Reformed Kingdom Ethics




Last week, I mentioned the historic Reformed distinction between the two kingdoms – God’s kingdom of power and his kingdom of grace/glory (LINK).  Along with this kingdom distinction, Reformed theology has taught what we might call a kingdom ethic.  Or, to ask a catechism question, what do we pray for when we pray, “Thy kingdom come?”  Here are several answers based on WLC Q/A 191 and HC Q/A 123.

1) We pray that Satan’s kingdom may be destroyed (WLC 191).  We pray that the devil’s work may be vanquished, and every force which revolts against God and his Word would be overcome (HC 123).  We pray for justice in the world (Amos 5:14-15, 24) and we promote justice and peace (Prov. 21:3; Mic. 6:8; Matt. 5:9).

2) We pray that Christ’s church would grow; we pray that the gospel would be “propagated throughout the world” and that sinners would be given new life (WLC 191, HC 123).  Kingdom ethics have an emphasis on missions; we are to not only support mission work, but also let our own light shine before others in good works so God receives glory (Matt. 5:16).  This means we even seek the salvation of those around us: “The kingdom of grace increases in a man’s own heart when he labors to be instrumental to set up this kingdom in others” (Thomas Watson, The Lord’s Prayer, 78).

3) We pray that Christ’s church would be strong in the Lord and in his Word.  We pray that the church would be “furnished with all gospel officers and ordinances” and “purged from corruption” (WLC 191).  We desire that God would “preserve the ministry which he has instituted” (Zacharius Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, p. 636).

4) We pray that Christ would rule in our hearts more and more: “[Lord,] rule us by your Word and Spirit in such a way that more and more we submit to you” (HC 123).  Wilhelmus a Brakel said that some duties of God’s people in the kingdom of grace are a) to be a good Christian example to others, b) to love others – believers and unbelievers alike (The Christian’s Reasonable Service, III.520).  Thomas Vincent, Thomas Watson, and Zacharias Ursinus also talk about piety, holiness, and sanctification as part of the 2nd petition of the Lord’s Prayer.  When we pray “thy kingdom come,” we’re asking God to give us more faith in Christ, more love for him and our neighbor, more holiness in life, and more hope for the glory to come.

In summary, Reformed kingdom ethics are not ethics of withdrawal, indifference, or passivity.  Instead, they are mission minded.  They are focused on the purity of the church.  And Reformed kingdom ethics have to do with sanctification: growing more like Christ and loving/helping people around us.  This is an ethic that makes me concerned about evangelism, committed to serving in Christ’s church, and compassionate toward my neighbor.  Luther put it well in his “Large Catechism” on the 2nd petition of the Lord’s Prayer:

“We pray that His name may so be praised through God’s holy Word and a Christian life that we who have accepted it may abide and daily grow in it [His Word], and that it may gain approval and acceptance among other people.”

shane lems

Kingdom Distinction in Reformed Theology

Lords Prayer, Hardback Historic Reformed theology has typically made distinctions when discussing the kingdom of God.  Reformed theologians said there is a kingdom of power as well as a kingdom of grace/glory.  (Lutheran theologians have used similar terms.)  The kingdom of power is God’s general (non-redemptive) reign over all things (Ps. 103:19).  The kingdom of grace/glory is God’s specific (redemptive) reign over his people (Col. 1:13).  Speaking of Christ’s mediatorial reign (regnum Christi), the Reformed scholastics also distinguished between Christ’s general reign (regnum naturale or universale) and his saving reign (regnum oeconomicum).

You can typically see this kingdom distinction in historic Reformed commentaries on the Lord’s prayer’s under the second petition, “Thy kingdom come.”  Here’s how Thomas Watson explains this petition (in The Lord’s Prayer, p.59).

Watson says that this petition does not speak of “God’s providential kingdom” (cf. Ps. 103:19).  “This kingdom we do not pray for when we say, ‘Thy kingdom come;’ for this kingdom is already come.  God [already] exercises the kingdom of his providence in the world.  …The kingdom of God’s providence rules over all.”  This is what Reformed theologians call the kingdom of power.

What then do we pray for in this petition?

“Positively a twofold kingdom is meant.  1) The kingdom of grace, which God exercises in the consciences of his people …We pray that the kingdom of grace may be set up in our hearts and increased.  2) We pray also, that the kingdom of glory may hasten, and that we may, in God’s good time be translated into it.  …The kingdom of grace is glory in the seed, and the kingdom of glory is grace in the flower.  (In other words, the kingdom of grace is “already,” while the kingdom of glory is “not yet.”)

For more information on this Reformed kingdom distinction, see an earlier post here called “The Reformed Scholastics on the Regnum Christi.”  Interestingly, Abraham Kuyper also recognized these terms to some extent.  (For a very closely related topic, we might also consider how Reformed theology has distinguished between God’s general providence and his special providence – terms which the WCF uses in 5.7.)  In a word, and to summarize, Reformed theology makes distinctions when it comes to the topic of God’s kingdom(s).

shane lems

The Grounds of Perseverance

Chapter 38 of A Puritan Theology is titled, “The Puritans on Perseverance of the Saints.”  In this chapter the authors list four grounds or foundations of the perseverance of the saints as taught by the Puritans.  To state it as a question: “What are the grounds of the perseverance of the saints?” (I’ve edited the following to keep it brief – though I do recommend the entire section.)

