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What Single Word Defines the Nature of God's Kingdom & How It Advances?
Last week I introduced an important new book by Jeremy R. Treat, The Crucified King. Treat explores the interrelationship between the kingdom of God and the cross of Christ, in partnership with biblical and systematic theology.
Today we explore this interrelationship by exploring two questions: What is the nature of the kingdom and how does it advance?
Treat argues one word defines how we answer both question: Cruciformity.
“While much theology of the kingdom is done in spite of the cross,” Treat writes, “I have sought to understand the kingdom in light of the cross.” (246)
Viewed through the lens of Luther’s theology of the cross Treat advances a well-honed thesis that God is advancing his kingdom through Christ’s Church as it conforms to the cross.
The Nature of God’s Kingdom
“God’s kingdom is founded by the cross, entered through the cross, and shaped by the cross...it is truly a cruciform kingdom.” (227)
Treat finds inspiration for his crucicentric understanding of the kingdom from Luther’s theology of the cross. Crux sola set nostra theologia (“the cross alone is our theology”) was Luther’s anthem, and Treat sings along:
“The cross is the standard by which all theology must be judged.” (228)
Under this banner Treat extends Luther’s theology of the cross into the doctrine of the kingdom by exploring five points of intersection:
- “The theology of the cross reveals the great continuity between the means of establishing and advancing God’s kingdom on earth.” (229)
- “The theology of the cross clarifies the hidden nature of the kingdom of God during ‘this present age.’” (229) Between Christ’s resurrection and return, the kingdom is hidden beneath the cross.
- “God’s kingdom will not be hidden by the cross forever." (230) There is a distinction between the hidden rule of God in “this present age” and the unveiled rule of God “in the age to come.”
- “Although the royal power of God is hidden under the cross, it is recognized by faith for those who have eyes to see…the emphasis on divine revelation is inseparable from human faith.” (230)
- “The theology of the cross reveals that the coming of the kingdom does not render the cross obsolete.” (230) Instead it remains the kingdom’s central founding and shaping act for all eternity.
Treat agrees with Luther: "the fact that 'this King does not rule without the cross' means 'this must be a kingdom of the cross.'" (229)
The Advancement of God’s Kingdom
So the nature of the kingdom itself is cruciform, but what of its advancement? Treat contends the cross shapes it, too: “God advances his kingdom through the church as it conforms to the cross.” (243)
First, God advances. “[T]he kingdom is not built or advanced by people but is received…the kingdom of God is not the culmination of human potential and effort but the intervention of God’s sovereign grace into a sinful and broken world.” (244)
Treat’s view stands in sharp contrast to Rauschenbusch, and even Ritschl before and Tillich after him, who taught the kingdom advanced toward some sort of universal human ideal under the aegis of humanity. For Treat, the kingdom is God’s from start to finish.
Second, God advances His kingdom through the church. This is important. Because on the one hand, theological liberalism has disconnected the kingdom’s advancement from the church; any act of love by anyone moves the world closer to the universal human ideal. On the other hand, conservatives often shove the kingdom well into the future so that the church enjoys the kingdom later, rather than advancing it now.
While Treat makes it clear the church is not the kingdom, he also argues the two are inseparable: “The church is a sign of the kingdom, a display to this present evil age of the proleptic reality of God’s reign in the age to come. In short, the church is distinct from the kingdom but central to its advancement.” (244)
Finally, God advances the kingdom through Christians in the same way he established it through Christ: the cross. Following Jesus in this age, under God’s rule, is to take up the cross—through the power of God’s Spirit and resurrection.
The Holy Spirit is “the mediating link between the presence of the kingdom in Christ and its advancement throughout Christians…The Spirit advances the kingdom by applying the finished work of Christ.” (245)
The power of the resurrection lies in its power to conform the church to Christ’s death: “the kingdom advances not simply by looking back to the cross but by moving forward with the crucified-resurrected king.” (245)
Mysteriously, “God advances his kingdom through Christians who have been united to Christ and who by the power of his resurrection are conformed to his cross.” (246)
May we Christians conform in greater measure to the cross of Christ; may we teach our people to do the same. In the name of the crucified King and His cruciform kingdom.
Jeremy Bouma (Th.M.) is a pastor with the Evangelical Covenant Church in West Michigan. He is the founder of THEOKLESIA, a content curator dedicated to helping the 21st century church rediscover the historic Christian faith; holds a Master of Theology in historical theology; and makes the vintage faith relevant at www.jeremybouma.com.
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