The Two Kingdoms Doctrine, Part Three: The Teaching of Scripture

Matthew Tuininga
Editors' Note: This essay is the third of three. The first can be read here, the second here.

The fundamental biblical truth that is expressed in the two kingdoms doctrine is that the Christian's hope is to be fixed not on the things of this life that we see and experience all around us - our families, our work, politics - but on the Lord Jesus Christ, in whom we are promised a kingdom that will transform and transcend all of these things. This conviction, in turn, arises out of Christ's teaching in the Sermon on the Mount that though believers' lives are often characterized by poverty, mourning, an unsatisfied hunger and thirst for justice, and humiliating persecution, they are nevertheless said to possess the "kingdom of heaven," a kingdom in which they will be comforted, satisfied, and granted the inheritance of the earth (Matthew 5:1-12). It expresses Jesus's command to his disciples to pray that God's kingdom would come and his will be done, for even as the things of this earth are destroyed or lost, Christians must live so as to store up treasures in heaven, where nothing is destroyed or lost (Matthew 5:10, 19-21). It seeks to take seriously Jesus' exhortation to his disciples not to worry about the matters of this life, the things after which the nations seek. It is not that they are unimportant, but that if believers seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness "all these things will be added to you" (Matthew 5:25-33).

The Two Kingdoms in Scripture: "Not only in this age, but also in the one to come."

The New Testament continually highlights the tension between the kingdom that is coming and the affairs of this age. Although Jesus declared that "the kingdom is within you" (Luke 17:21), his disciples were constantly wondering when he would actually restore all things. In fact, when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem in the days before his crucifixion, the Jewish leaders tried to trap him by forcing him openly to declare the revolutionary implications of his kingdom for marriage and politics. Jesus responded by describing the difference between the present age (in which men and women marry) and the age to come (in which there will be no marriage), between Caesar (to whom Christians are to give his due) and God (to whom is believers' ultimate allegiance (Luke 20). Jesus's trial before Pilate likewise revolved, in part, around whether or not his kingship challenged that of Caesar. Yet Jesus declared that his kingdom is not of, or from, this world (John 18:36). His point was not that the kingdom does not pertain to material things (it will transform all things!) but that it is not of or from this age (i.e., secular). (1) In terms of politics, that means the kingdom of Christ is not like a secular kingdom : "If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting" (18:36). Instead, Jesus's kingdom rules through the proclamation of the truth, to which those who are of the truth listen (18:37).

The same tension continues even after Jesus' ascension to the right hand of God. On the one hand, Jesus declares categorically, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me" (Matthew 28:18). In Ephesians 1:21, Paul writes that Jesus was seated in sovereignty at God's right hand, "far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age [i.e., secular authority] but also in the one to come [i.e., the kingdom of God]." Christ is not only head over "all things" (1:22) but in him "all things, whether on earth or in heaven," are reconciled (Colossians 1:19). Indeed, in him "all things exist" (1:17). The entire creation is therefore groaning, waiting for the transformation that is coming (Romans 8:19-22). As Abraham Kuyper said, there is no square inch of creation over which Jesus Christ does not claim, "Mine!". Similarly, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that outside of Christ there is only abstraction.

On the other hand, none of this nullifies the continuing normativity of the created order, what Christian theologians have classically called natural law, or of the authorities God has ordained to govern that order (i.e., civil government, parents). This is a fundamental point, because it has been in the name of the realization of the kingdom on earth that social liberals - from the Anabaptists of Calvin's day to the liberation theologians of our own - have advocated numerous destructive social or political policies subversive of that order (i.e., millennial revolution, pacifism, common ownership of goods, radical feminism, same-sex marriage). 

For Calvin, the two kingdoms doctrine was a way of explaining why believers are called to live in the hope of the coming kingdom in such a way as not to over-anticipate its transformation of the present age. He continually reminded Christians of the passing and temporary nature of all things outside of Christ, including the social and political order, pointing to passages like 1 Corinthians 7:29-31: "From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away."

Believers must therefore continue to submit to, honor, and give thanks for even pagan rulers (Romans 13; 1 Timothy 2:1-2). Although in Christ there is no male nor female (Galatians 3:28), women are nevertheless to maintain the natural order in church (1 Corinthians 14:34-35; 1 Timothy 2:11-12) and to submit to their husbands at home in an institution of marriage that is to remain undefiled (Ephesians 5:22-24). Although in Christ there is no slave nor free (Galatians 3:28), slaves are still to obey their earthly masters as unto the Lord (Ephesians 6:5-8).

In all of these relationships believers demonstrate their allegiance to the Lordship of Christ in all things not by overthrowing the secular order, but by fulfilling their vocations and doing everything "in Christ" or "as unto the Lord." This service to the just and the unjust alike, though not necessarily reflective of believers' ultimate destiny, testifies to their hope in Christ such that others will ask them for a reason for the hope that is within them (1 Peter 3:1-15). Their service demands that believers act with justice and virtue according to the will of God. It therefore has a transformative effect on their relationships, but it does not encourage them naively to imagine that they can bring the kingdom by their own efforts.