Ground One: The Father’s electing love.  The Puritans stressed that our perseverance in faith is based on God’s preservation of us in grace.  Watson said, ‘It is not your holding God, but his holding us, that preserves us.  When a boat is tied to a rock, it is secure; so, when we are fast tied to the Rock of Ages, we are impregnable.’

Ground Two: Christ’s merit and intercession.  The Puritans said our union with Christ cannot be dissolved.  Christ will not let his people be sundered from him, any more than a head will willingly be cut off from its body or a husband from his wife.  The Puritans taught that the merit or value of the sacrifice Christ made at the cross guarantees that for those whom he died will be eternally saved.  The Puritans also viewed the intercessory work of Christ as our high priest as integral to the believer’s perseverance in faith.

Ground Three: The indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  Richard Sibbes said, “There are none that hold out but those that have the Spirit of God to be their teacher and persuader.”  The ground of perseverance is closely connected with the Word of God which abides in us, for the Word of God and the Spirit of God are always closely connected.  Owen wrote, “…The Father gives the elect in to the hands of Christ to be redeemed; having redeemed them, in due time they are called by the Spirit, and marked for God, and so give up themselves to the hands of the Father.”

Ground Four: The Covenant of Grace.  The agreement of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit from all eternity is intimately connected with God’s covenant mercies to us because in the covenant God revealed the order of the cooperative work of the Trinity through the incarnate Mediator.  The covenant promises that God will be faithful to his people, and he will ensure their faithfulness to him.  True believers may be assured that they will have heaven because they already have the Lord as their covenant God, and that is the essence of heaven on earth.

Standing upon these four grounds, the Puritans said, the Christian’s hope is solid, substantial, and certain.

Joel Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), 607ff.

rev shane lems
hammond, wi

The Christian and God’s Law

Product Details I appreciate Thomas Watson’s explanation of the relationship between the Christian and God’s moral law.  This might be considered a commentary on the Westminster Larger Catechism Q/A 97 (“What special use is there of the moral law to the regenerate?”).  Note: I’ve slightly edited the following quote for length.

“In some sense [the moral law] is abolished to believers: 1) With respect to justification.  They are not justified by their obedience to the moral law.  Believers are to make great use of the moral law, but they must trust only Christ’s righteousness for salvation.  2) With respect of its curses.  Believers are freed from the law’s curse and condemnatory power because of what Christ has done on the cross (Gal. 3.13).

“…But though the moral law be thus far abolished, it remains as a perpetual rule to believers.  Though it be not their Savior, it is their guide.  Though it be not ‘foedus,’ a covenant of life, yet it is a ‘norma,’ a rule of life.  Though a Christian is not under the condemning power of the law, yet he is under its commanding power.  To love God, to reverence and obey him, is a law which always binds and will bind in heaven.”

“This I urge against the Antinomians, who say the moral law is abrogated to believers; which, as it contradicts Scripture, so it is a key to open the door to all licentiousness.  They who will not have the law to rule them shall never have the gospel to save them” (p. 44).

Thomas Watson, The Ten Commandments, p. 44.

rev shane lems

Concerning the First Covenant…

Body of Divinity, Hardback The Westminster Confession of Faith  says “the first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam, and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and perpetual obedience” (WCF 7.2).  Thomas Watson has a great section in A Body of Divinity where he discusses the covenant of works.  Here are some excerpts – edited for length.

“Concerning the first covenant, consider these four things:

A) The form of the first covenant in innocence was working: ‘do this and live.’  Working was the ground and condition of man’s justification (Gal 3.12).

B) The covenant of works was very strict.  God required of Adam and all mankind, 1) perfect obedience.  One sinful thought would have forfeited the covenant.  2) Personal obedience.  Adam must not do his work by a proxy…but it must be done in his own person.  3) Perpetual obedience.  He must continue in all things written in ‘the book of the law’ (Gal. 3.10).

C) The covenant of works was not built upon a very firm basis; and therefore it necessarily leaves men full of fear and doubts.  The covenant of works rested upon the strength of man’s inherent righteousness, which though in innocence was perfect, yet was subject to change.  Adam was created holy, but mutable.

D) [After] the covenant of works was broken by sin, man’s condition was very deplorable and desperate.  He was left in himself helpless…there was no way for relief, unless God would find out such a way as neither man nor angel could devise.”

Watson then goes on to say how this teaching about the covenant of works should make us flee to the covenant of grace, which contains promises of mercy and relief for sinners who believe in the second Adam, Jesus Christ the righteous.

Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (Edinburg: Banner of Truth, 2008), 129-130.

rev shane lems

The Saint Struggling With Sin

[This is a repost from October, 2009.]  Yesterday I was contemplating Galatians 5.17  – For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want  (NRSV) – which brought me to Thomas Watson’s The Godly Man’s Picture.   Watson, in section 19 of the booklet, describes the saint who struggles with sin.  Here are a few of my favorite quotes.

