Some years ago I received a questionnaire from the Christian academy I attended while a teenager in northern California. Like many schools, my alma mater was interested in maintaining contact with its alumni and ascertaining what they were doing in life, especially whether their alumni were putting their Christian education to good use. As I read through the questionnaire, my eye fixed on one of the first questions: “Are you presently engaged in full-time or part-time Christian service?” (emphasis mine). Upon reading this question, I couldn’t resist the temptation to write in the margin, “I am engaged, or attempting to be engaged, in ‘full-time Christian service,’ but I reject the assumption of this question. All believers are, or ought to be, engaged in some form of full-time Christian service.” No doubt the question was well-intentioned, but it assumed a common notion that, unless you are a minister or a missionary or engaged in some form of direct or indirect service within the institutional church of Jesus Christ, your work or calling is not part of your Christian service as a member of Christ.
The Challenge of the “Two-King-doms/Natural Law” Perspective
In the case of the Christian academy I attended, which was a ministry of the local General Association of Regular Baptist congregation in Walnut Creek, California, this assumption was not surprising. At this school, the only Bible worth reading was the Scofield Reference Bible, preferably in its first edition, and the view of God’s administration of his purposes throughout history was thoroughly dispensational. Within the dispensationalist understanding of God’s purposes in history, the kingdom of God lies in a yet-future period during which Christ will reign upon the earth for one thousand years and his earthly people, Israel, will enjoy the fulfillment of the promises of the Old Testament prophets. Meanwhile, in these “end-times,” the exclusive purpose of gospel ministry and teaching is to snatch as many “brands from the burning” as possible while there is still time, because the “rapture” is just around the corner. At any moment, Christ will come and snatch all Christian believers up to heaven where they will enjoy the “marriage feast” of the Lamb (Rev. 19:9). Why bother seeking the coming of the kingdom of Jesus Christ when the world is destined for destruction, the church is about to be whisked away to heaven, and any endeavor to see life flourish under the kingship of Jesus Christ is akin to polishing the brass on the Titanic as it is about to sink into the depths of the ocean?1
While it came as no surprise to me on this occasion that my alma mater assumed that life is distinguished into two parts, the one spiritual and churchly, the other nonspiritual and worldly, I have been taken aback in recent years by the emergence of a similar kind of dualistic worldview among Reformed theologians who teach what has come to be known as the “two kingdom/natural law” (2KNL) doctrine.2 Advocates of the 2KNL perspective have advanced a sophisticated and alluring case for the idea that the kingly rule of Jesus Christ obtains exclusively within the four walls of the church and that in the remainder of life believers are citizens of a common kingdom that they occupy with nonbelievers. In this perspective, believers live in two separate kingdoms or worlds.3 In the first or redemptive kingdom, believers live in a realm that Christ rules as mediator of redemption by means of His Spirit and Word. However, in the second or common kingdom, believers live together with nonbelievers in a realm that Christ rules as mediator of creation by means of the common standard of God’s natural law, which is known by all human beings as image bearers of God.
Identifying the Two Kingdoms
As the language of 2KNL indicates, the first feature of the 2KNL paradigm is its dualistic view of the way the triune God governs the conduct of human beings within the distinct realms of the redemptive kingdom of the church and the common kingdom of creation and providence. These “two kingdoms” correspond to the two ways God governs human life, whether within the order of creation and providence or within the order of redemption.
In the 2KNL perspective, the biblical story of redemption is not regarded as a story of God’s restorative or re-creative grace. The purpose of God’s work of redemption is not to re-establish His blessed reign within a creation disordered and broken through human rebellion and transgression of His holy law. The story of redemption focuses narrowly upon the gracious work of Jesus Christ, the mediator of redemption, who restores believers to favor and fellowship with God. Rather than viewing the triune God’s purpose of redemption as the redemption of a new humanity in Christ, together with the renewal of the creation itself, the 2KNL perspective views the purpose of redemption as the introduction of a new, spiritual kingdom which stands alongside or above the common kingdom of creation.4
The two kingdoms correspond to the distinct offices of Christ, first as the eternal Son of God in His office as mediator of creation, and second as the incarnate Son of God in His office as mediator of redemption. In the first of these offices, Christ maintains the order of creation; and in the second of these offices, Christ grants the redemptive grace of free justification and the promise of a future inheritance of the kingdom of God in the age to come.
David VanDrunen, a leading contemporary proponent of the two kingdoms perspective, offers a fairly representative summary of the 2KNL distinction between the common kingdom of God and the redemptive kingdom of Christ. Whereas the common kingdom encompasses all of natural life within the order of creation including such things as the institution of the state and the normative ordering of human life, society, and culture by the “natural law” of God the spiritual or redemptive kingdom refers to the church, which represents the exclusive realm where Christ’s redemptive/eschatological reign is a present reality. These two kingdoms may not be confused but must be carefully distinguished.
