When “Justification by Faith Alone” Replaced the Kingdom of God

Jesus came preaching the centrality of the kingdom, and not the centrality of worship, not the centrality of the sacraments, not the centrality of prayer, and not even the centrality of justification by faith alone.  All these are critical parts but they must never become a substitute for the kingdom itself.

I have three adult Christian children (who each have their own children) and I love them all equally.  I make no distinction in the amount of time and fondness in my commitment to them. Each of them is extremely important to me.  I love them because they are my family.  If one child became more important to me than another, then that would be a threat to the unity and the strength of my family.  We would become dysfunctional.

In I Corinthians 12, Paul tells us how each of us in the church are part of the same body, and thus we each have great value as we perform our functions.  The faithfulness of each part produces a whole that honors God.  If one part seeks to become more important than another, then the whole body becomes hampered. Any one part elevated above its place can become a threat to the health of the body as a whole.

My point here is that Christ came into the world to bring the Kingdom of God on earth, and therefore the Kingdom of God is like my family above or is like the physical body in the example of the church.  All the parts of the kingdom are critical, but God forbid that any part seek to supplant the whole.

In the Bible the fulfillment of kingdom of God is the goal of all things.  Christ ascended to the right hand of God the Father and is now ruler over all.  When he ascended into heaven, he sat down at the right hand of God the Father and will remain there until his Father makes “your enemies a footstool for your feet (Acts 2:35).”  We live in those days.  Jesus Christ is “the ruler of the kings of the earth” (Rev. 1:5). It is all about his kingdom!  All the other parts under his kingship are tributaries that feed that kingdom.

The other parts include elements like worship, the sacraments, prayer, and even justification by faith alone.  They are critical to the prosperity of the kingdom. They are streams that feed the whole. However, if any part of the whole, or any tributary becomes the focus above the whole, then we have a wounded kingdom and a misplaced priority.  When the hen identifies as the rooster, there is trouble in the henhouse.

Jesus came preaching the centrality of the kingdom, and not the centrality of worship, not the centrality of the sacraments, not the centrality of prayer, and not even the centrality of justification by faith alone.  All these are critical parts but they must never become a substitute for the kingdom itself.

I think most of us need to reread our Bibles with a new paradigm, one that sees the kingdom of God as the focal point.  It is a tough shift, but one that is needed, especially in our day. The word and concept of kingdom that Jesus preached has fallen into disuse.

“The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe in the gospel (Mark 1:15).” “Jesus was going through all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the kingdom of God, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness (Mt. 9:35).”

Jesus taught us to pray “Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven (Mt. 6:9-10).” When we see God’s will being done on all the earth in every area of life, then we will see the kingdom present here on earth. The last words about the Apostle Paul in the Book of Acts are given to us by Luke, “And he stayed two full years in his own rented quarters and was welcoming all who came to him, preaching the kingdom of God and teaching concerning the Lord Jesus Christ with all openness, unhindered (Acts 28: 30-31).”

The Bible is the story of the kingdom of God.  The kingdom is the house that contains all the parts.  The parts give sustenance to the body, but they are not the body, no more than the digestive tract in the body, as important as it is, defines the physical body.  When the parts of the body like worship, sacraments, prayer, and even the doctrine of justification by faith alone supplant the kingdom, we have a problem. And today, in modern America, the church has a big problem.

Worship is critical to a healthy church.  The sabbath day focuses on the glory of God as God’s people gather as one people, and it should be a joy for every Christian.  Without worship, we wither on the vine!  Yet, the purpose of worship is not a mere existential experience that ends with the benediction.  The purpose of worship is to prepare us to fight the battle for extending the kingdom of God over all the earth.

The sacraments have been given to us by God as a means of grace.  According to the Westminster Confession, grace is conveyed through the sacraments. The sacraments are signs and seals of the covenant of grace given to bless us with assurance in the promises of God.  However, the sacraments are not an end in themselves.  As we feed upon Christ, they give us confidence and remove doubt about our salvation so that we can go out into the world and fight with confidence for the extension of the Kingdom. Men in doubt make poor warriors.

Prayer is part of the amour of God.  Kingdoms rise and fall because of the prayers of godly men.  Prayer can change the world.  God loves to hear us pray and he loves to answer our prayers. There is no prayer too big or too small for God.  Yet how does Christ tell us to pray?  What is the ultimate purpose of prayer?   Pray that the kingdom of a holy God will come down from heaven and become the kingdom of God on earth.

The doctrine of justification by faith alone is a matter of life and death.  Without the imputed righteousness of Christ which comes by faith alone, we have no hope.  Trust in both the active and passive obedience of Christ is salvation itself.  However, the doctrine of justification by faith alone is not an end in itself.  It is a means to an end.  It is like the doorway to the house.  It is not the house.  It is the entryway.  Justification by faith alone puts us in a right position with God through the work of Christ alone, and this frees us to move forward in the expansion of kingdom work.  When justification by faith alone becomes more important than the kingdom itself, then we have a dysfunctional body.

The church in America (and in the world) has lost its savor.  We have become introverted and irrelevant to the world in which we live.  We have become navel-gazers, looking at the parts of the kingdom without seeing the wonder of the kingdom itself.  We cannot see the forest for the trees.  Somewhere we lost the vision of Christ siting on his throne where he is putting all things under his feet. The instruments of grace have become the central focus of the Christian Faith in many churches, and we leave church each Sunday not to fight for the advancement of the kingdom of God over all the earth, but to simply wait and repeat in another week.

So, we have lost the reality that Christ sits on his throne today and that we have a mandate to capture all the nations and teach them how to love and serve him. Our goal is to bring the nations (defined by borders, language, and a common religion) into the kingdom of God. Christ has guaranteed our success because he sits on his throne (Mt. 28: 19-20).

The kingdom of God is not of this world.  In other words, the power of the kingdom is not worldly.  Its power finds its source in the elements of the kingdom like worship, sacraments, prayer, and justification by faith alone. We are not to depend on worldly weapons to advance the Kingdom of God.  It is a “spiritual kingdom,” but not in the mystical, neo-platonic sense of negating the physical body, but in the sense that its success depends on the power of the third person of the Trinity—the Holy Spirit.

We lost this vision in the modern evangelical church, partly because we have substituted these and other important parts for the whole, i.e., for the kingdom of God. “And the seventh angel sounded, and there were great voices in heaven saying, ‘The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord and of Christ, and he shall reign for ever and ever’” (Rev. 11:15).

Larry E. Ball is a retired minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is now a CPA. He lives in Kingsport, Tenn.

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