We address pushbacks and concerns on the podcast, like this one: “Hello, Pastor John, I’m a joyful graduate of Bethlehem College and Seminary. I was also able to fly back this year to attend the pastors’ conference. I’ve been blessed by God’s work in your ministry for years and find myself consistently in agreement with you. One area of difference that struck me at the 2017 pastors’ conference was the statement you made that Jesus’s reign isn’t good news (recently reposted online). Here’s my struggle: the statement ‘the kingdom of God is not good news’ seems to conflict what I find in Isaiah 52:7 (especially in light of Hebrews 2:5–9). I am in full agreement that the atonement is necessary, but rather than seeing this at odds to Jesus’s reign, I see it — atonement — as a vehicle of his reign. That is, his reign demands that all of his enemies are under his feet — this includes sin and death, according to 1 Corinthians 15:55–56 — and the means of their defeat was his suffering (cf. Hebrews 2:9). Am I wrong in seeing Jesus’s reign in this way? I hope this makes sense and comes across with the great respect I have for you and the earnest desire for your response.”
I doubt that we have a basic disagreement, but let me say what I was thinking and see if this helps.
When I say the kingdom of God is not good news (and I don’t say it often because it’s so blatantly wrong at one level and right at another), I know that I’m saying something which, out of context, contradicts numerous texts of the Bible.
The Good News
In Luke 4:43, Jesus says, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God.” Good grief, Piper, it’s so clear! Yes, it’s good news. The kingdom of God is good news. Jesus came preaching the good news of the kingdom. Of course, it is based on Isaiah 52:7: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news” — What good news? — “who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’”
So to those who have him as their God, that’s really good news. So why do I say something so blatantly opposite to what the Bible says in its own language? I say it because it’s true in the way I mean it, and the way I explained it. It’s true biblically.
The Bad News
When the kingdom of God is established, finally with the new heaven and the new earth, those who have not repented and received the forgiveness of sins offered through the gospel of Christ’s shed blood and perfected righteousness will perish. They will perish precisely because God reigns. They will perish precisely because the kingdom came decisively and finally and gloriously.
“Millions of people will experience the coming of the kingdom as the worst thing that could ever happen to them.”
Here’s a description of what’s going to happen from 2 Thessalonians 1:7–9. Here’s what happens when the king comes: “When the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.”
Revelation 6:16 describes what will happen when the throne is exalted and people see it, saying, “[They will call] on the mountains and rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb.’” That’s not good news for them. The worst news they could possibly hear is that God reigns over their unrepentant rebellion.
Degrading the Cross
What moves me to use this drastic language — “the kingdom of God is not good news” — is that some preachers today, some younger preachers and some older preachers, are downplaying the centrality and prominence of the personal work of salvation through the cross in the forgiveness of sins and the propitiating of the wrath of God. They are instead foregrounding cosmic, global triumph of God over the world and the restoration of all things to the way it should be.
It is possible to wax very global and social and environmental and holistic and comprehensive and eloquent as if the preachers of the traditional, historic, personal gospel that Christ died for the sins of individuals somehow didn’t know that Romans 8:18–25 is in the Bible, where the whole creation waits for the revealing of the sons of God who’ve been individually redeemed.
I’ve always taught the renovation of the universe is a playground for the children of God who’ve been saved. What I’m concerned about is that the magnificent propitiating work of the blood of Jesus to remove the wrath of God from his people by his blood is minimized. It’s treated as an afterthought, a footnote. You have to raise your hand and say, “What about that?” and then they say it.
There are those who even despise it.
Not an Afterthought
When I said, “Farewell, Rob Bell,” I wasn’t reacting to his view of hell. I was reacting to him despising the atonement in his video where he made fun of the work of God to propitiate God through the sacrifice of his Son.
But that’s not the impression you get when you read the New Testament. You don’t get the impression that the personal saving, forgiving, justifying, reconciling work of Jesus for particular people who are guilty before God is backgrounded. You don’t. You do not get that impression.
“When God establishes his kingdom, those who have not received the forgiveness of sins will perish.”
You read the New Testament and, of course, there’s a global, cosmic, glorious consummation to all things. But nobody’s going there with a guilty conscience. We must be forgiven for our sins; we must have the righteousness of Jesus; we must have our guilt removed. My way of responding to that emphasis is to say if you’re going to talk about the kingdom as the essence of the gospel, you better be clear that millions and millions of people will experience the final coming of the kingdom as the worst thing that could ever happen to them.
The best news in all the world is how the king has chosen to reign. He has chosen to come in two stages. The first time as a servant, “to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). The glory of the king is going to be upheld. Oh yes, it will. And wonder of wonders, traitors and penitent, believing rebels are going to be pardoned, even adopted, into the king’s family because the king became a curse for us (Galatians 3:13).
In his flesh, our sin is condemned (Romans 8:3). He bore in his body what we should have borne (Isaiah 53:4–5; 1 Peter 2:24). This is the heart of the gospel, and without it, the reign of God is only bad news. With it, with this cross, the reign of God is our joy and our glory.”
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