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Previous article in this series: November 1, 2010, p. 52.

Dear Reformed Christian Young People (and their parents),

How should a student respond when his religion professor asks the students to reflect on this statement: “Martin Luther King Jr. (and other civil rights advocates), influential economists, and Nobel Peace prize winners, can do as much to advance God’s kingdom as the Calvins and Luthers can.” Or if the professor praises preachers who resign from the ministry to run for political office because they can more effectively promote God’s kingdom as civil rulers? Or maybe the professor of “Social and Political Philosophy” suggests that the church institute’s main calling is to send out her members (“the church as organism“) to redeem culture, Christianize the community, and thus promote God’s kingdom. How should one respond?

How will you defend the view that the church is God’s kingdom?

What I have been describing in these editorials is a “new Calvinism.” How will you respond when the new Calvinists say: “Let this mind be in you: the kingdom is broader than the church. For within the larger circle of the kingdom is a smaller circle called church. The church exists for the establishment of that greater reality: the kingdom. The church is but a sign of the kingdom. God’s great work is not the church, but the kingdom.”

A massive shift in emphasis has taken place in Christian colleges in the past 75 years. Affections are turning from church to kingdom. Energies are devoted to kingdom. Are we perhaps missing something when we do not follow the lead of so many Reformed Christians today, and instead emphasize church and claim that we seek the kingdom by seeking the welfare of God’s church?

Will you college students be ready to give a defense, an “answer,” as Peter puts it, to your professors?

In the last editorial I let the proponents of this view speak for themselves, to make clear that I was neither manufacturing nor exaggerating their view. This time I want to show its novelty, defend historically and confessionally the view I have proposed, and so lend assistance to those who would defend the old view.

The Appeal to History

First, the approach of a Reformed Christian is to appeal to Reformed history. Not first of all to Reformed writers—influential as they may be—but to Reformed confessions. Not even first of all to Scripture—a text or many texts—but to the creeds, although we certainly recognize that Scripture is ultimate authority. I teach my students both in seminary and in catechism classes that one essential element of being Reformed is being “confessional,” which means both that we believe the creeds and that we use them in a certain way. That is, when grappling with controversial questions, first ask what the creeds say. “What did the church in the past believe? By the guidance of the Spirit of truth, how did they read Scripture?” I may differ with the creeds only with greatest hesitation. For myself as an officebearer, I have the Formula of Subscription clearly before me. Young people who have made confession of faith remember the vow they took regarding the “doctrines taught here in this Christian church.” Reformed believers are creedal Christians.

The Reformed creeds have something to say about the kingdom. No one may dismiss lightly the clear confession that our Presbyterian brothers made, creedally, as I pointed out in the last editorial: “The visible church…is the kingdom.” Our Three Forms of Unity speak with the same voice.

In the Heidelberg Catechism, the petition on God’s kingdom (“Thy kingdom come”) is explained: “preserve and increase Thy church,” and it expands on that by asking, “Rule us so by Thy Word and Spirit, that we may submit ourselves more and more to Thee.” Lord’s Day 12 describes the work of “our eternal King” as governing us by His Word and Spirit, defending and preserving us in the enjoyment of His purchased salvation. Lord’s Day 31 identifies the “keys of the kingdom” as the spiritual instruments of preaching and Christian discipline. With what keys does one enter the kingdom? Preaching and discipline. With what keys is one expelled from the kingdom? Preaching and discipline. What is this kingdom? The church.

In Article 27, the Netherlands Confession of Faith connects the kingship of Christ to the church exclusively. In Article 36, it calls the civil magistrates to oppose the kingdom of the devil and promote the kingdom of Christ by countenancing the true preaching and protecting proper worship.

The Canons of Dordt teach that to enter the kingdom one must be translated out of the kingdom of darkness and into the light of Jesus Christ, spiritually (III-IV:10).

This is the Reformed church’s confession of kingdom. One could wish that the confessions were more explicit, perhaps polemical in this area. But they were not, because they were united in the doctrine of the church and kingdom.

The Appeal to Scripture

The Reformed fathers worded the confessions so, since they always understood that the New Testament church is the fulfillment of the Old Testament kingdom. For example, I Peter 2:9 teaches that the church is the new “kingdom of priests.” The confessions were written with an eye also on important passages like Ephesians 1:19-23. Paul teaches there that when God positioned the resurrected and glorious Christ at His right hand, far above all principalities and powers and dominions both in this world and that to come, and put all things under His feet, He made Christ to be head over all things to the church. To the church! That is, all this was done, everything put under Christ’s feet, for the advantage of His crowning work, the church. Not a kingdom outside of or independent of the church. But the church…which is God’s kingdom.

