Monday, June 6, 2011

Keeping our focus

When my studies and meditations were steeped deeply in the reformed traditions one of the main things I gleaned was an appreciation for the need to be born again in order to be justified by faith. Recently I have been broadening my horizons and really putting my skills of discernment to the test. As I read a more broad collection of works there seems to be some sort of tension between the need to preach the gospel of regenerate (born again) hearts that are justified (declared innocent and righteous) by faith (belief, trust, and cherishing) in Christ and the need to preach the Kingdom of God.
Notice I took special care to somewhat define the terms of the first argument but haven't attempted to define the second. That was purposeful. I did that because often I find that those who would argue for the increase of preaching the Kingdom often don't define what that Kingdom looks like beyond an accumulation of good works.
My thoughts here are going to summarize some of the ideas bouncing around in my skull regarding this tension but could (and may in the future) be expanded. I'm not rying to be exhaustive and I'm not turning this into a series. I just want to get some of this down in writing.
The best place I know to start is with Jesus and Nicodemus in John 3. Nick tells Jesus about how he has seen Jesus' works and knows he comes from God. He doesn't ask a question, he merely states what he has seen. Here is how Jesus responds to him:
3 Jesus answered him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God."
4 Nicodemus said to him, "How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?"
5 Jesus answered, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.

So we see both sides of the tension here: the need to be born again and the kingdom of God. Like love and marriage, you can't have one without the other and one precedes the other. I think everyone gets that.
The question then arises, can we talk too much about the need to be born again and too little about the advancement of the kingdom? I think so, check out what the writer of Hebrews says:
6:1 Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God,

So there is a sense in which we can focus too much on elementary things.  Even so, as I recall many of the parables where Jesus led off with"the kingdom is like" he pointed in some way to the need to be born again.

Here's the thing: we don't need to be born again in order to want to help people, escape hell, be free from the guilt of sin, be healthy, happy, prosperous and live forever on streets of gold. We don't need to be born again to buy someone a meal, give generously to our favorite charity, be a friend in a time of need, or tell people about Jesus. These are some of the ways people describe the kingdom of God and they are good descriptions but something huge is missing and that missing piece is what should drive all our good works. The missing piece is an enthralled heart that is consumed with love and passion with the Christ that was crucified.

We must be born again to treasure, cherish, prize, and supremely value Christ above all things. As we find our delight in Jesus we move on to maturity in Him and advance the kingdom by displaying Christ as worthy above all things. This is what it means to be born of the Spirit. To focus on the things above in heavenly places with Christ and embrace the promises that are ours in Him is what the Kingdom is all about.

I believe this is why Paul continually preached Christ and wrote letters to the churches that brought their focus back on to Christ.  When Christ is our all consuming desire and the outpouring of our lips, hands and feet the kingdom of God advances.  Without Christ, efforts to build the kingdom build something apart from him.

I don't think we can talk too much about the need to be born again.  Jesus only mentioned it twice in all recorded scripture and that was within the one conversation I quoted and the kingdom of God was spoken of 110 by Jesus during his ministry but that doesn't go to show what was more important for us to preach.  Like I said, every place I can think of in which Jesus preached the kingdom, he was implying the need to be born again to enter it.

We can preach the kingdom in a way that excludes Christ and is made up of good works.  We cannot have born again believers  who love and delight in Christ above all things that are not advancing God's kingdom.

Do you think we can focus too much on one side or the other?  What do you think the effects would be if we were lopsided in our focus?


  1. Good post, Bobby!

    I once heard someone wonder if God ever thought to himself, "Dude, yeah I saved you but that was 20 years ago! Get over it!" It sort of threw me for a loop, but the more I thought about it the more I wondered if he wasn't right.

    It's not that we would ever forget what he did for us, but at some point you have to get from elementary school to jr. high and then high school and so on. When kids learn math in elementary school, then move on to Algebra later on, it isn't that they forget that 1+1=2, rather they build on what they learned before. Christ is so much bigger than our salvation, but it all seems to begin there.

    Having said all of that, I did have one question; hopefully it will make some sense! (If I misunderstood, set me straight!)

    You said, "We must be born again to treasure, cherish, prize, and supremely value Christ above all things." My question is this: Do we have to be born again in order to do supremely value Christ, or do you think it could be that we supremely value Christ and as a result we are born again? Or maybe being born again is doing both at the same time? Does one really happen before the other? Is this even worth discussing?

  2. Shane,

    I say anything worth thinking about is worth discussing and this is certainly worth thinking about.

    As I understand it, both the change of heart (God's doing) and our faith and trust (man's doing) must happen at the same time. The reason I think they happen at the same time is because the Bible makes both necessary to be saved. To make it a chicken and egg issue is to elevate either God's sovereignty or man's responsibility over the other when both are necessary for salvation.

    Apart from Christ we are described as dead, blinded, children of wrath. Since the dead cannot bring themselves to life, the blind cannot cause themselves to see and we cannot pick our parents I discern that God must do all of these things for us. As God acts on our behalf, we are saved. We also have the persistent call to repent and believe the gospel of Jesus Christ and when we do we shall be saved. This is something we must do.

    If I were forced to lean one way or the other I would lean toward the "God acts first" side even if His sovereign act only preceded our response by a millifraction of a nanosecond. I guess that's because I give God a whole lot more credit for His grace than I give man for our ability to understand and embrace Him.

    Does that help clarify?

  3. I don't think a gospel without a changed life (including works) would be THE gospel, and I don't think a kingdom without both gospel and changed life would be THE kingdom (i.e., the kingdom of God). However, I've heard plenty of people proclaim one without the other.


  4. Alan,

    exactly! The two are inseparable and yet I have been guilty of separating them and leaning too hard both ways.

  5. Good post, good discussion. I don't see the gospel of the kingdom as a works based gospel. What makes sense to me is it is an invitation accept Christ as Lord. Who is King? Jesus or Caesar? Who is going to rule your life? The kingdom of darkness or the kingdom of light? Did you know God's power is available to you? You don't have to do everything in your own strength and wisdom. If you allow God to rule in your life, instead of your selfish ambitions He will restore your life to what it was intended to be.

    There is a healthy dose of both faith and works wrapped up in the gospel of the kingdom.

  6. P.S. Don't quote me on that, or add it to any statement of faith. Jesus didn't seem to insist His followers wrote it down in the form of a creed or catechism... I'm not sure why, but I should be careful to avoid using permanent ink definition as well.

  7. Jon,

    Thanks for adding to the conversation. I like what you've said here. The focus is on Christ as Lord which results in works that proceed from faith. Good balance.


As in a biblical church gathering, my word is not complete or final. Participation is allowed, encouraged and expected. Please, don't leave without adding something.