What is the Kingdom of God? In Protestant thought there are several different current-day views. First, I will overview some of the current views about God’s Kingdom. Second, I will go through Scripture that speaks about God’s Kingdom. Last, I will advocate a position, and urge you to agree.
There are at least three basic interpretations of the Bible’s teaching about the Kingdom of God: Spirituality of the Church, Transformationalism, and Liberalism [note: there are several other views which we won’t discuss, including, but not limited to: Caesaropapism, Erastianism, Reconstructionism, Symphonia, and Theonomy]. I am generally summarizing the views here, so please forgive me if I miss a nuance or get one piece of information wrong. Feel free to comment, and I will update my summaries.
Spirituality of the Church (Southern Pres.) [Two Kingdoms, Westminster West]
This view of the Kingdom of God says that God’s Kingdom is the eternal, Spiritual, and fixed dominion of Jesus Christ. When this view is discussed in relation to political governments, it is often called Two Kingdoms (either in reference to Luther, Calvin, or to some professors at Westminster, California). In focusing solely on God’s Spiritual Kingdom, this view says that Jesus’ incarnation, death, and resurrection forever secured all members of the Kingdom from the sin that separated them from fellowship with God. When this Kingdom is manifested upon this earth it is limited to those humans who profess faith in Jesus Christ, as well as their children. While the individual members of God’s Kingdom on earth may seek to alter institutions and ideologies in society, these alterations are not a manifestation of God’s Kingdom. Spirituality of the Church says that God’s Kingdom is manifested here and now when the Spirit of God transforms a person’s heart, instills a new life or nature, grants repentance for sin and faith in Jesus, and makes them “born from above” or “born again”. Members of the Kingdom are concerned with daily repentance and faith, with godly vocations, with godly deeds, and with humble-patience as they await the return of Jesus Christ. Though God’s Kingdom is a permanent and unchanging Spiritual institution, it can be said to relatively “expand” as members visibly join. The means of ‘expanding’ God’s Kingdom over this world is the preaching and reading of the Bible, the singing of the Bible (hymns, Psalms, and spiritual songs), the visible demonstration of the Bible (sacraments), the fellowship of the Church, and hospitality. In this view, none of these means of grace have power in themselves to effect change or bring people into the Kingdom. Instead, God commands that we use these vehicles, and He will give the grace through them when He sees fit. See one example of this view here. A good summary of this view is available here. But a critique of this view is available here. Also, did this view promote slavery in the Southern US? (Short answer: no)
Transformationalism is also called Neo-Kuyperianism because it is a contemporary revision of the views of Abraham Kuyper. In this view, the Kingdom of God is the dominion of Jesus Christ over the universe being enforced in both the people who profess faith in Jesus, as well as the cultural institutions that are altered by these believers. It agrees with the Spirituality of the Church view about the nature of sin, of individual salvation, and the members of the Kingdom, but it disagrees about cultural institutions. In this view, deeds of love and mercy, and the reformation of the arts and of temporary governments, are all means of expanding the dominion of Jesus Christ. Though the great commission is indeed Spiritual, the effects are tangible and physical. Part of discipleship is the reformation of culture. As society is reformed, Jesus’ righteousness is visibly demonstrated, and this demonstration may make people consider the claims of Christ. Jesus’ mediatorial dominion is literally expanded as those who once did not believe become believers, and as wicked cultures become purified by obedience to Jesus Christ. This link has a summary of numerous blog articles, going back and forth about the flaws and benefits of transformationalism. There is a critique of transformationalism here and here.
In theology, Liberalism is not to be equated with political liberalism. Instead, it is a view first espoused by numerous men at the start of the 20th century. I will focus solely on Rauschenbusch’s view, though, which is that God’s Kingdom is not concerned with the salvation of the individual from sin. Rather, God’s Kingdom is a teaching of Jesus that good deeds done in love can and will restore broken societies. Jesus’ death was not a punishment for the sins of others, but a demonstration of how corrupt social orders cannot overcome love. As people labor to correct corrupted political and economic institutions (in particular militarism, capitalism, individualism, and nationalism), they are doing Kingdom-work. I am not sure who Rauschenbusch considered to be members of the Kingdom, as he repudiated the concept of individualism.
