Don’t Pit Atonement against Kingdom

Don’t Pit Atonement against Kingdom

A talk by Jeremy Treat

Transcript

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Jeremy Treat: I’m honored to be able to be here today and to talk about something that I am very passionate about. And that I think is incredibly important for the church today. And that is “The Atonement And The Kingdom, Why We Must Preach Both.” I’ll never forget the piercing voice of the preacher when he asked the question, “What’s the number one thing Jesus talked about in his life?” He said it in that classic “you should know this” tone. And lucky for me, I was sure that I did know the answer. After all, I had grown up in the church hearing every week about what was central to all of Christianity, the Cross of Christ.

As the preacher allowed a few seconds of silence to let the guilt build up for those who didn’t know the answer, I smirked and prepared to melt the words along with him. The number one thing Jesus talked about was… and then he said something that nearly knocked me off my pew, the kingdom of God. What? The kingdom of God? What about the cross? And at that moment it was as if conviction walked into the room and slapped me in the face. And then its friend, crisis, came and sat next to me for an extended talk.

How could the kingdom be the thing that Jesus talked about the most and yet it had no place in my theology, in my church life, or in my perception of what it means to be a Christian. That day was the beginning of a journey for me in seeking to understand why two of the most important themes in Scripture, the kingdom and the cross, have been torn asunder in much of Christian belief and practice.

And as I began looking for answers, I quickly discovered that many Christians were either in a cross crowd or a kingdom crowd. It was as if kingdom and cross were in competition with one another vying for position. I experienced this tension in my own heart, I saw it throughout the church. And when I turned to academia for answers, unfortunately, I found much of the same. I read tomes on the kingdom of God that never even acknowledged the cross. And volume after volume on the cross that completely left out the theme of the kingdom of God. And so being stumped on the question myself, I sort out one of my theological heroes Kevin Vanhoozer, surely he would have an answer.

And when I asked Dr. Vanhoozer rather than giving me an answer, Vanhoozer said, “It sounded like a great dissertation topic.” So I spent every day for the next three years at Wheaton College trying to answer the question, what is the relationship between the kingdom and the cross? And the fruit of that research came out in a book that I wrote called “The Crucified King.” And rather than trying to repeat what I wrote there, I’m gonna briefly review my arguments, and then press into new territory by applying the relationship between the kingdom and the cross practically to the church today.

But before we get to the solution and application, we have to go deeper in understanding the problem. And I would summarize it like this, kingdom versus cross. See, many Christians either cling to the cross or champion the kingdom, usually one to the exclusion of the other. And the polarization of these two biblical themes often leads to two divergent approaches. Cross-centered theology that focuses on the salvation of sinners or kingdom-minded activism that seeks to change the world.

I’ve experienced that divide, I’m sure you have as well, but here’s the question. Why does this rift between kingdom and cross exist? Well, N.T. Wright, not surprisingly, puts the blame on the Reformers in the early church. It was platonizing Jesus and misreading Paul that led to this. I respectfully disagree. When I read Athanasius and Arsenius in the early church, or Luther, or Calvin from the reformation, I see a rich tapestry weaving together the reign of God and the atoning work of Christ.

Let me give you just a few examples of this from the early years of the church and in the Reformation. There’s a first-century document known as the Epistle of Barnabas, it says this, “The kingdom of Jesus is based on the wooden cross.” Pretty straightforward. In the 4th century, Augustine said this, “The Lord has established his sovereignty from a tree, who is it who fights with wood? Christ, from his cross, he has conquered kings.”

And then Martin Luther in the 16th century chastised those who “cannot harmonize the two ideas that Christ should be the King of Kings, and that he should also suffer and be executed.” So I would contend that the divide between the kingdom and the cross is more of a modern problem. And in my book, I work through six reasons for this divide, many of which are upstream in scholarship. Things like the ugly ditch between biblical and systematic theology, and the fact that kingdom usually falls in biblical studies and atonement in systematic theology.

But I think that the way this is played out in the church is largely the result of reactionary debates around the social gospel movement of the early 20th century. Walter Rauschenberg drawing from the 19th-century German liberalism advocated the kingdom of God to the exclusion of substitutionary atonement. It’s not just that they neglected the gospel of what God has done through Christ’s death and resurrection. They redefined the gospel to be a message about what we do in making the world a better place.

