Living in God’s two kingdoms

Over the last few weeks we have heard God speak to us through Paul’s letter to Titus.  In this letter we have learned many things about our lives inside and outside of the church.  Central among these truths is that God has saved us by his grace and not by works of the law.  This good news of the gospel comes to us through ordained preachers.  We have learned that baptism signifies and seals our entrance into Christ’s church, and our participation in the benefits of the covenant of grace.  God has chosen to govern his people in the church through elders, who must meet certain requirements.  We deal with false teachers in the church.  In our lives outside the church, we are part of marriages and families.  We have vocations.  Some people are slaves.  We are all called to submit to civil government.  We share with the broader society a common moral standard that obligates us toward God and our neighbour, and gives shape to our lives in this world.  God wants us to be ready for every good work in order to preserve the witness of the church and the gospel.

What I would like to do this morning is to provide a biblical framework that helps us fit these truths together to give us a holistic picture of the Christian life.  This framework emerges from two covenants that God has instituted with humankind: God’s covenant with Noah and his covenant of grace with Abraham.  These covenants form the basis for God establishing two kingdoms in which you and I live.  What we shall see is that just like the Christians on the island of Crete, we too are simultaneously members of Gods two kingdoms.  On the one hand, we are citizens of God’s redemptive kingdom, which is expressed in the church only.  And on the other, we are citizens of his common kingdom, which is expressed in various other institutions in this world, like marriage and the state.

The redemptive kingdom and the covenant of grace

Paul’s ultimate burden in his letter to Titus is with the redemptive kingdom of Christ.  The redemptive kingdom according to the NT, especially from a place like the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7), is given earthly expression in the church only.  It is through the church that the good news of Christ’s redemptive kingdom has been revealed by God’s ordained preachers throughout the ages: from the OT priests and prophets, to Jesus, to the Apostles, and pastors in the church today.  It is through the ordained ministry of the church that sinners enter into Christ’s kingdom and are fed and nurtured in grace.  Therefore, Paul’s chief concern in the book of Titus is for the redemptive kingdom to expand and flourish according to God’s churchly means.  This is why he wants qualified ministers and elders to be elected.  Between them, they preach the Word of God and rule over us for our good.  The ordained officers alone are the ones who have been given the keys to open and close the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 16:19; 18:15-20).

According to Paul, it is our membership in God’s redemptive kingdom – the church – that ultimately defines our existence in this world.  In the beginning of Chapter 3, Paul writes that we were “once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures.”  We were once God-haters and people-haters.  But, Titus 3:4-5, when the “goodness and loving kindness of Jesus appeared, he saved us.”  God saved us from our sins and turned us into Saints because Jesus fulfilled the covenant of grace that he made with Abraham.  Therefore, to have faith in Jesus is to be in a covenant of grace relationship with God, and enjoy all of its benefits.  By faith we have been freed, in Christ, from the demands of the law for our justification.  By faith in Christ we have become citizens of heaven.  By faith we have received the power and comfort of the Holy Spirit.

Brothers and sisters, children and friends, the way of life in Christ’s kingdom is radically different from life in any other institution or community in this world.  How so?  As we have seen, life in Christ’s kingdom – in the church – is defined by forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration.  Even when church discipline is exercised, it is always done in mercy and toward reconciliation.  It is the one place where the claims of justice are not enforced against sinners; where the consequences for breaking the law are transcended.  The church is a place of peace; a place where we turn the other cheek when wronged; where we don’t give another his due when he sins against us.  It is the one community in the world where the slave goes free, debts are forgiven and criminal records are thrown away.

As people of faith, our way of life is profoundly different from the rest of the world when it comes to matters of eternal significance.  When it comes to the God we worship and serve, and our eternal destiny, there is no overlap between members of the redemptive kingdom and non-Christians in the civil kingdom.  Christians and non-Christians have nothing in common when it comes to salvation.

But this does not mean that there is no overlap or commonality between the two kingdoms whatsoever.  This does not mean our lives have no meaning outside of the church.

The common kingdom and the Noahic covenant

One of the things that Paul assumes in his letter to Titus is that Christians have legitimate and significant lives in broader society, which is also under Christ’s sovereign rule.  For example, Paul’s list of elder requirements is such that it describes a man who has a good moral reputation both inside and outside the church.  In fact, he uses a list of moral traits common to the first-century Greco-Roman world to describe many of the traits expected of an elder within the church.  You will also notice that Paul does not call Christians to abandon their lives in the broader communities and institutions of this world.  Rather, he calls us to “upright and godly lives in this present age” (Titus 2:12): as mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, children; as slaves; as lawyers and accountants; as housewives, etc.  And then in Titus 3:1, Paul calls all Christians to be submissive to the governing authorities of the land, that is the state.

