The Common Good

Letter to a Kingdom Citizen

A common sentiment that’s expressed by both the left and the right on the issue of immigration reform is that immigrants need to prove their faithful adherence to the law and contribution to society before they’re put on some path to citizenship. It's redemption by works. It’s a reasonable means to verify their willingness to contribute to society. But a disconcerting irony dawned on me amid all this mutual give-and-take language we hear about immigrants; that is, many citizens themselves do not heed the same exhortation to contribute to their country today.

This is encouraged by the fact that citizenship today is identified entirely by a piece of paper, not by a way of life — by ink, not by deed. Although one’s citizenship technically includes a whole list of rights and duties, the fulfillment of these rights and duties is not a part of the identification process. This is understandable, as it’s very difficult to tell whether someone is trying to contribute to the state or merely trying to get what they can out of their legal privileges. I'm not out to start a Civil Reformation or something. But these thoughts have reminded me that the standard the Bible sets for Christian citizenship in heaven is something else entirely.

New Calvinists today have hammered home the doctrine of justification by faith through grace, not by works or legalistic moralism. Kingdom citizenship is claimed by faith in Christ. Got it.

Yet, Scripture is emphatic that Kingdom citizenship is not identified by faith alone, but also by works. That is to say, Kingdom citizenship is not a mere status, but also a lifestyle. We are called not only to reside in God's Kingdom with Christ as our passport, but also to be its faithful servants; not only to be believers, but also doers. Truth is, the heart that is content with the former really doesn’t describe a citizen, but a tourist vacationing indefinitely. The Kingdom is reserved for those intent on becoming its citizens.

Paul's letter to the Philippians contains some of the best expression of what Kingdom citizenship really amounts to, a letter that can be summed up as one citizen’s exhortation to another. It’s important to note that Phillipi was a Roman colony at the time, and the Philippians were content and grateful for the privileges of Roman citizenship. Paul alludes to the Philippians' allegiance to the empire in reminding them of their primary allegiance to the Kingdom of God.

In Philippians 1:27, Paul writes:

Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ ... with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents.

It's important to note that Paul is speaking to the Christians in Philippi, "all the saints ... overseers [pastors] and deacons" (Phil.1:1). These are men and women already justified and saved by grace through faith, citizens with the legal right to enter the Kingdom. The good work that God began in them will be brought to completion one day, just as it will in us (Phil.1:6). Still, not once throughout Paul's letter does this reality compromise the urgency with which he entreats the Philippians, to not only believe in Christ, but also to take hold of the privilege of the citizenship and serve the King with joy just as they do commensurate with their Roman citizenship.

Paul goes on to say in Philippians 3:

[17] Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.

[20] But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ

Having been saved by the grace of God, rather than complacently taking their eyes off the first call, they are called to walk according to the example set for us by Christ all the more (v.17). Kingdom citizens are not called to just sit and wait for the Savior, but also to imitate him (v.20).

The application of this to the Christian life is critical; and its standard of citizenship, unparalleled. Paul's radical exhortations to the Philippians illustrate this well:

To not merely believe, but to consider it a privilege to suffer for the Kingdom (Phil.1:29); to not merely obey in the presence of accountability, so to treat it as mere duty, but to obey also in the absence of accountability, so to prove one’s allegiance (Phil. 2:12); to not seek one’s own interest alone, but that of the Kingdom and its King (Phil.2:21); to never settle for the status quo (Phil.3:14); to resist passivity (Phil.2:2, 4:2); and so on.

The biblical criteria for identifying Kingdom citizens is more than proving it on paper (whether it’s a baptism certificate or a signed sinner’s prayer), but living it out in everyday life. Being selfless, obedient, faithful, and diligent as Christ was — this makes up the substance of Kingdom citizenship.

It also follows that we who embrace this biblical, holistic citizenship would make the best citizens of this earthly nation. Our status is written in ink in the book of life, and this guarantee stirs us up to contend for the Kingdom with an undying joy (Phil.4:3-4). This should translate into the noblest examples of our earthly citizenship, albeit secondary to our eternal identity. 

It should also affect the way we treat immigrants that are living amongst us. All Christians were once non-citizens in the Kingdom of God. Not a single citizen was a citizen by birth, except for the King. In fact, we were all enemies to the King. But consider the King, the first Kingdom citizen to become an immigrant so that immigrants could become Kingdom citizens (Phil.2:6-7). Christians should be the first ones assisting the immigrants in integrating into their communities.

True citizens of heaven will not only have their legal status to show for when Jesus returns with the fullness of his Kingdom, but along with that status they will bear the image and the fragrance of the ultimate Citizen, Jesus Christ. They will serve the poor, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, heal the sick, and visit those in prison (Matt.25:31-40). Those of us who claim Christ as our righteousness must likewise proactively put on Christ daily and display his righteousness daily (Gal.3:27). Realizing this will not only affect the way we live as God's Kingdom citizens, but also as earthly citizens here on earth.

Sungyak "John" Kim is an MDiv student of theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Fla. He is currently investigating the intersection between philosophy and theology, and their practical applications in our culture and politics. You can follow him on Twitter @sungyak.

Photo: Visitor, LitDenis / Shutterstock.com

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