The Kingdom of God is discussed in numerous passages throughout the Old and New Testament. The question is this: is the Kingdom expressed in a salvific-heavenly way (Spirituality of the Church), a salvific-and-culturally-transforming way (Transformationalism) or in a purely ethical and anti-individual way (Liberalism)? As we think about this, we’ll notice that the majority of passages that discuss the Kingdom are relegated to the Gospels, however it is important to note that the Kingdom was preached by the Apostles in Acts, as well as by Paul in numerous letters. We will examine these passages in 4 groups, focusing on how the Kingdom of God relates to time.
1. Eternal Kingdom
In the Bible, God’s relation to His creation is explained in terms of metaphors. Our focus is on the metaphor of the Kingdom. In this sense, God is being illustrated as a King of a dominion. The dominion referred to is all created things (Ps. 47:7). But, when does He begin ruling? He does not begin ruling at the moment of creation, but prior to the creation of all things. God’s Kingdom as an eternal Kingdom (Ps. 145:13; Dan. 4:3). Eternality does not mean simply an endless succession of physical moments. Eternality is a timeless concept. As a Being who is not bound by time or space, His rule is essential to His own Being. It means that prior to the existence of time-space, God was King. Part of God’s purpose in creation, then, is to visibly display His Kingship over all of His creation. In fact, His end goal in the creation is to have His eternal Kingly rule visibly demonstrated in Jesus Christ (Dan. 7:27; 2 Pt. 1:11).
The initial pages of Scripture are a description of that point. Genesis 1:1-2:3 is an account of the dominion of God being tangibly and physically expanded and filled. God’s creation of humans in the imago Dei is to serve His purpose of a continued visible expansion of His dominion. His explicit hope is that Adam and Eve will rule the world, and fill it with worshipers of God (Gn. 1:28). This would serve to display His Everlasting dominion. Thus, in the protology of Scripture, there is an eschatalogical tension. Will God’s dominion be put on display, or not? Whether or not Adam and Eve carry out His covenant-commands, God’s Kingly rule still stands. The problem is simply that His dominion might not be visibly or tangibly experienced. This is precisely what happens when Adam and Eve rebel against God’s command, and plunge mankind into exile, sin, and death. Mankind soon begins establishing kingdoms in opposition to God (Gn. 10:10), obscuring the fact that everything stands beneath the dominion of God. Though the various kingdoms of the world begin to multiply, God’s eternal rule stands true (Dan. 2).
2. Kingdom Typified
After the fall of mankind, God’s Kingly rule appears to be obscured by the wickedness of mankind. But God turns the wickedness of mankind for good to His people. Even in the kingdoms that are set against His worship, He gives grace and enables the peoples to understand something of justice and of His holy ways (Acts 17:23-31). Beyond this, He begins to typify, or shadow, what it will be like for His dominion to be fully displayed in the world. After God rescues Israel from Egypt, He covenants with them to be their God, and commands them to be a Kingdom of priests. Israel is at this time to be the place in which God’s Kingly rule is visibly demonstrated in all the earth. He gives them the moral, civil, and ceremonial laws to display His righteous judgments and His will for all mankind. But He also knows that His people will attempt to keep these laws to attain salvation, rather than walk in salvation, and that His people’s hearts are stubborn (Dt. 10:12-16). He also knows they will want an earthly, temporal king like the nations around them. Rather than refuse them this king, He turns this selfish desire to serve His eternal purpose of having His Kingly rule manifested in Jesus Christ. He commands the future kings of Israel to behave in a certain way to distinguish them from other earthly kings (Deut. 17), and then proceeds to pick out His king (1 Sam. 6:6-13). This king is to serve to typify what the future King will look like (1 Sam. 13:14; Acts 13:22), and also be the human lineage of that future King (2 Sam. 7:16). In addition, God also promises a new covenant to come in which His people’s hearts will not be stubborn, and will view His righteous laws as a way and not a means of salvation (Dt. 30:6; Jer. 31:33; 32:40; Ezek. 11:19; 36:26-27).
3. Kingdom Inaugurated
Jesus is the realization of God’s dual promises of a future King who will manifest His eternal dominion, and a new covenant in which God’s people have hearts that will understand His law. Jesus’ own expressed self-understanding is that He became incarnate to do three things for this Kingdom: First, to preach that this eternal Kingdom is now being manifested in the world (Lk. 4:43; Jn. 18:37). Second, to suffer and die in obedience to the Father’s will in order to purchase a people from their sins, and to make them members of this manifestation of the eternal Kingdom (Lk. 12:32; Col. 1:13; Titus 2:13-14; 1 Pt. 2:24; Rev. 1:5-6). Third, to rule eternally as King of this everlasting Kingdom (Lk. 22:29-30; Jn. 18:36; Rev. 11:15).
