At the heart of our philosophy of the church’s responsibility toward culture is a proper understanding of how God rules sovereignly over all things, how he specifically rules his redeemed people—particularly now the NT church, and how his rule will culminate in the future. Another way of saying this is that central to a biblical philosophy of cultural engagement is how Scripture uses language like “rule,” “reign,” and “kingdom” to describe God’s plan in history, and essential to this understanding is recognition that Scripture uses these kinds of “kingdom” terms to describe a couple different concepts in God’s working out of his sovereign plan. I’ll summarize what I mean here and then develop it. Sometimes Scripture uses “kingdom” terminology as a metaphor to describe God’s universal sovereign rule over all. Other times Scripture uses “kingdom” language as a metaphor to describe his redemptive rule over his people. And other times Scripture describes a very concrete, literal kingdom on earth. Exploring these three uses of kingdom language in God’s plan will help us to understand our relationship to each.
The Universal Reign of God
First, there is one clear sense in which the Bible refers to a kingdom that is eternal and universal in scope. The psalmist proclaims, “The Lord has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all” (Ps 103:19) and “Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures throughout all generations” (Ps 145:13). All aspects of the universe fall under this rule, including what we might commonly consider culture: social and family structures, agriculture, the arts, and so forth. God rules it all.
Within this universal reign, God created Adam in his image. God is the sovereign king, but Adam was made in God’s image to be a vice-regent who would rule over all creation on God’s behalf.
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. 28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Gen 1:27–28)
This was a blessing given to Adam as a representative of all humanity to take the raw materials of God’s creation and use them for his glory and their good; this is essentially what we call culture—what we make of God’s creation. This blessing establishes the basis for common human institutions such as marriage, family, agriculture, horticulture, and husbandry. It was a blessing, but it was also a responsibility. The language of “subduing” and having “dominion” are used throughout the rest of Scripture to describe what kings do. Adam was supposed to be a king who would execute God’s rule over the rest of creation.
Also important to note here is that God gives this dominion to all human beings, not just believers; this blessing occurs before the Fall. All humans have been blessed with dominion over creation, and thus God rules his universal kingdom through all people created in his image.
However, God intended Adam to be not only a king, but also a priest. Genesis 2:15 says that God placed Adam in the garden “to work it and keep it.” Most Hebrew scholars note that when the two Hebrew words “work” and “keep” are used together in the Old Testament, they almost always refer to priestly work. Adam was supposed to “keep” the garden sanctuary, that is, to guard and protect the holiness of the sanctuary, preventing those who would attempt to usurp God’s reign through him.
In other words, God intended for his universal sovereign rule to be expressed through humanity in a single earthly kingdom; he intended a perfect union between the cultural and the religious to exist in the garden—Adam was supposed to be the perfect king/priest. Had Adam succeeded in this responsibility, mankind would have continued to perfectly rule the natural world as mediators of God’s universal rule.
This is what David was referring to when he said in Psalm 8:4–8,
What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? 5 Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. 6 You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet, 7 all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, 8 the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
God chose to rule his world through humankind as his representatives.
However, we know what happened. When the author of Hebrews quotes that passage from Psalm 8, which claims that God has put everything under the feet of man, he says in the next verse, “At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him.” Adam failed. He disobeyed God’s command to have dominion over creation; he allowed a creature, the serpent, to be king. He failed to guard God’s garden sanctuary and allowed Satan to defile it. As the representative of all humankind, Adam failed to be God’s perfect king/priest.
Adam’s failure did not end the universal sovereign reign of God, of course, and many of the passages in Scripture that speak of God ruling over all refer to that continual, never-ending reign of God on his throne. All of this was part of God’s sovereign plan. But Adam’s failure did result in a curse. God pronounced a curse upon Adam and Eve and all creation. However, in the midst of his curse upon the serpent, he provided a glimmer of hope:
I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel. (Gen 3:15)
God promised that one day a seed of the woman—a Second Adam—would accomplish what the First Adam failed to do. He would crush the usurper’s head and cleanse the defiled Sanctuary, fulfilling the God-given role of the perfect king/priest.
Yet that did not happen right away, of course. Roughly four thousand years separate God’s promise of a Second Adam and the fulfillment of that promise. God could have left humankind in chaos during that entire time, and in fact, he did for a while. As we read in Genesis 6:5–7,
The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 6 And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. 7 So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.”
In summary, God intended for there to be one kingdom on earth, an expression of his sovereign rule over all things that was a union between man’s dominion over creation—that is, culture—and man’s relationship with God—that is, religion. Adam failed the requirements to rule that one kingdom, and so between his failure and the Second Adam’s success, God separated the two aspects of his united kingdom into two kingdoms.
