“For he delivers the needy when he calls, the poor and him who has no helper. He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy. From oppression and violence he redeems their life, and precious is their blood in his sight.”
King David, Psalm 72
“Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying, “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.”
King David, Psalm 2
There is no comparison and no overlap between the work of God to restore his kingdom in a new creation and the work of all the governments, educators, sociologists, medical doctors, and therapists in history.
God, by himself, with perfect justice and vast mercy, achieves the new creation by self-giving sacrifice for his enemies. He overcomes our sin by bearing it in Jesus. Injustice comes to its end by being absorbed into the murder of the innocent and powerless One. Resurrection swallows up death and disease. What he does is grounded in his infinite competence (ability), flawless character, and unthinkable means.
Our race of humankind operates by a different set of rules altogether. And therefore we have failed and will always fail to achieve a righteous end. That is what I have tried to say in previous posts, here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here.
Echos of Eden
At their very best, human labors to make life better are echoes of creation, yearnings for life in a world free from corruption and death. Things are not the way they are supposed to be. This reflects the God-shaped vacuum in our souls.
Yes, it is grounded in moral clarity and a belief in human dignity. There is an appropriate animosity toward suffering and injustice. Those right instincts spring from the law of God written on our hearts. Yet in our egocentric mania, we twist them into double-standards, “might makes right,” and a moral order of our own making.
And no, those are not the words of a pessimist. They are words grounded in the evidence of history. I can find nothing different in practice anywhere. There are only two options.
Two texts, two visions
At the top of this post are two citations from Scripture, both from King David.
In Psalm 72 he tells of life in the kingdom of God when God has done all that is necessary to put an end to evil and death. God’s King reigns. We know him as Jesus.
David’s picture of a world of justice and peace has everything in it that the most fierce advocate for justice could imagine. Except, in God’s rule, he will make the laws and they will be applied without partiality. The powerless will include the poor as well as the unborn, the oppressed as well as the elderly. Righteousness will include sexual purity and the end to slander and power-brokering politicians.
In Psalm 2 David speaks of the global conspiracy of all peoples, grounded in the absolute determination to reject the will and rule and work of God for us.
This picture of human rebellion does not exclude medical advances, diminishing poverty rates, improvements in systems of justice, or cultural changes against racism. These are reflections of the image of God. God is good even to a world in revolt to his goodness and rule.
What this system cannot overcome is inner corruption.
Moreover, this rebellion makes us fools. Conclusions about human inability and moral corruption are excluded a priori, even when all the evidence points to them. For example, we keep saying no one has managed to create the ideal society anywhere in the past because we were not there to make it happen. Can you call that hubris?
There are two and only two possibilities: the kingdom of God established by the God of grace through Christ’s death and resurrection, or the kingdom of God that humanity seeks to establish without God.
One will result in comprehensive renovation of all creation and the entire human race. Redemption brings it to pass, i.e. the forgiveness of sin, and the reconciliation of the cosmos to God. He will give us new hearts. Enemies of God and each other will become friends. Only those who refuse to trust the goodness of God in Christ will remain outside.
The other will bring some improvements to life and society but always at a price of oppression and always with corruption. We will take advantage of freedom for self-service. The powerful and wealthy will always have an advantage — whether their power is political or financial.
History tells us that the more utopian the moral vision the more self-righteous the anger and self-justified the vicious use of power.
We must keep these two distinct. The kingdom of God is sui generis. That phrase means that the purpose of God to establish his new creation kingdom (on this globe, over a redeemed people, sinners all, from all nations) IS IN A CLASS BY ITSELF. God does not bring it about through human means.
Our tendency is to mix them. We do that by finding common ground — perhaps in morals or human dignity. We insist they are about the same thing. This is called syncretism — combining ideas, using them to supplement each other.
Why do we do this? Remember Psalm 2. We will accept anything but the rule of God in absolute truth and redemption by Christ alone.
Obsession with being on God’s side
Consequently, we find many examples in history of nation-states, leaders, and social visionaries who sanctify their ideas with the name and cause of God. Both social justice advocates and evangelical Trumpsters do this. Marxists and classical freedom advocates are more of the same. They insist that their good purposes and means are the ones God would pursue if he were to speak and act in our world.
Corruption always wins
It is a house of cards. God has not given it to us to make a new human race. Sin’s power will always win. The founders of America said the constitution depended on a moral citizenry. I hear evangelicals lament the current amoral culture. They insist we must restore the values of our founders. The survival of the constitution depends on moral people!
As far as I can tell, many of the founders were moral hypocrites. They said one thing and did another. One of them had dozens of illegitimate children. Why are people today so full of denunciations of people just like them? like us? We are all con artists and fraudsters when it comes to integrity.
