Friday, February 20, 2015

"Born Again" and the Kingdom of God

Maybe you've seen this one, or maybe it's only popular among overscheduled mothers:

A woman is stuck in traffic on her way home from work. She'll be lucky to get dinner on the table before bedtime at this rate. She leaves her husband a frantic voicemail, asking him to put some spaghetti on the stove for dinner. She comes home to find this:

So what on earth does this have to do with the Kingdom of God? We're glad you asked!

Today we'll continue examining Herbert W Armstrong's teachings on "born again." In our first post on this topic, we looked at HWA's reproduction analogy, sometimes called the "fetal analogy" in today's Churches of God. Today, we'll learn from the poor guy in our example who took literally words his wife meant to be understood figuratively. Let's make sure we aren't showing a similar lack of discernment in spiritual matters.

Since many readers from the Churches of God might be wary of those who has "left the fold" to join the ranks of "deceived Christianity," we are referencing commentary from John Ritenbaugh, founder and pastor of Church of the Great God, to narrate this series. Ritenbaugh is a COG minister who has written an extensive series, "Born Again or Begotten," which challenges Armstrong's teachings on "born again." For more background on Ritenbaugh, please see part one of this series.

See the Kingdom

Herbert Armstrong equated being "born again" with being transformed into a spirit body when the Kingdom of God is fully ushered in on earth at Jesus' second coming (Just What Do You Mean Born Again, p. 17). Humans are undeniably composed of matter, not spirit. And flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God, according to 1 Corinthians 15:50, he noted. Therefore he concluded that we cannot be born again until we receive spirit bodies at Jesus' return.

Armstrong linked these two concepts - transformation of our bodies and the Kingdom - using Jesus' conversation with the Pharisee Nicodemus recorded in John 3. He taught that the Kingdom of God is solely something to be literally seen, according to verse 3. Armstrong explained his belief that verses 5 and 6 meant that one who was literally flesh and blood could not enter the Kingdom, and that Christians will remain physically human until the return of Christ.
"The Church is composed of human, flesh-and-blood children of God. And, flesh and blood cannot see, cannot enter into, cannot inherit the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is made up of spirit -composed children of God. The Spirit-begotten human in the Church is in the process of being born of God, but he has not yet entered into the Kingdom. He has not yet been born again. He is in the gestation state toward spirit-birth, but not yet born of the spirit."
-Herbert Armstrong, Just What Do You Mean Born Again, pp 22-23
Ritenbaugh, however, disagrees that "seeing" the Kingdom is solely a literal, visual observation. The Greek word used here is eido, which can also mean "to perceive with the mind" or "understand," according to Spiros Zodhiates' Complete Word Study of the New Testament. For way of illustration, Ritenbaugh explains in Born Again or Begotten, Part 1, the apostle Paul made a total change when he "saw" or perceived that he was a hardened sinner. He was not physically observing his arm or leg, rather, he understood his behavior.

(As a side note, we are not aware of any word the Bible uses to describe Paul's moment of enlightenment - this self-perception is implied because of his complete reversal in behavior. We assume Ritenbaugh includes this explanation in case anyone is unfamiliar with the figurative use of the word "see.")

Regardless, the Bible indicates the Kingdom is something a person can enter before Jesus' return, Ritenbaugh concludes.  It is at the same time a present and future reality. Jesus tells us in John 18:36 that His Kingdom is not of this world, but He also warns in Mark 1:15 that time is fulfilled and the Kingdom is at hand. It would seem one can enter the Kingdom at once when God's most basic requirement is fulfilled - being born again (in this life). (Ritenbaugh, Born Again or Begotten, part one).

Armstrong also frequently made the point that this world belonged to Satan the Devil - he is its god. He made heavy use of such verses as II Corinthians 4: 4, Matthew 4: 9 and John 14: 30 to make his case.

This point is granted. No one argues that Satan has an overwhelming degree of influence and even control in the world, as we see it presently. This much is clear. However, this is not the whole story. There exist some who are in this world but are not of it. Verses such as John 14: 17, Romans 12: 2, Galatians 4: 26 and many others make the clear case that these are separate and distinct. The point we make is that there are two kingdoms here on this earth. One from above and one from below. One in bondage and one free. One dead and one alive. One from Satan and one from God. The one from God exists here as a witness to the one from Satan, that those who accept the witness can be set free from their bondage and be born again, now, into the Kingdom of God.