H. Richard Niebuhr’s assessment of this theology is fitting. “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.” But while the social gospel movement certainly overshadowed the cross, the conservative response often led to eclipsing the kingdom. In an attempt to defend the atoning work of Christ on the cross, conservatives either ignored the kingdom altogether or relegated it only to end times. This type of reaction set into play the defining feature of this discussion, pendulum swinging reductionism where kingdom and cross became distant with each heated exchange.

It was these polemics that led us to where we are today. And still, in many ways define the contours of the conversation. So we’re left with a choice between either a kingdom without a cross or a cross without a kingdom. A false dichotomy that truncates the gospel and cripples the church and this is a tragedy. And the fact that two of the primary themes in Scripture have been torn apart and often turn against one another poses an enormous problem. We need a better way forward than kingdom versus cross.

And it’s not enough to merely propose kingdom and the cross as a solution as if these were two competing values that just needed to be held in tension. We don’t need balance, we need integration and that’s exactly what we find in Scripture, as an unfolding narrative that weaves together atonement and kingdom like a garment fit for a crucified king. So it’s not kingdom versus cross or even kingdom and cross, it’s kingdom through cross. So let’s see how this unfolds in Scripture and then we’ll apply it to following Jesus today.

The kingdom and the cross are ultimately held together by the Christ, the one who reigns over the kingdom and suffers on the cross. But Jesus is no generic superhero, he’s the Messiah, the promised one of the biblical story of a gracious God who has covenanted Israel to restore his broken creation. This grand story of redemption provides the proper framework for understanding the connection between the kingdom and the cross.

And the story begins, of course in a garden, and although the phrase kingdom of God does not come until later, the concept of the kingdom of God has its roots in the soil of Eden. Genesis 1 and 2 portrays God as a loving King who rules over his good creation through his image-bearing people. Contrary to popular opinion though, Adam and Eve were not placed in the garden for an eternal vacation. Far from sleeping in and frolicking in the garden, Adam and Eve were given a task to care for the garden and to extend the blessings that come from the reign of God in Eden throughout the entire world. In other words, the garden kingdom was meant to become a global kingdom.

In this vision, God’s rule over all the earth through his people was the original aim of the kingdom of God. So for the record, that’s how I would define the kingdom. It’s God’s rule through God’s people over God’s creation. It’s a vision of the universe reordered around the powerful love of God in Christ. But Adam and Eve, rather than ruling over the earth, submit to the rule of one of its craftiest creatures, the serpent, thereby fracturing the covenant relationship with God and collapsing the project aimed at God’s reign over all the earth.

Rather than going forth from Eden to expand the blessings of God’s real presence, they are banished from the garden to a wandering existence that instead spreads the curse. But from the cursed dirt of Genesis 3, redemptive history sprouts forth with the promise of the seed of a woman who will crush the head of the serpent, while suffering a bruised heel in the process. The victory of the seed will reverse the curse, reconcile sinners to God, and realize God’s original purpose of establishing his reign over all the earth.

In other words, God does not abandon his kingdom project, but he reveals a different route to this goal. And Genesis 3:15 provides the key. “For the promise of victory now includes the price of suffering.” And so from this point on a pattern emerges in the story of Adam and Israel, where victory comes through suffering, exaltation through humiliation, and ultimately the kingdom through the cross.

The story unfolds in the Old Testament as God administers his kingdom through a series of covenants and foreshadows its realization by saving his people and judging his enemies time and time again. God promises to bless the world through Abraham and ensures his loyal faithfulness with a covenant sealed by sacrifice. In the Exodus, God redeemed his people from slavery and for his kingdom, and at the heart of this redemption as a sacrificial lamb.

David overcomes an evil giant through humble means, and his royalty is characterized by righteous suffering. The prophet Isaiah explicitly reveals how the victory of the kingdom hinges on the suffering of the servant. The New Testament presents the startling paradox of Jesus proclaiming the kingdom of God through his life and then dying a criminal’s death on the cross. So did Jesus’ Kingdom mission fail at the cross? Was the cross an obstacle that needed to be overcome to bring the kingdom? Well, in John’s account of the life of Christ, everything moves towards the climactic hour when Jesus, being lifted up on the cross, is truly being enthroned in glory.

The cross becomes not only the center of redemptive history but also the fulcrum upon which the logic of the world is turned upside down. Shame is transformed into glory, foolishness into wisdom and humiliation into exaltation. The cross becomes the throne from which Christ rules the world.
According to the apostle Paul Christ dethrones Satan through the cross and thereby establishes God’s kingdom. Think of Colossians 1 where it declares that “We are transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of the beloved Son.”

