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What is a Reformed Baptist Church? (3) The Spiritual Nature of the Kingdom of God

by Pastor Lars Larson, PhD line

(A sermon delivered on February 1, 2008, at the First Baptist Church, Leominster, Massachusetts, USA)

Introduction:

           Today is the last sermon in this series, “Who are Reformed Baptists?”  I would like us to consider a principle that many recognize as biblical, but it has historically been Baptists who have championed this biblical teaching.  Baptists have historically taught and emphasized the spiritual nature of the Kingdom of God.
           Let us begin our study of this matter by reading two passages. The first is John 18:28-38.  

      Then they led Jesus from Caiaphas to the Praetorium, and it was early morning.  But they themselves did not go into the Praetorium, lest they should be defiled, but that they might eat the Passover.  Pilate then went out to them and said, “What accusation do you bring against this Man?”
      They answered and said to him, “If He were not an evildoer, we would not have delivered Him up to you.”
      Then Pilate said to them, “You take Him and judge Him according to your law.” 
      Therefore the Jews said to him, “It is now lawful for us to put anyone to death,” that the saying of Jesus might be fulfilled which He spoke, signifying by what death He would die.
      Then Pilate entered the Praetorium again, called Jesus, and said to Him, “Are You the King of the Jews?”
      Jesus answered him, “Are you speaking for yourself on this, or did others tell you this about Me?” 
      Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew?  Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered You to me. What have You done?”
      Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world.  If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here.” 
      Pilate therefore said to Him, “Are You a king then?” 
      Jesus answered, “You say rightly that I am a king.  For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth.  Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.”
      Pilate said to Him, “What is truth?”  And when he had said this, he went out again to the Jews, and said to them, “I find no fault in Him at all.” 

Let us also read the apostle Paul's description of the ministry of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 1:18-25.

      For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.  For it is written:

I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
And bring to nothing
The understanding of the prudent. {Is 29:14}

Where is the wise?  Where is the scribe?  Where is the disputer of this age?  Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?  For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.  For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

          When our Lord was arrested and brought before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, He was charged with insurrection against the Roman Empire.  He was charged with claiming to be a king, which would have been understood by Pilate, of course, to have been a direct challenge to the political authority of Rome.  But our Lord made it clear, that although He was indeed a King, His kingdom was not a threat to Rome, nor was His kingship a challenge to the rule of Caesar.  His kingdom was of a different kind than that of earthly kingdoms.  His was a spiritual kingdom.  It was a kingdom not furthered by the normal means of the kingdoms of this world.  If it had been that kind of kingdom, He would have trained His disciples to arm themselves, foment rebellion, and actively seek to overthrow Roman rule.
         The kind of kingdom that the Lord Jesus repudiated, was the very kind of kingdom that the Jews were expecting to arrive through the promised Messiah.  They saw the coming kingdom as political in nature and geographical in extent.  They were wrong. 
         Numerous Christian leaders and denominations down through church history have also been in error respecting this.  The kingdom of Jesus Christ has been commonly seen to be political and geographical in nature.  In essence what happened is that the church became wedded with the state.  At times the state dominated the church.  At other times the church dominated the state.  But it has been the common error of Christendom to be wrong respecting this matter of the spiritual nature of the kingdom of God.  Let us consider how this has been the case.

            I.  Church and state relationships through the centuries

           The beginning of this error was with the (so-called) conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine, which took place in the fourth century.  There was no confusion of this among Christians prior to this time.  Christians understood the kingdom of God to be a spiritual kingdom, not a physical one.  Christ’s kingdom existed and expanded throughout the known world.  Christians suffered terrible persecution during this time.  They suffered at the hands of the Jews for the first few decades of the Christian era.  But then toward the end of the first century they began to be persecuted by Roman authorities.  This continued for over three centuries until the emperor Constantine was "converted" to Christianity.  Constantine developed a policy of religious toleration in the empire.  But actually, Constantine employed the power of the state and the army to impose and assert his brand of Christianity upon his subjects.
          Later the Christian faith became the state religion of the Empire.  The citizens of the empire were regarded and treated as Christians.  In time the church became dominant over the state, and the state, therefore, became the church’s enforcer. 

