I grew up in a church were we didn’t talk much about the kingdom of God. If we did, we thought of it as something internal, like putting Jesus on the throne of my heart. We asked individuals to make that decision, to pray the sinner’s prayer by which they would be born again. Isn’t that how someone enters the kingdom?
John 3:3 (NIV)
Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
We read this verse as if it said, “You can’t go to heaven if you haven’t invited Jesus into your heart.” It never occurred to us that a kingdom isn’t an individual. We never questioned whether this was not Jesus’ standard method of evangelism. He used this provocative approach only once. He used it to confront a named well-born Jewish ruler, but not with an unnamed disrespected Samaritan woman in his next encounter. (John’s juxtaposition of these stories is intentional.) Telling people their current life is worthless and they need to start over is not appropriate most of the time. More often, Jesus did as he did in John 4: holding out hope and enacting the good news of acceptance.
Many liturgical church services focus around the Eucharist, the sacrament where people receive grace. Many Evangelical church services build toward their own sacramental experience of receiving grace: “the decision moment” or “the sinner’s prayer.” You hear evangelists ask people to accept “a free gift from God, with no strings attached,” so it requires no change of lifestyle. It’s “just between you and God,” so it requires no engagement with others. Seriously, is this the gospel of the kingdom?
Grace is unmerited, but submitting to Christ places you under obligation to him. You cannot be the kingdom on your own, for the kingdom is the community under his lordship. That implies tough stuff like forgiving and supporting the King’s people.
We’ve exchanged the good news of the kingdom for a sales campaign to market belief. The sales pitch reduces the gospel to steps like the Four Spiritual Laws:
- Attract the customer’s attention (e.g. “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life”).
- Show the customer their need for what we’re trying to sell (i.e. that they’re a “sinner”).
- Demonstrate that the product you’re selling will satisfy their need (i.e. Jesus as Saviour).
- Sign up the client (i.e. the decision moment / sinners’ prayer).
We tried to make the gospel easy to sell, but we swapped it for something with little credibility, lacking the power of changed lives.
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” is something we’d all love to be asked. When Jesus got the question, he answered, “What do you think?” (Luke 10:26). Man, I need to learn to do that: explore what the guy already understood rather than dump my truck on him.
The guy gave a good answer: love God and love our neighbour (10:27). Jesus agreed, “Do this and you’ll live” (10:28). I know a lot of churches where Jesus would never be invited back to preach if he told people that’s how you inherit eternal life.
But loving God is not feeling gooey about God. It’s giving allegiance to a sovereign worthy of the name, submitting to his authority, living as he commands. Not to love God would be to reject him as sovereign, to rebel against his authority, to live outside what he commands.
Likewise, loving our neighbour doesn’t mean feeling warm and fuzzy; it means noticing when life has knocked the stuffing out of them, giving our lives and resources to help them back on feet. That’s the way Jesus told it anyway (Luke 10:30-37).
The gospel of the kingdom is the good news of what our King has done. It’s credibly good news when we treat people the way he has treated us, when we embody the character of our king.
Can we call people to acknowledge Jesus as king and model what it means to live as his kingdom? It’s what people who’ve been reborn by the Spirit do.
Matthew 7:21 (NIV)
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.
What others are saying
Matthew W. Bates, Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017), 213:
The gospel is the transformative story about the career of Jesus — namely, how he became Jesus the Christ, that is, Jesus the king, Lord of heaven and earth. … To respond to the gospel above all means to publicly acknowledge allegiance to Jesus the universal king.
John M.G. Barclay, Paul and the Gift (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015):
What distinguishes the sphere of gift is not that it is “unilateral,” but that it expresses a social bond, a mutual recognition of the value of the person. It is filled with sentiment because it invites a personal, enduring, and reciprocal relationship — an ethos very often signaled by the use of the term charis (grace).
Tim Chester and Steve Timmis, Gospel Centered Life: Becoming the Person God Wants You to Be electronic edition (Purcellville, VA: The Good Book Company, 2009):
If my life is primarily about me, then Christianity is substantially less than the inside-out, upside-down revolution that Christ died to achieve. Jesus promised that the truth would set us free. In breaking the hold of sin on our lives, He has done precisely that. Loving self is the cruellest of all slaveries: it promises everything and delivers nothing. Loving God and others is the most liberating of all freedoms: it promises everything and gives us more than we can ever imagine.