And then Colossians 2 where we’re told that this happened by Christ disarming the rulers by paying the penalty for our sin. The big picture of the kingdom and the cross can be seen succinctly in Hebrews chapter 2:10-5 where it presents Jesus as a last Adam who has restored God’s royal design for creation, and who regained the crown of glory and honor for humanity through his death on the cross. And then Revelation explicitly says that King Jesus quote, “Has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom.” That’s Revelation 1:5-6.

So to summarize, from the bruised heel of Genesis 3:15 to the reigning Lamb of Revelation 22, the Bible is a redemptive story of a crucified Messiah who brings the kingdom through his atoning death on the cross. So how then can we summarize the relationship between the kingdom and the cross? While many Christians emphasize the kingdom or the cross, Scripture presents a mutually enriching relationship between the two that draws from the story of Israel and culminates in the crucifixion of Christ the King.

The story of redemption reveals that the promises of the kingdom like forgiveness, victory, and freedom, find their fulfillment primarily in the cross of Christ. Furthermore, kingdom and cross need not vie for position in the story of redemption because they play different roles. The cross is central, the climactic midpoint of the story and the kingdom is telic, it’s the end goal of history and eternity. The kingdom is the ultimate goal of the cross, and the cross is the means by which the kingdom comes.

So Jesus’ death is neither the failure of his Messianic ministry, nor simply the prelude to his royal glory, but the apex of his kingdom mission. The shocking paradox of God’s reign through Christ crucified certainly appears foolish to fallen human logic but perceived through faith, it’s the very power and wisdom of God. So in short, the kingdom and the cross are held together by the Christ, Israel’s Messiah, who brings God’s reign on earth through his atoning death on the cross.

Now I wanna make clear at this point that my focus on the cross does not diminish the importance of the life or resurrection of Jesus. Well, I believe the cross is the decisive moment in Christ’s saving work, it is not the only significant moment. God’s kingdom was present in Jesus’s life, proclaimed in his preaching, displayed in his miracles and exorcisms, established by his death, inaugurated through the resurrection. It’s being advanced by the Holy Spirit through the church, and it will be consummated in Christ’s return.

All of those moments matter and shape our understanding of the kingdom of God. My focus here is on the crucifixion of Christ in the story of the kingdom. And as we’ve seen, the cross creates a community of ransomed people living under the reign of God.

Okay, now that we’ve seen how kingdom and cross are woven together in the fabric of Scripture, we can ask the question, how does this affect our lives today? But I don’t wanna just try to answer this question in general as if I were speaking for all Christians in all places. All theology is contextual so I think it’s important for me to share a bit about my context, which has certainly shaped the application of my theology. As I said earlier, I worked out a lot of this theology that I just shared with you while I was writing my dissertation living in Chicago and studying at Wheaton College.

But six years ago, I finished up there at Wheaton, and my family and I moved to Los Angeles where I would become the pastor for preaching and vision at a church called Reality LA. Now let’s just say that moving from Wheaton to Hollywood was a bit of a cultural change. I’ll never forget driving into our office, our church office the first week that we got there and being surprised, shocked of seeing a large amount of big strong African-American men wearing dresses walking on the sidewalk. And I was so confused by it until I learned our office was right at the hub of what is the transgender prostitution… Everything involved in that in Los Angeles happens right around there.

It was a culture shock for sure right at the beginning. The place where my family lives now, like most of Los Angeles, there’s people who are experiencing homelessness all over. And my kids know the names of all the people who live on the streets around us by name, and we pray for them regularly. That shapes the culture that we’re in, the way that we do family, the way that we do ministry, the way that we do life.

The religious climate in Los Angeles is different than I expected. I think it’s important that we acknowledge this at a conference that’s geared towards the west coast that we talk about our specific context. See, I’ve been reading a lot of Charles Taylor and learning about secularism and all of this. But having lived in Los Angeles for a while, I think that LA is very different than a lot of major urban centers that other people study. So take New York, for example, or even London that are often considered very secular, post-Christian, and in many ways they are, that’s how many people would self identify who live in those cities.

But I would say Los Angeles is almost the polar opposite, that it is hyper-spiritual, it’s a religious melting pot. I mean just where my family lives in a
neighborhood called Los Felis, we have… which is right outside of the core of Hollywood, we have 16 different houses of worship within a mile or two of where we live. And I don’t know if any of those are preaching the good news of Jesus Christ. You have world religions, you have combinations of world religions, you have cults, you have all of that.