The eternal Kingdom is inaugurated in the sense that Jesus has been crowned King by His trials (Heb. 2:9). As King, Jesus displays the love and justice of God to us, and brings people into God’s eternal Kingdom by sending the Holy Spirit. The ordinary means by which Jesus makes people members of this everlasting Kingdom is detailed for us in His great commission:
18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
Until the Kingdom is finally fulfilled in Jesus’ return, He commands members of the Kingdom to do very specific things to display His rule. He commands us to go, and to go by making disciples, by baptizing, and by teaching obedience to Jesus’ laws. We see the apostles of Jesus doing just that in the book of Acts. They go and preach; they baptize; they meet and fellowship together regularly; they show hospitality to one another and hold things in common; they obey Jesus’ moral commands.
The majority of the letters in Scripture are written precisely to carry out Jesus’ great commission, explaining how believers in Jesus ought to obey Him until His return (1 Tim. 4:13; 6:14; Jm. 5:7; Rev. 2:25). This obedience to Jesus’ moral instruction is a sign of the destruction of God’s enemies (Phil. 1:28;2 Th. 2:4-6), and a witness to a corrupted world of God’s holiness (Mt. 5:13-14). In obedience to Jesus, we are urged to: abstain from sexual immorality, drunkenness, fighting with words over fruitless discussions, anger, bitterness, malice, and wrath, to work with our hands quietly and patiently, to pray for all types of people (races and positions of authority), to proclaim the good news that there is redemption in Jesus and a coming Kingdom to all who believe, to practice hospitality and financial giving, to fellowship with other believers, and especially to labor to love, believe, and hope in God.
4. Kingdom Come
Though the Kingdom is inaugurated in the life of Jesus Christ, it is not consummated or completely fulfilled until His return. In this sense, the Kingdom is often called an inheritance (Eph. 1:13-14). It is promised to us now, we have a foretaste of it in the Spirit and His gifts, and one day we will fully possess it. Much of Jesus’ teaching is concerned with how to understand that future Kingdom. He urges us to pray that the Father’s Kingdom will come in fullness, “because Thine is the Kingdom”. We ask for it to come in fullness, because He already rules over everything, and we want to see that rule visibly demonstrated. Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount is concerned with this tension too. He teaches how to live as members of this everlasting Kingdom now (poor in spirit, ie. humble), and how to hope for its full experience when He returns (for yours’ is the Kingdom). There are three important things to know about the Bible’s teaching about the consummated Kingdom.
1. Jesus and the apostles explain that this Kingdom will certainly be consummated at Jesus’ arrival (Phil. 2:9-11; 1 Cor. 15:24-28; 1 Th. 4:15-17). When He returns, all evil and wickedness will be utterly subjugated to Jesus. Though Jesus rules over all things now, the wicked act as though He is not in charge. When He returns, they will no longer be able to act this way. They will be utterly stopped.
2. The Consummated Kingdom will be utterly polarizing (Mt. 25:31-46;Lk. 13:28-29; 1 Cor. 6:9-10; 15:50-51; Gal. 5:21). There is no one who is in between God’s Kingdom and hell, no middle-ground between dwelling in Jesus’ grace and dwelling in His wrath. When the Kingdom comes in fullness, God’s complete grace and complete justice will be revealed.
3. The Consummated Kingdom will be a new heavens and new earth that are united, and its citizens will enjoy righteousness, joy, peace, and worship (Mt. 19:28; Rev. 3:12; Rev. 21:1). All of the members of Jesus’ Kingdom will be given spiritual bodies (1 Cor. 15:42-44).
“Flesh and blood will not inherit the Kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 15:50).
The question I asked before the discussion about the Bible’s explanation of the Kingdom was whether or not the Kingdom is expressed in a salvific-heavenly way (Spirituality of the Church), a salvific-and-culturally-transforming way (Transformationalism) or in a purely ethical and anti-individual way (Liberalism).
