The Kingdom of Christ

I’m embarrassed to say I did not know this, more embarrassed to admit that I never thought to ask:

The move toward a Kingdom theology [among both covenantalists and dispensationalists] … accounts for the name of the newer form of dispensationalism. It is called “progressive” not because it is more contemporary than other forms of dispensationalism but rather because in it “the dispensations progress by revealing different aspects of the final unified redemption,” namely the eschatological Kingdom of God.

—Russell Moore (quoting toward the end Blaising and Bock, Progressive Dispensationalism, 48)

I’m really finding Moore’s book, The Kingdom of Christto be very helpful. I’m about two chapters in, and so far all he’s doing is summarizing the evangelical debate over the nature of the kingdom (mostly in the 20th century). He’s really doing a masterful job on a sometimes convoluted topic. A clear thesis seems to be emerging: covenantalists and dispensationalists have independently moved toward each other over the last century. The already/not-yet, inauagurated eschatology, presence-of-the-future paradigm has won wide acceptance.

My years of seminary really should entitle me to a firm opinion on whether this is a good thing, but they haven’t. This just isn’t an issue I’ve delved into. Over the last decade I’ve been a lot more excited about the one-story unity of Scripture than I have about the kingdom theme, and I’ve done a lot more reading in redemptive history than in covenant/dispensational issues.

But if you adopt an inaugurated eschatology, there’s a clear tie-in between the two: the one story of Scripture is the story of God establishing His kingdom. That sentence wouldn’t have made any sense to me years ago, because “kingdom” meant “theocratic, political, physical entity.” (I see now that I was influenced by a classic dispensationalist paradigm without knowing it.)

But if “kingdom of God” means “the rule of God,” then it’s a different story. Clearly, God’s rule over this world is not merely the sovereign rule which encompasses Christian and non-Christian, earth and space—though it is that. There are some parts of this world that God rules in an even more specific sense. 1 Corinthians 15 speaks of it as territory that was “put under Christ’s feet,” and it makes clear that there is much territory that has yet to be submitted to Him. One day, in the new earth, Jesus’ kingdom will be a theocratic, political, physical entity. But today His rule is expressed through individual human hearts (“The kingdom of God is within you,” Luke 17:21), and not all are submitted to His lordship. My own heart has been conquered by Jesus Christ the King, but most people in this world are not citizens in His kingdom.

This debate is significant, because there is little point in taking a specifically Christian view of history, math, science, literature, or—the nasty one—politics if Christ’s kingdom is wholly future. Just muddle through as best you can until Christ fixes everything, and don’t commit any obvious intellectual sins. But if Christ is the rightful ruler of all, then we have the right to press His claims over every field of human endeavor.

I feel in my bones that this is the biblicist way. People who know and love the Bible know that it speaks to everything.

Nonetheless I offer this post as fodder to those readers who may have delved deeper into this issue than I have. We can only profit from the Christ-honoring exchange of ideas.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

11 thoughts on “The Kingdom of Christ”

  1. “If Christ is the rightful ruler of all, then we have the right to press His claims over every field of human endeavor. I feel in my bones that this is the biblicist way. People who know and love the Bible know that it speaks to everything.”

    Would this lead you then towards postmillenialism, or even theonomic postmillenialism?

    Whatever your answer to that question (and I have pretty good idea of what your answer is, but I asked the question to get the detailed answer =), it is true that “this debate is significant.” I am not sure, though, whether “there is little point in taking a specifically Christian view of history, math, science, literature, or—the nasty one—politics if Christ’s kingdom is wholly future.” Isn’t there always a point, and great import, in taking a specifically Christian view of anything, and isn’t that what Christians do? The problem can be deciding exactly what that view is on issues like eschatology.

  2. Isn’t your appeal here to McClain’s distinction between God’s universal kingdom and his mediatorial kingdom? I think the post-mill and amill sides err by conflating the two, whereas the premill (of all shades) at least keep some form of distinction. That God rules over everything in a general or specific way does neither precludes nor supplants the mediatorial kingdom with a king, a sphere of reign, and subjects to reign over. For that reason, I think your dichotomy between “wholly future/muddling through” vs. some kind of kingdom now is not a wholly legitimate one. When the OT prophets, beginning with Moses prophesied a kingdom, it wasn’t his universal rule over all creation in some act of sovereignty, but his mediatorial rule over his people Israel. So I am a (mostly if not entirely) wholly future kingdom guy because I don’t see any of the characteristics of the kingdom described in the OT present now.

    For my dollar, McClain still has the best work on this available that I have read.

  3. Jeremy: I’m not postmill, and I’m certainly not theonomic postmill. I just picked up a Greg Bahnsen book (Presuppositional Apologetics) the other day, and I hardly lasted five pages before I threw the book across the room because of the guy’s triumphalistic tone. That’s the way I feel whenever I pick up a theonomist. (Sorry, Aholiab!)

    There is certainly always a point, and great import, in taking a specifically Christian view of anything. Yes, deciding what that view is when it comes to eschatology is difficult. But the point of my post is to question whether the classic dispensational view (a “kingdom-then” view) adequately accounts for our in-the-bones biblicist feeling that the Bible applies to all of life.