Where our church building is, where we call the Hope Center, if you go a block north of that, there’s the Church of Self Realization. You go a block to the east, there’s the Church of Scientology, you go a little bit west, there’s the Russian Orthodox Church. You go across the street to the south, there’s a psychic shop right there. And that reflects the culture and that’s in a neighborhood where over two-thirds of the residents were born in another country than the United States. And so they’ve brought religions from all different places, and you really have a melting pot of those together. Now, that’s a little bit about my context.

But here’s my heart, I’m a pastor, I’m a pastor who loves the Lord and wants to shepherd his flock faithfully. And as a pastor, I believe that all theology ultimately serves the purpose of glorifying God and edifying the church. And while I believe that based on conviction, an ecclesial context forces theology to be applied in practice. And so, most of the people in my church aren’t asking the question, how does penal substitutionary atonement relate to Christus Victor? They’re not asking, how does God or most hermeneutics shape my eschatology?

No, they wanna know how God’s sovereignty can speak to their suffering. They wanna know whether change is possible and if hope is real. And I think that the way we understand the kingdom and the cross is integral to answering those very questions. Christ’s people need a master narrative, a story that answers the big questions of life, and a lens through which to see the world. And this is exactly what the Scriptures give us in what I would call the cross-shaped kingdom.

That’s the framework that I wanna work with. Because in as much as God’s kingdom is founded and forever shaped by the cross of Christ, it truly is a cruciform kingdom. The resurrected Jesus still bears the scars of the cross and rules from the throne as the Lamb who was slain. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “A king who dies on the cross must be the king of a rather strange kingdom.” A strange kingdom indeed, for while the kingdoms of this world are built by force, the kingdom of God is founded on grace. The kingdom is different than you would expect and yet greater than you could imagine.

So how does this vision of a cross-shaped kingdom shape life and ministry? Well, honestly, for me, it colors all of it. It affects the way I preach, the way I pray, and the way I shepherd people, it affects everything. But I wanna focus on three primary and practical areas where I think this plays out. I wanna show how the message of a cross-shaped kingdom transforms the way we think of the gospel, discipleship, and justice in the church today.

So let’s begin with that which is of first importance, the gospel. The relationship between the kingdom and the cross helps us make sense of the ever debated question of what is the gospel? Is the gospel the good news of Christ death and resurrection, as the Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15? Or is that the good news of the kingdom as Jesus proclaimed throughout his ministry? Well, we, obviously, don’t need to choose between Jesus and Paul, because they’re both showing different aspects of the one glorious gospel of grace.

The kingdom is the eschatological goal of redemptive history and the cross is the glorious means and eternal foundation for that kingdom. So there is one simple and yet multi-faceted gospel, it’s the good news of Jesus, that through his life, death, and resurrection, sinners are reconciled to God and God’s kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven. And we’ve gotta remember how counterintuitive this gospel is. You would have never thought this up if you were trying to make up a religion. I mean most kings would destroy those who rebel against them.

But God our King takes rebels and makes them sons and daughters giving us a place at his table in the kingdom. This is shocking that the king reigns with love, that he lays down his life for his servants, that he accomplishes victory through surrender. The essential message of the kingdom of God is one of jaw-dropping grace. It’s not good advice about what you need to do to clean up your act, or win God’s approval or change the world, it’s good news about what God has done for us in Christ.

The kingdom of God is not the culmination of human potential and effort, but the intervention of God’s royal grace into a sinful and broken world. And the minute that you turn the kingdom into a human effort project, you lose its very nature. It’s the kingdom of God. It’s a kingdom of grace. As Lesslie Newbigin said, when the message of the kingdom is divorced from the person of Jesus, it becomes a program or ideology, but not the gospel.

So the kingdom-cross interplay helps us to understand the very nature of what the gospel is. But it also helps us understand what the gospel does. And this is where I think the kingdom of God can shed a lot of light on our understanding of the gospel, especially for a more theologically conservative crowd. Most of us know the importance of the cross for salvation. But do we also have a view of salvation that’s shaped by the kingdom of God?