Once a persecuted faith, then a tolerated one, Christianity had become by A.D. 346 the persecutor of rival faiths within the Roman Empire.  Non-Christian temples were destroyed and a death penalty was imposed upon those who continued to offer sacrifices to pagan gods.[1]

The state promoted “the Christian faith” by the authority of its laws and the power of its army.  In this atmosphere the kingdom of God became equated with an earthly, political kingdom.  The teaching of Christ, “My kingdom is not of this world”, would not have made sense to the people during this time.  Thomas Aquinas (13th century) articulated this Roman Catholic position:

The highest aim of mankind is eternal happiness.  To this chief aim of mankind all earthly aims must be subordinated.  This chief aim cannot be realized through human direction alone but must obtain divine assistance which is only to be obtained through the Church.  Therefore, the State, through which earthly aims are obtained, must be subordinated to the Church.  Church and State are two swords which God has given to Christendom for protection; both of these, however, are given by him to the pope and the temporal sword by him handed to the rulers of the State.[2]

          What changed the nature of things was the Protestant Reformation.  As the result of the Protestants severing their ties with Rome, there arose the existence of nation-states.  The religion of the prince over his realm, dictated the religion of the citizens of that region.  What resulted was the ascendancy of the state over the church, rather than the church over the state of the earlier period.  Religious liberty was denied any and all except for those who espoused the state religion.  Martin Luther defended this relationship of church to state. 

The secular government may organize the external polity of the Church as seems most convenient to it; it may do as it wills with the property of the Church; and the temporal authorities, if Christian, may even be recognized as ‘bishops’ with authority over the external affairs of the visible church.[3]

This concept of the Christian State dominated the nations of the world.  Yes, it was challenged from time to time, but it was the belief and assumption of all of the Protestant Reformers, including Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, John Knox as well as the kings of England and the other nations of Europe.  Nonconformists were persecuted, being regarded not only as heretics, but also as traitors to the state.  This same view of the Christian State was transferred to the new world in the various colonies, including here in New England.
          Historically, it was Baptists and baptistic groups that have stood against this prevailing idea of the kingdom of God as a political earthly kingdom.  They refused to become joined to the state church, insisting on joining churches of baptized disciples only, because they proclaimed and promoted the spirituality of the kingdom of Jesus Christ.  Baptists have believed and taught (consistently) that people enter the kingdom of God through the new birth, the result of a spiritual work of God’s grace through the gospel. 
         The early baptistic groups of the Reformation were labeled by their detractors as Anabaptists.  Although many of these groups would differ significantly from us in matters of faith and practice, they espoused the same understanding of the spirituality of Christ’s kingdom that we understand and proclaim today as Baptists.  They believed and proclaimed the need of the separation of church and state.  What they said was this: “A church that was subject only to the Lord Christ could never become captive to the state or to the powers of this world.”[4]

         Anabaptists suffered terrible persecution in Europe, by both Catholics and Protestants.  They had no place to call home.  They were outlawed in every country of Europe, although for periods of time they were tolerated here and there.  The first place and occasion in which full freedom was granted to them to live according to their convictions was when religious liberty was established in these United States.  But for several centuries, Baptists suffered penalties and persecutions here in these colonies also, until liberty was achieved for all.  Isaac Backus was a well-known and respected Baptist pastor here in Massachusetts in the 1700’s.  He suffered first hand for his Baptist convictions.  He wrote this about the matter:

God has appointed two different kinds of government in the world, which are different in their nature and ought never to be confounded together; one which is called civil, the other ecclesiastical government.  Now who can hear Christ declare that his kingdom is NOT OF THIS WORLD, and yet believe that this blending of the church and state together can be pleasing to him?[5]

            II.  Baptist convictions regarding the expansion of Christ’s kingdom

          The common thread of these various denominations that have held to a Christian state, including Roman Catholicism, is their practice of infant baptism and their regarding of all baptized persons, whether they are truly converted or not, as legitimate members and citizens of the kingdom of God.  This has been so through church history; it remains so today.  Today, most nations of Europe have state churches.  Germany, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and Norway are Lutheran.  Italy, Spain, and Portugal (and France?) are Roman Catholic.  England has the Church of England.  Scotland has the Church of Scotland.  Russia is Greek Orthodox.  Other Eastern European nations are Orthodox or Catholic.  It is the common belief that the baptized persons, who are most people in these nations, are genuine Christians, because they were baptized as infants.  This is the belief even though in many of these countries there is only about 3% of the population that attend church.  All these denominations have a common understanding of the kingdom of Jesus Christ with one another, but it differs from the understanding that we have and espouse.  Granted, many of our Reformed friends who are paedobaptist would also see the spiritual nature of Christ’s kingdom, but their view is skewed by their view of baptism and what they believe comprises membership in local churches.  Their belief and practice of infant baptism leads their denominations to be conducive to viewing the kingdom of Jesus Christ in political and geographical terms.  They have sought to defend and further their view of the kingdom not only through what they believe to be the gospel, but also through means of politics as well as by means of the sword. 
         In contrast, we believe that our work to further the spiritual kingdom of Jesus Christ involves spiritual means only; namely, the full and faithful preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  This is what Paul argued before the church at Corinth.

