This past year we celebrated the five hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation of the church. This is wonderful. No doubt, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God was sung loudly and repeatedly. Children heard the story of Martin Luther, and on October 31st, Christians all over the globe partied, celebrated, and rejoiced vigorously, commemorating the glorious rediscovery of the good news that Jesus saves sinners by grace, through faith, and not of works.
In celebration of this, and to kick off the official Canon Press blog, I want to explain one of the greatest glories of the reformation which many have forgotten. While many Protestants are familiar with doctrines like predestination, justification by faith, and the priesthood of all believers, we are largely ignorant of basic Protestant political theology. In particular, while Evangelicals know what the phrase “justification by faith” means, they do not know what “two kingdoms theology” means.
Although two kingdom theology may sound complicated, it is actually very easy to understand and has powerful on-the-ground practical implications for how Christians live their lives. In this post, I will try to explain the doctrine of the two kingdoms, what it is, where it comes from, and where it is going.
To begin, what are two kingdoms? The two kingdoms are, respectively, the spiritual kingdom, consisting of all human beings who have believed in Jesus and been justified by faith, and the temporal kingdom, consisting of all living human beings, whether believers or unbelievers, going about their daily busing and trying as best they can to live, flourish, and make the world a better place.
The spiritual kingdom is made up of the invisible church. Though it is still sinful and continues on earth, it is already somehow seated in the heavenly places (Eph. 2:6). The temporal kingdom exists on earth, a mixture of wheat and thorns, but even unbelievers are capable of great good because God has not withdrawn His grace from them. The spiritual kingdom can only be seen only by He that sees the heart and He surrounds it with walls not made by human hands; the latter is visible for any man to see and is often surrounded by walls of stone or concrete.
These two kingdoms are distinct: the line between those who are in the spiritual kingdom and those who are outside it is clear and unambiguous. Do you believe that Jesus died for your sins and trust in Him for your salvation? You are in. If you do not believe this, you are out. At the same time, the two kingdoms cannot ever be completely separated. Believers and unbelievers both exist in the same world, breathe the same air, go to the same jobs, and eat the same sandwiches. Even though there is a world of difference between Christians and non-Christians, we need to remember our common humanity and that when God gives grace to a man, this does not make him omniscient or sinless. In the temporal realm, believers can get things wrong that unbelievers get right. Though becoming a Christian has many blessings (better knowledge of the truth, greater joy and love, renewed motivation to fight against sin), some unbelievers sometimes possess greater amounts of truth, joy, and virtue than some believers do.
I can think of no better description of the two kingdoms than that of C.S. Lewis in his book Mere Christianity:
The State exists simply to promote and to protect the ordinary happiness of human beings in this life. A husband and a wife chatting over a fire, a couple of friends having a game of darts in a pub, a man reading a book in his own room or digging in his own garden—that is what the State is there for. And unless they are helping to increase and prolong and protect such moments, all the laws, parliaments, armies, courts, police, economics, etc., are simply a waste of time. In the same way the Church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs. If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time. God became Man for no other purpose.
The doctrine of the two kingdoms is like a set of glasses through which we look at the world. All Christians must be concerned about their neighbor’s spiritual condition, endeavoring to draw them towards God and guarding them from anything that might draw them away from Him. At the same time, Jesus was not just concerned with their spiritual well-being, but spent a lot of time healing people, helping their bodily (or temporal) well-being. Christians continue to do so in the New Testament, and therefore we should care about whether human beings are happy and cared for as well.
These are the basics of two kingdom theology; there is much more to be said, but these are the bare bones. For now, we live with a foot in both worlds. After the resurrection, the temporal kingdom will be abolished, the sheep and the goats will be separated, and the heaven and earth will be joined to one another. In the next post we will look at the doctrine in more depth by looking at the historical context in which the Reformers discovered and formulated the doctrine.