Here’s what I mean. Far too many Christians only focus on what we’re saved from, we’re saved from sin, we’re saved from guilt, we’re saved from shame. And yes, this is glorious, but the kingdom reminds us not only what we’re saved from but what we’re saved for. We’re saved from the kingdom of darkness and for the kingdom of light. We’re saved from sin and for following our Savior, we’re saved from death and for life. We’re saved from guilt, shame, and defeat, and for forgiveness and freedom and victory.

To be saved into the kingdom of God is to have God’s comprehensive rule over every aspect of life. This is a far cry from simply asking Jesus into your heart. It means a new life, a new identity, a new allegiance to Christ the King. A kingdom-less gospel can easily slip into an individual hyper-spiritual escape from the world. This is the Gnostic Christianity that allows people to relegate Jesus to the spiritual compartment of their lives, while they’re otherwise no different from the world.

And isn’t this what people so often do and what we so often do? That here’s my finance component, and here’s for my emotions, and here’s my relationships, and here’s my hobbies. And then Jesus gets this little spiritual religious component right over here, and I get to pull him out when I need him. I get to appeal to him when that authority help for me. But when we look to Jesus like this, we’re not looking to him as a king, but as a puppet to serve our purposes, to prop us up to work for our glory.

But the kingdom of God provides a comprehensive perspective for how the gospel comes to bear on all of life. God’s reign begins in the human heart, but it doesn’t end there. One day we’ll extend to the ends of the earth, and until that day, Jesus calls us to bring every aspect of our lives into submission to his gracious reign. We need the story of the kingdom so that we don’t slip into rationalist propositions. We need the community of the kingdom so we don’t resort to American individualism. We need the scope of the kingdom, so we don’t end up with a gnostic anti-material spirituality.

The early church father Arsenius put it well when he said this, “The Son of God was procuring for us a comprehensive salvation that we might recover in Christ Jesus what in Adam we had lost.” And this all-encompassing reign of Christ means that we must bring the gospel to bear on every aspect of life, not just spirituality and church. But work, play, rest, food, sexuality, money, politics, race and on and on and on.

Makes me think of a woman in our church who recently became a Christian. She literally had heard about our church because she was mocking one of her friends for being a Christian when he had talked about his church. And that’s how she remembered the name by mocking it, but when she hit a point of desperation in her life and didn’t know where to go, she remembered the name of the church.

So she showed up on a Sunday by herself, she heard the good news of Jesus Christ proclaimed for the first time, she trusted in Christ, was transformed on the spot from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light. The Lord completely changed her life, and she had no Christian background before. In fact, she was coming out of an explicitly cultic and demonic life. But not in the way that you would guess like someone that you would look at and expect that. No, she looked like a typical successful woman who lives in Los Angeles. But she really had this background that when she heard the gospel, it wasn’t coming on a blank slate. She needed to be reformed throughout every aspect of her being, as does everyone else.

But our context forces us to see how the kingdom of God brings that comprehensive perspective. Because she’s asking how does the gospel speak to the spiritual oppression that I’m feeling based on my past? How does the gospel apply to my job that makes me feel morally compromised? How does the gospel impact my past trauma? These are good questions. And she doesn’t just need rules, she needs the never-ending fountain of the good news of a sacrificial King.

She needs the news that reminds her that she’s cleansed, that she’s made new, that she’s made whole. But she also needs good news that her Savior is a King, one that defends her, that protects her, that guarantees victory. She needs a comprehensive framework for her life that makes sense of her suffering and gives hope for the future. She needs the framework of the cross-shaped king and the gospel it’s founded on.

Now that very same gospel creates disciples, which leads to the second application of the cross-shaped kingdom: discipleship. Now think about it like this, the Gospel of Mark tells us that Jesus begins his ministry with these powerful words, “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the gospel.” Those are the first words to come out of Jesus’ mouth in his public ministry. So it’s clear that the kingdom of God is the primary message of Christ. But what’s the next verse that Mark tells us? Well, in verses 16 and 17, if you read on in Mark 1, “Immediately after proclaiming the kingdom, Jesus calls his first disciples saying, ‘Follow me.'”

This is the call of Christ. His call is not to give religion or say the sinner’s prayer to accept Jesus into your heart. The call is to be a disciple, and to be a disciple means to be with Jesus, to learn from Jesus, and to become like Jesus. Christ is not looking for fans, he’s looking for followers. It’s not just about making a decision for Christ, but being a disciple of Christ. And so when you read in your English Bibles, Mark 1, in between the proclamation of the kingdom, and the call to discipleship, there’s a paragraph division with lots of white space and headings that separate these two passages.

