Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology

The Messianic Kingdom and Civil Government

by David J. Engelsma


      The relation between the kingdom of Jesus Christ and the civil state is a vexed, controversial subject.  Basically, the issue is this:  Are the state and its officers mandated by God to promote the true church and the gospel by the physical, steel sword, or is it the duty of the state simply to keep outward order in the nation?

      Many Presbyterians have taken and still do take the position that the state is called to promote the true church by establishing and supporting it as the official church of the realm.  This position is known as the “Establishment Principle.”  These Presbyterians  vehemently condemn the position that denies that the state has any duty to establish a church, promote the gospel with physical force, or punish heretics.  For some obscure reason these Presbyterians call this position “voluntaryism.”  According to William Cunningham, voluntaryism, or the voluntary principle, which he rejected, holds “entire separation” of state and church.  “Nations, as such, and civil rulers in the official capacity, not only are not bound, but are not at liberty, to interfere in any religious matters, or to seek to promote the welfare of the church of Christ, as such.”  The alternative, which Cunningham espoused, is “the doctrine of national establishment of religion.”1 

      In recent years, the issue has come to the attention of Reformed Christians in North America through the movement known as Christian Reconstruction.  As an aspect of its postmillennial eschatology, Christian Reconstruction teaches that in the future a majority of people will become Christians.  Civil government then will be in the hands of Christians, indeed, Presbyterian Christians.  It will be the duty of civil government to establish the Presbyterian church as the one church of the realm, to throw the whole weight of the government behind the true church, to decree the political laws of the Old Testament (“theonomy”), and to punish idolaters, vocal heretics, and other transgressors of the Old Testament statutes with physical punishments, including death.

      In this article, I contend that Scripture teaches the duty of the state and its magistrates to be only the maintenance of outward order and external peace in the nation.  I deny that God calls civil government to promote the gospel with its steel sword.  Whether and in how far the position set forth in this article may agree with traditional voluntaryism is of no concern to me.  I am not defending voluntaryism.  I intend to demonstrate the calling of civil government from Scripture.  In light of the calling of civil government, I will indicate the right relation between the kingdom of Jesus Christ and civil government.2 

      It must frankly be acknowledged at the outset that the position I hold was not that of most of the Reformers.  Calvin strongly affirmed that the state is called to recognize, support, and promote the true church and the gospel.  He insisted that the office of the magistrate “extends to both Tables of the Law.”  He thought that theory of the duty of civil government “folly” that would


neglect the concern for God and would give attention only to rendering justice among men.  As if God appointed rulers in his name to decide earthly controversies but overlooked what was of far greater importance—that he himself should be purely worshipped according to the prescription of his law.3 


      In his commentary on John 18:36, Jesus’ word to Pilate that His servants do not fight, John Calvin wrote:  “They who draw this conclusion, that the doctrine of the Gospel and the pure worship of God ought not to be defended by arms, are unskillful and ignorant reasoners.”4 

      Calvin’s doctrine of the duty of the magistrate was that of most of the Reformers.  The important exception was Martin Luther.      

      The nearly unanimous opinion of the Reformers regarding the calling of the state found a place in the Reformed confessions.  Chapter 24 of the Scots Confession (1560), on “The Civil Magistrate,” states:


The preservation and purification of religion is particularly the duty of kings, princes, rulers, and magistrates.  They are not only appointed for civil government but also to maintain true religion and to suppress all idolatry and superstition.


      Significantly, showing how completely this view of the calling of the civil rulers bases itself on the Old Testament, the Confession adds:  “This may be seen in David, Jehosaphat, Hezekiah, Josiah, and others highly commended for their zeal in that cause.”5 

      The Belgic Confession (1561) treats the duty of the magistrates in Article 36.  The “office” of the magistrates, according to this article, is


not only to have regard unto and watch for the welfare of the civil state, but also that they protect the sacred ministry, and thus may remove and prevent all idolatry and false worship; that the kingdom of antichrist may be thus destroyed, and the kingdom of Christ promoted.


      The Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) expands the duties of the state to include calling and overseeing the church’s assemblies.


He [the civil magistrate] hath authority, and it is his duty to take order, that unity and peace be preserved in the Church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire, that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed, all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed, and all the ordinances of God duly settled, administered, and observed.  For the better effecting whereof he hath power to call synods, to be present at them, and to provide that whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God.


