God’s kingdom and salvation

In my student days, I stood at the edge of the Grand Canyon. It’s embarrassing, but I remember saying, “That’s not a canyon; that’s a huge cliff.” I expected to see another cliff on the other side of the canyon. Eventually, somebody pointed it out: “See over there, 18 miles in the distance, that’s the other side.” I had totally failed to understand the scale of the canyon.

Salvation can be a bit like that. It’s so much more than we take in at first. For 500 years, we’ve stressed that it’s all of grace, nothing of human merit: by grace alone, by faith alone. We know it so well:

Ephesians 2:8–9 (NIV)
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast.

How does salvation relate to the kingdom? That’s an important question if we are to understand the gospel Jesus preached, i.e. the good news of the kingdom (Matthew 4:23; 9:35; 24:14; Mark 1:15; Luke 4:43; 8:1; 16:16).

The gospel of the kingdom is the good news of reconciliation between heaven and earth. It’s the amazing story God’s faithfulness, resolving the rebellion against his kingship. Grace and faith are indeed the keywords defining the two sides of that story:

  • Heaven takes the initiative to make peace. That’s grace.
  • Earth responds with allegiance to the king. That’s faith.

In more detail:

  • Heaven’s initiative (grace): God gave us the gift of his eternal Son who rescues us back into God’s sovereign care. The Son purified the earth from sin, i.e. from its rebellion against its true heavenly sovereign. The rebellion (sin) was overthrown when God raised up his anointed ruler (Christ) from death to kingship. The good news (gospel) is the proclamation, “He is Lord” (earth’s divinely appointed ruler).
  • Earth’s response (faith): Earth-dwellers are called to give their loyalty (trust) to King Jesus and live as he commands (under his Lordship). He calls us to cease doing violence against each other and against God, to love God and love people. He restores us to our human vocation as images of our heavenly king, so creation is the kingdom of God.

Grace is the amnesty offered by the king to his rebellious realm. Faith is the trust in his kingship that finds expression in love for God and people.

Without the kingdom story, grace and faith can seem insipid. Salvation can be presented as “Just raise your hand and accept the free gift, just between you can God” as if it makes no difference to your life or connection to others. With the kingdom framework, you are called to respond to the reconciling initiative of the king (grace) by giving him allegiance (faith).

A blog post can’t do justice to these majestic themes. For serious, fresh, quality scholarship on grace and faith respectively, read:

  • John Barclay, Paul and the Gift (Eerdmans, 2015)
  • Matthew Bates, Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King (Baker Academic, 2017)

Or, read the Bible as the kingdom story. When we treat God badly (the rebellion of Genesis 3), we treat each other badly too (the murder of Genesis 4). When we give God his rightful place (love God), we do right to each other as well (love people). Doing justly and loving mercy are connected to walking humbly with our divine sovereign (Micah 6:8).

The kingdom of God is acknowledging God as king, and so living with others as his kingdom. The one who lives in heaven is king, and the ones who live on earth are his kingdom. Salvation does not disconnect those two things; it reconnects them. Through the divine initiative, earth is restored where it belongs — under heaven’s authority.

Galatians 6:7–10 (NLT)
Don’t be misled — you cannot mock the justice of God. You will always harvest what you plant. Those who live only to satisfy their own sinful nature will harvest decay and death from that sinful nature. But those who live to please the Spirit will harvest everlasting life from the Spirit. So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up. 10 Therefore, whenever we have the opportunity, we should do good to everyone—especially to those in the family of faith.

Salvation is God rescuing us from the kingdom of darkness, into the kingdom of his Son.

What others are saying

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).

Matthew W. Bates, Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King (Baker Academic, 2017) 99:

The context in which this passage is situated pertains specifically to entering true life (“enter through the narrow gate!” — 7:13), a warning against false prophets (“by their fruit you will recognize them!” — 7:16), and the necessity of putting Jesus’s words into practice (“everyone who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock” — 7:24). So the point in context is that even those who have confessed Jesus as Lord and who claim (on the basis of their own questionable testimony) to have performed good works in Jesus’s name may not have truly enacted fidelity to Jesus as Lord. Notice Jesus calls them “workers of lawlessness,” meaning their wicked practices are at issue. Professed allegiance is not sufficient; the allegiance must be realized by genuine, albeit not perfect, obedience.

Christopher Wright: How to Preach and Teach the Old Testament for All Its Worth (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016):

Put it another way round. What was the problem that God solved through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ? Some people talk (and preach, and teach, and sing songs) as if the only problem is “me and my sin.” That is a problem, of course. Without Christ I stand condemned as a sinner with no hope and no eternal future with God. Because of Christ and his death in my place, I can indeed know that God forgives me and that I can be sure of eternal salvation. Good news! I believe it! But if that is the only way we think and speak about the gospel, we make it entirely self-centred. It’s all about me, my sin, and my salvation. But that is making the gospel far narrower than the Bible itself. And it is surely strange and wrong to be self-centred in thinking about the gospel, which is God’s great plan for the whole of creation.

[previous: God’s kingdom and the church]

[next: The good shepherd]

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview College Dean
View all posts by Allen Browne

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