So it might be easy to think of kingdom and discipleship as being disconnected topics, but they’re not in the text and they weren’t in the ministry of Jesus. To follow Christ as King is to live in light of his kingdom. Discipleship comes in the context of the kingdom. And yet in the book of Mark, Jesus’ kingdom mission is also the road to the cross. And what’s true for Christ is true for his followers. The way of the kingdom is the way of the cross. That’s why just after Jesus reveals his identity as the messianic King who would lay down his life as a servant, he says this to His disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

That means that we follow the King by taking up our crosses. God grows his kingdom through the sacrificial love of his people. And just as God established his kingdom through the humble means of Christ’s cross, so does he advance his kingdom through Christians who have been united to the resurrected Christ, and who by the power of his Spirit are being conformed to the cross. We do not build the kingdom for God, we receive it from God. And our calling is to witness to the kingdom of God, and we do so by taking up our crosses. For Jesus and his followers, greatness in the kingdom is characterized by service and sacrifice.

Here’s the thing, if you don’t recognize that Jesus’ call to discipleship comes in the context of his kingdom mission, then it’s easy to reduce discipleship to being an individualistic obsession with my personal holiness. And isn’t that what we often do with discipleship. It’s about my faith, and my purity, and my curriculum, and finding my mentor and it’s all about me. But no, it’s not ultimately about us. It’s about following Jesus and living in light of his gracious reign for his beautiful glory.

And think about the implications of this for the church. Jesus makes this epic proclamation of the kingdom of God, this is the moment that everyone’s been waiting for, he’s gonna rule over creation. And then after this bold cosmic statement about the kingdom of God, you would expect drastic action, right? Like maybe go to the emperor in Rome, rally the troops, find the brightest and most powerful people. No, Jesus goes to a small town and finds some uneducated fishermen by the sea to build his church. Why? Because although the Lord is at work in various ways throughout the world, his primary instrument for realizing his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven is the church.

And some people think that emphasizing the kingdom might downplay the place of the church. But I think it’s the opposite because the church is meant to be a foretaste of the eternal kingdom. Not only giving a taste of God’s grace today but giving hope for the eternal kingdom in the future. And the kingdom context reminds us of the battle that we are in as a church. And I think the people of the church need to understand this today.

Because far too often people think of the church like a cruise ship. You ever been on a cruise ship? If you’ve been on a cruise, you know that there are basically two groups of people. There’s a small group of people who do all the work, right, they cook the food, they make the beds, they perform the shows, small group of people that do all the work. And then there’s a large group of people who are along for the ride. They sit around, they get served, they critique the performance of the paid professionals.

Well, a lot of people think that the church is like a cruise ship that there’s a small group of people who do all of the work. Maybe that’s the church staff, maybe it’s the pastors, maybe it’s whatever people think are the super Christians in the church. And then everyone else is along for the ride to critique the sermon, to talk about how the worship experience could be a little bit this or a little bit that. And they think the church is like a cruise ship.

But the church is not like a cruise ship, the church is more like a battleship. See the difference with a battleship is everyone on the ship has a job, everyone’s got a role. And the reason that is is because they know they’re in a battle, where they have been given a mission by their king. So the church is meant to be a battleship where everyone is pouring in, everyone is investing, everyone is playing their role, knowing that we have an enemy, but then we have a great king.

And yet we learned from this cruciform kingdom that we fight in a surprising way that our battle is not against flesh and blood. And so this dynamic of following the king by taking up our crosses, it makes sense of life. It gives us a framework for the joy and the pain, for victories and losses, the hurt and the hope. The kingdom has already come but it has not yet been fully realized. And in between the resurrection of Christ and the return of Christ, the kingdom is hidden beneath the humility and service of the cross.

This also allows followers of Jesus, to avoid the triumphalism that can come with proclaiming God’s present reign alone. And it can avoid the despair that can come with only looking to Christ’s future reign. In the cross-shaped kingdom, we can expect struggle, but ultimately know that victory belongs to the Lord.

There’s a woman in our church who almost the minute she became a Christian her life became filled with almost unbearable suffering. She was diagnosed with a chronic disease that has kept her in and out of the hospital, and rarely able to even gather with the body of Christ on Sundays. And yet when I look at her life, I see God’s kingdom breaking in through her faith and perseverance. She knows and displays that God’s power is made perfect in weakness. She knows that the glory of the king is somehow shining through her patient and faithful suffering. The kingdom is truly advancing through her trust and endurance, but it’s hidden to this world beneath the suffering of the cross.