      This remarkable ascription of all kinds of duties to the magistrate in, over, and on behalf of the church makes plain that the magistrate the Westminster divines had in view was Old Testament David, or Hezekiah, not the Caesar of Romans 13.   The form of political rule that governed their thinking was that found in Israel, the Old Testament type of the kingdom of God.  Israel united nation and church and made king and elders cooperate on behalf of the people of God.

      I note here that the Protestant Reformed Churches have relieved me of my obligation to submit to the teaching of the particular section of the Belgic Confession quoted above.  Otherwise the “Formula of Subscription” requires me to regard this teaching, as all other teachings in the “Three Forms of Unity,” as in harmony with the Word of God and forbids me militate against this doctrine.

      A footnote qualifies Article 36 of the Belgic Confession at the point of the article’s assertion that the state has the duty to “protect the sacred ministry, and thus ... remove and prevent all idolatry and false worship.”  The footnote reads, in part:


This phrase, touching the office of the magistracy in its relation to the Church, proceeds on the principle of the Established Church….  History, however, does not support the principle of State domination over the Church, but rather the separation of Church and State.  Moreover, it is contrary to the New Dispensation that authority be vested in the State to arbitrarily reform the Church, and to deny the Church the right of independently conducting its own affairs as a distinct territory alongside the State….  The office of the magistracy [is not to be conceived] in this sense, that it be in duty bound to also exercise political authority in the sphere of religion, by establishing and maintaining a State Church, advancing and supporting the same as the only true Church, and to oppose, to persecute and to destroy by means of the sword all the other churches as being false religions.8      


A Spiritual Kingdom

      Underlying much of the enthusiastic affirmation today of the state’s duty to advance and defend the gospel is the notion that a Christian state aggressively promoting the gospel and the true church is the Messianic kingdom of God, or a very important form of the Messianic kingdom.  Those who hold this notion suppose that a future Christian state, governing all the life of the nation according to the Word of God and supporting and promoting the true church with all the great power of the sword, will be the real and full form of the kingdom of Jesus Christ.  They will acknowledge that the church today is a preliminary form of the kingdom.  But the real Messianic kingdom will be the Christian nation in the future, which will depend, of course, on a Christian civil government.  That coming Christian nation may be one particular nation, perhaps Scotland or the United States.  It may be all the nations on earth, united in their common allegiance to King Jesus.

      Some who stress the duty of the state to uphold the true religion do not go this far.  They recognize that the church truly is the kingdom of Christ.  Nevertheless, they regard a future Christian nation, whether Scotland or the nations of the world united in Jesus Christ, as the Messianic kingdom in a specially important way.  It will be the more glorious form of the kingdom in history.  It will be a far more glorious form of the kingdom than is the church.

      This notion, which inevitably sets any discussion of the relation of state and church on a wrong footing, is mistaken.  Whatever the right relation of the state and the church may be, this relation has nothing to do with the Messianic kingdom’s being political, or mainly political, or even importantly political.  For one thing, the notion that the kingdom will take form as a Christian nation, or even as an entire world of Christian nations, is erroneous eschatology.  The notion is the postmillennial dream:  By the gospel, Christ will convert a majority of Scotland, or of the United States, or even of all the nations of the world.  In this way, Christian nations and even a Christian world are a possibility.

      Scripture teaches a radically different earthly future prior to the second coming of Christ.  “Let no man deceive you by any means:  for that day [of Christ] shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition” (II Thess. 2:3).   The future of politics is not a carnal kingdom of Christ, but the world-kingdom of Antichrist, as is the teaching of the last book of the Bible and as is confirmed by developments in the world of nations today.9 

      Apart from its false doctrine of the last things, the notion that a future Christian state will be the glorious kingdom of Christ suffers from two fatal errors.  First, this notion cannot rid itself of the Jewish conception of the Messianic kingdom as political:  earthly power, indeed dominion, by the physical sword of civil government.  What Jesus taught of His kingship and kingdom in John 6 and John 18 holds to the world’s end:  His kingship and kingdom are spiritual.  He is not a political king, and His kingdom is not a political kingdom.  The kingdom of God in Christ never was, is not now, and never will be the Rome of Constantine; the Zurich of Zwingli; the Scotland of Knox and Melville; the England of Cromwell; the Netherlands of Kuyper; the United States of Paine, Jefferson, Franklin, and Washington; or the Christian world-kingdom dreamed of by Christian Reconstructionists in North America and by Presbyterians in Northern Ireland and Scotland.

