Questioning the Kingdom? - Part 2: Cultural Transformation
In the previous installment, we considered that the kingdom of God consists in the spiritual reign of Christ over the world and over his people in the church. This kingdom bears fruit in society as the gospel is preached and hearts are changed.
But does God promise to change our society in the gospel, such that we should expect him to do it if the church is faithful?
First, let us acknowledge that the gospel of the kingdom has undeniable social effects if understood and applied rightly. The gospel centers on the redemption of sinners (1 Cor. 15:3-4) yet has cosmic implications resulting in nothing less than a new creation in Christ. Until this new creation is consummated, the gospel of grace trains us in righteousness (Tit. 2:11-12). The people of God begin to fill the earth (Isa. 66:19) and obey the law of God by the Spirit (Rom. 7:6). Regenerate disciples of Jesus apply his word, imperfectly yet increasingly loving their neighbors as themselves, training their children in the fear and admonition of the Lord, caring for the poor, treating their employees kindly, and conducting their affairs with justice. We should expect the entrance of Christ’s kingdom into history to alter society as the full number of the elect are brought in and live out their faith.
But this is not really in question. Of course the gospel changes societies. The question is whether God has bound himself to bestow blessing on our society necessarily in response to our obedience. The answer is: it depends. In the long-term, we are promised that the Great Commission will be fulfilled and that Jesus will subject his enemies to himself. Wickedness, over time, does not work. Fruitless, unbelieving societies will inevitably recede (Ps. 1:4, 37:1ff). But in the short-term, we have no promise in Scripture that our input always necessarily results in such blessing. To believe that obedience always results in temporal success is to succumb to the prosperity error. Obedience cannot pry blessing from God’s hands. But obedience does often result in blessing.
We should expect the entrance of Christ’s kingdom into history to alter society as the full number of the elect are brought in and live out their faith.
There are, of course, exceptions. Oftentimes a faithful Christian church may lose in the culture and is buried beneath a wave of persecution. We also do not have any Scriptural promise that our nation will endure to the end; many nations have risen and fallen both before and after the time of Christ, and the promise of Revelation 5:9 and 7:9 does not undo this fact. God would be just to allow our nation to recede under his judgment and the sands of time.
Yet it would be wrong of us to stop there in our understanding of Christian faithfulness and its effects. The cross precedes the crown. Death precedes resurrection. So, the manner in which the gospel of the kingdom saturates and transforms societies is a stable, up-and-to-the-right march of progress. Rather, we overcome by loving not our lives to the death (Rev. 12:11). We save our lives by losing them (Jn. 12:25). This is always true in the eternal, heavenly sense and is often true in history. Tertullian was correct to identify the blood of the martyrs as the seed of the church. This was true for the church in the first century, the Protestants of the 16thand 17th centuries, and the pioneer missionaries of the 19th century (whose seemingly unimpressive groundwork has now resulted in the explosion of Christianity in the two-thirds world). We always win by losing. Only by grasping this subversive plan for victory will the church in the West be able to endure joyfully the dark providence overtaking our civilization.
So—are Christians to work to “bring in” God’s future kingdom? If so, how?
Taking “God’s future kingdom” to mean the consummated kingdom (or the kingdom of the Father, or the eternal state, or the new creation), the simplistic answer is “no”—in that we are not God and cannot dictate to him the timing of the final judgment and return of Christ. God’s sovereign decree is fixed and unknown to us (Deut. 29:29).
But in another sense, the answer is “yes.” God uses means. Our Lord commands us to pray for the kingdom to come (Mt. 6:10). These prayers are not in vain: “And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them?” (Lk. 18:7). The New Testament also describes the salvation of the elect and our own holy living as “hastening” the future kingdom (2 Pet. 3:8-12). Christ will not return until all his elect are saved, and he accomplishes this through the instrumentation of his bride, the church, empowered by his Spirit. We are both given the task of world evangelization and are simultaneously told that it will certainly be accomplished (cf. Mt. 8:11). Since Christ has not yet returned, we must assume he has more work for us to do.
We always win by losing. Only by grasping this subversive plan for victory will the church in the West be able to endure joyfully the dark providence overtaking our civilization.
One additional point related to this topic. It has been said that this optimistic eschatology is little more than the doctrine of progressive sanctification applied to the church corporately. This is a salient observation. Just as the individual believer generally, imperfectly, and really grows in holiness from conversion to glorification, so the invisible church over time is growing up into Christ and bearing fruit with increasingly visible results. And just as this journey is marked with ups and downs for the individual believer, so it is for the history of Christianity.
Another question remains: how? Or, as my pastor friend recently asked me, “Should a Christian’s main burden be the conversion and sanctification of the elect or the transformation of society or both equally?” We will consider this in the next installment.