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The Two Kingdoms of God and Christian Civil Engagement

Posted by thethousandmarch on November 11, 2012 at 1:45 AM

For Christians a proper understanding of the Gospel, especially in distinction to the law, is of the utmost importance. Of great secondary importance, especially in helping guide our civil and social engagement, is an understanding of the distinction between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of man. I’m no expert on Martin Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms, also called the two reigns of God. So, this is no treatise on Luther’s theology. However it’s something I’ve been learning about over the last few years that has been very helpful to me. The more I learn, the more I feel that I already understood the concepts; Luther has helped me develop my thoughts and put them into words. I find he has anticipated my questions and draws out my conclusions.

Now the doctrine of the two kingdoms could lead us to think that one kingdom is ruled by God and the other by sinful man, or Satan, placing it in opposition to God. But Luther taught that God rules the whole word through the means of these two kingdoms, each kingdom serving different purposes, each kingdom with a different mission. This negates any sense of dualism, God is active in both realms, we serve God in both realms, but how we participate in one is different than the other. However both liberal and conservative Christians conflate the kingdom of God with civil involvement and they confuse justification before God with civil righteousness. As a result the Gospel is confused with the law and we attempt to force the rule of God’s kingdom upon a world which cannot bear it.


Luther insists that it is of primary importance not to confuse the two kingdoms. Each must be true to its Divine mission. Through the Gospel God rules His spiritual kingdom, forgives sins, justifies and sanctifies. But He does not thereby supersede or abolish the earthly kingdom: in its domain it is to rule with power and the sword. Any attempt to rule the world with the Gospel is a double error, carrying a double penalty. Firstly, the Gospel is destroyed, and becomes a new Law to take the place of the old - man makes Christ another Moses, as Luther puts it. And in addition the world suffers . . . . (http//www.elca.org/What-We-Believe/Social-Issues/Journal-of-Lutheran-Ethics/Issues/August-2002/Luthers-Doctrine-of-the-Two-Kingdoms.aspx)


Martin Luther's doctrine of the two kingdoms of God teaches that God rules the world in two ways. God rules the current physical world – the kingdom of man – human institutions, including the institutional church, through the law, which can only demand and enforce outward conformity. He rules his spiritual kingdom – the kingdom of God – through the gospel, or grace. The kingdom of man is everything we see and do with our physical bodies, which includes our good works – civil, social, charitable actions performed through secular and religious institutions including our churches. The kingdom of God is spiritual, it is engaged only by faith – its substance is faith alone in Christ and his righteousness. The kingdom of God makes us members of God’s holy people. The kingdom of man maintains society.

What importance is this distinction? By it we understand that the spiritual kingdom cannot be ruled by the law, and the present physical kingdom cannot be ruled by the Gospel. This then helps us understand what it means to represent the kingdom of God on this earth. As a representative of God’s kingdom I have been given the mission of proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ. As a Church this means we must preach the Word and administer the sacraments, by faith assuring sinners (ourselves) of the forgiveness of sins through faith in Jesus. It is not our mission to set captives free, it is our mission to announce the good news which sets the captives free. Though positive moral changes in my life may be a result of the Gospel setting me free, no good work is equivalent to my building of God’s kingdom, or ‘living the Gospel’. We do not build God’s kingdom through our works no matter how good they may be. My goodness, my social involvement, my civil righteousness are not my representation of the God’s kingdom.

Luther states:

 

God has ordained the two governments: the spiritual, which by the Holy Spirit under Christ makes Christians and pious people; and the secular, which restrains the unchristian and wicked so that they are obliged to keep the peace outwardly…The laws of worldly government extend no farther than to life and property and what is external upon earth. For over the soul God can and will let no one rule but himself. Therefore, where temporal power presumes to prescribe laws for the soul, it encroaches upon God's government and only misleads and destroys souls. We desire to make this so clear that everyone shall grasp it, and that the princes and bishops may see what fools they are when they seek to coerce the people with their laws and commandments into believing one thing or another.


We cannot establish God’s kingdom upon this earth through physical means. If we try and coerce people into the kingdom of God we will only create hypocrites and liars.

But does this mean we have no duty to love our neighbors? Are we free to act in whatever way we please? Does the Church have no civil obligations? Do we throw out Jesus’ commandments? No, in the kingdom of man we are obliged to obey the law and if we are truly followers of Christ we will strive to love our neighbors. But we must understand that in the kingdom of man we are not special. Whatever civil righteousness we achieve, it is not the same as our righteousness before God, nor does it earn us favor with him, or build his heavenly kingdom. It simply helps maintain the temporal kingdom of man. Our goodness is no different than the goodness found in non-Christians. It is simply the degree to which we are able to obey the law, which God has revealed to all peoples. And like everyone else our obedience is predominately motivated by the desire for reward, or the fear of punishment.

All who seek to build a better society seek to build the same thing, the temporal physical kingdom of man. We can work with Mormons, Muslims, Buddhists, even secular atheists to build a better society. This is what is so wonderful about the doctrine of the two kingdoms; it frees us to work with everyone to do good without the constant need to link our actions to preaching the Gospel, or building God’s kingdom. It enables us to understand that the way we act in the kingdom of man is sometimes different from the way we act in the kingdom of God. For example the kingdom of God always advances through peaceful means, never through coercion. The kingdom of man requires the use of coercion to maintain order. In fact love of neighbor will often require force when in service to the kingdom of man we must fight against an evil which seeks to destroy society.

The doctrine of the two kingdoms has often been criticized because those who do not understand it think it removes morality from civil life, and relegates the Church to a passive role in society. But this is a misunderstanding of Luther’s teaching. The doctrine, in conjunction with a proper distinction between law and Gospel, allows the Church to proclaim the law thus condemning sin in our world and the Gospel which is the only and ultimate solution to sin’s corrupting power.

While we announce the good news, and wait in faith for Christ’s return which will bring the spiritual kingdom into perfect harmony with the earthly kingdom, this doctrine allows us to fully participate in the present corrupt kingdom of man. It allows us to respect the good we see in others even if they are not Christian. It allows us to partner with others in building a better society. It helps us understand that we must never force our faith upon others. It will also allow us to understand the difference between the temporal institutions (local churches) which represent the Church and the eternal spiritual communion of all saints. It teaches that these institutions are part of the kingdom of man, which affects the way they interact with society and attempt to maintain order and orthodoxy in themselves. Finally Luther’s understanding of scripture enables us to recognize that our good works are not superior to the good works of non-Christians, they do not win us salvation, favor, or reward. They are our duty, our obligation, simply what we owe our God and fellow humans. It is only by grace we are declared righteous before God, through faith – not by works, so that no one can boast. And, as Luther says, this righteousness is "meaningless on earth except to God and a troubled conscience."

Categories: The Kingdom of God, Christian Ethics, Basic Christian Belief