      If the United States should someday come to have a Christian civil government, the United States would not thereby be the kingdom of Christ, or an especially glorious form of the kingdom of Christ.  The true church would still be the kingdom of Christ.

      The Presbyterian theologian, Geerhardus Vos, was right when he observed that “the Jewish hope [of the kingdom of God] was intensely political and national, considerably tainted also by sensuality.”  Vos added:  “From all political bearings our Lord’s teaching on the kingdom was wholly dissociated.”10 

      Closely related to the error of politicizing the Messianic kingdom is the error of supposing that a future Christian state will be the fulfillment of Old Testament Israel as a nation.  The truth is that the fulfillment of Old Testament Israel as a nation is the New Testament church of believers and their children.  This is the explicit teaching of the New Testament in I Peter 2:9:   “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.” 

      The apostle quotes from Exodus 19:4-6, where Jehovah describes Old Testament Israel as “a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation.”  Applying this description to the New Testament church, the apostle identifies the New Testament elect, believing, despised, persecuted, culturally insignificant church as the true nation and kingdom of God on earth.  The church has been the kingdom of Christ in the world since the day of Pentecost.  The church is the kingdom of Christ today.  The church will be the kingdom of Christ until the Lord returns.  The church will be the kingdom of Christ everlastingly in the new world.11 

      Does the New Testament church believe this?  Does she take herself seriously as God’s nation in the world?  Does she take God seriously when He clearly identifies her as His nation?

      The church in the catacombs in the first few centuries after Christ was the national kingdom of God.  The Presbyterians worshiping God on the moors of Scotland in the seventeenth century were the national kingdom of God.  They were the kingdom of God by virtue of being the true, believing, worshiping church, not by virtue of any signing of a national league and covenant.  The small, culturally unimpressive, physically powerless true churches of Christ in all the world today are the national kingdom of God.  Two or three gathering in Christ’s name for worship are the national kingdom of God.

      If the United States or Scotland should become “Christianized” and Christian, that earthly nation will not be the fulfillment of Old Testament Israel as a nation.  It cannot be.  The church is the fulfillment of Old Testament Israel as a nation.

      Recognition of the New Testament church as the fulfillment of the nation of Israel also delivers Reformed theologians from the illusion that there can and should be national revival of Scotland, or the Netherlands, or the United States as fulfillment of the national reformations of Judah in the Old Testament.  The fulfillment of the national reformations of Judah during the days of Judah’s godly kings is not the reformation of Scotland or of the United States, but the reformation of God’s church in the world.  Neither Scotland nor the United States is the New Testament reality of which Judah was type.  The church is.  “You who are being built up a spiritual house by virtue of your union with the living stone by faith, you elect strangers scatted throughout all nations—you are the holy nation of God in the present age, the spiritual reality of which Judah in the Old Testament age was merely an earthly type” (I Pet. 1:1, 2; 2:1-10).

      And if someone asks, “How is the church to behave as God’s nation in the world?” the answer is not that the church exert herself to get political dominion over the world of the ungodly, or that the church attempt to impose the civil laws of Old Testament Israel upon the wicked, or that the church work to “Christianize” society.  The calling of the church as God’s nation is the right worship of God, a faithful witness to the world of the truth, especially by the sound preaching of the gospel, and obedience to God’s law in the holy lives of the members.  The church is “a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation” (Ex. 19:6).

      Recognizing that the Messianic kingdom is not political puts the discussion of the proper relation of state and church on a sound footing.


Promoting the Gospel with the Steel Sword

      The position I reject holds that civil government, in addition to keeping order in society, must consciously and actively promote the true church and the gospel.  According to those who hold this position, civil government must officially recognize, or establish, the true church in distinction from all other churches and religions.  Civil government ought to support the true church financially from the funds of the state and, generally, throw the full weight of the state behind the true church and her work.  Civil government is also called to condemn and prohibit idolatry, false worship, heresies, and heretics.  It should punish those citizens who are guilty of these religious crimes, whether by fines, imprisonment, banishment, or death. 