After reviewing this summary of Scripture on the Kingdom, I believe it is clear that the Kingdom is not a purely ethical and anti-individual thing. Obviously, there are ethical aspects necessary to God’s Kingdom. But to say that God’s Kingdom is solely an ethical compulsion is simply to deny the supernaturalism of the Scriptures, and to manipulate the texts to fit a materialistic hermeneutic.
But does Scripture speak of God’s Kingdom as a salvific-and-culturally transforming thing? It obviously states that cultures will be altered by the way members of God’s Kingdom live. But is the end-goal of God’s kingdom the transformation and absorption of earthly kingdoms and cultures into His Kingdom? My short answer is no. The great commission does not include a provision for cultural transformation as an aspect of God’s eternal rule being manifested.
But what about the arts? Many people cite the book of Revelation to suggest that the current-day human cultures of art, specifically song-writing, will be continued in heaven. To me, this is speculation. Revelation is a symbolic-apocalyptic work that frequently uses anthropomorphism and metaphor. In addition to the use of harps, will we also become pillars in a physical temple in the new heavens and new earth? Again, I think this is just speculative, and not necessarily wrong. There may very well be a bit of continuity between the artistic creations used to worship God here, and those used to worship Him there. But why create an entire worldview based on such a lack of Biblical evidence?
But what about human governments? It might come as a surprise to you that Jesus and the apostle Paul mainly discuss the nature of politics in an off-handed way. This suggests, to me, that human governments, at the very least, are not a key aspect of the Kingdom of God. But further, looking at Jesus’ teaching on human government, and then at Paul’s teaching, it’s apparent that neither believe the Kingdom of God exists to incorporate earthly kingdoms. When questioned about the nature of the Roman tax system, Jesus states we “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”. He suggests that the image of Caesar, stamped in the coin, represents that we live under temporal governments which we must respect, but that the image of God is stamped upon our very persons. There is no false dichotomy between giving government currency back to the government which endowed it in the first place, and between honoring God. Secondly, Jesus addresses human governments when He stands before Pilate. He tells Pilate that He is a King, and that His Kingdom is not a worldly Kingdom, and is therefore greater than Pilate’s authority. But at the same time, he says that Pilate would have no authority over Jesus at all unless it had been granted from above (ie from God). In saying this, Jesus recognizes the validity of human governments, for even He submitted to an earthly justice system, precisely because “it had been granted from above”. While kings will be astonished because of Jesus, and nations will come to worship him, yet nowhere do we see Jesus advocate that the goal of His Kingdom is the long-term overhaul or transformation of worldly governments to correspond to His Kingdom.
When the apostle Paul discusses the nature of government, and its relation to the Church, he follows Jesus’ teaching in saying that we ought to pray for those in authority over us. He primarily urges this prayer so that we may live peaceful, quiet, and godly lives until Jesus’ return (1 Tim. 2:2). Members of God’s Kingdom mainly desire temporal governments to reform primarily to protect the Church from persecution. Paul further discusses the role of government by saying that members of the Church must submit to their judgments because governments have been established by God to protect the people from outward and inner turmoil (Rom. 13:1-7). Paul even mentions members of Caesar’s house who have become believers in Jesus Christ (Phil. 4:22). But nowhere does Paul suggest that the moral responsibility of members of God’s Kingdom is to reform the government such that it corresponds to or is equated with God’s Kingdom.
Spirituality of the Church
So, in the end, this leaves us with the view of the Spirituality of the Church. Does Scripture speak of God’s Kingdom exclusively in a salvific-heavenly way? In short, yes. While affirming the dignity of materiality, Scripture discusses God’s Kingdom as an eternal, Spiritual dominion that is manifested in the world. This Kingdom has an ethical dimension in that God’s justice is displayed when His citizens believe that Jesus died for them (Rom. 3:21-26), and obey His moral law (Rom. 8). This Kingdom also has a culturally transforming dimension in the sense that when Christians obey Jesus’ command to love one another, they act as preservatives of good and exposers of evil. But, if a culture transforms (ie adopts just laws) because of the witness of citizens of God’s Kingdom, that cultural transformation is not the equivalent of God’s Kingdom.
This short blog post is neither a cited essay, nor a book, and so I do hope you’ll give me some leeway. If you are interested in this topic, look into further reading. This website has a number of catechism and books listed as a helpful place to start. Feel free to suggest any extras to me in the comments, and I’ll add them to a list below.