So the cross-shaped kingdom gives a more robust understanding of the gospel and of discipleship. And then lastly, of justice. Now everybody longs for justice today. In our contemporary society, we no longer accept the Santa Claus God who shows up from time to time with gifts but doesn’t address the real stuff of life. The injustice of the world is too much to ignore, especially when it’s constantly in front of our faces through the 24-hour news cycle, and always in our pockets via the digital world that we call our phones.

In a world marred with pain, there’s no place for churches that seek only to be positive and encouraging while ignoring the suffering around us. We want a God who cares when the weak are oppressed and is willing to do something about it. And that’s exactly what we find when we open the scriptures. The God of the Bible is no sentimental deity, dispensing religious fairy dust to keep us in a good mood. The Lord is a King whose righteous character compels him to defend that which he loves.

The cross-shaped kingdom gives us the framework for pursuing justice in a world of injustice. Ironically, the kingdom crowd and the cross crowd both appeal to justice, but in different ways. The kingdom crowd is all about social justice, but ironically, they don’t like to talk about the judgment of God. The cross crowd often loves to talk about the justice of God being satisfied through the cross but doesn’t extend the same passion to justice for victims.

But the cross-shaped kingdom gives a more holistic understanding of justice. When that begins with the God of justice, is centered on the cross where we see the greatest display of justice, and then extends to our daily lives, as we seek justice as citizens of the kingdom and peacemakers on earth. In a more technical sense, we need retributive justice and restorative justice.

But let’s be clear, the coming of the kingdom of God is not good news for us, if God is only just, it’s good news because the King is just and he’s merciful. And there’s a tension that builds throughout the Old Testament that is satisfied at the cross where the mercy and justice of God meet. That’s where Christ our King bears the penalty of the rebels, where the judge takes the place of the condemned, and where we are ransomed into the kingdom.

And this gospel that reveals the justice of God, also makes us a just people. But sadly, among Christians today, there’s a divide between those who champion the gospel and those who fight for justice. Some Christians are passionate about social issues such as racism, mass incarceration, and poverty, but their emphasis on social action can lead to an eclipse of the gospel. Others are so focused on the good news of grace that they ignore the clear call of Scripture to do justice.

How should we respond to this dichotomy between the gospel and social justice? Well at the most basic level, we have to resist reactionary dichotomies and uphold proclaiming the gospel and seeking justice, because both are clearly biblical mandates. Upholding these truths, however, doesn’t require a balancing act, but a proper relationship. In short, the gospel creates a people who seek mercy and justice. Why? Because the gospel gives us eyes to see others the way that God does and gives us new hearts that motivate us to be involved in the work of justice that God is doing.

The Gospel gets to the heart, drawing us to God and into God’s mission. And the more we understand the gospel, the more we are drawn into Christ’s heart for the oppressed and hurting. The interconnectedness of the gospel and justice, although often missed today, has been upheld throughout the history of the church. And building on the reformers and Jonathan Edwards, Tim Keller says this, “If a person has grasped the meaning of God’s grace in his heart, he will do justice. If he doesn’t live justly, then he may say with his lips that he is grateful for God’s grace, but in his heart, he is far from him. If he doesn’t care about the poor, it reveals that at best, he doesn’t understand the grace he has experienced and at worst, he has not really encountered the saving mercy of God. Grace should make you just.”

Throughout Scripture, we see that a true encounter with the grace of God leads to a sacrificial heart for the marginalized and oppressed. Doing justice is not the reason you receive grace, but it most certainly will be a result of receiving grace. Faith produces works. To put it differently, the good news that we are justified by grace becomes the motivation for seeking justice for the oppressed. Seeking justice doesn’t replace the gospel, but it should flow from a heart that is transformed by the gospel. The proclamation of good news must be accompanied with the demonstration of mercy and justice.

At our church we’ve seen this as we proclaim the gospel, it’s created a culture that makes us want to care more for the oppressed and the hurting. So, for example, I think one of the most beautiful ways to understand the good news of Jesus is through this biblical picture of adoption. And adoption is so rich as a metaphor, it’s legal, it’s personal, it’s social, you have all of these aspects. And we’re made sons and daughters of the King purchased by the blood of Christ.