The Common Kingdom
The first of these two kingdoms was established by God in Genesis 9. This text occurs just after that significant illustration in Genesis 6 of rebellion of humankind against the rule of God and God’s judgment of that rebellion through a worldwide flood. After Noah and his family were saved in the ark and finally stood again on dry land, this is what happened:
And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. 2 The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth and upon every bird of the heavens, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea. Into your hand they are delivered.” (Gen 9:1–2)
God’s covenant with Noah in Genesis 9 reveals God’s plan to preserve humankind and creation until the Second Adam establishes his rule. First, notice that in his covenant with Noah, God specifically repeats the blessings of Genesis 1:28—“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” He wants humans to continue to engage in cultural matters like having children and working the ground—this is a blessing because it helps to maintain order in the world.
But notice that he does not repeat the command to have dominion. That command was given to Adam as our representative, and he failed as our representative. We failed in him. Sinful humanity will never be able to exercise dominion over creation—we need a perfect man to do that for us. Our work in culture is simply a way to maintain order as a blessing to us until the Second Adam takes dominion.
And also, because of the presence of sin, in God’s covenant with Noah he established additional measures by which in his providence he would preserve the stability of a cursed world. He promised that he would never again judge the world with a worldwide flood—he will providentially preserve nature. And he also established the earthly institution of human government, with its God-given responsibility of capital punishment: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” God gave this responsibility to govern the world and its people once again to all humankind as a means through which God would sovereignly control man’s sinfulness and preserve the world and its order until the Second Adam would establish his reign as the perfect king/priest.
Romans 13:1 reiterates this point when it says that governing authorities “have been instituted by God.” When governing authorities fulfill responsibilities given to them by God in Genesis 9, Romans 13:9 calls them “ministers of God”; when they punish wrongdoing, governing authorities are actually “carr[ying] out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (v. 4). This is still God’s kingdom, and so human authorities are supposed to govern on his behalf and according to his rules as a way to maintain stability in a sin-cursed world.
This is what we might call the Common Kingdom of God—this kingdom is not redemptive in nature, and it is not limited only to redeemed people; the Common Kingdom is God’s providential rule over all through human institutions that he has appointed to maintain order in this world.
The Redemptive Rule of God
But this is not where God’s plan ends. He also established the means by which the Second Adam would come and earn the right to rule, and the means by which citizens would be gathered into his perfect kingdom. This is the second way Scripture often uses “kingdom” language: to refer to God’s specific rule through the Second Adam over his redeemed people. The foundation for this kingdom is found in God’s covenant with Abraham in Genesis 17:
I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. 7 And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. 8 And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.
God’s covenant with Abraham accomplished a couple important things. First, in this covenant, God formally established his Redemptive Kingdom in which he distinguished his chosen people from the rest of the human race. He promised to make of Abraham’s descendants a great nation, and that through this great chosen nation, “all the nations of the earth will be blessed” (Gen 18:18, 22:18, 26:4, 28:14). But unlike the Common Kingdom, this Kingdom is reserved only for redeemed people. As exemplified by Abraham himself, the requirement for redemption and citizenship in this Kingdom is faith—Abraham “believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Gen 15:6). These citizens of God’s Redemptive Kingdom would be set apart from the other citizens of the common kingdom, illustrated through circumcision.
Second, God’s covenant with Abraham also established the specific family from which the Second Adam would come—“kings shall come from you.” God will make a covenant with one of those anointed kings, David, that the Anointed King would come through his line.
And indeed, the Second Adam came in the person of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, who perfectly fulfilled the role of God’s king/priest. Like with the first Adam, the serpent tempted Jesus and tried to usurp his rule, but Jesus conquered him. Like with the first Adam, God appointed Jesus to be a priest, and Jesus perfectly obeyed by cleansing the temple and offering up himself as an atoning sacrifice. Unlike the first Adam, Jesus passed the test and earned the right to rule as the perfect king/priest, and after his resurrection from the dead, he ascended into the heavenly temple itself, where he sat down at the right hand of God’s throne.
Christ succeeded where Adam failed and is now enjoying the blessings Adam never attained.
So when Scripture uses kingdom language with reference to the redeemed people of God under the rule of Christ, the perfect king/priest, it is different from God’s universal Common Kingdom. This Redemptive Kingdom does not include all humankind; it includes only those who place their faith in this perfect King/Priest, “sons of the kingdom” (Matt 13:38) who have been delivered “from the domain of darkness and transferred . . . to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sin” (Col 1:13).
