Reformed Theology, Social Justice

Two Kingdoms: Natural Law, Common Grace and the Spiritual Nature of the Church

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God. Micah 6:8 (NIV)

In my previous post, I discussed how social justice has played a factor in the development of my worldview. I’ve sought to allow the things Jesus was passionate about to affect my own ideologies. In fact, the Scott Walker union-busting fiasco in Wisconsin which was the last straw that caused me to finally change my voter registration. Another major issue for me has been the religious right’s Dispensationalist foreign policy in the Middle East. Since I first began to hear John Piper mention the plight of Christians in Palestine years ago, I began to see how damaging U.S. foreign policy has been towards all non-Jewish states in the region. As amillennial and Reformed, holding to covenant theology as an overarching view of Scripture, I am strongly opposed to such policies.

The democratic revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa have helped to expose how harmful U.S. Zionist policies have been in the region; for so long, the U.S. chose to prop up dictatorial despots even if they were guilty of gross human rights violations, as long as they signed a treaty with Israel. When the Egyptian revolution began in Cairo’s Tahrir square six months ago, we saw young muslims and coptic Christians working together for change, even photographs of Christians forming human barricades around their muslim neighbors during demonstrations so that they could pray in peace without being bombarded by pro-regime thugs. Suddenly muslims were no longer the terrorists that Fox News and talk radio made them out to be. These sights helped to solidify the separation between church and state, and brought home the ideas of Two Kingdoms and Natural Law that I had already been studying.

According to the Reformed doctrine of the Two Kingdoms, Christ rules the kingdom of grace as the mediator of the covenant and our redeemer, and he rules the civil kingdom through his works of providence. The Christian must recognize the God-ordained position of the “magistrate” as one who does God’s will, although unknowingly (Romans 13:1–7). Thought the Christian lives in both spheres, the spheres are separate; the Christian minister does not endorse a politician from the pulpit, nor is the magistrate permitted to bully his way into the pulpit (for example, to say who can and who cannot take communion). It is the Christian minister’s obligation to teach Law and Gospel to believers, so that they may know what God requires of us, and so that they may believe the gospel of Christ and operate out of thankfulness as little christs when they go out into the world to spread the news of his grace.

Basically, over the years, thanks in part to Fox News and the Reagan-era Moral Majority movement, a sort of American nationalistic moralistic christendom has developed, and it’s not “Christian” or “Christ-like” by any means. Christianity is not a nationalistic thing. When Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world,” he didn’t mean he was an alien. He meant that the church is spiritual and has nothing to do with nationalism! It’s a spiritual institution unaffiliated with any nation, ethnic group, or race, or politick. David VanDrunen observed,

In our own day, in the American context in which I write, various churches’ identification with particular political causes or political parties, with particular economic agendas, with American military success, or simply with (idealized) American culture has been widely discussed and debated. It must be said emphatically that the church long predates America, will long survive America, and at present should view America, the world’s lone superpower, as another ‘drop from a bucket’ (Isa. 40:15). (Living in God’s Two Kingdoms, 149)

There’s a sort of analogy I use to explain my vision for the church that goes something like if we were to go back in time to, say, Augustine’s era and attend a church service on a given Lord’s day, would it be recognizable to us? If one of them were to visit one of our services, would they recognize it? It turns out VanDrunen has thought of this, too, though his version uses a babel fish instead of a time machine:

[T]he church may wish to test itself by asking whether something it does or teaches necessarily excludes some Christians from participating in its life and worship because of their ethnic or national identity […] At first thought this might not seem to be a very helpful test of a church’s fidelity to its spiritual character, since the limits of time and space necessarily exclude most Christians from most worship services most of the time. Churches must meet at a particular time and location and speak a particular language, and the vast majority of Christians, who reside somewhere else and/or speak a different language will not be able to participate. But let us imagine that one Christian is randomly chosen from all of the Christians in the world and dropped into an American worship service (and given the ability to understand the language). Here is the test that I suggest: does the minister say anything in his sermon to which this Christian cannot say “amen,” is there any phrase in any of the songs which this Christian cannot sing, or is there any visual prop that causes discomfort or offense to this Christian, on account of this Christian’ ethnic or national affiliation?

If the minister prays for the peace and prosperity of America, this Christian from a foreign land should have no difficulty saying “amen,” since Scripture straightforwardly instructs believers to pray in this manner (e.g., see Jer. 29:7; 1 Tim. 2:1–2) and surely no Christian should wish war and poverty upon fellow believers anywhere in the world. Likewise, if the minister prays for a just resolution to an international dispute in which America is involved, this Christian should also be able to respond with “amen,” for what Christian would not wish justice to be done everywhere in the world?

