Questioning the Kingdom? - Part 1: Definitions
What is the kingdom of God? How is cultural, societal, political transformation related to the kingdom?
In defining the kingdom of God, we start by recognizing that the rule of God is inescapable. God is king (Ps. 47:7). By his very nature as God, he reigns sovereign over the hearts of his people, the affairs of nations, and movements of the cosmos.
But it is necessary to make a distinction. When Jesus began his ministry, he proclaimed, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand” (Mk. 1:15). So, there is a progressive, unfolding dimension to the kingdom of God that must be considered in addition to God’s ever-present, universal rule.
We may distinguish between God’s rule in creation and God’s kingdom in redemption. God rules creation by virtue of his meticulous sovereignty over all whatsoever that comes to pass, and this is manifest in his providence in history (Ps. 24:1, 33:11; Isa. 46:10; Eph. 1:11). By contrast, God rules his redemptive kingdomby means of his Spirit operative in the hearts of his regenerate, covenant people. This eschatological kingdom includes those who were saved by virtue of the covenant of grace in the Old Testament and was promised under the types and shadows of theocratic Israel. The kingdom of God was formally inaugurated in Christ’s redemptive work, as Christ now reigns in heaven from the right hand of the Father, and now extends progressively in the present age through the propagation of the gospel. And this kingdom will ultimately give way to the eternal state on the last day.
In his first coming, Christ received the redemptive kingdom (Ps. 2; Dan. 7:14; Rev. 11:15). Jesus has total authority (Mt. 28:18) and is putting all his enemies under his feet (Ps. 110:1). His kingdom is presently growing under his blessing as the church obeys her Great Commission duties. At the consummation, the Son will render his domain, now fully subjugated to him, back to the Father (1 Cor. 15:24). The future, consummated kingdom is the “not yet,” while there is a present and progressive element now to the spiritual kingdom of Messiah, and nothing can stop the messianic pebble from becoming a great mountain that fills the earth (Dan. 2:35).
This leaves the question of cultural, societal, and political transformation and its relation to the eschatological kingdom. As with most things, there are ditches on both sides of this road. On the one hand, we must be careful not to commit the sacral error of equating the kingdom of God with a formally Christianized state. The central manifestation of the kingdom of Christ is in the invisible church, and the church is not the state. (This distinction between the spheres of church and state is not strictly a New Testament concept; cf. 2 Chron. 26:16-18.) Conversely, we must not imbibe the fantasy of a secularized state in which the liberal order coheres without any reference to the transcendent. Great civilizations prospered under common grace prior to the age of the gospel, but they all ultimately crumbled under their own weight. So we note that separation of church and state does not mean separation of God and state.
Jesus Christ now sits enthroned in the place of supremacy over the entire universe. Jesus is Lord not only of his redeemed people but also over each distinct human institution, including the sovereign spheres of state and family. The kingdom of Christ has visible impact on the world not only within the walls of the church but wherever his word is believed and his lordship obeyed. The kingdom is only ultimately advanced as sinners respond to the gospel in faith and repentance and submit themselves to the lordship of Christ; the people of Christ “offer themselves freely on the day of [his] power” (Ps. 110:3). Yet as Christ saves people from every nation and stratum of society through the new covenant age, the fruit of the church’s obedient discipleship is of such Spirit-wrought potency that society, over time, cannot remain unaffected.
The kingdom of Christ has visible impact on the world not only within the walls of the church but wherever his word is believed and his lordship obeyed.
The history of Christendom bears this out, particularly in the West, even for all its foibles. The combined effect of Christians living out their callings—including even Christian magistrates—has an impact. The gospel leavens the world over time (Mt. 13:33). The cultural fruits of the kingdom should not be equated with the kingdom itself, however, as pagan cultures have in the past prospered under the law of God in nature inscribed under the conscience (cf. Rom. 2:14), and as a society (such as ours) can still bear Christian fruit on the tree long after the spiritual root has been severed. This is when revival becomes necessary. Yet the fruit is not the problem; the lack of the root is. When conversions, revival, and church plantings occur, a society rooted in the gospel will bear cultural fruit. The cultural fruit of Christendom in the West, though sometimes overripe and worm-eaten, still stands to remind us that the gospel cannot help but transform.
This process will continue amid trial, triumph, and setback until the return of Christ as he puts his spiritual enemies under his feet (1 Cor. 15:25). These enemies include such things as principalities (Eph. 6:12), ideologies (2 Cor. 10:5), and us (Rom. 5:10). Christ has promised to superintend the fulfillment of the Great Commission by means of his presence in the person of the Spirit (Mt. 28:20), so as his spiritual reign fills the earth (cf. Ps. 72; Is. 2:1-4, 11:1-9; Hab. 2:14) we should expect to see the kingdom of God result in noticeable cultural fruits. This is not a utopic vision, because the kingdom is of such a spiritual nature that makes it invisible to unregenerate eyes (Jn. 3:3). Nor is the fruit always political, strictly speaking; a society that is 99% regenerate but is governed by the unregenerate 1% is, for example, closer to the Puritan vision than one in which a 99% unregenerate populace is ruled by a 1% theocratic elite.
Yet this does not mean the kingdom and its fruits will not become increasingly visible with the progress of the Great Commission; the cumulative effect of evangelization and reformation across nations throughout the ages is undeniably visible. Ancient temples of idols sit empty, cannibalistic tribes have been converted, and innovations pioneered by thoughtful Christians revolutionize the planet. And yes, at the same time, the wicked characteristically go from bad to worse (2 Tim. 3:13, Rev. 21:22), chafing all the while against the Lord and his Christ.
An underlying theme of the entire new covenant period is that godly Christian living will always provoke the ire of the other side (2 Tim. 3:12). Tares do remain in the field. Yet the unregenerate person can live amid all the other kingdom advances and still not see the kingdom, much less attribute it to a Rabbi who was crucified. The problem is in the blind, unregenerate eyes and not the kingdom itself.
Yet the question remains: has God actually promised to change human societies through the power of the gospel? We will consider this in the next installment.