At the heart of the two kingdoms doctrine is the conviction that though this world has fallen into sin, God continues to rule over all things. Nevertheless, God rules the world in two different ways. He is the one and only king, but He has established two kingdoms (or, two realms) in which He exercises His rule in distinct ways. God governs one kingdom, which Luther often called the kingdom of God’s “left hand” and Calvin the “civil” kingdom, as its creator and sustainer but not as its redeemer. This civil kingdom pertains to temporal, earthly, provisional matters, not matters of ultimate and spiritual importance. For Calvin (Luther put it slightly differently), the civil kingdom included matters of politics, law, and cultural life more generally. The ends of the civil kingdom were not salvation and eternal life but a relatively just, peaceful, and orderly existence in the present world in which Christians live as pilgrims away from their heavenly homeland. The other kingdom, which Luther termed the kingdom of God’s “right hand” and Calvin the “spiritual” kingdom, is also ruled by God, but He rules it not only as creator and sustainer but also as its redeemer in Christ. This kingdom pertains to things that are of ultimate and spiritual importance, the things of Christ’s heavenly, eschatological kingdom. Insofar as this spiritual kingdom has earthly existence, Calvin believed it must be found in the church and not in the state or other temporal institutions. In this kingdom, the gospel of salvation is preached, and the souls of believers are nourished unto eternal life. Although necessarily existing together and having some mutual interaction in this world, these two kingdoms enjoy a great measure of independence so that each can pursue the unique work entrusted to it.5
In this delineation of the two kingdoms, the first or common kingdom embraces all aspects of ordinary human life after the fall into sin. These aspects of human life include the institutions of marriage and family; the state or civil community with the “power of the sword” to maintain justice and outward order in society; the cultural mandate to exercise stewardly dominion over the creation; the development of human culture in the arts, music, science, education, recreational pursuits, and the like. The full range of human conduct before God, the Lord of creation, belongs originally and properly to the common kingdom of God, whose citizens and subjects are non-Christian and Christian alike. In distinction from this common kingdom, the redemptive kingdom is inclusive only of those aspects of the life of God’s redeemed people that properly belong to the ministry of the institutional church of Jesus Christ. The redemptive or spiritual kingdom of God is the church, the one realm over which Christ reigns directly as the mediator of redemption.
Natural Law: The Norm for Human Conduct in the Common Kingdom
The distinction between the spiritual and civil kingdoms is the appropriate context for a brief comment on the role of “natural law” in the 2KNL perspective. Whereas the spiritual kingdom, the church, is governed by Christ as Redeemer through His Spirit and Word, and this governance is an inward matter of the heart, the civil kingdom is governed by God as Creator through the natural law, especially in its moral content. According to VanDrunen, natural law “generally refers to the moral order inscribed in the world and especially in human nature, an order that is known to all people through their natural faculties (especially reason and/or conscience) even apart from supernatural divine revelation, that binds morally the whole of the human race.”6
If the civil kingdom is a moral realm, then the civil kingdom must have a moral standard appropriate to it. At least one basic fact demonstrates that natural law is certainly an appropriate moral standard for the civil kingdom. That fact is that the civil kingdom has been ordained by God as a common realm, a realm for all people of whatever religious conviction in which to live and pursue their cultural tasks, while natural law is God’s common moral revelation given to all people of whatever religious conviction. A common moral realm, in which all of created humanity enjoys membership, is rightly governed by a common moral standard that is revealed to all of created humanity. The civil kingdom is for human beings insofar as they are created and sustained by God; natural law morally obligates human beings insofar as they are created and sustained by God.7
In the 2KNL understanding of how the believer’s conduct is regulated in the redemptive kingdom or church, Christ’s lordship is expressed through the authority of special revelation, which is inscripturated in the Bible. Christ governs the life and ministry of the church by means of His Spirit and Word. The Bible is a book for the church, which tells the story of redemption in Jesus Christ, regulates the church’s worship, describes how its ministry of Word and sacrament is to be carried out, and reveals the distinctive features of the “law of Christ” that characterize the Christian life (e.g., tempering justice with mercy, turning the other cheek, being forgiving and patient when sinned against). However, the believer’s conduct in the common kingdom is governed by means of what can be known of God’s will through the natural law, which is accessible to all human beings. On the one hand, the Bible governs the life of the church. On the other hand, natural law and God’s providence are the “most elegant book” (Belgic Confession, Art. 2) that governs the common life of all human beings in God’s world. When it comes to the believer’s conduct and calling within the realm of the common kingdom, it is generally sufficient to ascertain what is right and good and true by way of a reading of the natural law.
