood Christ has called and saved and is sanctifying him. Therefore, to love with spiritual love, is to release that other person to Christ:

“Because Christ has long since acted decisively for my brother, before I could begin to act, I must leave him his freedom to be Christ’s; I must meet him only as the person that he already is in Christ’s eyes. This is the meaning of the proposition that we can meet others only through the mediation of Christ” (36).

This sort of love speaks the Word of God to a brother, either a word of encouragement or warning or instruction, and then releases that person to Christ. It does not seek to control or coerce or manipulate.

Human/direct love is always a danger to Christian community since it desires to possess the other when the other really belongs to Christ. This unhealthy desire manifests itself in many ways – a desire to be liked and admired, jealousy, manipulation, failure to speak the truth, etc. All of these are the “fruits of the flesh” and stand in opposition to the fruit of the Spirit (see Galatians 5).

Solution – Applying the gospel to the Christian community: Bonhoeffer’s basis for Christian community provides a solution to all of these problems. His solution is to apply the gospel to Christian fellowship. Bonhoeffer reminds his readers that we must view others in Christian community as they are objectively in Christ and then relate to them through Christ. It is this objective reality which forms the basis of Christian fellowship. We really are one in Christ and our unity is based on him alone. If we give God thanks for this objective reality, we will appreciate all the more the subjective experience that fellowship believers brings.

“The more clearly we learn to recognize that the ground and strength and promise of all our fellowship is in Christ alone, the more serenely shall we think of our fellowship and pray and hope for it” (30).

Understanding the Kingdom of God (Recap)

presenceofthefutureThis Sunday I started a class on the Kingdom of God. I was originally planning on doing a class on the End Times but, in my initial research, I was directed by a professor to read The Presence of the Future by George Eldon Ladd. I understand why I was directed to this book – understanding what Jesus meant by the Kingdom of God is foundational to understanding the End Times. However, it’s also foundational to a lot of other things, like the mission of the Church, the present work of God in the world, and what it means to live in the tension between the resurrection and the consummation of all things.

And so, while I originally intended to do a class on the End Times, I punted that to the Senior Pastor, John, and decided on an equally difficult and confusing topic; the Kingdom of God.

Since the class is only being offered to a subset of our church (it takes place during the post-sermon discussion time) I have decided to post summaries of each week’s lesson.

Kingdom of God Week 1: The Debate

“The Kingdom of God” or “The Kingdom of Heaven” are concepts which were central to John the Baptist’s (Mt 3:2), Jesus’ (Mt. 4:17, 23; Mk 1:15; Lk 4:43; Acts 1:3), and Paul’s (Acts 19:8, 28:23, 31) teaching. Even so, we do not find in the Gospels any “definition” of the Kingdom. Instead, we see the language of the Kingdom used in diverse and sometimes apparently contradictory ways. Instead of a textbook response from Jesus, we get parables which describe the Kingdom without defining it.

One of the biggest questions about the Kingdom is whether it is something which we can already experience, or whether it is something which is yet to come.

On the “already” side of things we have verses like Luke 11:20 “But if I drive out demons by the finger of God,then the kingdom of God has come upon you,” and Luke 17:20-21 “Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.” In these verses, the Kingdom appears to be a present reality.

On the “not yet” side of things we see instances where “Kingdom of God” is used interchangeably with “eternal life” (Matthew 19:16-24), the judgment (Matthew 7:21-23), or as a contrast to hell (Mark 9:47). In these, and other instances, the Kingdom seems to be a future realm which people can either enter, or fail to enter, based on their response to God.

This diverse usage of “Kingdom of God” language has historically caused theologians to choose between understanding the Kingdom as a future age to come or as a present spiritual reality.

Those who view the Kingdom of God as entirely, or primarily, a present reality, tend to look at Kingdom realities as primarily spiritual, view the movement of the Kingdom as a process of history, focus on the work of the Church to extend the kingdom, and consider the ethical demands of the Kingdom. They ask the questions – “what are the ethical demands of the Kingdom?” and “what can we do to bring the benefits of the Kingdom on earth?”

Those who view the Kingdom of God as entirely, or primarily, a future reality look at the Kingdom as an “age to come” that will be brought about through a cataclysmic event (i.e., the Second Coming). They focus on the Kingdom as a future act of God (as opposed to something the Church participates in) and tend to devalue the ethical demands of the Kingdom. They ask the question, “who will be able to enter into the Kingdom?” and “when will the Kingdom come?”

There is merit in both viewpoints and theologians from both camps ask important question. However, there are dangers on both side of the spectrum. The biggest problem for both views is that they struggle with interpreting the passages that seem to contradict their position. For instance, those who focus on the “already” aspect of the Kingdom have to view Jesus’ apocalyptic sayings as a literary device used to draw the reader to some ethical conclusion. On the other hand, those who focus on the “future” aspect of the Kingdom tend to come to the conclusion that in passages like Luke 11:20 and 17:20-21 Jesus only meant that the “signs” of the Kingdom were present, but not the Kingdom itself.

There are implications for the ministry of the Church as well. Too much of a focus on the present reality of the Kingdom lead churches to believe that their mission is to “build” the Kingdom, or bring the benefits of the Kingdom to earth, and devalue the simple proclamation of the Kingdom. In other words, they tend to overestimate the role of the Church in regards to the Kingdom.

On the other hand, those who view the Kingdom as only a future reality tend to view the world, and the role of the Church, in far more pessimistic light. If God’s actions are so limited in history, the only hope is for a cataclysmic event to take us out of history. In the meantime, the only mission of the Church is to wait to be saved out of this world and call others to enter the Kingdom.

The question arises, then, can these two usages of the Kingdom (present and future) be reconciled? I believe the answer is “Yes” and the thesis which will be developed over the next few weeks is this: The Kingdom of God is the active reign of God. This working shorthand definition leads to a few conclusions:

First, the Jesus’ coming fulfilled God’s promise of the Kingdom in His very person. But this initial coming of the Kingdom was a mystery. It was an unexpected, but nevertheless real, manifestation of the reign of God. This coming of the Kingdom, while a fulfillment of the promise, was not the final consummation of the promise.

Second, the realities of the Kingdom, inaugurated in Jesus, are present now through the work of the Holy Spirit.

Third, when Jesus returns we will see consummation of the Kingdom. We will see the Kingdom, the reign of God, in its fullest form.

Next week we ask, “How does the Old Testament speak of the Kingdom of God?”

I have attached two resources for anyone with further interest. First, I have listed the usages of “Kingdom” in the Gospels and Acts  (pdf) as a source of further study. Second, I have attached my power point presentation from this Sunday.