This article first appeared in the Baptist Bulletin. © Regular Baptist Press, Arlington Heights, Illinois. Used by permission. Read Part 1.
Our participation in God’s work: missio Dei
The heart of the debate comes down to determining our role in God’s plan to reestablish the Mediatorial Kingdom. Do we have a job? Are we supposed to be helping God establish His kingdom? It would seem that most Christians believe this to some extent, simply judging by phrases like, “Helping God bring in the kingdom,” and “We need to reclaim culture for the kingdom.”
Where’s the truth in all of this? Ephesians 2:10 says, “We are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” If God has asked us to work for Him, and if God’s overall goal in world history is to reestablish His kingdom, then our work must contribute to this in some way. But to what extent are we partners with God in this endeavor? Are we supposed to help God with everything He’s trying to accomplish?
There are three main views on the coming kingdom, and each view answers this question differently.
Premillennialism teaches that the kingdom has not come yet, and that it is going to come in the future in all of its glory, as predicted in Old Testament prophecy, with Jesus ruling and reigning this planet as the mediatorial, human (and divine) ruler.
Postmillennialism believes that after Jesus rose from the dead, He charged His followers with the task of “bringing in the kingdom.”Those who hold this view believe it is the church’s responsibility to create a world much like the one depicted in Old Testament kingdom prophecies. They believe Jesus will someday come back to receive that kingdom.
Amillennialism believes that after Jesus rose from the dead, He sat down on His throne and started ruling His kingdom. It is here now This kingdom, however, was radically altered from the one predicted in the Old Testament because instead of a physical reign over a utopian earth, it is a spiritual reign in the hearts of His followers.
So what is our role in helping God establish the kingdom? Both postmillennialism and amillennialism yoke the church with a great deal of responsibility for establishing it. This leads to an unapologetic focus on social issues, social justice, feeding the poor, unbalanced environmentalism, and even promoting forms of Marxism. Many churches are taking up arms in these causes and doing it under the banner of the Great Commission. If the kingdom is already here, then by all means the Great Commission should include kingdom mandates. In their book, What Is the Mission of the Church?, DeYoung and Gilbert hit the nail on the head with this statement: “One of the biggest missteps in much of the newer mission literature is an assumption that whatever God is doing in the world, this too is our task. So if the missio Dei [mission of God] is ultimately to restore shalom and renew the whole cosmos, then we, as his partners, should work to the same ends.”
Premillennialism, on the other hand, teaches that the kingdom is still a future event; therefore, the Great Commission is strictly limited to preaching the gospel and making disciples. Again, DeYoung and Gilbert are helpful:
If you think the church’s mission is to build a better, more just world, then of course the church must be involved, in some way or another, in increasing the social, economic, and political wellbeing of its city’s citizens… . But if you understand (as we’ve argued) that the church’s mission is actually the proclamation of the gospel and making disciples, then bettering the city’s and the world’s social condition becomes, at best, a less direct way of furthering that mission, and therefore it falls somewhat short of being a universal obligation for the local church.
The gospel is up for grabs
Since kingdom theology impacts the Great Commission, and the gospel is at the heart of the Great Commission, the gospel itself becomes an innocent bystander in the crossfire of competing theologies. Clarity on the kingdom will result in clarity on the gospel. Kingdom confusion leads to a convoluted and amended gospel. This is no small matter. Premillennialists are being accused of being shortsighted and holding to a deficient gospel. In The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, “kingdom-now” theologian Ronald Sider wrote:
One of the most astonishing ironies of contemporary evangelicalism is that most evangelicals do not even define the gospel the way Jesus did! Jesus did not define the gospel as the forgiveness of sins….The central aspect of Jesus’ teaching was the gospel of the kingdom of God…. Both Matthew and Mark explicitly summarize Jesus’ gospel as the “good news of the kingdom….”
When Christians today reduce the gospel to forgiveness of sins, they are offering a one-sided, heretical message that is flatly unfaithful to the Jesus they worship as Lord and God.
This ought to sound an alarm for premillennialists! This is not just a matter of the “when” of the kingdom; this is a matter of “how” we preach and carry out the gospel message!
A distortion of the church’s mission
If unbiblical kingdom theology fundamentally alters the Great Commission, the church’s mission will similarly become a casualty. If the Great Commission involves bringing in the kingdom’s utopian conditions or reclaiming culture and society for the kingdom’s sake, churches should greatly expand social and economic outreach programs. Here are two examples of how the church’s mission might be impacted by this type of kingdom theology.