      It is curious that contemporary defenders of the position that the state is called to  promote the gospel with its steel sword shrink from asserting that the state must punish the heretical, idolatrous, and irreligious.  At the critical point of the issue, they rather advocate religious toleration and liberty of conscience. 

      The Scottish theologian William Cunningham defended “the principle of national establishments of religion—namely, that it is competent to, and incumbent upon, nations, as such, and civil rulers in their official capacity, or in the exercise of their legitimate control over civil matters, to aim at the promotion of the honour of God, the welfare of true religion, and the prosperity of the church of Christ.”  But he condemned as “unlawful,” that “civil rulers, in seeking to discharge their duty in regard to religion” should “inflict upon men civil pains and penalties—fines, imprisonment, or death—merely on account of differences of opinion upon religious subjects.”  Cunningham rejected “all intolerance or persecution” on the part of magistrates carrying out their duty of promoting the true church and the gospel.

      Cunningham took issue on this matter with the Reformers, particularly Beza.  Beza had written a treatise vigorously defending the calling of civil government to punish heretics with death.  He was particularly interested in vindicating Calvin’s act of handing Servetus over to the magistrates for burning as a heretic.  Cunningham condemned Beza’s position as “intolerant and persecuting principles.”  Contrary to the thinking of Beza, and indeed of most of the Reformers, Cunningham declared that “under the Christian dispensation, civil rulers are [not] warranted, … much less bound, to inflict the punishment of death upon heretics and blasphemers.”12 

      The same inconsistency appears in James Bannerman.  Against the advocates of the “Voluntary cause,” who hold that the state must “maintain neutrality between the profession and the denial of Christianity,” Bannerman boldly asserted the calling of the state publicly to acknowledge the true church and to promote its interests.  The state should make the church’s confession of faith part of its constitution:  “embody its confession of doctrine in the national statute book.”  The state should endow the true church:


The state may furnish out of the national resources pecuniary aid for upholding Gospel ordinances, and providing such an endowment for Gospel ministers, as may secure that they be set apart wholly to their office of ministering in sacred things.


This amounts to the establishment of the true church as the religion of the state.

      Such recognition, support, and promotion of the church are the state’s calling from God:  “There is nothing in all this but what is imperatively demanded from the state as a duty done to God on behalf of God’s ordinance, the Church.”13 

      One could only expect that Bannerman would insist on the state’s duty to proscribe all false public worship and to punish all idolaters and heretics, if not all who practice religion apart from the true church.  Surprisingly, Bannerman rejected the teaching that the state must punish idolatry, heresy, and false worship.  Such a doctrine is a “persecuting principle.”  He criticized the seventeenth century Scottish theologians Rutherford, Dickson, and Fergusson for calling the state to punish idolaters and to eradicate heresy and false worship with their cold, steel sword. 


Rutherford, Dickson, and Fergusson … in some instances went too far, and laid down positions which were indefensible, and really involved persecution.  Their errors on this subject mainly arose from their holding that the Jewish political laws were of permanent obligation, and consequently that capital punishment might still be lawfully inflicted for such offences as idolatry.14 


      Bannerman defended the doctrine “of the full toleration that is to be granted [by the state] in spiritual matters to societies as much as to individuals.” 


No plea that the religious opinions of an individual are in themselves false and unfounded, will set aside his legal right to adopt and hold them, if his conscience so teaches him; and, in like manner, no plea that the proceedings or deliverance of a Church are in substance and upon the merits wrong, will warrant the interference of civil authority, if the Church is acting within its own province, and in re ecclesiastica.15 


      Avowal of the state’s duty to establish the true church, while disavowing religious persecution, as was the position of Cunningham and Bannerman and as is the position of many Presbyterians today,16  is an exceedingly strange and inconsistent position.  The position that the state must establish the true church and promote the gospel with the state’s sword necessarily includes the calling of the state to forbid the public worship of false religions and false churches, as well as to punish those who do not worship the true God rightly or who do not worship Him at all.

      First, to establish and support one church is a kind of punishment of all the others, especially if tax-money goes to support the established church.

