In 1596 James Melville, a leader of the Scottish Kirk, declared that King James the 6th of Scotland:
was God’s silly vassal and that there are two kings and two kingdoms in Scotland. There is Christ Jesus the King, and His kingdom the Kirk, whose subject King James VI is, and of whose kingdom, not a king, nor a lord, nor a head, but a member he was.
Melville was standing upon a fundamental principle of Reformed social ethicsâ€” the distinction between the holy Kingdom of God and the secular kingdoms of men. Although James VI was King of Scotland, Jesus Christ was King of Zion. In the realm of the secular nation James enjoyed sovereignty, but in the holy church James was without distinction.
Melvilleâ€™s showdown with King James is but one example of a common theme running through church history. The tense conflict between church and state continuously replays a more famous kingdom confrontation between King Jesus and Governor Pilate (John 18:36). Jesus had been arrested, tried by the Jews, and sent to the Roman civil governor Pontius Pilate for judgment. Jewish leaders capitalized on Romeâ€™s violent impatience toward rebellion. They accused Jesus of treasonous sedition against Caesarâ€™s Kingly authority. Had Jesus not declared, â€œBut if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon youâ€ (Matt. 12:28)?
Confronting Jesus with the charge of rebellion, Pilate inquired, â€œAre you the King of the Jews?â€ In order to understand Jesusâ€™ response we must first consider the nature of worldly kingdoms.
Pilateâ€™s Power and the Kingdoms of Men
Following the great flood, God legitimatized the use of the sword to restrain sin declaring:
And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. â€˜Whoever sheds the blood of man by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own imageâ€¦â€™ (Gen. 9: 5,6).
In the order of common grace, flowing out of the cross of Christ, civil government must exercise lawful violence in order to prevent unlawful violence. This is the nature and function of the kingdoms of menâ€” to exercises the sword in order to restrain evil and establish order. Although justice is a noble vision, order is the sine qua non of legitimate civil authority. As the meek Jesus stands before Pilate his the imperial sword, often marked by brutality and injustice, remains legitimate. The Apostle Paul reminded the church at Rome:
Let every person be subject to the governing authoritiesâ€¦ For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is Godâ€™s servant for good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, and avenger who carries out Godâ€™s wrath on the wrongdoer (Romans 13:1-4).
The Spirituality of the Kingdom
Against the violent backdrop of this worldâ€™s kingdoms, Christ vindicates Himself against the charge of sedition declaring, â€œ My kingdom is not of this worldâ€ (John 18:36). Emphasizing the spiritual nature of His kingdom, Christ explains, â€œif my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jewsâ€ (John 18:35,36). Far from the violence of nations, the Kingdom of God is defined by â€œrighteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spiritâ€ (Romans 14:17).
Jesus explained to Nicodemus, â€œunless you are born again you cannot see the kingdomâ€ (John 3:3). The Kingdom of God is the realm of Spiritual renewal in Jesus Christ. It is the realm of the Holy Spiritâ€™s application of Christâ€™s victory over sin and death. Therefore, the Kingdom of God is a â€œnew creationâ€ already enjoying the first fruits of Spiritual resurrection and renewal in Jesus Christ.
Confounding expectations, Jesus the Messiah did not come to judge but to be judged (John 12:47). Rather than raining down Godâ€™s just judgment upon the nations, Jesus Christ experienced the fullness of Divine wrath on their behalf. In doing so, Christ established His Kingdom in grace.
The Westminster Confession of Faith declares:
The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children; and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation (WCF, Chapter 25:2).
Thus, Christâ€™s kingdom of grace is His visible church. A colony of heaven on earth, Christâ€™s church is the eternal glory of the age to come piercing the fading glory of the present passing age. Preaching peace between God and sinner, the church looks forward to the glorious consummation of Christâ€™s universal Kingdom at His final coming. Thus, Christ reigns over a Kingdom of grace now and glory later.
Two Kingdoms Distinguished
As Christ stood before Pilate two kingdoms were in conflict. Before Pilate stood a king whose kingdom transcends the passing order of this present age. Asked, are you guilty of treasonous rebellion, Christ justified Himself as sinless by declaring, â€œMy kingdom is not of this world.â€ Rather, He is king over an eternal realm, the concerns of which far surpass the mundane realities of earthly politics. In response, Roman Governor Pontius Pilate, brutal bearer of the sword, punisher of all rebellion against Caesar, justified Christ with his just pronouncement; â€œI find no guilt in himâ€ (John 18:38).
Jesus Christ is seated with all power in heaven and earth. This means that Jesus Christ is king over all spheres of life including both church and state. This is a complex biblical truth. From Christâ€™s conflict with Caesar, to Emperor Henry IVâ€™s chilly encounter with Pope Gregory VII at Cannossa, to the bloody struggles of the Scottish Covenanters against state interference with the church, the acknowledgment of Christâ€™s universal reign over all things has created tension and conflict. Whether for the Roman Papacyâ€™s declaration of sovereignty over the affairs of church and state or the Anglican settlement granting civil authority over the affairs of the church, Christâ€™s universal mediatorial Kingship has been cited as justification. Both systems fail to grasp the full power of Christâ€™s declaration, â€œMy kingdom is not of this world.â€
Rather, we who would declare Christâ€™s kingship over the nations must be able to properly distinguish the secular and non-redemptive reign of Christ over the nations (the kingdom of His power) from His holy and redemptive reign over the church (the kingdom of His grace). To distinguish thus illuminates the wisdom of the American religious settlement granting institutional separation of church and state. Although we often fail to acknowledge it, the adoption of the 1st Amendment to the United States Constitution declaring, â€œCongress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereofâ€¦â€ was a vindication of Covenanter principles and an authentic step forward in the application of Christâ€™s Kingship.
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