Gospel Co-Belligerency with Children of Wrath

The Gospel Coalition recently posted WHY ARE NON-CHRISTIANS TGC15 PANELISTS? At their annual conference this year, TGC will have a panel discussion “Seeking Justice and Mercy from Ferguson to New York” with panelists who are not Christians. The article itself states “As allies, TGC Council Members come together to accomplish the same fundamental goal—to keep the gospel central in preaching, teaching, and living.” So how exactly do they believe a panel of unbelievers discussing social justice is keeping the gospel central?

Co-belligerence, then, is a way of working with others—even those with whom we radically disagree—against a common enemy. It allows otherwise questionable partnerships in order to further a particular social, political, economic, or cultural cause for the common good and human flourishing.

So if you live in a neighborhood that is having some particular problem, like teenagers partying at night and destroying mailboxes, can you sit down with your unbelieving neighbors and discuss possible solutions? Absolutely (Jer 29:7).

Can you invite your unbelieving neighbors into your church to be panel members in a discussion hosted by your church on the issue? Absolutely not (2 Cor 6:14).

What’s the difference? One is done in the name of Christ, the other is not. Your church has a very unique answer to the problem – a solution not shared by anyone else in the world. That’s because it sees the problem uniquely as well. The problem with the teenagers is not that they are disruptive. The problem is that they are enemies of God, children of wrath. The church’s goal is to advance the kingdom of Christ by proclaiming the gospel to the teenagers that they may be saved. The church’s goal is not to create quiet, peaceful neighborhoods that are perishing. When we act in the name of Christ we are acting as representatives of his kingdom. As such, our goals, methods, and message must represent his kingdom. This is precisely where TGC runs into trouble. They make an appeal to the doctrine of common grace:

These warnings, though, don’t invalidate the theological foundation of co-belligerence—the doctrine of common grace. Unlike particular grace, which relates to God’s sovereignty in salvation for believers, common grace relates to God’s care for his creation. It’s “common” because it’s universal and “grace” because it’s an unmerited gift of God. (See Matt. 5:45.)

Question: which grace is representative of the kingdom of Christ? Particular grace.

The common kingdom does not exist as an end in itself. It was established by the Noahic Covenant as a means of preserving the world. To what end? That every elect individual may be saved before the world is destroyed (2 Peter 3:5-9). The common kingdom exists merely to provide a platform for the proclamation of the kingdom of Christ. TGC continues:

Common grace gives Christians the platform on which to engage culture. When we know that the fall didn’t completely annihilate God’s created order, we can work with people of different faith commitments toward good purposes. As Abraham Kuyper writes,

If God is sovereign, then his lordship must extend over all of life, and it cannot be restricted to the walls of the church or within the Christian orbit. . . . God’s sovereignty is great and all-dominating in the life of that unbaptized world as well. Therefore, Christ’s church on earth and God’s child in this world cannot simply retreat from this life.

Absolutely. God’s sovereignty extends over all of life. But it does so in different ways. The common kingdom is not the kingdom of Christ. What does it mean to say “Common grace gives Christians the platform on which to engage culture”? Does it mean, as I said above, that it is a platform for Christians to proclaim the kingdom of Christ to a lost and dying world? That’s not what TGC means. They mean we should “engage culture” to work towards “good purposes.” Well, that’s fine, and in line with Jer 29:7 (if by “good purposes” they mean the preservation of society and by “we” they mean individual Christians not the institutional church – see Machen), but they’re starting to blur the line and are beginning to sound ambiguous.

In our modern context, justice is one issue on which the church can pursue co-belligerance. Throughout the Scriptures—from Isaiah’s tsedaqah call to Jesus’s inaugural sermon—it’s clear that Christ-followers are to be people who, like him, “proclaim liberty to the captives” (Lk. 2:18).

Who are the captives? First and foremost, they are people enslaved by sin (Jn. 8:31-38, Rom. 6:15-23). But they’re also people enslaved by systems, including race-based prejudicial ones. For Christ died to break down “the dividing wall of hostility”—not only between us and God, but also between the races (Eph. 2:11-22). When we work toward racial reconciliation, then, we are eschatological signposts “on earth as it is in heaven” of the coming kingdom (Matt. 6:10).