      Second, nothing less than the prohibition of false worship and the punishment of false worshipers was what the Reformed confessions called for in their original editions.  Article 36 of the Belgic Confession, on the magistrates, declared:


[God] invested the magistracy with the sword, for the punishment of evil doers, and for the praise of them that do well.  And their office is, not only to have regard unto and watch for the welfare of the civil state, but also that they protect the sacred ministry, and thus may remove and prevent all idolatry and false worship; that the kingdom of antichrist may be thus destroyed, and the kingdom of Christ promoted.17 


      The Westminster Confession of Faith, though denying to the state the power of the keys, affirms that the civil magistrate


hath authority, and it is his duty to take order, that unity and peace be preserved in the Church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire, that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed, all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed…(23.3).18 


      The language of the creeds, as always, is clear.  The state must recognize, support, and promote the true church.  This is its calling from God, whose servant the state is.  This recognition, support, and promotion include prohibition of false worship and punishment of heretics and idolaters. 

      If anyone attempts to evade the clear, forceful language of the creeds, the teaching and practice of the Reformers, whose views on the duty of the state were incorporated into these sections of the creeds, put the matter beyond doubt.  John Calvin firmly believed and openly taught the necessity of the punishment, the capital punishment, of heretics by the civil government.  With his consistory, he handed the heretic Servetus over to the Geneva state for execution.  In the face of widespread criticism already in his own day, Calvin defended his action in the affair of Servetus to the end of his life.19 

      Beza wrote a well-known tract in defense of Geneva’s dispatch of Servetus in particular and of the state’s duty to punish heretics in general, De Haereticis a civili Magistratu puniendis (That Heretics are to be Punished by the Civil Magistrate). 

      Bannerman acknowledged that leading Westminster divines held that the state should punish idolatry with death.20 

      Third, the biblical passages appealed to in support of the state’s promotion of the gospel do not merely support the idea of an established church.  These passages require the state to punish idolaters and heretics, and to punish them with death.  The only conceivable biblical support for the position that the state must recognize the true church and promote the gospel is the Old Testament laws requiring Israel to enforce the true worship of Jehovah God.  There is no support whatever for the position in the New Testament, although the New Testament is not lacking in passages that describe the duty of the state as a servant of God.  James Bannerman admits that all evidence is lacking in the New Testament for the position he advances.  “Nor is the doctrine of the duty of the state to recognise and aid the Church invalidated by the absence of an express command in the New Testament Scriptures, confirmatory of the duty as announced in the Old.”21   But the Old Testament laws that established the pure worship of Jehovah God also called the rulers of the nation to stone idolaters and false prophets.  “That prophet ... shall be put to death” (Deut. 13:5).   Indeed, a private person who tried to convert an Israelite to another god had to be killed (Deut. 13:6-11).

      Those who do attempt to ground the position that the state must establish, support, and promote the true church on the outstanding New Testament passages on the state, Romans 13 and I Peter 2, thereby commit themselves to teaching that the state must prevent false worship and punish false worshipers.  If these passages mandate the state to establish the true church and promote the gospel, they also require the state to execute wrath upon every false worshiper, to punish every heretic with the state’s sword, and thus to be a terror to all who are outside the true church, for no other reason than that they are outside the true church.


“Put Up Thy Sword”

      Reformed churches must repudiate the position that the state has the calling from God to recognize and support the true church, to promote the gospel, and to destroy the false church and false religion.  Reformed churches must repudiate this view of the calling of the state even though it was held by most of the Reformers.  Reformed churches must repudiate this doctrine of the state’s calling as found in the original edition of certain of the Reformed confessions.

      First, there is the undeniable fact that in the almost two thousand years of the history of the church of the New Testament after Pentecost it has almost never been the case that a godly state has established and promoted the true church as its duty to the Lord Jesus Christ.  There certainly have been times when God in His providence used the state to protect and defend the true church in extraordinary circumstances.  One thinks of Emperor Constantine in the fourth century, of Elector Frederick of the Palatinate in the sixteenth century, and of Prince Maurice of the Netherlands in the seventeenth century.  But God’s use of the state in His providence is not the same as a godly state’s consciously promoting the true church as an act of obedience to God.  Even in the most outstanding instances of the state’s protection and defense of the true church in New Testament history, the genuine godliness of the prince is suspect.  Regarding Constantine and Maurice, there is good reason to believe that their energetic defense of the true church was motivated not so much by a desire to obey God as by a desire to use the church for their own political ends.

