Reformed Theology and the Kingdom of God

Coming of the Kingdom From time to time I read critiques that Reformed theology doesn’t really do justice to the kingdom of God, or that it is weak on kingdom theology.  In other words, some current theologians, teachers, and authors are critical of Reformed theology because (in their view) it relegates the kingdom of God to a minor place in the overall theological scheme.

Before disproving this accusation, I think it is worth nothing that in evangelical circles the term “kingdom” has taken on an almost faddish status.  In today’s evangelical world when a few popular figures emphasize the kingdom in a trendy way, others latch on and it goes viral overnight (“kingdom” becomes a hip evangelical word like “authentic” or “vintage”).  What happens then is those evangelicals who equate Reformed theology with TULIP/Calvinism say that Reformed theology has a weak view of God’s kingdom because TULIP doesn’t talk much about the kingdom.  I realize this is debatable, but it is worth discussion.

However, one thing is clear: historic Reformed theology does not ignore the kingdom of God.  Kingdom theology makes up one of the great and important threads of Reformation doctrine.  We have to remember that there’s much more to Reformed theology than TULIP.

First, God’s kingdom is discussed in the creeds and confessions.  In the Nicene Creed we confess together that Christ’s kingdom “shall have no end.”  In the Heidelberg Catechism the following topics are discussed: Christ as King (Q/A 31), the keys of the kingdom of heaven (Q/A 83-85), and the petition in the Lord’s prayer, Your kingdom come (Q/A 123; cf. Q/A 128).  The Belgic Confession mentions the kingdom of God in articles 27 and 36 while the Canons of Dort speak about the kingdom in III/IV.10.  Similarly, the Westminster Standards discuss the reign of Christ and his kingdom extensively: WCF 8:1, 5; 23:3, 25:2, 30:1-2, WLC 42, 45, 53, 191, 196 and WSC 23, 26, 102, and 107.  Very clearly the Reformed Creeds and Confessions have much to say about the kingdom of God.  It is no mere footnote.

Second, the kingdom of God was discussed quite often by Reformed theologians in the past.  John Calvin (d. 1564) wrote about the kingdom so often in the Institutes it would take too long to list the references here.  In commenting on the Catechism, Zacharias Ursinus (d. 1583) spoke in-depth about the kingdom (Commentary, p. 176, 440-463, and 632-637).  Similarly, Thomas Watson (d. 1680) wrote much about the kingdom in several of his books, including The Lord’s Prayer, The Beatitudes, and Heaven Taken by Storm.  Dutch theologian Willem Teelinck (d.1629) wrote about the kingdom of grace and how it applies to godliness in The Path of True Godliness.  The following Reformed theologians also had a lot to say about Christ’s kingdom: Herman Witsius, Herman Bavinck, Wilhelmus a Brakel, William Ames, and the list goes on.

Third, and finally, Reformed theologians of recent history have written on the kingdom of God.  For example, Herman Ridderbos wrote The Coming of the Kingdom and Meredith Kline wrote Kingdom Prologue (see also Geerhardus Vos’ The Teaching of Jesus Concerning the Kingdom of God and the Church).  Kim Riddlebarger speaks of it in A Case for Amillennialism while Anthony Hoekma did the same in The Bible and the Future (see also C. Venema’s work, The Promise of the Future).  David VanDrunen has also recently done extensive study in kingdom theology (Living in God’s Two Kingdoms and Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms).  And the list goes on; I’ve only mentioned a small handful here.

If you thought that Reformed theology neglected the topic of Christ’s kingdom, I encourage you to check out some of the above resources.  Or, next time you hear someone wrongly accuse Reformed theology of ignoring the kingdom theme, you can (lovingly!) prove otherwise.  Reformed theology has a rich, biblical, and edifying view of Christ’s kingdom and what it means to be a citizen of it.

(This is a repost from February 2013)

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Christ’s Spirit, the OT Prophets, and Sobriety in Learning (Calvin)

Calvin’s Commentaries (46 vols.)Of the various aspects of John Calvin’s writings that I appreciate, I always love to hear him talk about modesty and humility when it comes to the study and interpretation of God’s Word.  More than a few times he mentions how we should never go further than God’s Word because that’s dangerous territory.  Here’s a similar exhortation from his commentary on 1 Peter 1:10-12:

…He [Peter] does not say that the prophets searched according to their own understanding as to the time when Christ’s kingdom would come, but that they applied their minds to the revelation of the Spirit. Thus they have taught us by their example a sobriety in learning, for they did not go beyond what the Spirit taught them. And doubtless there will be no limits to man’s curiosity, except the Spirit of God presides over their minds, so that they may not desire anything else than to speak from him. And further, the spiritual kingdom is a higher subject than what the human mind can succeed in investigating, except the Spirit be the guide. May we also therefore submit to his guidance.