         For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.  For it is written:

I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
And bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent. {Is 29:14}

Where is the wise?  Where is the scribe?  Where is the disputer of this age?  Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?  For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.  For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 

We do not believe that people can become converted and brought into the kingdom through the imposing of the law, whether it is the Mosaic law or the American civil law.  We do not believe that we can expand the kingdom of Jesus Christ merely by baptizing people and their children.  We believe the Lord must add to His own church.  And it is through the gospel that we proclaim that He manifests His saving power in the souls of men and women, boys and girls.
          Oh yes, we believe in social action and civil order, and as Christian citizens to be involved in the political process.  Further, we believe the laws of our land should reflect the righteousness of God as revealed in His holy law.  But we do not believe that we are furthering the kingdom of Jesus Christ by enacting laws or transforming our culture.  The kingdom of God does not rise or fall depending on what political party is dominant in politics or what person is elected to political office.  We preach Jesus Christ and Him crucified.  We believe ultimately that this is the best way that we can have a significant impact upon our society.  Our preaching Christ and our living holy lives is our principle task.

Do all things without murmuring and disputing, that you may become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life, so that I may rejoice in the day of Christ that I have not run in vain or labored in vain.  (Phil. 2:14-16)

Yes, we seek to do good, as Jesus went about “doing good” (Acts 10:38).  We take to heart the injunction of Paul, “As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all, especially unto them who are of the household of faith” (Gal.  6:10).  But we know that it is through the foolishness of preaching that God has chosen to save them that believe.
           Historically, Baptist understanding and convictions regarding these matters won the day here in America.  Since the founding of our nation evangelicals have sought to be evangelistic in building Christ’s kingdom.

            III.  Current evangelical belief and practice respecting these matters.

          But it is lamentable that a significant segment of evangelicalism in the last generation have departed from the principles that we have recited today.  They have come to view the advancement of the kingdom of Jesus Christ to be the result of retaining or transforming the culture of our society through political action.  The solution to our social decline, many Christians argue, is political action. 
         Perhaps this departure can be better understood by the emphasis of two evangelical ministries who have opposed one another respecting these matters.  John MacArthur wrote a book several years ago entitled, Why Government Can’t Save You.  In this book MacArthur emphasized that the chief work of the church is to proclaim the gospel, doing the work of evangelism.  We might reason, “Why would any Christian take issue with that thesis?”  Yet James Dobson’s organization, Focus on the Family, did take issue with it and the principles the book promoted.  Tom Minnery, who is vice president of Focus on the Family, wrote the book, Why You Can’t Remain Silent, subtitled, A Biblical Mandate to Shape Our Culture.  In this book he challenged MacArthur’s assertions regarding the centrality of furthering the kingdom by means of preaching the gospel.  He accused MacArthur of being “silent” about important cultural and political issues of our nation. 
         Now some of you may not be very familiar with James Dobson.  We are somewhat isolated here in New England from much of what is evangelically popular in other parts of our nation.  Dobson’s daily radio broadcast is the most listened to syndicated program in all of Christian radio.  He may be listened to by far more than “Rush Limbaugh and Dr Laura combined.”[6]  Dobson had begun Focus on the Family in the 1970’s.  Originally, he emphasized matters of marriage and parenting.  But in time his organization increasingly engaged all aspects of the culture, seeking to turn our nation back to righteousness through the influencing of legislation in the political arena.  For the most part now, Dobson devotes his radio broadcasts and his organization’s resources to lobby for legislation against abortion, against the gay-rights agenda, supporting conservative candidates for political office.  He has become the most effective spokesman for the Religious Right.
         Philip Johnson, a long-time associate of MacArthur’s wrote a sermon in which he outlined the debate.  In it he wrote these words,

          Now obviously, we would be in full agreement with the moral standards Dr. Dobson affirms.  We share his loathing for abortion.  Like him we abominate homosexuality, drug abuse, and all these other symptoms of our culture's moral decline--we do share his hatred for those evils that have infected our society, but we are convinced that preaching the gospel is a more effective remedy than any political solution could ever offer, because we believe these things are symptoms of sin and the only effectual answer for sin is the gospel.  But as far as Focus on the Family and James Dobson are concerned, our position, he interprets it as an argument in favor of inactivity, passivity, silence.  They have accused us of saying, “Christians ought to remain silent in the face of all these moral evils.”  In fact, that accusation is even reflected in the title of Tom Minnery’s book, Why You Can't Stay Silent.  Dobson himself recently echoed that accusation in a letter he sent to all his constituents, and that is why I have chosen to deal with this, this morning, because over the past four weeks, since his letter went out, I have been besieged by people with questions.  Many of you have received that letter from him--I did.  Many people, in fact, people all over the country have emailed me and phoned me to ask me, “Are we going to respond to James Dobson’s remarks about John MacArthur?”  And the answer is “Yes,” here’s my response.

