On Seeking a Better Country
In 1 Peter 2:11, the apostle writes that Christians are “sojourners and exiles” who therefore must “abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.” The King James translation translates the first phrase as “strangers and pilgrims,” whereas the New International Version has it as “foreigners and exiles.” This exact phrase appears in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) in Genesis 23:4, referring to Abraham in his wanderings in the land that was promised to his descendants. Abraham himself never possessed that land. Thus, he lived in it as a sojourner and exile.
Some contemporary theologians—particularly those identifying with the Reformed Two Kingdoms (R2K) view—have based much of their understanding of how Christians should live in the world, and engage with it, on their understanding of the biblical language of Christians as “sojourners and exiles.” David VanDrunen is one of the leading representatives of this view. In his book Living in God’s Two Kingdoms (pp. 87–88) he writes that
Abraham and his descendants were “sojourners” and “strangers” (Gen. 12:10; 15:13; 20:1; 21:34; 23:4; Heb. 11:13), precisely what Christians today are called to be (1 Pet. 2:11). As participants in the Noahic covenant, they joined in cultural activities with their pagan neighbors in the common kingdom. As participants in the Abrahamic covenant, they were simultaneously citizens of the redemptive kingdom, remaining radically separate from their neighbors in their religious commitment as they trusted in the true God for justification (Gen. 15:6) and eternal life (Heb. 11:13–16).
One could summarize the R2K view briefly as follows. Under the Noahic covenant (Genesis 8:20–9:17) all cultural labor, including human government, is common to all men, although spiritually speaking, God’s people must remain absolutely distinct from the world. Only under the Mosaic covenant are things different for God’s people. Israel, under that covenant, is to be ruled directly by God’s law. Thus, under the Mosaic covenant, there is to be not only a spiritual antithesis between God’s people and the peoples of the world, but also a cultural and political antithesis. As VanDrunen puts it: “The cultural commonality among believers and unbelievers ordained in the Noahic covenant, was suspended for Israel within the borders of the Promised Land” (Living in God’s Two Kingdoms, p. 89). The cultural and political antithesis, however, disappears when the Mosaic covenant comes to an end (when Israel is exiled for disobedience).
As stated by VanDrunen, some of the primary implications of the R2K view for believers today are that we should not become anxious about the wickedness of our own nation, we should engage in politics without expecting unbelievers to act like believers, and we should have “modest expectations” in what we can accomplish in our cultural endeavors. Above all else R2Kers appear concerned that believers will confuse the earthly kingdoms of man for the kingdom of God. While VanDrunen can write that “Peter’s terminology also suggests that Christians should be active participants in their communities of exile,” one gets the distinct impression this is only the case if one qualifies such participation with the caveat that it will never actually succeed in forming just nations, that even the attempt to succeed in this way is an unbiblical effort to transform the kingdoms of man into the kingdom of God.
There have been a variety of critical responses to R2K theology, but most are united in rejecting what they would call a cultural and political theology of exile. Despite disagreements (in eschatology, a view of the Mosaic law, etc.) these critics of the R2K view agree that the exilic theology as described above is not biblical. What I have noticed, however, is that there is rarely a corresponding attempt to explain what the biblical texts that call Christians sojourners, exiles, and so on, actually mean. It just seems obvious that they can’t mean that Christians should disengage from pursuing cultural and political success.
But these texts are in the Bible, and there are a good number of them. What do they mean, if they aren’t articulating cultural retreatism? In addition to 1 Peter 2:11 we could include the following texts:
1 Peter 1:1: Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, . . .
1 Pet 1:17: And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, . . .
Hebrews 11:13–16: “These [Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Sarah] all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.
First Peter 1:1 uses “exile,” the same word the ESV translates as “exile” in 1 Peter 2:11. First Peter 1:17 refers to our time of “exile,” using the noun form of the word that in its adjectival form the ESV translates as “sojourner” in 1 Pet 2:11 (for linguistic reasons it probably would have been better for the ESV to use “time of sojourn” in 1:17 rather than “time of exile”). The OT background of exile is the forced expulsion of Israel into Assyria, and then later, of Judah into Babylon. The OT background of sojourning is Abraham’s life in the land of promise, but without possessing it as his own.
The vital question to ask of these texts is: exile from what? One major assumption of the R2K view appears to be that the exile is an exile from the nations and political orders of this world. It is as if being a Christian, a citizen of Heaven (Phil 3:20), prevents one from vigorously pursuing justice and the political flourishing of one’s earthly nation. But nothing in these texts indicates that at all. In fact, the contrast appears quite clearly to be between our life in this fallen world and our future heavenly life. It is because we are “sojourners and exiles” that we are to “abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul” (1 Pet 2:11), not that we are to abstain from establishing, building, or reforming earthly nations. Admittedly these texts don’t refer to such cultural labors either, but it would be wrong, on the basis of such texts, to build a political theology of exile that discourages vigorous Christian efforts in cultural and political activities.
That the exile scripture refers to is an exile from our future, heavenly home is all the clearer in Hebrews 11:13–16. The patriarchs “were strangers and exiles on the earth.” The fact that they lived in the land of promise without receiving “the things promised” (i.e., without inheriting the land as a possession), but “greeted them from afar” is meant to be a model for Christians in all ages. We too “are seeking a homeland” and “desire a better country.” We have not yet arrived at our heavenly home, the city prepared for us by God.
Our exile, then, is not an exile from faithful and energetic service to our nation, desiring to be successful in those labors. Instead, we are exiles because we await the arrival of the fullness of the new creation that will be brought about at the second coming of our savior. It is, of course, always true that earthly goods can capture our hearts and turn them away from heavenly-mindedness and a love for Christ, but this is just as true for any earthly good. Christians don’t believe that being exiles from heaven forces us to take a hands-off or hesitant approach to marriage, or child-rearing, or providing for our families in our earthly jobs. Christian husbands are not worried that loving our wives as our own bodies (Eph 5:28) is a confusion of earthly and heavenly kingdoms. Why would our status as exiles from Heaven mandate such an approach to earthly cultural and political action?
There is one, final biblical text, however, that is even more decisive in revealing that the Christian’s exile is not an exile from earthly political striving. It is 1 Chronicles 29:14–15, a text that recounts King David’s prayer to God in anticipation of the soon-to-be-constructed temple:
But who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able thus to offer willingly? For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you. For we are strangers before you and sojourners, as all our fathers were. Our days on the earth are like a shadow, and there is no abiding.
The claim of R2K exilic political theology is that “modest expectations” and hesitancy toward spirited political Christian action are unique features of the exilic existence in the New Covenant age or of any historical epoch apart from Israel’s life in the land of promise under the Mosaic covenant. But David makes it clear that even at the height of his power, and under the Mosaic and Davidic covenants, he too was a stranger and a sojourner, that is, an exile. But an exile from what? Just like us, he was an exile from the consummate, heavenly presence of God, from the realm in which the mere shadow of our fleeting earthly existence gives way to the enduring and abiding heavenly city God has prepared for all of his children.
In sum, our present sojourn and exile on this earth should create in us a longing for our heavenly home in the new creation, but it should not cause us to disengage from enthusiastically pursuing the good in the nations in which God has placed us. As a matter of fact, R2Kers don’t always deny this in principle, though in practice they are rarely focused on anything other than what Christians should not do regarding civic and political involvement. The effect, then, is not to prod Christians into actually seeking the welfare of their cities (Jeremiah 29:7), but rather to discourage them from ever making the attempt.
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