From Dr. William Edgar
From the beginning of Christendom and through the end of the Middle Ages, most theologians put considerable distance between the rule of Christ and human institutions. This was an unintentional result of the attempt to have Christ rule directly, but only through the church. In his great masterpiece The City of God (c.422), Saint Augustine (354-430) began a tradition which saw the heavenly city as the ultimate goal, echoed only poorly by life on this earth; the “city of man” is only a shadow of the full reign of Jesus Christ in the “city of God.” Much later, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) divided reality into the natural and the supernatural (nature vs. grace). Christ lives in the supernatural realm, and politics exists in the natural realm.
Such approaches often led to a confusion of realms. Many of the so-called “Imperial Cities” were ruled by a bishop who was in effect a governing prince. Attempting to free the church from such earthly entanglements, the Reformers tried to see Christ ruling his church directly, but the realms outside the church indirectly. Martin Luther (1483-1546) advanced the view sometimes called “Two Kingdoms,” wherein Christ rules his church directly by the Word and the Spirit, but rules the world outside the church by his providence and the use of force. A modern version of the “Two Kingdoms” vision is alive and well in parts of the church today.
Many approaches developed after Christendom to deal with a world in which the church was no longer directly in control of the other sectors of society. In his excellent book The Good of Politics, James Skillen enumerates some of them: “Believing that Christ’s kingdom is spiritual, or not of this world, or only ecclesiastical, or only future, Christians have turned to nationalism, civil religion, liberalism, Marxism, and various forms of quietism … as guides to their engagement or non-engagement in earthly politics.” I might add the temptation to “theonomy,” wherein the law of Moses is pretty much directly applied to government, including sanctions against adultery, blasphemy, or homosexuality.
The basic weakness of all these views is that Christ really does not govern either his church or the other spheres of life as the true king of the entire world. These views lack a solid understanding of the integrity of the original creation. Though indeed fallen, the world still has a fullness over which Christ is Lord (Psalms 24:1; 50:12). In its fullness, it contains numerous spheres and institutions. It was never God’s intention to rule those institutions through any one particular body. That was true in the order of creation and remains true in the order of redemption.
To put it in Kuyperian terms, Christ rules each institution in the world with the norms appropriate to each. The government should not run the church, nor should the church run the government. But both are governed in appropriate ways by the rule of Christ whose single purpose is to redeem the entire creation. Colossians 1:15-20 tells us that the Second Person of the Trinity is both “firstborn of all creation” who rules over every part of the world, including “principalities and powers,” and also “head of his body, the church.” The problem with so many views we encounter is that they do not begin with creation, but rather with the fall. Paul’s teaching never separates realms into sacred and secular (or natural). Christ has come to “reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven…” (v. 20a)
Here is the important piece: Christ is empowered so to rule not only because he is the great mediator of creation, but because he became human, subject to death, “making peace by the blood of his cross.” (v. 20b) The Second Person was incarnate, “and being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:8) Without his atoning death, he could not reconcile all things to himself. But he did die and was raised from the dead, and he now sits at the right hand of God from which he rules the world.
The message of Good Friday is that Christ is fully empowered to lead the new humanity and the entire creation to redemption because he is the new Adam who takes up where the first Adam failed. Because of Christ’s perfect obedience and humiliation, “God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow…” (vv. 9-10)
Christ has become the true ruler over all creation because he died on Calvary’s cross. He rules each sphere in the appropriate way: the church through preaching, sacraments, and discipline; the government through magistrates who enact just legislation; the family through parents who raise children with loving care. Indeed, nothing is outside his control. Though we do not see this reign clearly, it is real and active because we do see Christ. Every kind of distance is now breached because of his incarnation, his death, and his resurrection. Alleluia!
- William Edgar is Professor of Apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.