For some of you reading this blog, this might be the first time you’ve thought about some of these things. For some of you who’ve known me a long time, you might be surprised to hear me talking about the Kingdom of God so much. You might be wondering why I’ve seemingly become obsessed with the topic and why this blog is going in this direction. You can find much of what I’ll write here in greater detail in the series of posts entitled “Who Stole the Kingdom of God?”, but I want to recount my journey here in short form so my readers can understand where I’m coming from.
The Gospel I heard as a child was simple, and clear. We were all sinners, lost and separated from God. God is a holy God who demands that justice be served against those who committed crimes against his holiness. Jesus died to pay the price for my sin, and if I prayed to accept him as savior, I will go to Heaven when I die. From there, I was supposed to live a good life to please Jesus, but I could never lose my salvation. So, no matter how bad I was, I was always going to Heaven because I prayed the prayer. Maybe it was just my childlike understanding, but it was difficult, though not impossible, for me to make the jump to being a disciple of Jesus.
The first time I notice a problem with the sort of “gospel” presentation I was 16 years old. A girl started coming to our youth group, and she was presented with a gospel similar to the one I had received. She prayed a prayer to accept Christ as savior. It happened that she kind of liked me, and I kind of liked her, so we spent a little time together over the next couple of months. What became clear to me was that after praying the prayer of salvation, she was not particularly interested in Jesus or anything specifically Christian. Her decision was simply to go to Heaven, not to follow Jesus.
In college, I began to suspect that something was deeply wrong with the Christian world I inhabited. I went to a large university founded by a prominent fundamentalist leader who was constantly telling us the school’s mission was to train “Champions for Christ.” As far as I could tell, a Champion was someone who had prayed a prayer to get into Heaven when you die and/or to avoid going through the Great Tribulation (whichever comes first), preached the same message to others, was very patriotic (any criticism of the U.S. was selling out to liberalism), and accepted that America is God’s chosen nation founded as the Christian nation (Examining the facts of this claim in light of modern historical scholarship was anti-American historical revision). The Champion praised military service as just about the highest calling for the Christian (even though prior to WWII, it was common for conservative Christians to believe nonresistance was the best way to live out the teaching of Jesus). It seems that the Champion views modern Israel as never being in the wrong, even though it is a thoroughly secular nation with no mention of God in its constitution, and makes it a matter of policy that Jewish Christians can’t become citizens of the Jewish nation. It was also clear that we should vote Republican because scripture clearly teaches Capitalism with a dash of Libertarianism thrown in. The Champion believes all of these claims are clearly taught in scripture. Any deviation from this, and you’re probably a pinko commie liberal.
I recall the moment I began to sense that I was playing a part in a larger circus I didn’t fully understand. During a revival service, we took an imaginary elevator ride into Hell. We closed our eyes as we hypnotically envisioned the various tortures we were witnessing as our elevator descended lower and lower into the fiery depths. When it was over, there was a lot of crying, and dozens of students flocked forward to pray and be saved from the horrors of Hell. We had experienced pure emotional manipulation, and to be honest, this was probably the moment I become most cynical about evangelism. If this dog and pony show was what it took to get people to follow Jesus, then I wanted no part of it. Throw in a healthy dose of rule following that felt as if it was connected to your seriousness as a Christian, and I came away from college disenchanted with this version of Christianity.
However, I was never disenchanted with Jesus, because the Jesus I found in the Bible was better than the one I was seeing lived out around me. Not everything I experienced in those college days was bad. There were many good and sincere Christians whom I came to love and appreciate. There was a speaker we had during a chapel that profoundly affected me positively. I don’t remember his name, and I don’t remember exactly what he said. What I remember is whom he talked about. This man had a potter’s wheel and he talked about shaping pottery as he demonstrated for us on the wheel how to do it. Then he began talking about Jesus from the Gospels, and how Jesus was shaping his disciples. All the while he was working the wheel. He recounted stories to show us how Jesus was always working to help his disciples to follow him well. He wanted us to know that Jesus wanted to shape us too. There was no altar call. There were no tears, but at the end the students flocked forward to talk with this man who simply talked about Jesus. His was a Jesus we didn’t need to be manipulated into following. The elevator ride into Hell made me cynical, but the man with the potter’s wheel gave me hope.
As I entered seminary, this disenchantment and questioning sent me on a quest to find some answers. I wanted to understand how the Christianity of my childhood, and the Americanized expression of Christianity during my college years had developed. This was the first big question of my journey. I’ve since read several thousand pages covering the history of Christianity in America. I’ve learned that American Fundamentalism/Evangelicalism is built upon a series of reactions to various problems, and groups born in reaction to something always tend to overreact in their solutions. The Modernist/Fundamentalist battles of 100 years ago created a reaction which led to a division between “evangelism” (the Fundamentalist’s calling to get people ready for heaven with no regard to the hurts of life in this world) and “social justice” (the Modernist’s calling to reform society without the necessity of repentance and commitment to follow Christ as the resurrected King.). I grew up as a Fundamentalist. In the waning days of the movement being labeled a “fundamentalist” had become a bad thing so we didn’t use the title. We were “Bible Believing Christians.” Our church didn’t associate with churches whose doctrinal statements didn’t match ours. We were certain that we had all the right answers, and there was nothing we needed to learn from anyone else. However, I came to believe that none of this squared with the Jesus I was seeing in the four Gospels.
The study of my tradition opened up to me the subject of ethics and public morality. Fundamentalist pretty much have the personal morality bases covered while utterly ignoring our responsibility to speak to the issues of a just society. This has troubled me, and the second big question of my journey was the search for a foundation for a consistent Christian ethic. What are Christians supposed to do in society? Are we supposed to just pray the prayer of salvation and hang on until we die? What good is personal righteousness if it doesn’t effect where I am going when I die? I prayed the prayer; I’m secure. Is voting Republican and being a good American really the highest calling of the Christian? What does the presence of the American flag in our sanctuaries say about our focus and our loyalties? If praying the prayer and not having sex outside of marriage is all there is, then this is a shallow Christianity indeed. These were the questions I asked during the second leg of my journey, and it wasn’t until I began to study the Kingdom of God that the foundation of Christian ethics and mission in the world became clearer to me.
As I studied ethics, I found a recurring theme in the Christian authors I was reading. They all referenced the Kingdom of God. This caused me to asked the third big question of my journey. What is the Kingdom of God? What I found was a vision for how the world should be based on the promises and prophecies of God to the people of Israel and completed in Christ. The world is not as it should be, but God is moving history toward a specific end. There is a way the world will be when the Kingdom of God is fully established and King Jesus reigns. I’ve written of my discoveries and thoughts in other places, and I won’t repeat it here, but suffice it to say, I believe the Kingdom of God is very important to a proper understanding of the Christian life and mission.
In the Kingdom of God I found the foundation for ethics, mission, and purpose. This led me to the fourth big question of my journey. How do we connect this vision of the Kingdom to the good news (gospel) we proclaim to the world? Or more simply, what is the Gospel? As I expressed in the first post of the King Jesus series, it has become my conviction that the gospel of “Christ died for your sins so you can go to Heaven” is woefully inadequate. Pithy gospel presentations designed to convince people to make quick “decisions” for Christ are not explaining the gospel, and do not contain the message preached by Jesus and the disciples.
This blog really is an expression of my quest. Right now we’re focusing on the King Jesus Gospel because this is the next leg of my journey. I want to know how to talk about Jesus in a clear and honest way without compromising the truth of who He is. Maybe this is where you find yourself, and God will use it to help you think through these issues.