[Editor’s Note: This is the second in a three-part series on the present relationship between the Kingdom of God and American culture. To read the first issue, click here, and for the third, click here.]
When I write “Christianity is losing in America,” of course I don’t mean that God or, by extension, His kingdom is failing. The kingdom of God comes in force unlike anything else in creation. Every other kingdom, whether the kingdoms of men or the kingdom of darkness, inevitably fails—no matter how powerful they perceive themselves to be. But the kingdom of God continues to progress until the day of consummation when Christ returns.
It is the present form of Christianity—uniquely influenced by American culture—that is failing precisely because it has been enculturated with ideas foreign to the kingdom of God and the good news of the kingdom. In essence, the American church has succumbed to the lure of personal peace and affluence—elements of the American dream.
With the separation of the “good news” from the in-breaking rule and reign of God inaugurated at the cross, many American Christians have come to perceive the gospel as merely an addendum to an already well-lived life. In other words, continuation of one’s life according to one’s own plan (seasoned with a little piety, of course), but relying on God to ensure one’s entrance into heaven upon death.
The basis of this is often rooted in the efficacy of one’s own belief, or intellectual ascent to the facts of Jesus apart from any obligation to Jesus as King. This would be akin to the New Testament Christians professing belief in Jesus but continuing to live in allegiance to Caesar!
However, Jesus and the Apostles taught that one must repent or renounce allegiance to the kingdoms of this world, including the “kingdom of self,” and submit to world’s rightful ruler: Jesus. This is then followed with belief in the fact that “all authority in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18, ESV) has been given to the promised King Jesus who lives and reigns. Finally, we are commanded to be baptized.
Today, however, baptism is often regarded as merely our public profession of faith, something we do to show our newfound faith to others. However, Peter associates baptism with Noah and his family being “saved through water” (1 Peter 3:20, NIV). However, “saved” in this instance does not mean going to heaven, but living in a new world under the rule of God.
Notice that Peter says baptism is “the pledge of a clear conscience toward God” (see 1 Peter 3:20–22). Dr. Alan Street points out, “The Greek word translated ‘pledge’ (eperōtēma) comes from the business community of 1st-century Rome. It referred to a verbal promise at the end of a contract. It was a pledge to fulfill the agreement and was legally binding.” Peter here tells us that baptism is our pledge of loyalty to King Jesus and his kingdom.
Upon taking this pledge, Christians are to live as those who have been saved from death to live presently in a new society under the rule and reign of Jesus. Thus the Christian renounces his citizenship in this world along with the ways of this world and becomes a citizen of God’s kingdom on earth, following the way of the King. And what is that way? It is the way of the cross. Jesus did not defeat the kingdoms of this world through force but through costly love expressed in sacrifice.
This is the way of the kingdom, which Jesus exhorts us to seek over and against the desires (even necessities) of the flesh and this world. This is where faith is actually applied—not in mere belief but in our daily living as citizens of the kingdom who, in living in dependence and obedience upon God, display to the world what life looks like under the loving rule and reign of God. So we proclaim to the world, turn from your self-rule and your allegiance to the kingdoms of this world and enter the joy of God’s kingdom.
Michael Craven serves as the Director of the Colson Fellows Program at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.