(JOHN 17:9-21) 9 I pray for them. I do not pray for the world but for those whom You have given Me, for they are Yours. 10 And all Mine are Yours, and Yours are Mine, and I am glorified in them. 11 Now I am no longer in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to You. Holy Father, keep through Your name those whom You have given Me, that they may be one as We are. 12 While I was with them in the world, I kept them in Your name. Those whom You gave Me I have kept; and none of them is lost except the son of perdition, that the Scripture might be fulfilled. 13 But now I come to You, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have My joy fulfilled in themselves. 14 I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. 15 I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one. 16 They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. 17 Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth. 18 As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. 19 And for their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they also may be sanctified by the truth. 20 I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; 21 that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.

Another point: if there is no Kingdom now, the ambassador analogy HWA rehearsed so frequently makes no sense, Ritenbaugh notes. We cannot currently be ambassadors for a kingdom that doesn't exist. Nor can we be ambassadors for a kingdom that we are not part of. Therefore, verses like Ephesians 1:3-5, 7, 11, 13 and 14 must indicate that the Kingdom must exist in some form today, and that Christians are born again upon receiving the Holy Spirit.

(EPHESIANS 1:11-14) 11 In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will, 12 that we who first trusted in Christ should be to the praise of His glory. 13 In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, 14 who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory.

In other words, we have obtained an inheritance of salvation in Christ. Now. The proof of that inheritance, that salvation, is the Holy Spirit dwelling within us.

We know right now some of you are thinking, what's the big deal?  You are saying the same thing as us. We both believe we have the Holy Spirit as a down-payment on our salvation.

No, that's not what we're saying at all. The Holy Spirit is not merely a down payment, leaving us to wonder if the balance will be paid off in the future or - even worse  - making us responsible for paying the balance ourselves. No. It is a receipt, a proof of purchase, a guarantee.

As the story goes, there once was a wealthy man who went house shopping. He found a house that he liked and told the Realtor that he intended to buy but could not take possession of the house now. He indicated that he wanted the Realtor to hold the house for him until he returned. The Realtor replied that the down payment to hold the house was $100,000. The wealthy man wrote the Realtor a check for one billion dollars and went on his way.

Now, do you suppose that the wealthy man will not return to take possession of the house, having left a down payment far in excess of the full cost of the house? Of course he will. It is guaranteed. Is Christ's sacrifice worth much more than one billion dollars?

God will make good on His investment. Those whom God has regenerated and given the Holy Spirit will increasingly demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit, through the process known as sanctification. This is not law by our effort, this is grace by God's effort. When we see a "professing" Christian who doesn't show this fruit consistently over time, we must wonder whether they really have been regenerated, whether the Holy Spirit truly lives in him, or whether they have been "playing church" all this time. Not whether they have been "trying hard enough."

HWA, however, prefers to embrace the "trying hard enough" model, warning his followers that they will be a spiritual abortion if they aren't good enough (Just What Do You Mean, Born Again, p. 45).
He brushed past Ephesians 1, instead turning to 1 Corinthians 15:50, which describes the current state as heirs to the Kingdom, not inheritors. This focus on our tenuous status with God, all dependent upon our righteousness quotient, seems like another of HWA's thinly veiled attempts to control his followers. The problem is, an heir does not indicate a fetal state.

Consider Abraham's discussion with God in Genesis 15 - Abraham was troubled that he had no heir, and that a servant would inherit his wealth when he died. He lamented that he did not have a child. An heir can be, and usually is, one who is alive. It is the state of the one who possesses the estate - not the heir himself - that determines whether one is an heir or an inheritor.

Colossians 1:13 tells us that Christians have already been delivered "from the power of darkness and conveyed (us) into the Kingdom of the Son of His love." We can't be conveyed into a Kingdom that does not yet exist. We are told over and over again, in Luke 17:20-21, Acts 2:29-36 and Revelation 1:5, to name a few, that Jesus already reigns from His throne. We simply lack the eyes to see and the ears to hear.