      The doctrine of an established church, so passionately held by some, is unrealistic.  It is a doctrine about something that has never been, is not anywhere on earth today, and never will be to the world’s end.  It has no practical application.  This in itself is not so serious, perhaps, although the advocates of the doctrine contend for it as if it were a fundamental doctrine of the Reformed faith, but the doctrine presents itself as God’s will for civil government.

      The question about the doctrine is this:  Is God’s will for civil government unrealistic, unrealized, and unrealizable?  In the language of Romans 13:1, if the higher authorities are God’s servant by establishing the true church and promoting the gospel, are these authorities, in fact, never God’s servant at all?      

      Although this was not true of the Reformers, most modern Presbyterian defenders of the notion that the state must establish the church and promote the gospel hang their doctrine of the state on the peg of postmillennialism.  They concede that states have not yet been the servants of God they are called to be, or truly the servants of God as they ought to be.  They concede the impossibility of any contemporary state’s being the servant of God.  But they pin their hope on the coming millennium.  When, in the earthly future, Scotland, the United States, and all the other nations of the world are “Christianized” by the conversion of the vast majority of the human race, then, finally, the state will become the servant of God, establishing the Reformed church, making her confessions the law of the land, outlawing all other public worship, and punishing heretics, if not all who dissent from the Reformed religion.

      As James Bannerman cast about for proof in Scripture that the state must “recognise, and, in so far as circumstances permit, … endow the Church,” he could only appeal to “the alliance of Church and state among the Jews.”  But he quickly, and significantly, added:


This evidence of the Divine sanction given to the support and recognition of the Church by the state might be very greatly augmented by a consideration of those predictions in regard to the future or millennial state of the Church, in which kings and kingdoms are especially represented as in the latter days bringing their gold and their honour unto it, and becoming the great instruments of promoting its spiritual interests.22 


      Projecting the state’s service of God by establishing and promoting the true church into the millennium concedes that until that time the state has not, in fact, been the servant of God, or, at least, the servant of God as it ought to have been.  Since postmillennialism is a dream—according to the Second Helvetic Confession “Jewish dreams”23 —the notion that the state will one day be the servant of God by recognising and promoting the true church is fantasy.

      A second reason for rejecting the doctrine that the state must actively support the true church is the warning of church history.  This warning is that whenever a civil government did exert itself to establish the church, support it with money and the other physical resources of the state, punish ministers who opposed the church’s doctrine, and extirpate dissenters, the result has always been detrimental to the true church.  Indeed, the result has been well-nigh ruinous. 

      One of the greatest disasters in church history was the recognition of Christianity as the religion of the realm by Constantine.  Thousands of hypocrites flooded the church.  The church began to rely on the steel sword of the state rather than the spiritual sword of Christ.  And the Romanizing of the church was assured.

      Usually, the establishing of a church meant persecution for the true church.  Very clearly before my mind is the suffering of the Reformed saints in the Netherlands in the sixteenth century at the hands of the state and the Roman Catholic Church in unholy alliance and again in the nineteenth century at the hands of the state and the established Reformed church.24 

      Even the most ardent advocates of the position that the state must support, promote, and defend the true church admit that the implementing of the position has proved to be harmful to the church.  Arguing that nations and their rulers are obliged “to aim, in the regulation of national affairs, at the good of the church of Christ, and the welfare of true religion,” William Cunningham acknowledged that “it is undoubtedly true, that in most cases the interference of the civil power in religious matters has done more evil than good.”  He referred particularly to the evil of the established church’s consenting “to sinful interferences upon the part of the civil authorities with the rights and privileges which Christ had conferred upon [the church].”  Cunningham doubted whether “any Protestant established church has ever wholly escaped this sin and degradation, except the Church of Scotland at the era of the second Reformation.”25 

      In the third place, and most importantly, there is no biblical warrant for the position that God mandates the state to establish the church, punish heretics, and root out false religion. 

      The mandate to Old Testament Israel to punish idolaters and the examples of kings actively promoting the true worship of Jehovah God do not apply in the new dispensation to any earthly nation.  The application is alone to that nation which is the fulfillment of Old Testament Israel.  That nation is the church.  The church is the “holy nation” today (I Pet. 2:9).   The church promotes the right worship of God and wars against the kingdom of the lie, not by physical force, but by purely spiritual power and weaponry.  Ecclesia non sitit sanguinem.”

