Understanding Our True Citizenship
Scripture describes conversion as turning away from sin and turning to God. Paul summarizes conversion in 1 Thessalonians 1:9 as “turn[ing] from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thess 1:9). Scripture also describes these two facets of conversion, turning from idols and embracing God, as repentance and faith. As a result of our conversion we are justified, reconciled to God, forgiven of sin, and made sons and daughters of God.
But in addition to these individual elements of conversion, we’re also made part of a kingdom and joined to a people that will endure beyond any nation or government.
CONVERSION: BECOMING PART OF GOD’S KINGDOM
According to Scripture, our conversion isn’t an isolated, private act. Conversion involves a change of citizenship from one kingdom to another. This fact doesn’t negate the individual elements of conversion. I repent of my sin. I trust in God’s promise that Christ will be my righteousness. I bow my knee to king Jesus. But these personal elements of conversion irrevocably lead to being made part of a kingdom of people who have done the same thing. This is why Paul describes conversion as being “transferred” from one kingdom to another: “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col 1:13–14). Or, as Peter explains, receiving God’s mercy makes us part of the people of God (1 Pet 2:10).
Conversion, then, may give us a personal relationship with God, but it doesn’t give us a private one.
One of the primary reasons we don’t more frequently think of our conversion and discipleship in these political terms is because we fail to see our Christian life as part of God’s kingdom, a body politic of eternal significance.
The marble halls of the Supreme Court and the dome of the US Capitol suggest a political significance far greater than our church building’s yellowing aluminum siding. Our local county buildings seem far more important than the elementary school gymnasium we rent for Sunday worship.
But Scripture suggests that things aren’t always as they seem. The kingdom of God often looks insignificant in the world’s eyes—like a baby born in a manger, like a Jewish carpenter nailed to a Roman cross. But behind these displays of weakness is the power of God. As John teaches, Jesus’ moment of being “lifted up” on the cross (Jn 3:14; 8:28; 12:32) doubles as his exaltation. On the cross, Christ glorifies himself as king.
Commenting on this fact, Jeremy Treat has noted, “The cross becomes not only the center of redemptive history, but the fulcrum on which the logic of the world is turned upside down. Shame is transformed into glory, humiliation is exaltation, foolishness is wisdom, and the cross is the throne from which Christ rules the world” (160).
The very fact that God’s kingdom is ushered in by the death of the king shows that while we await Christ’s return, his kingdom will bear the marks of his cross. God’s kingdom advances not through great displays of power but by the foolishness of preaching a crucified king (1 Cor 1:18; 2:1–5). God’s people are known for their weakness and folly, not their prestige and power (1 Cor 1:26–27). Their lives are characterized by unswerving allegiance to the king, denying any desire that doesn’t conform to his will and daily taking up their cross as they seek to love others as he loved them (Lk 9:23). Moreover, they encourage others to do the same (Matt 28:18–20). In this age, the kingdom of God is anything but glamorous. Again, as Treat notes, before Christ returns “the kingdom of God is hidden beneath the cross” (230).
Prior to conversion, we see God’s kingdom according to the eyes of the flesh: weak, foolish, and inconsequential. But after conversion we see with new eyes. We look at the cross and see a king. We look at his “weak and foolish” people and see our brothers and sisters. We hear the foolishness of preaching and see the wisdom of God.
A KINGDOM OF FAITH & REPENTANCE
Therefore, as citizens of Christ’s heavenly kingdom, we bear responsibilities to that kingdom. The question is how do we live out our responsibilities to a heavenly kingdom while on earth? How do we live for a future kingdom in the present?
We do so by living out our citizenship in kingdom embassies—local churches. Our local churches are outcroppings of the future kingdom, a place where God’s people will be known by name.
In local churches, converted men and women manifest God’s righteous rule and true political righteousness. Each kingdom citizen shares the same story: they don’t deserve to be there. As a result, these citizens don’t strive for self-importance or power but to “love one another with brotherly affection . . . [to] outdo one another in showing honor” (Rom 12:10).
Conversion roots our lives in a community characterized by repentance and faith. Because we’ve repented of our sin, we forgive those who sin against us (Eph 4:32). Because we’ve come into God’s kingdom by faith, we don’t use our deeds, status, ideology, or race to build barriers or as identity markers (Rom 3:27). Because we’ve recognized our greatest problem was that we were held captive in Satan’s kingdom, we proclaim the liberating word of the king to those still under bondage (Matt 28:18–20; 1 Pet 1:23).
For those with eyes of faith, we see humanity’s true political hope each Sunday morning as we sing, read Scripture, and listen to the preaching of God’s Word with those who have traded in their worldly ambitions for a cross. Each member comes on equal footing, confessing their sin and proclaiming their need of a Savior. In Christ’s kingdom, the noble and powerful are humbled because Christ died for their sins. In Christ’s kingdom, the weakest and least powerful are welcomed and affirmed because Christ died for their sins and has seated them with him in glory. Our citizenship isn’t rooted in anything in us; it’s purely by the grace of God who forgave our sins and transferred us from Satan’s kingdom to his own.