John Calvin, Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 39.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

A Main Characteristic of Supernatural Revelation (Vos)

 Geerhardus Vos’ inaugural address as professor of biblical theology at Princeton in 1894 is one of the richest resources for gaining a Reformed understanding of redemptive history and biblical theology.  It’s one of those essays that I’ve gone back to so many times since I read it around 15 years ago.  Here’s one section that I’ve underlined and highlighted:

The first feature characteristic of supernatural revelation is its historical progress. God has not communicated to us the knowledge of the truth as it appears in the calm light of eternity to His own timeless vision. He has not given it in the form of abstract propositions logically correlated and systematized. The simple fact that it is the task of Systematic Theology to reproduce revealed truth in such form, shows that it does not possess this form from the beginning. The self-revelation of God is a work covering ages, proceeding in a sequence of revealing words and acts, appearing in a long perspective of time.

The truth comes in the form of growing truth, not truth at rest. No doubt the explanation of this fact is partly to be sought in the finiteness of the human understanding. Even that part of the knowledge of God which has been revealed to us is so overwhelmingly great and so far transcends our human capacities, is such a flood of light, that it had, as it were, gradually to be let in upon us, ray after ray, and not the full radiancy at once. By imparting the elements of the knowledge of Himself in a divinely arranged sequence God has pointed out to us the way in which we might gradually grasp and truly know Him. This becomes still more evident, if we remember that this revelation is intended for all ages and nations and classes and conditions of men, and therefore must adapt itself to the most various characters and temperaments by which it is to be assimilated.

 Geerhardus Vos, Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos, ed. Richard B. Gaffin Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2001), 7.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

None Shall Seek Thy Face in Vain (Cowper)

 I just love the hymns and poems of William Cowper.  In fact, I’d recommend a book of his hymns and poems to use as a short daily devotional.  My wife and I have used this one: William Cowper’s Olney Hymns (Curiosmith, 2009). It’s not expensive but it is a great resource.  Here’s a great hymn I read today that I’d like to share:

LOOKING UPWARDS IN A STORM

God of my life, to thee I call,
Afflicted at thy feet I fall;
When the great water-floods prevail,
Leave not my trembling heart to fail!

Friend of the friendless, and the faint!
Where should I lodge my deep complaint?
Where but with thee, whose open door
Invites the helpless and the poor!

Did ever mourner plead with thee,
And thou refuse that mourner’s plea?
Does not the word still fix’d remain,
That none shall seek thy face in vain?

That were a grief I could not bear,
Didst thou not hear and answer prayer;
But a pray’r-hearing, answ’ring God,
Supports me under ev’ry load.

Fair is the lot that’s cast for me!
I have an advocate with thee;
They whom the world caresses most,
Have no such privilege to boast.

Poor tho’ I am, despis’d, forgot,
Yet God, my God, forgets me not;
And he is safe and must succeed,
For whom the Lord vouchsafes to plead.

-William Cowper-

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54002

The Gospel Gives; The Law Demands (Walther)

 The more I preach and teach in a historic Christian church, the more I see the value in properly distinguishing between the law and the gospel.  Luther and the subsequent Reformers were not exaggerating when they strongly emphasized the need to distinguish between law and gospel.  Here’s how C. F. W. Walther explained it in one of his 1884 evening lectures on the topic:

The difference, then, between the Law and the Gospel is this: The Law makes demands of things that we are to do; it insists on works that we are to perform in the service of God and our fellow-men.  In the Gospel, however, we are summoned to a distribution of rich alms which we are to receive and take: the loving-kindness of God and eternal salvation.

Here is an easy way of illustrating the difference between the two: In offering us help and salvation as a gift and donation of God, the Gospel bids us hold the sack open and have something given [to] us.  The Law, however, gives nothing, but only takes and demands things from us.

Now, these two, giving and taking, are surely far apart.  For when something is given [to] me, I am not doing anything towards that: I only receive and take; I have something given [to me].  Again, when in my profession I carry out commands, likewise when I advice and assist my fellow-man, I receive nothing, but give to another whom I am serving.  Thus the Law and the Gospel are distinguished as to their formal statements (in causa formali): the one promises, the other commands.  The Gospel gives and bids us take; the Law demands and says, This you are to do.

Understanding this distinction helps us remember that justification is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.  Understanding this distinction helps us remember that receiving Christ’s work by faith is how we can stand before God and be accepted by him.  Justification does not come by doing (law) but by receiving something that has been done for us (gospel).  More can be said for sure – but suffice it to say in brief that a proper distinction between the law and the gospel helps us keep our eyes off ourselves and on our Savior.

The above quote is from C. F.W. Walther, The Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel (St Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1986), 19.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54002

When Sin Turns Into An Affliction (Bunyan)

 Israel’s complaining and grumbling began early on in the wilderness years. In fact, if my count is correct, they complained around 5 times in the first year or so after God rescued them from Egypt.  In one instance of their grumbling, God gave Israel what they whined for: meat to eat.  In fact, God said to Israel, “You will eat it [meat] for a whole month until you gag and are sick of it” (Num. 11:20 NLT).