“Though sin lives in him [the godly person], yet he does not live in sin.”

“Though sin is in him, he is troubled at it and would gladly get rid of it. …Sin in a wicked man is delightful, being in its natural place, but sin in a child of God is burdensome and he uses all means to expel it.”

“If we would have peace in our souls, we must maintain a war against our favorite sin and never leave off till it is subdued.”

“Grace and sin may be together, but grace and the love of sin cannot.  Therefore parley [meet] with sin no longer, but with the spear of mortification, spill the heart-blood of every sin.”

“A godly man dare not travel for riches along the devil’s highway.”

So Luther said that the Christian life means a severe struggle which never abates until we leave this world.

shane lems

sunnyside wa

How to Read the Puritan Paperbacks

This is a slightly edited repost from June, 2010.

If you’ve followed this blog for the past few years, you know that we enjoy the little Banner of Truth series of books called “Puritan Paperbacks.”  To be honest, the first time I (Shane) read one of these Paperbacks (I forget which one), I didn’t really enjoy it or appreciate it.  I thought it was too tedious, detailed, and ancient.  That was twelve years ago; now I have about seventeen of them and have benefited from them in many ways.  Here are a few things that have helped me read the Puritan Paperbacks with profit.  This list also applies to other Puritan books, for sure, but to keep it shorter, I’m thinking primarily of the Paperbacks.

To read the Puritan Paperbacks with profit, 

1) Know your systematic theology.  You don’t need a Ph.D. in systematics to benefit from them, but if you know your basic systematics (i.e. the attributes of God, the doctrine of man, the doctrine of Christ, the ordo salutis, etc.) it will be easier to read the Paperbacks.  For example, if you know the Westminster Standards well, or study Louis Berkhof’s Manual of Christian Doctrine, it will make reading the Paperbacks more enjoyable – you’ll be able to see that when the Puritans do “go deep,” they’re staying in the Reformed categories.  When I realized this, it made it easier and more edifying to read the Puritans on sanctification, because (just for one example) I knew that even when they were quite detailed, they were not blending it with justification.

2) Stick with it.  The archaic language and grammar is tough at first (you may need a dictionary!), and even daunting, but after a few Paperbacks you get used to it.  Be patient.  Remember that these authors wrote several hundred years ago, so the language and illustrations will be different (I still chuckle when I come across a word like “compunction”).  And as with all books, don’t be surprised when there are a few sections here and there that are less helpful than others.   Start with a short Paperback and perhaps read a chapter/section or two a week.  One good Paperback to read first is Thomas Watson’s ‘Repentance’ because it is short, clear, and very helpful – it won’t overwhelm you.  Similarly, Watson’s ‘All Things for Good,’ and Bunyan’s ‘All Love’s Excelling’ are short and clear.   Don’t read the longer and harder ones until later.  For example, wait quite awhile until you read The Sinfulness of Sin, A Lifting Up for the Downcast, and others that are detailed and over 200 pages.

3) Take notes.  When I read a Paperback, I have a pencil and highlighter in hand to mark the best sections.  I also make my own index in the back cover so that when I study a certain topic later I can just pull the Paperback off my shelf, turn to the back cover, find the topic and page number that I wrote, and turn there to find it highlighted/underlined.  You may want to do the same for certain Scripture references since the books don’t have scriptural indexes.  You’ll profit in the long run from reading these books by making your own topical or scriptural index so you can use them in your future studies and devotions.  I’ve also heard of some people keeping a reading journal of sorts.  Either way, taking notes on these books is helpful and edifying.

4) Approach reading the Paperbacks differently than you do other books.  The genre of these books is quite different than other things we read from day to day, so read them when you’re in the mood for deeper Christian writing.  Pray that the book will teach, convict, and comfort you in Christ.  If you approach the Paperbacks realizing that they are not newspaper articles, Christian Amish fiction novels, or other Christian fluff books, you’ll be in the right frame of mind to read.  I don’t recommend reading the Puritans on a tablet because if you’re not self-disciplined enough, you’ll be tempted to check email or browse the web when the reading becomes difficult.  I also find that I profit best from these books when I space them out a bit.  Reading them too often is something like too much of a good thing.  And, of course, it is good to vary our reading material; we should read the Puritans, but we should read other authors from other centuries as well.

In summary, I think with some time and effort, most Christians who are “readers” will be able to understand these books, profit from them, and learn to appreciate the Puritans at least to some extent.  Though I don’t elevate the Puritans above other writers/teachers, they have have taught me much about sin, salvation, and serving Christ.  Even if you don’t get “into” the Puritans, I challenge you to at least read a few shorter Puritan Paperbacks.  And I should warn you that once you’ve read a few of these Paperbacks, it just might make you realize how trendy, simple, and “thin” many modern Christian books are (you’ve been warned)!

By the way – one other great thing about these Paperbacks is that they are usually priced well under $10. 

rev shane lems