This establishes the reality of two kingdoms: a universal kingdom, God’s sovereign superintendence over all things—including creation and human institutions, cultures, and societies—and a redemptive kingdom, God’s specific rule over his redeemed people. God’s covenant with Noah established the Common Kingdom, and God’s covenant with Abraham established the Redemptive Kingdom. The Common Kingdom includes all humanity and involves family, government, cultural pursuits, earthly vocations, etc. The Redemptive Kingdom includes only those who submit to the King and involves a redemptive relationship with God. The Common Kingdom involves temporal, physical matters. The Redemptive Kingdom involves spiritual matters.
Promise of Future Union
Because of Adam’s failure, these two kingdoms are at this present time distinct, but God intends one day to unite them into one Kingdom. This is the third, and perhaps most prevalent and concrete way Scripture uses “kingdom” terminology: it describes the reign of a perfect King in which he will unite God’s universal reign with his redemptive reign, a day when “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isa 11:9), when Christ will “have dominion from sea to sea, and from River to the ends of the earth” (Ps 72:8).
God has always intended for the Common and the Redemptive to be united in one perfect Kingdom. In God’s providence, Adam’s failure prevented that, but the Old Testament prophets continued to promise it, such as Daniel:
And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever. (Dan 2:44)
But notice also that although Christ has already established his rule over his redeemed people, as Hebrews 2:8 says, “At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him.” Christ is, as Psalm 110 states, presently seated at the Father’s right hand until the Father makes his enemies his footstool. The perfect eternal Kingdom has been promised and ensured, but it is not yet a complete reality. It will happen only after Jesus comes again, when “the kingdom of this world”—that is, the Common Kingdom—will become “the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ” (Rev 11:15).
In other words, we should not expect a union of the Common Kingdom and the Redemptive Kingdom in this present age. It will happen in the age to come.
This biblical understanding of the two kingdoms of God and their future union has several important implications for our lives as Christians and for our church ministry and our relationship to the world around us.
First, Adam failed to be the king/priest God commanded him to be, and since we were in Adam, we will never be able to be what he was supposed to be. We are not new Adams who are supposed to do what Adam failed to do by somehow exercising dominion over creation.
Rather, point two, Christ is the last Adam. He accomplished what Adam failed to do, and he will exercise dominion over all creation when he comes again. To believe that it is somehow our responsibility to do what Adam failed to do would be to distrust the sufficiency of what Christ accomplished. It is not up to us to somehow “extend his reign”; Christ will do that, not us.
Third, we cannot do what Adam failed to do, but we who are redeemed—we who are in Christ—do get to inherit the perfect kingdom Adam never achieved.
For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. (Rev 5:17)
Because Christ rose from the dead, we who are in him will rise from the dead, because he has been glorified, we will be glorified, and since Christ reigns in glory, we who are in him, according to 2 Timothy 2:12, “will also reign with him.”
But not yet; not until Jesus comes again. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:22–25,
For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 24 Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.
God is currently putting Christ’s enemies under his feet; when he is finished, the end will come, and then Christ will share his reign with we who believe in him.
Fourth, until he comes again, we believers live on this earth, pursuing various cultural endeavors, our jobs, participation in government, etc. in response to the fact that Christ has already done what Adam failed to do, not in an attempt to achieve what Adam failed to do. Nor should we expect the sort of Christianization of culture promised for the eternal kingdom to take place in this present age. That’s not going to happen until Jesus comes again.
This stands in stark contrast to what Russel Moore has accurately called the Evangelical consensus in our day. This most common view among evangelicals argues that the church has a present mandate to participate in God’s plan to redeem all things in this age. This view is built off of the assumption that God’s purpose in the world is to redeem all things, not just individuals, at least in part during the present age. Carl Henry argued that God’s mission “aims at a re-created society.” This view argues that Christians and their churches should be active in the world, seeking to transform that world. Christ is Lord of all, they argue, and thus it is the mission of churches to assert that lordship in all realms of life. Churches should be active in governmental affairs, in cultural endeavors, and in feeding the poor and pursuing social justice in the world, extending Christ’s rule over all of these aspects of society. The church must, according to Russell Moore, “engage the social and political structures”; a distinctive social mandate is inherent in the church’s mission, they believe.
But as we have seen, this view fails to recognize how God is working in this age through two kingdoms, the common kingdom for the preservation of society, and redemptive kingdom for the saving and sanctifying of kingdom citizens. We Christians absolutely should do good to all people, we should work hard in the vocations to which God has called us, we should rear children who love and obey God, we should stand up against injustice when we see it, we should be engaged in politics to help restrain evil in this world—but we should not feel the weight of trying to do what Adam failed to do. Christ has already done it! We live and work in this present age out of a response to what Christ has accomplished, looking forward to that day when he will complete it—when he will completely destroy his enemies and take dominion over all. During the present age, we live faithful and holy lives in the culture, and we pursue more kingdom citizens through bold proclamation of the gospel until the day when we will enjoy Christ’s eternal kingdom, ruling and reigning with him.