This “radical, yet gradual” nature of the Kingdom needs to be understood in two ways. Firstly, when a person is converted out of darkness into the light of Christ, profound and totally radical change occurs, both in heaven and upon earth. His name is indelibly written in the Book of Life. He is born again by the Spirit of God. He is united into Christ. These realities mean that in time he will be transformed totally and made perfectly conformed to the Son of Man. He will end up being like Jesus (I John 3:2).
Yet existential reality is somewhat different. The believer continues to sin; he lives in weakness; he is subject to many temptations; his life is full of ups and downs. He is afflicted with sicknesses. He struggles and suffers. Eventually he dies. Through this process of weakness, struggle and suffering he becomes sanctified. He grows in grace. He is changed from one degree of glory to another until he becomes like Christ. In other words the actualisation of Christlikeness is gradual. This is what theologians call the grace of sanctification. It is a gradual, slow, bit-by-bit transforming into greater holiness.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism defines sanctification as follows:
Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.
Shorter Catechism, Question 35
A good analogy is that of a child growing to maturity. Upon birth, all the potential of the adult is present, nascent within the child. As the child grows and matures, more and more of the potential is realised. But the process is gradual.
The Kingdom of God, similarly, comes upon the earth gradually. It has to be this way, because the Kingdom is not divorced from the elect—their number, degree of understanding of the Word of God, levels of sanctification and obedience, and influence throughout the culture. Even as the Kingdom comes within and upon them gradually, so the Kingdom comes in nations and cultures slowly and gradually, even as the Church and the elect come to greater and greater maturity.
This also implies that sanctification should be to an extent intergenerational. A person brought up in a godly Christian home, instructed and trained by sanctified parents, ordinarily starts off on the process of sanctification well ahead of someone who has just been converted out of the extremes of a dissolute, violent, and drug-enslaved family. (This, of course, does not imply that the one is less intrinsically sinful than the other, for the Scriptures declare that whoever observes the whole Law but slips in one point, is guilty in every respect. However, it does mean that to whom much has been given, much is expected.)
As we seek to extend the Kingdom of God, we are concerned to apply God’s Word not only to our own individual lives and responsibilities, but also to corporate and institutional life. We wish to develop sound, biblical Christian schools. We want to see hospitals, voluntary institutions, and businesses acting consistently with biblical precepts and directions. We want to see the rules and constitutions of these structures conformed to Christ’s law and commands. We wish to see civil law reflect biblical ethical standards. Part of service in His Kingdom is working to bring these things about in an appropriate fashion. It will only occur as those ruling and working in each respective institution covenant together to serve the Lord in holiness.
We also want to see the government conformed to Christ as His servant, restricted to His mandate, and acting appropriately as His minister. This means that we need to work to see that progressively the law of the land conforms to the commands and directions of the risen Lord.
It is at this point that many Christians become confused. Imbued with a deep conviction of the absolute nature of God’s commands, they find themselves unable to accept anything less than complete conformity to God’s commands in the public sphere. They think that to work for anything less than the absolute would be to compromise the faith and disobey the Lord.
Take abortion for example. So convicted are many Christians that any and all positive efforts to kill an unborn child is an act of murder, they cannot bring themselves to support measures which would only make abortion relatively more difficult or more restricted. A mere step forward is not just insufficient, it is seen as permissively supporting something that is wicked. The only thing they would be able to support is a total proscription of all abortion, at all times, in all conditions and places. Anything less they would regard as an ungodly compromise.
But this denies the gradualist nature of the Kingdom. It also denies how God deals with them in their own process of sanctification.
John Quincy Adams, a staunch Christian, was for many seventeen years a US Congressman, after having served as President. For all that time he, year after year, sought leave to introduce a Bill into the House to restrict slavery. He was refused year after year. But he kept at it. His Bill was a gradualist measure. It called firstly for the outlawing of all slavery in Washington DC. Secondly, it called for all the children of slaves born in the United States to be freemen. Adams argued that in time (since slave ships were already illegal) these measures would mean that slavery would die out in all the States of the Union.
But his biggest opponents were the Abolitionists who were so committed to opposing slavery as an absolute evil that they could not support any measure that did not immediately and totally end the practice. Adams was a gradualist. The Abolitionists were radicals and revolutionaries. Adams understood the gradualist nature of the Kingdom of God; the Abolitionists did not. Their intransigence indirectly led to the death of 620,000 soldiers, and untold civilians a few years later as a result of the Civil War.
It is an irony that amongst the strongest opponents to gradualist measures introducing partial restrictions upon abortion in our day are Christians. They have not understood the gradualist nature of the Kingdom. They have not understood that supporting of gradual measures is not ungodly compromise. It is rather a programme that is not only entirely consistent with the gradualist nature of the Kingdom of God, but in fact a service demanded by the King Himself.
When Israel went into the land of Palestine, the destruction of the pagan tribes in the land was to be complete. There was to be no compromise. There was to be no mingling of paganism and idolatry with the true and pure worship of God. But, at the same time, the process of taking over the promised land was to be gradual.
I will not drive them out before you in a single year, that the land may not become desolate and the beasts of the field become too numerous for you. I will drive them out before you little by little, until you become fruitful and take possession of the land.
Exodus 24: 29,30
This meant that Israel was to put up with a lot of rubbish in the “hood” until the pagan cultures were finally overcome. “Little by little” is the rubric. Christians are to be radicals in principle, but gradualists in practice. That is the way God deals with every one of His children. It is the way, we, as God’s called servants, are to deal with the culture and community around us.