Yikes! The blurring of the kingdoms is complete. They have appealed to Christ’s proclamation of his kingdom (freedom from spiritual slavery to sin) as grounds for co-belligerence in the common kingdom. That’s a massive confusion of categories. Remember the distinction above between particular grace and common grace? That is now obliterated by TGC. Working in the common kingdom with unbelievers is made out to be proclaiming the kingdom of Christ. “The dividing wall of hostility” is a specific reference to the God imposed division between Jews and Gentiles that is abolished along with the Old Covenant in the death of Christ. If you want to argue that “killing the hostility” has reference to all hatred between people, then you must recognize the grounds of that killing:

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace… and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.

Does that sound like common/universal grace that applies to all men? Or does it sound like particular grace? The distinction has been annihilated by TGC. When we work together with unbelieving co-belligerents toward racial reconciliation, we are not eschatological signposts of the coming kingdom. An eschatological signpost of Christ’s coming kingdom to unbelieving co-belligerents is “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!” and “the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.” (2 Peter 3:10)

When the church, acting as representatives of the kingdom of Christ, abandon the message of the kingdom of Christ and confuse it with the common kingdom, it has betrayed the kingdom of Christ.

Affirming the Lordship of Christ necessarily requires you to affirm that his kingdom is not of this world. Does that mean it has no consequences for this world? Not at all. It has very real consequences for every area of life, because Christ’s kingdom extends to the inner conscience – every thought – of his subjects. But laboring with unbelieving co-belligerents to advance the kingdom of Christ is a rejection of the Lordship of Christ.

Is co-belligerency wrong then? No, not within the proper context. We may labor alongside unbelievers in matters of common preservation and living. But the kingdom of Christ is not common and we may not labor with unbelievers in matters concerning his redemptive work. The Gospel Coalition may not labor with unbelievers to advance the kingdom of Christ and the effect it has on all forms of sin in our society.

We need to get our heads straight on the kingdom of Christ. There is way too much of this muddy blurring of the lines. To that end, we have transcribed and published Abraham Booth’s An Essay on the Kingdom of Christ (1783) on Kindle and PDF. Please give it a read.

It is generally allowed, if I mistake not, that the kingdom of Christ is no other than the Gospel Church; which is both distinguished from the world, and opposed to it. Relative to this kingdom, and its divine Sovereign, Jehovah says; I have set my King upon my holy hill of Zion. This prophetic Oracle was fulfilled when our Lord, leading captivity captive, ascended on high and sat down on the right of the eternal Father. Then was he most solemnly inaugurated and proclaimed King of the New Testament Church, amidst adoring myriads of attendant angels, and spirits of just men made perfect. In pursuance of which most grand investiture with his regal office, he distributed royal donatives, at the feast of Pentecost, among his devoted subjects — such donatives, as perfectly suited the majesty of his Person, and the nature of his kingdom. Yes, that wonderful assemblage of spiritual gifts and heavenly graces, which he bestowed upon his disciples at the Jewish festival, was a glorious first-fruit of his ascension, and of his being a priest upon his throne. The Gospel Church, which is the subject of his laws, the seat of his government, and the object of his care, being surrounded with powerful opposers; he is represented as ruling in the midst of his enemies. Nor shall his mediatorial kingdom and administration cease, till all those enemies become his footstool.

The empire of Christ, indeed, extends to every creature: for all authority in heaven and on earth is in his hands, and he is head over all things to the Church. But the kingdom of which we treat, stands distinguished from that of general Providence, as well as from every political state. It must be considered, therefore, as consisting of those persons whom he bought with his blood, whom he calls by his grace, and over whom he reigns as a spiritual monarch. These constitute what is frequently called, the Catholic Church, wherever the favored individuals may reside… Into the principal characteristics of this holy empire, and into the genuine consequences of those criteria, we shall now enquire.

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