Jesus already considered Himself to be king in John 18:37. He didn't tell Pilate that He would be a king if He qualified for the throne by making it through the next eight hours without sinning. He didn't tell Pilate that He would be a King when He returned a few millennia later. He told him, "You say rightly that I am a king."

So when Jesus told the scribe in Mark 12:28-34 he was not far from the Kingdom of God, he meant the man was not far from being converted and entering the Kingdom of God (Born Again or Begotten, Part 1). Though this Kingdom is not fully established on earth yet, "Scripture proves it is a present, earthly reality having earth-bound, flesh-and-blood citizens who are, in the Bible's terms, 'spiritually minded' or 'in the spirit'," he explains.
"Currently, the Kingdom of God is made up of those who are part of it, recognize and submit to the rule of the Father and Son," Ritenbaugh says. "A person becomes part of it by being born again, and those who are born again become sons of God."
-John Ritenbaugh, Born Again or Begotten, Part 1.
Ritenbaugh sees obedience to the Old Covenant law by our own efforts (ie. "submitting to the rules")  - mainly the Sabbath, holy days, tithing, and foods laws - as the natural outcome of being born again. We disagree. We believe the key is faith in Jesus Christ and the natural outcome of that is the Holy Spirit in you, guiding you to acts of charity and virtue rather than law. It is by faith from first to last (Romans 1: 17). We would reword his phrase as such:

"Currently, the Kingdom of God is made up of those who are part of it, who have faith in the victory of Jesus Christ on the cross and surrender their lives to the leadership of the Holy Spirit..."

Even if we reword, the essence is that we are born again into the kingdom now. And in this essential point we are in total agreement.

Still skeptical? Consider the what Jesus Himself said about the Kingdom in the parables of the growing seed, the parable of the mustard seed and the parable of the leaven:

(MARK 4: 26-29) 26 And He said, "The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground, 27 and should sleep by night and rise by day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he himself does not know how. 28 For the earth yields crops by itself. First the blade, then the head, after that the full grain in the head. 29 But when the grain ripens, immediately he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come."

(MARK 4: 30-32) 30 Then He said, 'to what shall we liken the Kingdom of God? Or with what parable shall we picture it? 31 It is like a mustard seed which, when it is sown on the ground, is smaller than all the seeds on the earth; 32 but when it is sown, it grows up and becomes greater than all herbs, and shoots out large branches, so that the birds of the air may nest under its shade.'

(MATTHEW 13: 33) Another parable He spoke to them: 'The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal till it was all leavened.'

In all three parables, the kingdom was something that came quietly, secretly and hidden. It grew to be something large, spectacular and dramatic, but it didn't start that way. Incidentally, we will see this concept again when we look at John 3:8.

Armstrong, like the Pharisees, was confused by Jesus' teachings about the Kingdom because he was looking for a spectacular, visible establishment of Jesus' Kingdom. Such a fulfillment will come in the future. Jesus will bring His kingdom to the earth in dramatic fashion in the future. That is when it will exist here in full. But that does not in any way prevent it from existing right here right now. It exists here in part right now, today, within each of His own. Scripture, including the teachings of the King Himself, clearly indicate this reality. If God is in you, if you are one with Him by faith, if Jesus Christ is your Lord, and you are His Temple and even a member of the very body of Christ, then His Kingdom has come to you. Abide in it. The misinterpretation only comes in via Armstrong's singular focus on future prophecy. He was so intently pointed at the future millennium that he failed to see it in the present.

(JOHN 3: 3) Jesus answered and said to him, 'most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God'.

Next time, we will consider what Armstrong had to say about the Greek word gennao - the definition of which he largely hung his doctrine. Spoiler alert: Ritenbaugh and the United Church of God agree with us that HWA was mistaken.

It is important that you understand; Everything on this blog is based on the current understanding of each author. Never take anyone's word for it, always prove it for yourself, it is your responsibility. You cannot ride someone else's coattail into the Kingdom. ; )
Acts 17:11

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