So what does this all mean?  It is a sampling of the evidence found throughout Scripture that God has made us members not only of the church – the redemptive kingdom – but also members of broader society as well – that is the common or civil kingdom.  As members of the church, God governs our lives according to the redemptive terms of the covenant of grace made with Abraham, found in Genesis 15-17.  In contrast, God governs our lives as members of the common kingdom according to the non-redemptive terms of the Noahic covenant, found in Genesis 9.

God’s covenant with Noah was distinctly different from the one that he made with Abraham in that the Noahic covenant is temporary while the Abrahamic covenant is eternal.  The recipients of the Abrahamic covenant are God’s people only, while God has made the Noahic covenant with everyone.  In the Abrahamic covenant, God promises eternal life, while in the Noahic covenant he promises to uphold and sustain humanity in this life only.

In his covenant with Noah, God promises to stay his hand of judgment against a fallen world and enable all people to enjoy a measure of peace and flourishing in this world.  But in order for this to take place, God has instituted the state to punish those who break the law and threaten the dignity of human life.  In Genesis 9:6, Moses writes: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.”  The state has been ordained by God to rule over and protect us in the civil kingdom, by using the threat of force.  It’s mandate it to provide a relatively peaceful space in which Christians can join with their non-Christian neighbours in enjoying God’s creation, making culture and doing good to each other.  Most importantly, God’s forbearance toward humanity in extending his common grace to all people gives sinners opportunity to repent and believe in Jesus.

So, it we can sum up at this point, when it comes to the distinct way of life that defines our existence in God’s common kingdom, the institution of the state highlights things most sharply.  Unlike the church, the state can never offer us benefits that extend beyond this life.  Unlike the church, the state judges us according to the demands of the law.  As a general rule: we cannot escape the penalties imposed on us by the state for breaking its laws.  The consequences for our bad behaviour normally follow us.  We cannot erase our criminal record.

In striking contrast to the church, the state ensures that a defining feature of the common kingdom is the relatively strict enforcement of law and justice.  This reality in itself teaches us that the common kingdom can never become the redemptive kingdom.  For, remember, the church operates according to the gospel ethic of forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration.  It is the only community in this world in which the demands of justice have been met.

How?  Through Jesus: the one who is took upon himself God’s curse for our law breaking.  The gospel is the stupendous message that instead of judging us for our sin against him, God turned his other cheek by crucifying his only begotten Son so that we might have life!

Living as dual citizens under Christ’s rule

Beloved, the theology of the two kingdoms is of immense help to us as we try to make sense of our lives in this present evil age.  For, we are those who exist in the midst of the tension of being in the world, but not of it.  We are those who are called to heavenly-mindedness, but at the same time have lives filled with earthly responsibilities.  Understanding our lives as citizens of God’s two kingdoms gives us a holistic perspective of the Christian life under the Lordship of Christ.  For it enables us to affirm both the church and the state as legitimate institutions ordained by God and to which we owe God-glorifying obedience by faith.  At the same time, by understanding that God governs our lives differently depending on which kingdom is in view, we are taught to keep the nature and the purpose of the church free of dangerous confusion with other institutions, like the state.

For when we understand that it is the church alone that makes manifest the kingdom of heaven on earth through its ordained ministry, then the church assumes its proper place as the most important institution in our lives.  When we appreciate that the church alone is that gathering where God promises to redeem his people and where we offer our public praises to him, then our common cultural activities assume their appropriate level of importance: that is God-glorifying, but not holy or redemptive.  By seeing our common cultural labours as indeed God-honoring ways of showing love to our neighbour, but not strictly-speaking “holy” acts or “ministry” or “kingdom work”, we protect and affirm the church alone as God’s ordained means by which the kingdom of heaven grows here on earth.

Paul’s central burden in his letter to Titus is for the church, and this should be our central burden in this life as well.  Therefore, let us heed Paul’s instructions here to serve God in his two kingdoms – with our good works – in such a way that Christ’s gospel and his church continue to thrive in this world that is soon to pass away.  Let us do so out of gratitude for our redemption and in the hope that God will one day replace this world with a new and better one: the New Jerusalem that will one day come down from heaven.  Amen.

Simon Jooste, RCSS morning service, February 24, 2013

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