Missions. Traditional missions sought to preach the gospel to pagans and establish churches among the converts. However, if social reform occupies a prominent position in the Great Commission, how should churches spend their missions dollars? Those who view the church as occupying a central role in the kingdom believe the church should engage with social justice and ecological care worldwide.
Community engagement. Few people question whether or not it is a good idea for a local church to engage in its community. However, for what purpose, and to what end? If the church is tasked with bringing in the kingdom, social initiatives in the community are an end to themselves. However, if the gospel of justification by faith is paramount, social initiatives are simply a means to move people closer to understanding their need of a Savior. When churches attempt to “bring in” or “establish” the kingdom, it can lead to some interesting church activities. For example, one local church worships by cleaning the trash and weeds from a hillside. Then they plant new trees all over the hill as an expression of reclaiming the hill for the kingdom.
Striving for Kingdom Clarity
The church as kingdom citizens
As premillennialists, we believe we are citizens of Christ’s kingdom—a kingdom in abeyance waiting to be revealed from Heaven. So how do we relate to the kingdom today? Jesus told His disciples what they were to do during the postponement of the kingdom. They were to build the church by carrying out the Great Commission and preaching the gospel of grace. As we fulfill the Great Commission and see people saved and discipled, we are doing work for the kingdom by default. As Colossians 1:13 says, when someone is saved, that person is transferred into Christ’s kingdom. Therefore, the church’s role as kingdom citizens is to fulfill the Great Commission. By so doing, the church will help populate the future millennial kingdom with people who are loyal to King Jesus. In this sense—and in this sense only—are we helping to “build the kingdom.”
Developing a solidly premillennial lens
Premillennialism has often been accused of ignoring social issues in favor of emphasizing personal salvation in Jesus. Even though there could be some truth to this, it is ultimately an unfair generalization. Many premillennialists have great concern for the poor and hurting of their communities, and they demonstrate this concern without having to redefine the gospel or wave the banner of social justice. Premillennialism offers an alternative to the redemptive transformational approach of kingdom-now theology, and here are some ways that is played out:
Guarding the gospel. Premillennialism believes that the gospel is justification by faith and that the Great Commission is fulfilled by preaching the gospel and discipling believers to live out the gospel. This is the job God gave the church. DeYoung and Gilbert say it well:
Sometimes it’s talked about as “building the kingdom;’ other times as “gathering the building materials of the kingdom,” and other times as “bringing heaven to earth.” But the upshot of all those phrases is the belief that the job of building what will be at the end is, at least in part, ours. Understood within a certain way of thinking, that makes perfect sense. But if you understand these issues in a different way—that God and not we will build the new heavens and new earth—well, that changes everything.
It certainly does change everything for premillennialists. In fact, believing that it is our job to help build the kingdom steals glory from the One Who is coming back to restore all things!
Social action. That premillennialists do not believe the church is responsible for bringing in the kingdom does not mean they have no concern for social issues. In fact, they find strong motivation to do justice and help the hurting—namely, the grace of God! They might call it “loving your neighbor” and might talk about having citizenship in the kingdom. Part of the Great Commission is to teach believers all that Christ has commanded. When we are faithful to the gospel by making disciples of Jesus, those disciples live in obedience to Jesus and love God and others. When Christians experience God’s grace and obey God’s Word out of a changed heart, it leads to them naturally doing justice and caring for the poor and hurting. The gospel does not need amending to include these things!
Environmentalism. Those who believe in a kingdom-now theology believe it is our job to help God bring about the earth’s renewal. Premillennialists have earned a poor reputation of caring only about life in Heaven and have been characterized as uncaring as it relates to the planet’s health. However, as a premillennialist, I can be environmentally conscientious without tying it to establishing the kingdom. We should be caring for our planet, not to establish the kingdom, but to honor God by being good stewards of what He has given us.
So, as premillennialists, what is our relationship to the kingdom? In short, since the kingdom is still coming, our job is to preach the gospel of grace (1 Corinthians 15:3, 4) and not the gospel of the kingdom. Christians should be focusing on fulfilling the Great Commission by making disciples. As the Word of God and the Spirit of God give people new hearts, the result will be the spiritual fruit of good works. It will produce people who are eager to love, give, care, and meet needs of the poor and hurting. All of this is not done to build the kingdom, because Jesus doesn’t need any help doing that! We do these things to build the church and fulfill the Great Commission in obedience to the command of Jesus Christ.
Mike Augsburger (DMin, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is pastor of Willow Creek Baptist Church, West Des Moines, Iowa, and is a member of the GARBC Council of Eighteen. Mike also wrote the chapter “Leading Effectively through Change” in The Pastor: A Guide for God’s Faithful Servant (Regular Baptist Books).