Core Value: Kingdom Perspective
By Dr. Michael D. Williams
Seven core values amplify and clarify how Covenant Theological Seminary understands its purpose. In this interview, Professor of Systematic Theology Dr. Michael Williams discusses the core value of Kingdom perspective and how it touches every area of the Christian’s life.
Core Value #7: Kingdom Perspective. We believe that God’s purpose is the gathering of His people from every nation and the renewal of all things. He calls His Church to active involvement with the world’s peoples and cultures, carrying out the mission of bringing the Gospel to those who do not believe and expressing Christ’s lordship in every area of life. In order to train students to make disciples of the nations, our faculty, staff, and students must increasingly reflect the ethnic and cultural richness of God’s worldwide Church.
As professors teach about the Kingdom of God at Covenant Theological Seminary, they are opening the eyes and minds of many students who have thought of the Christian life in varying ways. What are key concepts about the Kingdom that you address?
One of the greatest blessings for me as a teacher is encouraging students to grasp the amazing scope of the gospel and God’s lordship over their lives and this world. Most of my teaching takes place in introductory courses, which means that I engage students just as they begin their seminary experiences. This can be both frustrating and an incredible blessing, as it is my calling to introduce students to the world of the Bible—a world that confronts and challenges many of the opinions and commitments, even Christian commitments, that students bring with them.
Many of our students come to us having been carefully nurtured and discipled in the biblical story and have already begun to lay hold of the breadth of it. Many others, however, come only with the story of the larger culture or that of popular Christian culture or with stories that invite them to see the Christian faith as being about and relevant to only their private lives—a spiritual existence that is always to be distinguished from the life of the body, the material world, and the work-a-day world of human social existence.
Students are often more than a bit surprised to hear an understanding of the gospel and the Christian life that embraces the entirety of their lives, indeed, the whole of God’s creation. Putting the issue in the most explicit terms, the scope of God’s redemption in Christ is as big as the scope of God’s creative work. The God who sent his Son to die for me is the God who created all things in the first place, and his redemptive goal is nothing less than to push sin out of every inch and aspect of his creation. I have been redeemed in Christ for a purpose: to be a redemptive agent in the reclamation of “all things.” We should not miss what is at stake here. God is jealous for his works. He surrenders nothing to the forces of sin and death. If the Kingdom of God stands for the realization of God’s good will in the world (an affirmation and living out of the way things ought to be) then the loving grace of God lays claim to all things, destroying the Devil’s work and returning every bit of God’s world—every aspect, place, and thought—to its rightful Lord.
What is the most common misunderstanding/wrong thinking about the Kingdom that you observe in students today, and how is this addressed at Covenant Seminary?
Unfortunately, popular forms of Christian faith and piety often tend toward a kind of Gnosticism, the belief that the material world is intrinsically evil, that the human soul is fundamentally good, and that salvation is a matter of the soul leaving the body and the world behind so that it can find its way to God—a God who cares nothing about the world but values only the human soul. It is not at all uncommon to hear the point of the gospel expressed as “my believing in Jesus so that I can go to heaven when I die.” With that understanding, then the point of the Christian faith is that I get something for myself (salvation) and that salvation bears no relationship to the world in which I live.
Indeed, it negates that world and separates me from it. Hearing that the biblical portrayal of salvation affirms rather than denies our lives in the world can be quite revolutionary for students as it opens up—and indeed explodes—for many students categories such as evangelism, vocation, environmental concern, and even Christian identity. The gospel calls us to life in God’s world rather than away from it. The kingship of God over all things calls us to see his creational and redemptive concern as embracing a view of Kingdom calling that touches upon the social, bodily, and corporate aspects of human existence rather than merely an imagined spiritual or private definition of religion or the Kingdom of God.
Yet this expansive understanding of redemption and God’s sovereign rule should not be taken to demean the church or its ministries. In fact, the physical church is the gathering point for the energies of the Kingdom, or, better, it is the hub from which the people of God move out toward the world. We sometimes speak of the church as an instrument of the Kingdom. Israel was called to bless the nations by its worship and tending to the Word of God. By its righteous action in the world on God’s behalf, it was seeking the Kingdom, modeling for all the world the righteous and loving rule of God. The church bears that same mission. The church is not an end in itself but a servant and instrument of the coming Kingdom of God. Our words proclaim the coming Kingdom of God, and our deeds embody that Kingdom as they bless the lives of those with whom we come in contact.
When the Seminary teaches that every calling in life is to be to the glory of God, what exactly do we mean? What does that look like in the lives of the faculty and of students? How do we model this?
When we say that every calling in life is to the glory of God we mean that there is no area of life that is secular, a term that, if you think about it, in effect means what is beyond God’s rule and does not belong to him. The Christian religion is irrelevant in this domain, for it is ruled or normed by something or someone else. There is, of course, an understandable draw to this kind of idea. Such a notion makes the reach of the gospel and the rule of God small, easy, and manageable. When we say, for example, that religion is solely about our private lives or our spiritual lives, we are essentially saying that God does not care about how we conduct ourselves in our work-a-day lives, our entertainments, or our political or economic decisions.
