The Christian, a Stranger Here and a Citizen of Heaven
A Tale of Two Cities
The Christian believer is always living in an inescapable tension! Much as we would love to be free of this tension, until we leave this earthly scene and enter the nearer presence of our great and gracious God, we will be engaged every moment of every day in this tension. I surely hardly need to spell out just what this tension is – but I will do so nonetheless! Here and now we live as ‘strangers’ in a foreign land; we are the children of the living God: we are even now ‘seated with Christ in the heavenly realms’; every breath we breathe takes us nearer ‘home’ – and yet we are not ‘home’. We live out the life of faith in a world shrouded in unbelief. The truth is that every Christian lives simultaneously in two worlds – our life is a tale of two cities.
There have been periods in the church’s life when Christians have sought to escape the reality of this tension. The Monastic movement (which was not irredeemably bad) was, at least in part, an attempt to avoid the strain and pain of this tension. But far from retreating from the world, God has commanded his people to be salt and light in the world. The gospel does not allow us the luxury of avoiding this tension. We are summoned to live in the world, while affirming in all that we are that we are not of the world. This is no easy thing. It would be so much easier to retreat into a ‘spiritual closet’, to ignore this world, to pop out now and again to ‘evangelise’ and then quickly retreat into the safety and security of our spiritual pain-free zone.
At the other extreme, Christians have sought to avoid the tension by blending seamlessly into the world, adopting its fashions, trends and ethos. In effect saying, ‘Look, I’m just like you; the only difference is that I have Jesus as well.’ This attempt to avoid the cost and pain of living in two worlds is equally (even more fatally) flawed. The Lord Jesus Christ is not the icing on the cake of life, he is the cake: ‘Christ is our life’! The stark biblical truth is that ‘If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.’ The child of God has experienced a double crucifixion: ‘the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.’ The cross of our Lord Jesus Christ has made it impossible for a Christian to blend seamlessly into this world. To do so would be to trample on the cross of our Saviour.
The fact is that the Christian life is a life of irresolvable tension. We are, by God’s grace, aliens and strangers. We march to the beat of a heavenly drum in a world shaped by an earth-bounded horizon. We live to the glory of God in a world which lives for itself. More acutely, we live to be holy as God is holy in bodies of death, yet marked by indwelling sin. The tension is within as well as without. We cannot, this side of glory, escape the tension – without becoming a disloyal traitor to our God and Saviour.
Perhaps this all sounds just darkly depressing, a counsel of despair: grit your teeth and get on with it! Never. This is the way the Master walked (though he did not have the tension of indwelling sin). It is our great privilege to follow in his steps. No servant is greater than his Master! But we must not and cannot stop there. The tension is real, at times overwhelmingly real, but we share this tension with all the saints. The fellowship of the church is a great comfort and support. Even more wonderfully, the Lord has promised never to leave you nor forsake you. There is always grace to help in time of need, promised grace, oath-bound, blood-sealed grace. And so, ‘we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.’
God does not hide from us the reality of kingdom life in a fallen world. But nor does he hide from us the privilege of following in the Master’s steps and the grace he promises to support and strengthen us in the tension – thanks be to God. The reality for the Christian is that even as we are always being led in Christ’s triumphal procession (2 Cor. 2:14), we are at the same time always carrying around in our bodies the death of Jesus (2 Cor. 4:10). This is as good as it gets this side of heaven’s glory. It is the ‘normal Christian life’, the life pattern that indelibly marked THE man of faith, our Lord Jesus Christ. So, go on. Prove day by day that there is always ‘grace to help in time of need.’
Ian Hamilton is Pastor of the Cambridge Presbyterian Church.
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