    A classic dispensationalist, as I understand the position, can say in a general way, “Do all to the glory of God” and “Whatever thy hand findeth to do, do it with all thy might.” But when it comes to the hard work of, say, formulating a Christian approach to language (like this book), he tends to say, “Why polish the brass on a sinking ship? The field of linguistics is only going to last till the rapture, so let’s learn what we need to learn to translate the Bible (or maybe get a job) and forget about the rest.”

    I guess I’m talking about what’s often called the “Two-Story View“—the idea that pastoral work, evangelism, missions, Bible class, chapel, and other explicitly spiritual things are redeemable and the rest of life (math, my secular job) isn’t. It just doesn’t seem to be an accident to me that such a view flourishes in a classic dispensationalist paradigm. Empirically speaking, that’s where it seems to live.

    I hasten to add that I’m not a covenant theologian and I don’t care to take Jeremiah 31:35–37 out of Scripture. I do see distinction and progress in God’s phases of dealing with mankind.

    Also, I don’t want a NY Times-reading-secularist to stop by my blog (for some crazy reason) and hear in my words (“press His claims”) a call to theocratic takeover. There are many Christians around the world who are such distinct minorities in their nations that they can barely press His claims over their own church, let alone any segment of society. But if a Christian is called to be a linguist or a mathematician, he must not fail to evaluate the very structure of his discipline and, if necessary, attempt to rebuild it on Christian truth. A Christian linguist can’t work within Stephen Pinker’s evolutionary paradigm. And it would be an advance of Christ’s rule in the world if Christian linguists overturned that paradigm. What else can you call it? It’s territory now under Christ’s feet.

    This does not mean that Christians will gradually overturn all the bad paradigms in all major academic and cultural fields and then Christ’s coming will be ushered in. The paradigms may all get overturned back to atheistic views before Christ comes. It does mean that Christ rules over all of life, including intellectual and cultural life.

    I’m rambling. But is that the kind of detail you wanted?

    Larry: I admit to not having read McClain. I need to. My good friend Brian Collins, a much better theologian than I, offered a few evaluations of McClain here.

  4. A friend of mine wrote the following, which I thought was helpful:

    1. God’s original order for the world is for man to rule over the world under God’s greater rule over him (Gen. 1:28). This a a command to care for the earth as a physical way but it is also a command to make culture and to help others through the creation of culture.
    2. This original order was disrupted by man’s fall into sin. This order was not destroyed, but it was frustrated and made impossible to finally achieve.
    3. God promised to restore this order in Genesis 3:15. In this statement God promises to send a great and mighty King who will be human and will defeat Satan and destroy all that he has done. Because he will be human (the seed of the woman), he will restore God’s original order of having man rule over the world underneath God’s greater rule over man.
    4. All of biblical history is about God fulfilling this key promise.
    5. The OT is primarily concerned with prophesying the coming of this one. Through the progress of this revelation, we learn that the coming King will not only be human but he will also be divine. The prophets in particular emphasize that this great and mighty King will restore God’s original order through two main works: salvation and judgment. He will save his people and he will destroy his enemies.
    6. When we get to the book of Daniel, OT prophecy begins to clearly speak of this restored order in terms of the kingdom of God. The great and mighty King will receive a kingdom from the Ancient of Days and with that kingdom he will save his people and destroy his enemies. Daniel emphasizes the human identity of this king. He refers to him with the phrase, “One like unto a son of man.” In the end the saints of the most high will rule in this kingdom forever.
    7. When Jesus arrives on the stage of history, he anchors his preaching in the idea that he has come to bring in the kingdom of God (Mark 1:14-15). This is so important to him that he claims that the coming of the kingdom is the gospel. All of his ministry is directed at demonstrating that the kingdom really has come because he (the king) really has arrived. This is the reason that he casts out demons (Matt. 12; Luke 11). This is the reason that he works miracles. This is the reason that he teaches with authority. He is proving again and again that he really is the great and mighty King and that he has both the authority and the right to destroy Satan’s kingdom and replace it with his own, the kingdom of God.
    8. But within the teachings of Jesus themselves, we find a surprising clarification. He explains in his parables that the work of saving and the work of judging are divided. From the OT prophets, it seemed that the King would save and judge all at the same time. But Jesus reveals (primarily in the parable of the sower and in the parable of the tares) that first comes the salvation of the kingdom and then (after a gap) comes the judgment of the kingdom. During this gap, Jesus reveals, his followers are to be busy expanding the kingdom in its saving work by inviting the lame, the blind, and those who are found along the highways. All of this is to be done until God’s house is full.
    9. Then the end comes. And with it comes the judgment of the kingdom. At that time the kingdom of God will have fully come. The original order will be fully re-established. Genesis 1:28 will be fulfilled.
  5. Jeremy P, it’s funny that you would wonder about eschatological implications of what Mark wrote. I was wondering the same thing! I have never encountered a coherent blending of the cultural mandate with eschatologies that are pessimistic regarding this world. “Nike obedience” (Just do it) doesn’t have much of a ring to it.