I know that college students will hear Jeremiah 29:7 used almost mantra-like for this new view. Without time and space to explain the passage, which has nothing to do with building God’s kingdom in Babylon and with Babylon, I only suggest that the student ask in what recent decade that passage was first used for such a purpose, and then engage in some research. Try to find any commentator more than 50 years ago who used it so. There is a reason. The passage has been hijacked and commandeered for wrong purposes. (Write me for an explanation of that verse over against the modern misuses of it.)

The Appeal to Heavyweights

If a student would appeal to the opinions of men, he may do that carefully, too, and start with the pre-Reformation heavyweight Augustine. Augustine is now being criticized by the new Calvinists because he “conflated the church with the city of God.” But Augustine was correct. A respected dictionary of the church affirms that “since the time of Augustine there has been a tendency to institutionalize the concept of the kingdom by identifying it with the church.” That tendency also was correct, but because it is not appreciated today, a Reformed scholar chides current missionaries not to “continue interpreting the kingdom in a totally spiritual or apolitical sense.” Why does he use the word “continue“? Because Christian missionaries always have interpreted the kingdom spiritually. Trace the historical line. The view I present is not novel. The kingdom-is-broader-than-the-church view is novel.

The Reformers are heavyweights too. Rather than quote them, it suffices only to note that Louis Berkhof said the Reformers “agreed in identifying it (the kingdom) with the invisible church, the community of the elect, or of the saints of God. For them it was first of all a religious concept, the reign of God in the hearts of believers…. They did not expect the external visible form of the Kingdom of God until the glorious appearance of Jesus Christ.” The Reformers! This was the view of the Dutch heavyweight Gisbertus Voetius, the later Dutch missionary J.H. Bavinck, nephew of Herman, and many others between them. So it is not a surprise that this was the view carried forward into the PRC by Herman Hoeksema and the PRC’s later theologians.

Some of the new Calvinists concede that this is historic Christianity. Calvin Seminary’s mission’s professor, in a 1975 commemorative book, pointed out that the church’s view was subtly shifting from an interest in the community of the church to the community of the city. “Now, for many, the community of real importance, if you would judge by the weight of attention given to it, is the city.” The new Kingdom. Another acknowledged that it was Max Warren in 1948 who led the charge to “build consensus” for this “new direction” and “new understanding of the messianic kingdom,” which was simply following the Roman Catholic’s Vatican II concentration on “peace, fellowship, and justice.”

Historic, Reformed Christianity holds that the church is God’s kingdom.

If anyone has yet an interest to develop the doctrine of the kingdom, may God truly bless his efforts. But let him first ask whether he understands Reformed confessions and history. And then also ask whether his yen is from a lurking suspicion that maybe the kingdom is somehow broader than the church. In which case he should refrain.

Next time, God willing, I want to trace this new view to its fountain head, and expose the slim pillar— the single slim pillar—that is used to uphold this massive new enterprise of building God’s kingdom outside the church.

A parting word… for this time

When young Christians at Christian colleges define kingdom in terms of church, they will be labeled Anabaptists: guilty of world-flight, fearful of culture and politics, not interested in the important calling that believers have as citizens of the particular country and earthly culture in which they live.

Your lives must not justify such criticism.

Reformed believers must be concerned for God’s creation because, understanding God the Father as Creator, Christians want to be the best of environmentalists (they just do not worship at the altar of the “Green God”). They should be interested in politics, because Christians are also citizens of the land and are interested in how it is governed (they just do not pin their hopes on government to establish God’s kingdom or dream that, “if only we could return to Abraham Kuyper’s Netherlands…”). They are open to discussions on economics, because they know the eighth commandment applies more broadly than to personal finance (they just do not suppose that a good economy benefits God’s kingdom; in fact, if history and Scripture are to be reckoned with, a good economy may work against God’s kingdom). They delight in, at the very minimum believe it is valuable to study, the arts: music, literature, sculpture, and painting (although they value least if at all the art-form that so enamors the new Calvinists: dramatic acting). They read all kinds of history, not just church history, because they want to know how Sovereign Jehovah directed the worlds for the sake of His church-kingdom down through the ages.

And they will not forget to read the history of the Anabaptists, to avoid falling into a pretty deep ditch with them.