But now we might imagine that the minister prays for America’s victory in an international dispute or that the congregation is asked to sign a patriotic American song after the sermon (perhaps this Christian just happens to visit America on Fourth of July weekend). What if her own native country is the one having the dispute with America, and her own livelihood and security are at stake? What i she feels patriotic sentiments for her own country and has no interest in expressing patriotism for America? She would be unable to field her “amen” to such proceedings, and this would be perfectly understandable—just as understandable as an American worshiping in a Russian church and feeling disinclined to pray for the triumph of Russian foreign policy or to sing patriotic Russian songs. When we are immersed in our own culture and own national interests, it is often difficult to realize how often we attach the church’s identity to a national or ethnic identity, and hence to betray the spirituality of the church. The scenarios that I have imagine might cause us to pause and to reflect upon how the church can do better at living as though there really is no Jew, Greek, barbarian, or Scythian within its walls. (149–150)

“What Christian would not wish justice to be done everywhere in the world?” I can think of a few. VanDrunen speaks of churches singing patriotic songs on the Fourth of July—a gross violation of the Two Kingdoms doctrine—and not too long ago I and my family suffered through that exact scenario in a local congregation! (We don’t go there anymore.) So many people hold to Americanism, nationalism, patriotism, capitalism and conservatism as if it’s equivalent to their faith. When people like Al Mohler make political statements in support of the right, or Fox News talking heads call up their Catholic upbringing to support their views, a significant portion of uneducated red-state white people is too gullible to make the distinction. It results in Fox having inordinately high ratings, not because it’s audience is made up of wealthy corporate tycoons, but because it’s made up of religious people who think watching the station is worship unto God, like going to church or (for them) listening to K-Love.

What’s needed is a new way of thinking, a transformation of the mind and heart. Where better to get that from God’s Word, namely Paul’s great letter to the Romans, which ignited the Reformation and has ignited countless reformations in hearts around the world throughout the centuries. After spending several chapters outlining our need for the gospel by explaining the depth of our sin, and then explaining the depths to which God went to save us, Paul moves in chapter 12 to what our practical response to the Gospel should be (before laying out the Two Kingdoms doctrine in chapter 13).

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:1–2, NIV)

As living sacrifices, we are wholly devoted to God, like the firstfruits in the Old Testament. If you had sheep, the first male lamb born from its mother would be given to God, and parents had to redeem their firstborn son, by offering a sacrifice in his place, because he belonged to God. So when Paul says we’re “living sacrifices,” he means we don’t belong to ourselves. When we go out in the world, we are serving as vessels for God to do his will in the world, his “good, pleasing and perfect will.”

“Do not be conformed to the pattern of this world,” he says. This isn’t a proof-text for isolationism, nor is it a proof-text for the so-called “Christian” music or T-shirt industries. It doesn’t mean to not associate with those “worldly” sinners, to dress funny, ride in horse-drawn buggies and avoid bars at all costs. The Greek word means “age”. Some have translated it “culture”. Contrary to the drives of ascetic monasticism or fundamentalist separationism, what this means is that we shouldn’t be greedy or seek fame, or support a consumerist, capitalistic, American nationalism. For Christians to get in bed with big business and kiss the rings of billionaires is a grievous error, when what Scripture teaches is that we should be helping the “little ones”—widows and orphans, the hungry, poor, oppressed, sick, lame, imprisoned.

“Be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is…” We renew our mind and know God’s will through his Scriptures, and he’s pretty specific about our mission: justice and mercy, and humility before God (Micah 6:8).

The two kingdoms doctrine is closely related with natural law, which provides a common moral reference by which Christians can conduct themselves with non-Christians. God has revealed enough of himself in nature as to allow Christians and non-Christians to agree and collaborate over matters of morality and government (Romans 2:14-15). But God’s common provision isn’t limited to morality; it also lays the groundwork for scientific collaboration. The Westminster Confession speaks of the “light of nature” and providence of God which leaves men inexcusable. The theological term for this is general revelation. This is what is meant when Scripture says, “The heavens declare the glory of God.” Thus, Christians can feel safe to engage in scientific work alongside nonbelievers, with the belief that if God is author of the Book of Nature as well as the Book of Scripture he won’t contradict himself. (Modern science was actually invented by Christians who believed in the goodness of God and the consistency of his natural laws, over against pagan ideas of whimsical and capricious dieties).

We need to see the people in the world around us not as enemies, but as people who bear the image of God. Even if they don’t believe, God has still shown them some measure of grace. Louis Berkhof wrote about Calvin’s doctrine of common grace,

This is a grace which is communal, does not pardon nor purify human nature, and does not effect the salvation of sinners. It curbs the destructive power of sin, maintains in a measure the moral order of the universe, thus making an orderly life possible, distributes in varying degrees gifts and talents among men, promotes the development of science and art, and showers untold blessings upon the children of men. (Systematic Theology, 434)

When we see people in our town, state, nation, and around the world, not as opponents or enemies, but as neighbors and image-bearers of God, whom he commanded us to love as our own souls, we will hopefully start to support different policies towards them. We have dual-citizenship in two kingdoms at once, over both of which Christ is sovereign Lord (Php. 2:10, 11). Though we our sojourners here, we still need to be responsible citizens of the world, which belongs as much to Christ as heaven does (see Php. 2:14, 15, Romans 13:1-7). In fact, he wants to use us as the means to improve the earthly kingdoms, as he says in Jeremiah 29:4-7 (ESV),

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

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3 thoughts on “Two Kingdoms: Natural Law, Common Grace and the Spiritual Nature of the Church

  1. Thanks, Aaron, for this food for thought. I find myself agreeing with all of it and being grateful for the background and history of these beliefs. I do think some nationalism (4th of July songs) can simply be an expression of gratitude for a life filled with abundance and freedom, and is not necessarily a “might makes right” or exclusionary doctrine. May I share this with “my” Aaron?

  2. Of course!

    As for the patriotic songs, the issue isn't whether they should exist or be sung by anyone, but whether they should be done in the church in the context of a worship service. Thanks for reading!

  3. Pingback: I Have Issues With… | I must follow, if I can

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