Our faith is, more often than not, more both/and than either/or. Man’s responsibility or God’s sovereignty? Yes. Mourning or dancing? Yes. Living or dying? Yes. Our temptation in light of this is always to push for one side or the other. When we affirm man’s responsibility, some hear a denial of God’s sovereignty and vice versa. When we see someone mourning, we insist that they dance and vice versa. We ought to dance, even as we ought to mourn. And if we do it right, we find ourselves mourning while we dance and dancing while we mourn.
In like manner, we are called by Jesus Himself to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. This is not, contra too many to name, an embracing of legalism. This is not Jesus speaking during some bootstrap phase of His ministry that would later fade into a kinder, gentler message of unconditional acceptance. He is unequivocally calling us to pursue Him and to pursue obedience to Him. He leaves no wiggle room. And so we must. We are called to a single-minded passion that pursues obedience to the King, that hungers for entrance into the kingdom. We are called to lay aside every hindrance, to scale the walls, to take the kingdom by storm. We are called to run the race that is set before us—and to not grow weary in doing good.
However, as we run this race, one of the great challenges is the folly of concluding that we have arrived. As we grow in grace and wisdom, as we live our lives among the brethren, as we put off the old man, we find we’re not what we used to be. And we relax, thinking too highly of ourselves.
To protect this newfound pride, we may in turn establish ourselves as gatekeepers in the kingdom. To be sure, we are called to be discerning. We, especially the elders of the church, have a duty to make judgments about others. How often, however, do we slide into the practice of private excommunication? Do we not look at the sins of others, secretly judge their secret motives, then secretly convict them? Do we not conclude, “If they were real Christians, they would believe, act, and speak like me”?
When we fall to this kind of temptation, we discover that we have entered into a faux kingdom and crowned ourselves the faux king. We do not enter the real kingdom by pursuing it and our righteousness. We enter the real kingdom by being pursued by it, and by receiving His righteousness.
The broad, ecumenical bromide that affirms that all roads lead up the same mountain to the same god is wrong on multiple fronts. It is not enough to note that all those paths outside the Christian one actually proceed downhill, all the way into the very pit of hell. We must also recognize that what sets our path apart is that we do not climb up, but that He comes down. The kingdom of God is not that place where successful, world-class climbers reach the summit. Pastors are not Sherpas leading the way. Jesus is not standing on the peak waiting to congratulate us and gift us with a medal.
No. The kingdom of God is not something we ascend to. Nor did Jesus merely come to us to egg us on, to coach and encourage us. We were dead. We were in a bottomless crevasse, frozen in our sin. He made us alive. He gave us new hearts. He dressed us in the warmth of His righteousness. He carried us to eternity. And He did all of this precisely because, while we were yet sinners, He identified with us. Us—with our envious hearts, with our darkened minds, with our grubby hands—He identified with. Jesus stands with us as the devil gleefully spits out his accusations. “This,” he says, “this unfaithful bride, this bespotted and besmirched wretch, this duplicitous whore, this is Yours?” And Satan’s sinister grin becomes a mask of horror as Jesus, tenderly holding our filthy hand, answers, “Yes, she is My beloved.” What a wonder that it is in agreeing with the accusations of the devil that we enter in.
When we distance ourselves from those beside whom He stands, do we not of necessity distance ourselves from Him? When we turn up our nose at those for whom He gave up His life, do we not turn up our nose at Him and His work on the cross? When we believe we have arrived, do we not confess that we got there ourselves?
Were it our calling to run from sinners, we would have no place to go, for our own sin follows us wherever we go. Instead, however, we are called to stand, and to repent, with the repentant. We are to bind up the brokenhearted, to give the balm of Christ to those mourning their sin. Jesus came to heal the sick, not praise the well. I am a leper. But that’s OK, for the kingdom of God is a leper colony. Each of us, however, bows before Him as He places His scarred hands on our heads and pronounces blessing upon us.