         Philip Johnson rightly defended MacArthur’s position and assertions.  He was not denying the need and importance to speak out on cultural and moral issues, but the chief responsibility of the church and the only and effective means that God has given us to further His kingdom, is the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  “It pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe” (1 Cor. 1:21).   Johnson went on to show how when Christians and Christian groups enter the realm of politics, the content and the emphasis on the gospel suffers.  He rightly pointed this out about Focus on the Family ministries:

           Now let me sum up quickly by showing you in practical terms why I think this is a serious mistake.  Here’s why: Because in order to work in the realm of secular politics, you have to make certain compromises.  Politics is built on compromise.  Anybody who's involved in politics will affirm that for you. There are some things you cannot talk about in the political realm and the gospel is one of them.  James Dobson's political allies in the realm of moral reform include multitudes who would not share his commitment to the gospel of the New Testament; who would not agree with him on the exclusiveness of Christ, because in the words of John 3:18, the gospel is the message that, “...he who believes on Him is not condemned,” but it also includes the truth that “...he who believes not is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.”  The message of Christ is an exclusive message—it’s either-or, Jesus said, “If you are not with Me you're against Me,” and what He meant by that is, “If you are not a believer, you are not on My team.”  And when your political agenda involves forming alliances with Mormons, Moslems, Jehovah's Witnesses, Moonies, and all kinds of humanistic moralists, you simply cannot afford to speak frankly about the exclusivity of Christ—it’s an issue you can’t bring up.  You have to stifle the truth about justification by faith alone, because Roman Catholics, who are your political allies reject that doctrine.  You’re better off, in fact, not to mention the name of Christ at all, because Jewish people, who are our political allies, are sensitive about that, and so the gospel is stifled as a consequence whenever people become political activists, they begin to trim away the offensive parts of the gospel.  It is the natural and inevitable consequence of moving the fight to the political arena--happens all the time. 
           Frankly, if I can just speak frankly, you can see the effect of this on James Dobson's own broadcasts (bold is Johnson’s emphasis).  You can listen for weeks, and you’ll hear messages about the practical side of parenting; you’ll hear lots of discussion about political and moral issues; you'll hear shrill warnings about how the moral fiber of our society is unraveling more and more all the time; you'll hear social critiques and calls for moral reform; you’ll hear interviews with people about all kinds of things, including non-Christians who happen to be our allies in political issues; you'll occasionally hear references to God and the Bible, but if you ever hear any actual Bible teaching—it’s rare--and rarely will you hear the name of Jesus Christ mentioned, and almost never will you hear a clear and uncompromising presentation of the gospel.  The gospel is inevitably stifled when your main concern becomes political issues, and I frankly think that is a dangerous and wrong-headed direction for any Christian ministry to go--it subtly undermines the gospel.  It’s the very thing Paul is warning about here in 1 Corinthians 1.  That kind of strategy diverts the focus of Christian people who listen to and trusts that ministry--they become concerned about and consumed with things other than the gospel.

           All of this underscores the danger of confusing two kingdoms with one another, the spiritual kingdom of Jesus Christ and the kingdoms of this world.  As Christians we are spiritual persons, citizens serving Jesus Christ in a spiritual kingdom.  As citizens, we are social, political persons, living in a political world.  As Christians we are to live as Christians, yes, desiring and furthering righteousness by attempting to influence lawmakers in our society, but we must never lose sight of the fact that we are here chiefly to proclaim Christ and Him crucified.  Our political convictions must never obscure or confuse us respecting the nature and work of the kingdom.  We must never confuse or equate political liberty with spiritual liberty that is in Jesus Christ.  We must never confuse the morality of a nation with the health and strength of the kingdom of God.  For regardless of whether or not America falls, the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ will continue to expand and prevail through history, but through means of the gospel only.

********************

[1] James E. Wood, Nationhood and the Kingdom (Broadman Press, 1977), p. 60.

[2] Ibid., p. 56.

[3] Ibid., p. 59.

[4] Ibid., p. 65.

[5] An Appeal to the Public for religious Liberty Against the Oppression of the Present Day (1773); quoted by William G. McLoughlin, Isaac Backus and the American Pietistic Tradition (Boston: Little Brown, and Co. 1967), pp. 123ff.

[6] This is the opinion of Philip Johnson expressed in a sermon.