How then does the kingdom advance in the New Testament? In every case the expression of Christ's universal lordship is explained not in terms of social or political power but in terms of the proclamation of the truth (John 18:37) and the preaching of the gospel to all nations, that they might keep his commandments (Matthew 28:19-20). It is the preaching of the gospel and the biblical administration of church discipline, the "keys of the kingdom," that open and close the kingdom of heaven (16:19; 18:15-20). The transformation for which the creation groans is contingent upon the proclamation of the gospel and the revelation of the sons of God (Romans 8:19). Christ's headship over all things - the existence of all things in him - is sure, but he has been given as head to the church (Ephesians 1:22-23), not to the world (or to put it another way, to the world, but only through the church). Only by believing the gospel and holding fast to Jesus (seeking first his kingdom) can anyone secure his or her participation in that headship (all these things will be added to you). The people of the world have their "minds set on earthly things" (Philippians 3:19) but believers set their hearts and minds on "things above, where Christ is" (Colossians 3:1-4) because they know that the future transformation of all things, the new creation, exists in his body, whose return they await. "But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself" (Philippians 3:20-21).

Perhaps the most obvious expression of this reality is Ephesians 4, the passage Calvin used to link his two kingdoms doctrine with its institutional implications for church government. Paul explains that the fruits of Christ's ascension, in which he was made Lord of all things, is expressed in his pouring out of the gifts of the church's ministry. It is as the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers equip the saints for ministry and build up the body into Christ that the saints "grow up in every way into him who is the head" (Ephesians 4:7-16). This is Paul's presupposition when he declares in 1 Corinthians 3:21-23, "For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future - all are yours, and you are Christ's, and Christ is God's." 

Thus, the church is the only corporate expression of the kingdom in this age. It is only as we join ourselves to the body of Christ, the body of those who hold fast to Jesus, that we participate in the kingdom that is coming. And although we witness to our citizenship in this kingdom in every single thing that we do in this age, doing everything "as unto the Lord," the primary form this witness to Christ's lordship takes is that of submission, service, and sacrifice in an often hostile and oppressive world. Only after believers, like Jesus and in conformity to his example, set aside the glory that they have been promised, take up the form of a servant, and humble themselves to the point of death, can they be confident that God will exalt them above every knee "in heaven and on earth and under the earth" (Philippians 2:5-11). Only by following in the way of the Lamb that was slain, to the point of martyrdom if necessary, do the witnesses of the Lamb conquer with him (Revelation 12:11; 14:4).

The call of the Christian life is therefore not to establish the Lordship of Christ through conquest or external cultural transformation but to witness to Jesus's lordship by imitating him in his sacrificial service. When we conform to Christ's example faithfully the effect on our various vocations and communities will indeed be profound. Those in government will recognize the Lordship of Christ (Psalm 2) and seek to use their power to secure peace and justice for those under their charge, rather than self-aggrandizement, and to protect the church in order that it might fulfill its task (1 Timothy 2:1-2). Those in positions of economic power will serve those placed under them rather than dominate them (Ephesians 6:9). Husbands will sacrifice themselves for their wives in imitation of Christ, recognizing their equality together in him (Ephesians 5:25-33). Those who have been given gifts, talents, or riches will use those resources to provide for those who are in need (Ephesians 4:28; 1 Timothy 6:18). About all of these cultural affairs, in which believers engage in common with unbelievers, Scripture has much to say.

Addressing the Controversies: The Authority of Scripture and the Example of Israel

This point, of course, clashes with the rhetoric of some two kingdoms advocates who want to emphasize how little Scripture says about political or cultural engagement. And to be sure, there is distinct danger at both extremes here. On the one extreme are those Christians who find the need to seek explicit Scriptural justification for every little thing that they do, an approach that creates the enormous temptation to read into Scripture things that simply aren't there, or to apply passages in ways they were never meant to be applied. But it is just as problematic to overreact to that mistake by pretending that Scripture has nothing to say about Christians' vocations, social life, or political engagement, or by requiring pastors to refrain from teaching what Scripture clearly teaches.

Far better is to determine (and preach!) the principles revealed in Scripture, some of which I have outlined above, while maintaining humility consistent with our call to be servants (and therefore refraining from preaching) about the way in which those principles might apply to concrete circumstances, organizations, or policies. All of the major Reformed confessions contain rigorous affirmations of general revelation or natural law, in part relying on the broad Christian consensus about the meaning of Romans 2:14-15. And while Christians should never seek to interpret natural law without using the lens of Scripture, they should also be careful not to confuse the lens with what we see through that lens. It is one thing to humbly seek to articulate a worldview based on Scripture. It is another thing arrogantly to assume that the worldview we have articulated is the teaching of Scripture itself. Most of what we know about mathematics, science, or history is not derived from Scripture, although Scripture shapes how we interpret it. We should expect the same when it comes to our understanding of culture, economics, or politics. 