Yet a survey of the revelation of God’s law in Exodus and Deuteronomy demonstrates something very different. God is concerned about economic justice among his people just as much as he is concerned about their salvation. And clearly he is as concerned with how we treat animals and care for the land as how we treat one another. An example is the exodus of Israel out of Egypt. To depict the exodus as merely an act of deliverance so that Israel could worship God is to miss the depth of what was actually going on. The exodus had political, economic, and social meanings and implications for Israel that were every bit as real as deliverance from sin. It would be false to distinguish one from the other.
The prophets show us that God passionately cares about social issues such as political arrogance, economic exploitation, judicial misconduct, the misuse of the land, and the suffering of the poor and the oppressed. The rule of God relentlessly opposes all that oppresses and diminishes the well-being of human beings. As the redemptive work of Christ is God’s answer to human sin and all its effects, living as a renewed image-bearer of God calls us to be agents of that redemption in all that we do and in all of our relationships.
A seminary does not embody every human calling, so what students learn here is, to some extent, exemplary—a kind of modeling that is to be extended into the other domains of life. As a faculty, we not only teach a vision of the Kingdom of God that is as broad as life itself, but we also seek to set out examples of worship and spiritual devotion, friendship and hospitality, and collegiality and respect among one another and students that demonstrates something of the reach of the gospel and the claims of the coming Kingdom. In our teaching of Scripture, speaking to the issues of our world and times and our personal modeling, we seek to inculcate in our students a passion for social justice and peace, a concern about the environment, the necessities of good citizenship, and a personal investment in the societies in which the people of God are called to live.
Covenant Seminary teaches that a necessary element of the Kingdom is creational and cultural diversity. Would you expand on this?
The idea of authority is ever present when we think about the Kingdom of God. As the Author of our world and our presence in the world, God bears an inherent status as the Authority over our lives. That God is the King means not only that He has the right to rule, but also that we are called to submit ourselves to that rule. Unfortunately the idea of authority often reflects the notion of authoritarianism for many people. But that is not how God does things. It is rarely the case that there is one lockstep way to obey God, keep his law, embody His rule in the world.
This is demonstrated, I think, in the rich diversity that we see in God’s creation. All the colors and textures of creation glorify him. As God has made plants and insects, mammals and birds, planets and stars—in dizzying array, and all to the praise of His name—so he has made the human family one of diversity rather than one in which each of us is but a copy of the other. Aside from being male and female (an absolutely delightful pluralism) we are also diverse in our ethnic, cultural, linguistic, and historical realities—a pluralism that is no less precious to God.
Although all of us are called to love and worship the one true God, serve one another, and cultivate God’s good earth, there is no one way to do these things. One of God’s own characteristics that we human beings are invited to emulate is his creativity, his love for diversity. The diversity of ways of thinking about the world that we bring to the people of God by virtue of being creatures in God’s world and the products of the climates and cultures that bear us are means of blessing both for the Church and the Kingdom of God, though we do need to be open to the criticism and transformation of the Word of God.
The Kingdom of God
The term “Kingdom of God,” often conjures up many different ideas and understandings. The following explanation by Dr. Williams gives further insight into what students at Covenant Seminary learn about this amazing truth.
As Gordon J. Spykman said, “Nothing matters but the Kingdom, but because of the Kingdom, everything, literally everything, matters.” The biblical image of the Kingdom of God immediately calls up conceptions of God’s sovereign rule and dominion over creation, His providential guiding of our lives and the affairs of nations, and His rightful authority over all things. While the phrase “the Kingdom of God” does not occur in the Old Testament, the theme of God’s sovereign and righteous rule is pervasive in its pages and stands at the heart of the Old Testament message. As the Great King calls his creation Kingdom into existence, orders it, and appoints a place for every creature—and all by the sheer authority of his kingly command (Gen. 1)—so God rules over his people Israel (Ps. 97; 99; Isa. 44:6; 52:7), the nations (Ps. 96), and the whole of creation (Ps. 47:2; Ps. 104; 145). That God is King over the whole universe, ranging from nature and history to every dimension of human life is everywhere acknowledged and celebrated (Ps. 93:1; 97:1; 99:1; 1 Chron. 29:11; Dan. 4:3, 34–35).
That God is the King, and that his creatures are subject to his kingly authority is the basic assumption of the biblical depiction of sin. Adam and Eve’s sin in the garden was nothing less than their rebellion against God’s rightful rule over them. Rather than listen to, live within, and live out God’s good will for them, all of humanity rejected God’s kingship in favor of their own desires. The garden rebellion introduced a rival regime into human history, a reign of sin and death that would subjugate humanity, bring discord into the world, and incur the judgment of God.