But as we’ve preached the good news and talked about how God adopts us into his family, it’s created a longing in the people in our church to adopt. And so we’ve seen a beautiful movement of those getting involved in foster care and adoption. And although this comes from preaching the gospel, it has inevitably social implications because it’s all connected. I mean, just think about this, half of the children who age out of the foster care system end up homeless, half. And within 48 hours of going straight from the foster care system to the streets, within 48 hours, most of them will be approached by sex trafficker. 90% of them will end up incarcerated.

So when you think of foster care, and homelessness, and mass incarceration, they’re all connected. And yet, it’s the good news of Jesus that propels us to get involved in that. We’ve seen this in feeding the Word of God, living bread to the people, but gives us a heart for seeing people’s hunger physically and spiritually. And so we serve the homeless, and we feed the homeless in a way that tries to show God’s love holistically for them for their soul and their body. We see the gospel propelling us to love more and more holistically.

Now let’s take this idea of seeking justice and apply it to one area, in particular, racial justice. While the church is meant to be a part of God’s answer to racism in the world, it has often contributed to the problem instead. The old adage that Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America sadly remains true. One study showed that while 86% of Protestant churches in the United States are made up of one predominant racial group, only 33% of American church-goers believe that their church needs to do more in pursuing racial diversity.

Jerusalem, we have a problem. And there’s much that could be said here. There’s so much that we need to say, and need to learn about the church moving towards racial justice experiencing the calling of the Lord to embody the multi-ethnic kingdom that we are. But I wanna focus on the role of the kingdom and the cross in this because we need the kingdom and the cross to truly understand and experience God’s vision for race.

Think about it, the kingdom is these multi-ethnic people united under the kingship of Christ, but our sin ends up taking differences and uses them as opportunities for division. We build walls. And so while the kingdom gives the vision of a multi-ethnic people, it’s the cross that has the reconciling power to bring us together. As Ephesians 2 declares “Christ tears down the dividing wall of hostility through his death on the cross, and makes us one people, brothers and sisters in the family of God.”

And Revelation chapter 5 brings this all together in the most beautiful way showing how the cross-shaped kingdom is the only way to bring about the unity of God’s diverse people. And listen to what this says about race, and how it involves the kingdom and the cross. This is Revelation 5:9-10. “You were slain and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. And you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God.”

This is the vision of the eternal kingdom of God. And as the church keeps its eyes fixed on Jesus, we have an opportunity to reflect the manifold beauty of God, and the unifying power of his grace. The gospel is the ultimate answer to racism, but the implications of the gospel must develop and address personal, social, and political dimensions as well. Because the Bible teaches that everyone is made in the image of God, and therefore worthy of dignity, value, and respect, whether they believe the gospel or not.

So the church has a two-fold calling. First the church as a multi-ethnic people united in Christ is called to model the reconciling power of the gospel to a world longing for genuine community. And second, the church, as disciples sent out by Jesus, are called to be peacemakers and ambassadors of reconciliation in a world that is racially divided.

I’ll conclude with this, while the title on Christ’s cross, “the King of the Jews,” makes explicit the connection between the kingdom and the cross, perhaps the crown of thorns provide the best image for explaining how they relate. The thorns which were a sign of the curse and defeat of Adam, truly symbolize the paradoxical synthesis of Christ’s sovereign rule and his sin-bearing sacrifice. The twisted thorns picture how atonement and kingdom are interwoven throughout the grand story of redemption as the goal of history and the means by which it is achieved. The kingdom comes in power, but the power of the gospel is Christ crucified.

Let me close in prayer. God, we praise you as a mighty King, but we come before you in awe and wonder that you express your sovereignty by serving. That you reveal your majesty in meekness, and that you show your power in love. And so, Lord, we praise you for this first and foremost. But, God, we pray that in seeing Christ a crucified King, that it would shape us as a people, who take up our cross and follow the King, who live in this cross-shaped kingdom and witness to a better King and a better kingdom. We pray this in the name of Jesus. Amen.

“Many Christians either cling to the cross or champion the kingdom, usually one to the exclusion of the other. And the polarization of these two biblical themes often leads to two divergent approaches: cross-centered theology that focuses on the salvation of sinners, or kingdom-minded activism that seeks to change the world.” — Jeremy Treat

Date:  October 17, 2018

Event: TGC West Coast Conference, Los Angeles, California

Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition podcast.

Find more audio and video from the 2018 West Coast Conference on the conference media page.

Mentioned in this podcast: The Crucified King: Atonement and Kingdom in Biblical and Systematic Theology

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