4 Min Read

We often talk about how God is “sovereign” over all things. The term has to do with God’s providential control over His creation — that is to say, everything that exists — and, in different contexts, with His action in bringing people to salvation. But to say God is sovereign implies that He is a sovereign. In other words, God is a king.

Christian discussions of the kingdom of God usually focus on His spiritual kingdom, how, through the work of Christ, He reigns in the hearts of believers, in the visible church, and in eternity.

This column is about culture, so I would like to focus on a different aspect of the concept: How it is that God is also the King of the “secular” order, which includes both the material and the social worlds.

Though we can certainly speak about God’s kingdom in an apocalyptic way, as something in the future, or in an evangelistic way, as in something we are working to usher in, I want to focus on the sense in which God is already a king and already rules His kingdom.

Martin Luther sorts out the different senses of these terms when he taught that God has two kingdoms, each of which He governs in different ways. He has a spiritual kingdom, and He has an earthly kingdom. A Christian is a citizen of both. But even non-believers — those who do not know God and who rebel against Him — are citizens of God’s earthly kingdom and cannot escape His rule.

In Luther’s day, it was not unusual for a particular monarch to occupy more than one throne. The emperor that Luther had to contend with was, in addition to his innumerable dukedoms and the imperial office, both the king of Spain and the king of Hungary.

Luther meant that God governs two dominions: One He rules by virtue of His creation; the other by virtue of His act of redemption in Christ. His earthly realm can be known through reason; His spiritual realm must be known through His Word. God rules human societies on earth through His moral law. God rules human hearts and equips them for His eternal kingdom through the Gospel.

God operates in both kingdoms through means. In the spiritual kingdom, He works through His Word, His sacraments, His church. In the earthly kingdom, He works through the processes of natural laws, physical causes, and history. Just as God established the church as the institution through which He works in His spiritual kingdom, He established the family and the state as institutions through which He works in His earthly kingdom. This is to say, God works through vocation. That is, through human beings whom He calls to different offices, tasks, and kinds of service.

Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms is widely misunderstood, both by its critics and by those who claim to follow it. It is most emphatically not dualism; rather, it is a way of uniting different categories. God is the King of
both realms.

This is not to be confused with Augustine’s doctrine of the two cities, which is dualistic. Augustine said that the city of man has to do with the love of self, while the city of God has to do with the love of God. In Augustine’s scheme, the two cities are in conflict with each other. Christians must live in the city of Man in this life, but they are being fitted for the city of God. In contrast, Luther’s concept of two kingdoms, both under one divine King, gives the earthly realm — and thus earthly culture — a positive value that it never had in many monasteries.

But is that positive value so great that it sanctifies the status quo? If God already rules in the earthly realm, does not that sanctify whatever secular rulers happen to be in power or whatever secular ideas are currently in vogue? This would be a grotesque confusion of Luther’s teaching. As was said, God rules His earthly kingdom by virtue of His creation and with His moral law. Those who deny God’s creation and who reject His moral law are not following the doctrine of the two kingdoms.

Romans 13 defines legitimate government as one that punishes evildoers and rewards those who do good. Rulers who punish the good and reward the evil do not have God’s sanction. Since the purpose of all vocations is to love and serve one’s neighbors, a tyrant does not have a calling from God.

Yes, the Devil is trying to establish his kingdom in both the earthly and the spiritual realms. But the Devil is an insurgent, a terrorist who can only kill and tear down. All order, beauty, and goodness are from the true King.

In practice, this means that it is not always necessary to Christianize a cultural artifact, such as music or art or ideas. The artifact still must be evaluated according to the moral law and the created order. But it is already part of God’s kingdom.

The two kingdoms offer a critical model by which Christians can engage their cultures. It allows Christians to criticize their societies when necessary, but also to appreciate the good things of society — its arts and sciences, its achievements and satisfactions — as coming from God’s hand. It brings the sacred and the secular together under one Sovereign.