But more so, we have no power to create a moral people. If moral citizens are a condition of our survival, that simply means our form of government will fail — just like al before it. That is not because of the political philosophy, but because of the universal corruption of we who govern.
Gospel cannot be mixed
The work of the new creation must be done by God and God alone. It must be received with empty hands.
The entire apostolic ministry of Paul was trench warfare against multiple attempts to supplement Jesus with a little Judaism, a little religion, a little moral disciple, a little mysticism. It may have 99.5% Jesus, but it was an addition. We must do something!
But Paul would have none of it. He asserts without equivocation that right standing with God could be attained solely through who Jesus is and what he has accomplished.
Jesus’ kingdom cannot be mixed up with any political system, be it democracy, a representative republic, democratic socialism, or any form of socialism-communism. His purposes cannot in the least be attained by coercive power, programs, or massive spending.
Jesus does not improve on our efforts
Let me say this differently: His kingdom is not the highest expression of human political ambitions, or the end product of generations of legislation and activism. God does not and will not take our best efforts and push them over the top into the fullness of his kingdom. As I have noted already, such an idea is impossible. Our purposes and his are on different trajectories.
Why do I make this hard distinction?
There are a couple of reasons. First, the attempt to find overlap, to look for some thing in common between God’s new creation kingdom and human governments or social engineering or nation building always leads to the corruption of God’s kingdom. To be blunt, it makes our efforts seem great and God’s work seem supplemental.
Grandiose is the enemy of faithfulness
Second, the distinction informs my daily life. It pushes me away from visionary dreams into the grit of loving and serving the people next to me, from ideological wrestling for power to caring for children and cherishing my wife.
To think that my utopian ideals and efforts to bring them about are actually part of ushering in the kingdom of God makes me blood serious. It kills my sense of humor. Such earnestness makes enemies of all who stand in my way.
Upholding and striving for grandiose idealism is not the kingdom of God.
Rather, my daily life, in all its particulars, and the character with which I do things are simply representative of the kingdom. The new creation character he placed in me by his Spirit shows others what Jesus is like.
When I do good and care for the needy, I am not ushering in the kingdom, I am simply showing a little bit of what that kingdom will be like when Jesus reigns supreme.
My daily life is a sign that points to the future new creation.
A sign of the kingdom
Whatever I do as a citizen or neighbor is shaped by one question: How can my choices and action point people to the kind of King and rule Jesus will have? Who I am and what I do each day are what matters. How I choose who to vote for is more important than who I vote for.
Whatever that may mean, it certainly excludes being a culture warrior. That is because Jesus is not a culture warrior.
He will not coerce change. He will remake us from the inside out.1
The heresy of Christian nationalism
Yes, this means I absolutely reject any suggestion that America (or any other nation) is a Christian nation. There is not basis to believe that our form of government is somehow inspired by God. 2
While our republic’s founders grew up in Christendom and inherited its culture, it is not Christian. 3
Moral culture is always skin deep
But what about being a sign of the kingdom by advocating for biblical morals? Or natural law?
Certainly morals defined by the totality of God’s character is better than life under a man-made moral regime. God’s law speaks to everything about life — respect for authority, family, sexual purity, contentment, generosity, work, and justice. Man made moral systems are selective, and therefore incomplete. They all borrow from the biblical teaching about human dignity too. That is because there is no metaphysical basis for human dignity in non-theistic systems.
Pursuing the good of all
But, advocating for moral clarity is not a culture war. It is for the good of all.
I am not called to recover some kind of Judaeo-christian culture. Judaeo-Christian culture was hypocritical. It focused on the externals and drove wrong doing into private. Such is the case with every law oriented culture that presses people to conform. You will find the same in Islam, Judaism, and Mormonism.
The Christian cause is not a moral cause. It is a redemptive cause.
Christianity does not seek to impose a moral standard on rebels. It seeks to turn rebels into friends. We must not forget that morality is not Christian per se. Islam is moral. Judaism is moral. Even progressive thinkers are moral. Christianity is not morality. It is redemption by blood sacrifice. It is a new creation.
That does not mean
Just to be clear, I not mean there is no benefit to the influences of Christendom. Or, for that matter, it does not mean there is no benefit to a culture that believes in natural law, absolute morals, and the reality of God.
I am not seeking a perfect society, but a good one that makes small improvements along the way. God’s moral law is a good thing.
“Dictatorship is the power relying upon force unbound by any laws.” V. Lenin (founder of the USSR)
To appreciate this, all one has to reflect on is the relatively better conditions of life where God’s law is generally honored compared to one where morality is entirely about power. 4
If we miss the distinction, we trivialize the Gospel
Most importantly, when I place my daily life and the politics of my country in the context of the certain work of God in Christ to create all things new forever, it gives perspective. It kills Trump-ism, Christian Nationalism, and DEI idealism.