In their hearts, the people of Israel craved, coveted, and longed for the things of Egypt.  This was such a deep heart issue that they wouldn’t listen to God’s word nor would they remember his promise and his provision.  John Bunyan commented on this deep-rooted sinful craving:

But now, how shall this man be reclaimed from this sin? How shall he be brought, wrought, and made, to be out of love with it? Doubtless it can be by no other means, by what we can see in the Word, but by the wounding, breaking, and disabling of the heart that loves sin, and by that means making sin a plague and gall unto the heart.

Sin may be made an affliction, and as gall and wormwood to them that love it; but the making of sin so bitter a thing to such a man, will not be done but by great and sore means.

Bunyan also told a story of a little girl in his town who used to chew on dirty cigar butts she found on the ground.  Her parents tried everything to get her to stop eating the butts – from kind promises to discipline – but nothing worked.  Finally, since nothing else was working, they listened to their doctor.  They took a bunch of dirty cigar butts, mixed them with warm milk, and made the girl drink it.  She took a sip and it made her so sick that she vomited.  After that, she never touched a cigar butt again!  The point is that God sometimes does that to his children when they are infatuated with sin.

Bunyan then wrote,

You love your sin, and neither rod nor good words will as yet reclaim you. Well, take heed; if you will not be reclaimed, God will make you a potion of your sin, which shall be so bitter to your soul, so irksome to your taste, so loathsome to your mind, and so afflicting to your heart, that it shall break your heart with sickness and grief, till sin be loathsome to you. I say, thus he will do if he loves you; if not, he will allow you to go on in your sinful course, and will let you go on eating your tobacco-pipe heads!

In other words,

God can tell how to make that loathsome to you on which you most set your evil heart. And he will do so, if he loves you; else, as I said, he will not make you sick by smiting you nor punish you for or when you commit whoredom, but will let you alone till the judgment-day, and call you to a reckoning for all your sins then.

When our hearts are so in love with the things of this world, so enraptured by sin, sometimes God makes us drink that sin like a nasty elixir which makes us sick to the heart.  When that happens, we must learn from Israel’s mistake and repent!  And we must thank God for making us taste the bitterness of sin now so we can escape its bitterness in eternity.  Finally, we should ask God for forgiveness, for the cleansing power of Christ’s blood, for his Spirit to help us fight sin, and for contentment with the lot God has given us.

The above edited quotes are found in John Bunyan, The Acceptable Sacrifice, vol. 1 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2006), 707.

(NOTE: This is a repost from August, 2016).

Shane Lems

Detestation of the Diabolical Slave Traffic (Cowper)

The Complete Poetical Works of William Cowper Most of us have heard about the great work of William Wilberforce who used his God-given gifts and talents to work towards ending the evil practice of the slave trade.  There were others, of course, who worked so diligently with Wilberforce in attaining the goal.  In fact, William Cowper was one of those who spoke early on against the “diabolical traffic” (as he called it).  Cowper wrote and published several poems describing the evils of the slave trade.  Here’s one called “The Negro’s Complaint” (1788/1793):

Forc’d from home, and all its pleasures,
Afric’s coast I left forlorn;
To increase a stranger’s treasures,
O’er the raging billows borne.
Men from England bought and sold me,
Paid my price in paltry gold;
But, though theirs they have enroll’d me,
Minds are never to be sold. 

Still in thought as free as ever,
What are England’s rights, I ask,
Me from my delights to sever,
Me to torture, me to task?
Fleecy locks, and black complexion
Cannot forfeit nature’s claim;
Skins may differ, but affection
Dwells in white and black the same. 

Why did all-creating Nature
Make the plant for which we toil?
Sighs must fan it, tears must water,
Sweat of ours must dress the soil.
Think, ye masters, iron-hearted,
Lolling at your jovial boards;
Think how many backs have smarted
For the sweets your cane affords. 

Is there, as ye sometimes tell us,
Is there one who reigns on high?
Has he bid you buy and sell us,
Speaking from his throne the sky?
Ask him, if your knotted scourges,
Matches, blood-extorting screws,
Are the means which duty urges
Agents of his will to use? 

Hark! he answers—Wild tornadoes,
Strewing yonder sea with wrecks;
Wasting towns, plantations, meadows,
Are the voice with which he speaks.
He, foreseeing what vexations
Afric’s sons should undergo,
Fix’d their tyrants’ habitations
Where his whirlwinds answer – NO!

By our blood in Afric’ wasted,
Ere our necks receiv’d the chain;
By the mis’ries we have tasted,
Crossing in your barks the main;
To the man-degrading mart;
All sustain’d by patience, taught us
Only by a broken heart: 

Deem our nation brutes no longer
Till some reason ye shall find
Worthier of regard and stronger
Than the colour of our kind.
Slaves of gold, whose sordid dealings
Tarnish all your boasted pow’rs,
Prove that you have human feelings,
Ere you proudly question ours!

William Cowper, 1788 (The Complete Poetical Works of William Cowper, 371).

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015