The Eternal Cityâ€™s Fall
In the year 410 A.D., the city of Rome was sacked and plundered by Alaric the Goth. The fall of Rome, the Eternal City, shocked the world and began the chain of events that culminated in the collapse of classical civilization. Expressing the lamentation of many Christians, Jerome wept and wondered, â€œWhat is to become of the church now that Rome has fallen?â€
For nearly one hundred years, Christianity had held sway within the Empire. Persecution was replaced by propagation. The civil laws were reformed and Christ was corporately honored. The state was de-divinized. Christianity began to transform the Greco-Roman culture of classical antiquity, making life more comfortable and humane. Romeâ€™s fall gave Jerome, and all Christians, much to lament.
To be sure, establishment had its disadvantages. Imperial privilege radically altered the church. No longer an institution of suffering pilgrims, the church became rich and powerful. Affluence and authority easily descend into decadence and corruption. The distinction between kingdom of God and kingdoms of men was confounded. Shepherds became politicians. Politicians became shepherds. The comforts of cultural Christianity tended to smother the former zeal of the suffering church.
Following the barbaric humiliation of â€œChristianâ€ Rome, traditionalists, defenders of ancient ways and older gods, blamed the Empireâ€™s woes on its new religion. Had the gods not forsaken the great city? Had Christianity not helped undermine the civic virtues of the old order and thereby weakened the state?
In the midst of collapsing culture, a North African Bishop named Augustine stood up to defend the faith. In His classic work The City of God Augustine attempted to vindicate the faith while providing the church with a more biblical understanding of her relationship to the world. Augustine reminded us that spiritual opposition drives history forward. According to Genesis 3:15, human history plays out the fundamental spiritual opposition between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. According to Augustine these two seeds are two contrasting cities:
Two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord (City of God, Book 14:28).
These two cities are not divided by geography, culture, or even politics. Rather, the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent grow up together like weeds in the midst of a field of wheat (Matt. 13: 24-30). Where then does the Kingdom of God find its antithesis with the world? The Biblical/Augustinian answer is that the contrast transcends the mundane realities of this life and divides men according to their most profound spiritual allegiance.
Distinguishing the Kingdoms
The Kingdom of God is found in the hearts of fallen sinful men. Jesus declared, â€œThe kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, â€˜See here!â€™ or â€˜See there!â€™ For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you.â€ The kingdom of heaven exists on earth through the power of the resurrection applied to individual hearts. Spiritual regeneration, or rebirth, places a fundamental separation between the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of men. The two kingdoms are divided by their contrasting loves and final destinations.
The Kingdom of God, the visible church of Christ (WCF 25:2), is distinguished from the world by its God-centered, rightly ordered loves. Having its loves ordered according to the work of the Holy Spirit, the heavenly kingdom stands in stark contrast to the prideful self-love of earthly kingdoms. Here we encounter the ultimate question placed before Adam in the Garden of Eden: where do your loves truly lie? The Scriptures reminds us that love expresses itself in obedience (John 14:15) and in trust (Psalm 5:11). Would Adam love His God and trust His Word? Or would he seek to make himself a god defining good and evil apart from Godâ€™s revelation?
We must be careful. We must not define the difference between the City of God and the cities of men by moral virtue. It is flatly false to suggest that Christians are more moral than their unbelieving neighbors. Rather, it is the nature of its faithful trust and loving obedience that separates the church from the world. The church, the visible manifestation of Godâ€™s Kingdom on earth, lives out of humble gratitude knowing that her faith is ever weak and her love ever burning cold, but her help is in the name of the Lord. The authentic mark of the City of God is a humble faith, wholly dependent upon the righteousness of Christ, and a living gratitude for our divinely accomplished salvation.
All men are pilgrims. All of us approach the last great adventure. Death is the common experience of all mankind. As Hank Williams Sr. sang, â€œNo matter how I struggle and strive, Iâ€™ll never get out of this world alive.â€ Pathetically, the kingdoms of this world seek to deny their pilgrim status. Their glory is the glory of â€œthis worldâ€, a glory that is already fading. Yet, against all hope, the world seeks to make eternal that which is passing. Whether on the plains of Shinar, or the research labs of Merk Pharmaceutical, the kingdoms of men seek to establish heaven here because they can expect only hell in the hereafter.
On the other hand, the City of God has made peace with its pilgrimage. It acknowledges that this world/age is passing away. It accepts that its ultimate hope and true loyalty belong to a heavenly city. As the author of Hebrews reminds us, â€œfor here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come (Heb. 13:14).â€ This is a liberating knowledge providing the City of God with a framework to embrace lifeâ€™s tragic beauty. The City of God is thus enabled to enjoy lifeâ€™s imperfect goodness, endure its pervasive sinfulness, and hope in its eschatological perfection.
Where Hope Lies
Christ reigns over all things for the good of His church (Eph. 1:22). As we have established Christâ€™s mediatorial reign creates an ideal duty for all nations and institutions to corporately confess His Lordship. In this age, the ideal is rarely approximated and never perfectly achieved. We rejoice in the approximation but we do so remembering that wisdom of the psalmist, â€œput no confidence in princes (Psalm 146:3).â€ There are two visible kingdoms in the midst of each nation blessed by the gospel, church and state. The Church is the Kingdom of God on earth, yet it contains tares in its field. The State concerns itself mainly with issues of this world that is passing away, yet many believers are found within it. The City of God and the City of Man are intermixed in Church and State. Sometimes Church and State are friends, but even where friendship is found, eschatalogical tensions remain unresolved. As long as wheat and tare grow up together in a common field, unity on matters earthly temporal, such as a patriotic love for the homeland, must always masks disunity on matters heavenly and eternal. Let us remember which Kingdom should captivate our hearts, own our ultimate allegiance and provide the center of our living hope.