God establishes his kingdom by conquering his enemies through humility and self-sacrifice. He redeems them from sin and adopts them as sons and daughters. The price of this was infinite. What Christ has achieved on the cross is the reconciliation of the cosmos and the remaking of creation, free from death and disease.
When we take hold of God’s laws and seek to use the power of government to impose them, and then name it Christian, we undermine and trivialize Christ’s work and the nature of his kingdom.
If a moral and just society can be created through political power combined with social conditioning, then his death was needless. If freedom is the magic fairy dust that makes criminals into good citizens, heals the broken family, and brings universal prosperity, then Jesus came to no purpose.
If we miss the distinction, we miss our purpose
To be candid, I find most evangelicals are far more concerned about the cultural shift against the church than they are about living righteously in such a culture. Why are we surprised that the world hates Christ? Isn’t what what Jesus said would happen? Why are we in any way trying to win back a culture when human culture in its heart of hearts has never changed?
Rather, we should hear the words of Peter:
“For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.” (1 Pet 2:21–23 ESV)
Embrace the relative good
Does that mean there is no value to government? to changes in laws? To the protection of the vulnerable and exploited? Certainly not.
Paul makes clear that authority structures are appointed by God to reward the good and punish the evil. But, in a world that is corrupted by sin, and with leaders who are all deeply flawed, the state can only lead to some improvements. Those improvements are worthwhile. They serve people. They protect people.
In the context of relative good we can compare forms of government. But if government and social idealism is our god, we will engage in mutual acrimony and judgment. Christian cultural-ism always takes us in the wrong direction with the wrong character.
Gary Haugen’s masterful work, The Locust Effect, shows the deep suffering caused by flawed, corrupted, and inadequate systems of justice. He argues that violence against the poor by the wealthy and powerful, and political indifference to this evil, is a great cause of poverty. To remedy this situation, even in part, is a great good.
But to absolutize that quest is demonic. It is demonic because it asserts that the exercise of coercive power can put an end to all inequality and injustice. But those entrusted with that power are deeply twisted people like everyone else. Once they gain power to crush others, they will always use it for their own ends. We cannot absolutize the good, the just, the free. We can only create conditions that make incremental improvements.
Do you see the difference?
I must keep the purity and glory of the kingdom of God, purchased by the self-sacrifice of God for his enemies, utterly distinct. Only then can I pursue the relative good of being a good citizen.
When I blur them, I always present a polluted message about the Gospel.
The conflation of Christianity with American nationalism and Trump is a blasphemy against the crucified savior. Progressive idealism about justice and equality apart from redemption slaps Jesus in the face and calls his work for us unnecessary.
I live in such a place as a citizen of God’s kingdom
Personally, I concluded that I most represent the beauty of life in the redemptive kingdom by being a principled citizen, who strives for the relative good of respectful conversation between persons of diverse political views.
I reject ideological absolutism on both sides.
I also believe that my life must reflect the God who dwells with the humble and brokenhearted. That means that my energies must always include care for the powerless and poor.
And I must practice showing impartial respect to every person I encounter. How I treat the people I can touch is far more significant to show what Christ is like than all the posts and tweets I could ever write.
If anything, the posts and tweets can displace real deeds of love and mercy and encouragement.
There is no virtue in writing words or voting or arguing politics. The virtue is in how I do so and how I treat people who are in conversation with me.
If I live as a sign of the kingdom to come then I also point people to the redeeming King who gave himself in love for our sins. That was done so that all who come to him may be a new creation,
- The current obsession of some evangelicals with criticism of social justice and CRT makes my point. Books like this sell because they feed on the moral anger of people who believe we were once a Christian nation. Sadly, the book is a screed, feeding on reading between lines of partial quotes, blurring the distinctions I am making in this essay, and calling God’s people to engage in culture wars rather than be signs of the kingdom.[↩]
- Some would say, and I think they are correct, that classical “liberalism” is entirely secular. It establishes a culture where there are no absolutes and no God who rules. It is an experiment in social order without God’s word.;[↩]
- I assert this in the face of a book that argues America is a Christian nation. In point of fact all the author proves is that many of our founders were raised under the dominant culture of Christendom. Christendom does not equal Christian, but is the effect of centuries of church dominance in Europe.[↩]
- Recently I finished a book about Lenin and Woodrow Wilson. What struck me most often was Lenin’s completely amoral perspective. He said: “Dictatorship is the power relying upon force unbound by any laws.” The fruit of his beliefs has been the murder of 100 million people by their own governments. While the West is often hypocritical and blind to its faults, there is no comparison of its flaws with Lenin and his successors raw justification of slaughter in the name of creating communist utopia.[↩]