While God remains the rightful Lord over all things and upholds his creational word, the entrance of sin into the world means that God will relate to sinful humanity through judgment, crushing the rebellion of sin (Gen. 3:15). But in his mercy God declares that judgment is insufficient by itself. He graciously promises to restore his creation Kingdom. If judgment is the defeat of powers contentious of God’s rule, then redemption is nothing less than the restoration of God’s proper kingship over his creatures. When all sinful insurrection is put down and all its effects upon the world and its inhabitants are remediated, then, as theologian Graeme Goldsworthy says, “the renewing process of redemption will result in the fullness of the Kingdom of God.”
The fullness of the Kingdom will see the overthrow of the wicked and the coming of justice for the oppressed. Peace will come to the nations, and the land will be fruitful beyond imagining. Rejoicing among God’s people will replace the shame and dishonor of sin. All of this will take place within a renewed creation that is free from death and pain (Isa. 61). Quoting from Isaiah 61 and its promise of the coming renewal of creation, Jesus proclaims that in His person and work the Kingdom of God has come (Luke 4:18–21; Matt. 3:1–2; 12:28). Although the Kingdom has not yet arrived in its fullness and we remain in a world that is yet to be delivered from the influence of sin and demonic powers (2 Cor. 4:4), in Christ the old age is passing away in the coming of the new (2 Cor. 5:17), the fullness of time has begun (Gal. 4:4), and today is the day of God’s salvation (2 Cor. 6:2).
In Jesus—God’s Messiah, the promised Davidic King—the Kingdom of God is present as an anticipation of the coming restoration of creation. The Gospel of the Kingdom is that the crucified and risen Jesus is Lord of the world. A distinctive belief of the Reformed tradition is that Christ is Lord over all things, and, thus, the coming Kingdom of God lays claim to all of reality. Just as all the fullness of the Creator God resided in Jesus of Nazareth, so by his atoning death and resurrection Jesus guarantees a healed and renewed creation.
Through him God has reconciled to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven (Col. 1:19–20; compare E ph. 1:9–10; 2 Cor. 5:18–19; R om. 8:19–21; Matt. 19:28). “Exalted to the right hand of God,” Jesus reigns as Lord over all and subdues all of His enemies (Acts 2:32–36; compare Phil. 2:9–11). His kingship embraces all things—in heaven and on earth—covering all creatures and dimensions of life. As Matthew 28:18 states, “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to [him].” The cross is good news not just for the individual sinner but for all of creation, for every dimension of creaturely existence that has been touched by sin. A s Jesus has come into the world to subjugate the powers that stand allied against God’s rule (1 John 3:8), so the gospel lays royal claim to all that sin and evil have touched.
As God is the rightful King over all the earth, so the kingship of Jesus is equal in scope. Nothing is excluded from the reach of his dominion. Reductions of Christ’s kingship to the private sphere, the inner “religious” life, or the ecclesial are to be rejected. The modern dichotomy between the sacred and the secular, politics and religion, the spiritual and the common, would have made no sense to people living in biblical times because for them all of life was lived before God. Because Jesus reigns over all, all of life is religious. The Kingdom of God is just as relevant to business as it is to family nurture; just as appropriate to citizenship as it is to churchmanship; and the kingship of God just as relevant to the arts, education, and the sciences as it is to personal devotion and worship.
Here then is the key to Christian identity. Being a believer in Jesus Christ means seeking the Kingdom of God (Matt. 6:33) because God “has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the Kingdom of his beloved Son” (Col. 1:13 ESV). The people of God have been redeemed for a purpose, a mission—to participate in the coming of the Kingdom, the redemption of God’s whole creation from the wreckage of sin and evil.
The people of God are called to witness to the Kingdom, to be posters and advertisements for the redemptive grace and creational normativity of the righteous rule of God. As people who, in Christ and by the power of his indwelling Spirit, worship God, the church is called to fly the flag of the coming Kingdom in its proclamation of the gospel and its search for human wholeness in justice and righteousness. This suggests that every calling in life is to be brought under the lordship of Christ and is to serve and proclaim his Kingdom. Neither the Kingdom nor the vocations into which God has called us can be limited by the institutional boundaries of the church. The people of God worship on Sunday as a witness of God’s Kingdom to the world. On Monday morning, we go to school and work, we keep house and play, we visit and vote, and we do this all as people who wait for and hasten the coming day of God (2 Pet. 3:12). The church is the locus, the “beachhead” of the Kingdom (that place where God’s rule is seen by a world seeking a word of grace), but the Kingdom’s field of operation is wider than the church because it aims at the dominion of God in every sphere of human endeavor. Thus Paul can instruct the church: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31 ESV).
Note: If you would like to learn more about this topic or just learn from Dr. Williams, you can download for free all the lectures and course materials for Dr. Williams’s class on God and His Word at www.covenantseminary.edu/resources.
Dr. Michael Williams is professor of systematic theology at Covenant Seminary. He has a strong reputation among Reformed and evangelical theologians, due largely to dozens of astute articles and book reviews. He has written particularly in the areas of the nature of theology and theological method, and history. He is also the author of Far As the Curse Is Found: The Covenant Story of Redemption. This article originally appeared in the Summer 2007 issue of Covenant magazine.