Within the framework of this construction of the two kingdoms and their respective standards for human conduct, it is not surprising that defenders of the 2KNL doctrine roundly reject the idea that Christian believers should pursue their common tasks alongside nonbelievers in a distinctively “Christian” manner. 2KNL proponents are especially opposed to the use of the language of “transformation” or “redemption” to describe the calling of believers within the orbit of the common kingdom. Advocates of the 2KNL view disparage the notion that there is such a thing as a distinctively “Christian” approach to activities that are properly carried on within the common kingdom. VanDrunen, for example, argues that it is “unhelpful to describe our common kingdom activities in terms of ‘transformation,’ and it is inaccurate to describe them in terms of ‘redemption.’ . . . We do not seek a uniquely Christian way to perform these activities and order these affairs, but we conduct ourselves as sojourners and exiles who share them in common with unbelievers and do not really feel at home when pursuing them. We desire to make the common kingdom better when we can, but we should not try to ‘transform’ it into something other than the common kingdom.”8
Making the Case for Christ’s Kingship in All of Life
While my brief sketch of the 2KNL perspective could be greatly expanded, it is sufficient to explain why proponents of this perspective reject the idea that Christ’s work of redemption has any direct implications for the way believers fulfill their calling or vocation in every area of human life. One of the most frequent claims of 2KNL advocates is that there is nothing distinctively Christian about the way believers carry out their callings in the common kingdom. We may speak of the common callings of “butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers,” for example, but we should not regard the work of believers in these callings as an uncommon service that advances the interests of Christ’s redemptive kingdom.
Rather than directly refuting the 2KNL rejection of the distinctive calling of believers to acknowledge the kingship of Jesus Christ in all of life, I want in subsequent articles to offer a defense of the thesis that Christians are called to a transformed life of obedience to Christ in every area of human life, whether in the home, the workplace, the school, science, culture, the arts, and the like. My thesis is that we may properly speak of a distinctively Christian approach to the calling of believers in all of their respective vocations, whether as “butchers, bakers, or candlestick makers,” to use an old and no doubt, outdated in some respects expression.
The case I would offer for my thesis derives from four themes or theses that belong to a biblical understanding of the Christian life in the world: (1) the biblical view of the redemptive work of Christ, which involves nothing less than the renewal and perfection of human life within the created order; (2) the believer’s participation in Christ’s threefold office of prophet, priest, and king; (3) the Christian life as a Spirit-authored life of “good works”; and (4) the “vocation” that Christians perform in their work and labor under the rule of Christ. When each of these themes is biblically construed, they offer a compelling case for viewing all of the Christian’s life as grateful obedience under the lordship of Christ (cf. Matt. 28:16–20).
1. In this and in several subsequent articles, I am presenting, with permission of the editors, a slightly revised version of an article that will be published in a forthcoming issue of the Mid-America Journal of Theology 25 (2014).
2. Though the writer may have based his sentiment upon different grounds than that of dispensationalism, a recent letter to the editor of the New Oxford Review expresses a similar view: “All discussion of how to live the Christian life is otiose. . . . [The Bible] does not really tell us how to live, but how to avoid living the evil life of the world and how to await redemption in the next life. . . . [Satan] “rules this world and we cannot really do much about it except to escape it through faith in Christ and His redeeming power” (as quoted in First Things 237 [November 2013], 69).
3. For an exposition and defense of the two kingdoms paradigm, the following sources are representative: David VanDrunen, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010); idem, Living in God’s Two Kingdoms: A Biblical Vision for Christianity and Culture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010); idem, A Biblical Case for Natural Law (Grand Rapids: Acton Institute, 2006); idem, “Calvin, Kuyper, and ‘Christian Culture,’ ” in Always Reformed: Essays in Honor of W. Robert Godfrey, ed. R. Scott Clark and Joel E. Kim (Escondido, CA: Westminster Seminary California, 2010); idem, “The Two Kingdoms and Reformed Christianity: Why Recovering an Old Paradigm Is Historically Sound, Biblically Grounded, and Practically Useful,” Pro Rege 40, no. 3 (2012): 31–38; Michael Horton, The Gospel Commission: Recovering God’s Strategy for Making Disciples (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011), esp. chapters 8 & 9, 210–93; and Darryl G. Hart, A Secular Faith: Why Christianity Favors the Separation of Church and State (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2006). For assessments of this paradigm, see Ryan C. McIlhenny, ed., Kingdoms Apart: Engaging the Two Kingdoms Perspective (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 2012); and Cornelis P. Venema, “One Kingdom or Two? An Evaluation of the ‘Two Kingdoms’ Doctrine as an Alternative to Neo-Calvinism,” Mid-America Journal of Theology 23 (2012): 77–129.
4. The title of VanDrunen’s popular presentation of the two kingdoms view, Living in God’s Two Kingdoms, is instructive.
5. VanDrunen, Living in God’s Two Kingdoms, 15.
6. VanDrunen, A Biblical Case for Natural Law, 24.
7. VanDrunen, A Biblical Case for Natural Law, 1.
8. VanDrunen, A Biblical Case for Natural Law, 38.
9. VanDrunen, Living in God’s Two Kingdoms, 170. Cf. Michael Horton, Calvin on the Christian Life: Glorifying and Enjoying God Forever (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014), 228, who expresses a similar sentiment in his exposition of Calvin’s doctrine of vocation: “There is no such thing as Christian farming, holy medicine, or kingdom art, even though believers engaged in these callings alongside unbelievers are holy citizens of his kingdom. The service that a janitor, homemaker, doctor, or business person provides is part of God’s providential care of his creatures. It requires no further justification.”
Dr. Cornelis Venema is the President of Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, IN. He is a contributing editor to The Outlook.