    I’m sure Doug Wilson’s _Heaven Misplaced_ has a better tone than Bahnsen’s book.

  6. Mark, your comment and friend’s outline are definitely clarifying. I had missed that your paragraph that I cited was taking issue particularly with classic dispensationalism. I think, however, that the issue of coherence between the cultural mandate and eschatology that Jeremy L. mentions is a critique that could just as easily apply to progressive dispensationalism. But you bring out the crux of the issue that, for me, answers that critique: “Christ rules over all of life, including intellectual and cultural life.”

    Jeremy L., I agree that Nike obedience is less than motivational. But for me the cultural mandate is not about doing it just because I’m supposed to. It’s primarily a matter of personal redemption (rather than ultimate cultural/ecological/social redemption), and that’s a huge reason for me to attempt by God’s grace to redeem every part of creation that I can (and a much better reason than Nike obedience). We let our good works shine so that others see Christ’s love and glorify the Father. That’s more than enough reason for me to embrace the cultural mandate and be passionate about my job, my research, my environment, etc., and that regardless of whether so doing will also help usher in the physical kingdom in this world. I want to see all of creation redeemed, or as much of it as possible, not just because, but because it’s Christ’s and I want to see him glorified.

  7. Jeremy L., I’m reminded of something that same astute friend said to me a while back, during the days of the good ol’ ACPADI Book Club (reading Creation Regained). Let me repeat the exchange:

    Wolters: “Perhaps the most fitting symbol of the development of creation from the primordial past to the eschatological future is the fact that the Bible begins with a garden and ends with a city—a city filled with ‘the glory and the honor of the nations.” (p. 48)

    Me: “But there’s a cataclysm in between the culture we’re creating all the time and the city God will create. Doesn’t that destroy Wolters’ picture? Yes, history is flanked by a garden on one side and a city on the other, but the two don’t stand on the same timeline. It’s as if God starts a new one above the old. So if our cultural labors have no lasting place in the new earth, why engage in them?”

    Theologically Astute Friend: “The cataclysm does not end the trajectory from Garden to City. It gives the ultimate victory to the City of God. Also, we should justify cultural engagement for doxological reasons, not for permanence reasons. The search for permanence is a frustrating search for all—including church planters and missionaries. This is the nerve that Solomon keeps stepping on in Ecclesiastes. His conclusion is that we fear God and keep his commandments. And what are his commandments? The Creation Mandate is the first.”

    In fact, Jeremy, L., I seem to remember you commenting on this very exchange and citing Aholiab as saying that he, a theonomist, felt he could work with non-theonomists who felt as my Theologically Astute Friend and I do.

  8. Call me a curmudgeon, but contentment with personal redemption without seeing entire disciplines/paradigms/nations/etc. redeemed sounds two-story to me. I love the language of “new territory under Christ’s feet” and “Christ rules over all of life,” but I get confused when I hear followups that sound like, “But you just can’t tell in most areas, because the atheists are in charge over there, and Christ’s kingship won’t have any manifestations there—and if it ever does, it will be momentary, not lasting.” Christ’s kingship manifests itself only individually or as flash-in-the-pan appearances?

  9. I remember that exchange and enjoyed it, as I do this one. I’m not recalling the Aholiab part, unless that’s a reference to my dad, but it certainly is encouraging that the creation mandate isn’t erased in all of this.

    An important question remains: who is more consistent within their framework? Dispensational premils who preach that Presbyterians ought to be the doctors while faithful Christians (Baptists?) serve God (since the world is just going to crash and burn)? Or the BI pod at BJUP? But again, in the end, I suppose it’s less important how people arrive at affirming the creation mandate than analyzing how they got to affirm it (although that’s important too).

    For me, part of the “search for permanence” is a quest for a legitimate kingship. The pessimism of Ecclesiastes is a natural human pessimism that we all feel from time to time. But the quest for permanence seems legitimate in light of Rev. 11:15—let’s all sing the “Hallelujah Chorus”! But now we’re back to eschatology. When is that kingship set up, and when do we see its manifestations? At the cross/resurrection/ascension? After a lengthy historical parenthesis?

  10. *I suppose it’s less important to analyze how people arrive at affirming the creation mandate (although that’s important too) than to rejoice that they do affirm it.

  11. Jeremy L.: Your last comment nails it as far as the largely dispensational circles I inhabit. The major strength of BJU, in my estimation, is its biblicist impulse. Where large interpretive systems like dispensationalism may fail to register, more direct appeals to Scripture will. So though at least one popular form of dispensationalism managed to practically excise the Sermon on the Mount, everyone I’ve ever met in my circles still instinctively recognizes its current applicability. Likewise, the Creation Mandate is there in Scripture at a key juncture in the scriptural narrative, and it was never abrogated by any statement in the rest of the Bible. The importance of the big system of dispensationalism has taken a long time to register with me. I guess I really am pretty slow to pick up on some ideas. But the validity of a direct appeal to Genesis 1:26–28 immediately registered when it was first explained to me.

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