But this brings us to the question of the significance of Israel and the Mosaic Law for contemporary life. Paul's approach to the question is to emphasize that Christians are not bound to the law's written code, while affirming that they are obligated to follow the law of love, for which the guidance of Scripture is profitable and necessary. This has led Christian theologians since the medieval period to distinguish between the moral law, which is always binding on Christians, and the ceremonial and judicial laws, which are not. But of course, the real question is how we determine which parts of the Mosaic Law are judicial and which parts are moral. 

Crucial here is Jesus' statement to Pilate in John 18:36, echoed by Paul in 2 Corinthians 10:4-5, that Christ's kingdom does not rule through earthly violence. If the model for the realization of the kingdom in the time between Christ's first and second coming is Old Testament Israel, these statements make no sense. Israel did use the sword to establish the kingdom, and the Mosaic Law is full of instructions as to how precisely that sword should be used. But given what we know about Israel's function as a type of Christ's kingdom that was to come, it is quite erroneous to assume that those instructions apply to all civil governments, or even to all Christian civil governments. Augustine emphasized just this point when he explained that Jesus's pardoning of the woman caught in adultery in John 8 amounted to a setting aside of the Old Testament penal code. Just as significant is Paul's declaration in Galatians 3:13 that Christ fulfilled the the Law's proclamation of a curse on those put to death under that code (Deuteronomy 21:22-23). Clearly the judicial laws had a typological purpose similar to the ceremonial laws. They cannot be reduced to the moral law binding on all nations.

But what of the example of Israel more generally? Occasionally the claim is made that the distinction between the offices of magistrate and priest found in the Old Testament amounts to the same thing as the distinction between the two kingdoms. But that is not the case. In Israel there was a distinction between magistrate and priest (and prophet) but both offices were considered to be part of one kingdom. Likewise, the early reformers such as Zwingli and Bullinger viewed the magistrate and the pastor as two offices in one church (or Christian commonwealth). But that is not the two kingdoms distinction. According to the two kingdoms distinction, Christ embodies within himself the kingdom of God to which Israel pointed, exercising uniquely the offices of king, prophet, and priest. Christians ministerially express these offices of Christ in various ways, but there is no evidence in Scripture that civil magistrates do as well. On the contrary, Christ's kingdom is not of this world and therefore does not make use of the secular sword. 

Although Calvin and the other reformers argued that magistrates should enforce the first table of the law and even work to establish the true church, I believe that their argument for this was based on flawed exegetical, philosophical, and experiential reasoning. The exegetical flaw was the assumption that the Mosaic penal code was an expression of the timeless natural law, resulting from their failure to see the degree to which it, too, was typological. The philosophical flaw was the reliance on the arguments of Plato and other pagan philosophers as evidence that even the natural law requires magistrates to enforce the true religion. The experiential flaw was their lack of confidence in the preaching of the gospel and the sovereignty of God to preserve the church against the gates of hell.(2)

The thrust of Scripture's teaching therefore confirms the two kingdoms doctrine, although it takes us in a different direction than Calvin's application suggested. It clearly affirms the lordship of Jesus over all things (i.e., the secular or temporal kingdom), while at the same time explaining that the reign of Christ's kingdom (i.e., the eternal kingdom) is expressed at present only through the church. To be sure, Christians witness to the reality and future of the kingdom in all of life, but the way in which they do so is in imitation of Christ, the one who set aside his glory to take up the form of a sacrificial servant. One day the kingdom will come in its fullness, as Christians pray, but for now believers do God's will on earth as it is in heaven by taking up their cross and following Jesus. 

Matthew J Tuininga is a doctoral candidate in Ethics and Society at Emory University, currently writing his dissertation on John Calvin's two kingdoms doctrine. He is a licensed exhorter in the United Reformed Churches of North America and he blogs at 

1. The English word secular derives from the Latin saeculum, a translation of the Greek word aeon, which most English Bibles translate "age." When I refer to political power as secular in this essay, I do not mean that it is godless or outside of the lordship of Christ. I mean that it is temporal, or of the present evil age that is passing away.

2. As Calvin wrote in his defense of the obligation of magistrates to put heretics to death, "How will the religion persist, how will one be able to recognize the true Church, what will indeed Christ himself be, if the doctrine of piety becomes uncertain and doubtful?" Quoted in Christoph Strohm, "Calvin and Religious Tolerance," in John Calvin's Impact on Church and Society (Ed. Martin Ernst Hirzel and Martin Smallmann; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 185. For the original see Calvini Opera 8,464.