      The true church is established and promoted, not by the sword of the state, but by the gospel.  Heresies within the church are dealt with by the church’s excommunication.  False religion and idolatry outside the church are destroyed by the church’s confession of the truth.  “We do not war after the flesh:  (For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds;) casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ” (II Cor. 10:3-5).   

      The state has no power to promote the gospel.  All that the state has is the steel sword.  Promotion of the gospel demands the sword of the Spirit (Eph. 6:17).   The state has no ability to promote the gospel.  What competency does Caesar have to judge doctrine?  to recognize the true church among all the sects and false churches claiming to be the church of Christ? to destroy “spiritual wickedness in high places,” which is the real foe of the church? (Eph. 6:12)

      Certainly, God does not charge this institution, this servant, of His with a duty for the execution of which He gives His servant neither power nor ability.

      The state has no authority to recognize, establish, support, and promote the true church.  In the entire New Testament, there is no divine mandate to civil government, to promote the true church with its steel sword.  There is a mandate to civil government in the New Testament.  Repeatedly, the New Testament charges civil government with a vitally important duty.  It charges every civil government with this duty.  It charges the civil governments of that day with their duty.  But the mandate of the New Testament is not that the state promote the true church by establishing the church and by destroying false religions. 

      Very few even of the most ardent advocates of the supposed duty of the state to establish the true church dare to appeal to the New Testament.  For good reason.  Romans 13:1-7, classic passage on the state and its service of God, teaches that the existing state, the godless, idolatrous Roman Empire, is—not should be, or will be, but is—the servant of God.  As servant of God, the godless Empire—the Caesar—has a mandate from God, which it is also carrying out—in Paul’s own day.  That mandate, which the Roman state is also carrying out, certainly is not recognizing, supporting, and promoting the true church.  The notion is absurd.  Nor is the Roman state, in Paul’s own day, the servant of God by virtue of its punishing heretics and rooting out false religion.  Obviously, the mandate is something completely different.  The service of this servant of God to its divine master is radically different from the service rendered to God by the kingdom of Christ, the true church.  God intends that the service of earthly nations be radically different from that of the spiritual nation, the church.

      When Jesus told Peter to put his sword away and when He reminded Pilate that His servants would not fight, He laid down a universal, inflexible, profound, and necessary law:  His kingdom is not promoted by physical force; neither does His kingdom wage war on the kingdom of Satan with carnal weapons (Matt. 26:52, 53; John 18:36).   This law rules out the promotion of the church by the state, for the only force the state has is physical and the only weapons the state has are carnal.

      For all his stubborn insistence on the duty of the state to execute heretics and to defend the church with arms, Calvin was too biblical a theologian to rest easy with this stand.  Immediately after his defensive comment on John 18:36 quoted earlier in this article, that those who infer from the text that “the doctrine of the Gospel and the pure worship of God ought not to be defended by arms are unskilful and ignorant reasoners,” Calvin quickly and correctly, though inconsistently, added:  “The kingdom of Christ, being spiritual, must be founded on the doctrine and power of the Spirit.  In the same manner, too, its edification is promoted.”  He assured his readers that magistrates only “accidentally” defend the kingdom of Christ.  And, happily, he concluded:  “The kingdom of Christ is strengthened more by the blood of the martyrs than by the aid of arms.”26 


Luther on the Temporal Authority

      Of all the Reformers, only Martin Luther saw and clearly expressed the basic issues in the controversy whether the church and the gospel should be promoted by the cold, steel sword of the state.  In his treatment of “temporal authority,” that is, the state, in 1523, Luther asserted and demonstrated that the duty of the state is exclusively to keep outward order in the nation.  “The temporal government has laws which extend no further than to life and property and external affairs on earth.”  “The temporal lords are supposed to govern lands and people outwardly.”  In Romans 13:1ff., the apostle does not mandate temporal authority to “command faith,” but “he is speaking rather of external things, that they should be ordered and governed on earth.”  The “human ordinance” of civil government of I Peter 2:13 “cannot possibly extend its authority into heaven and over souls; it is limited to the earth, to external dealings men have with one another, where they can see, know, judge, evaluate, punish, and acquit.”  “Worldly princes” must address themselves only to such matters as “usury, robbery, adultery, murder, and other evil deeds.”

      Luther emphatically denied that the state should concern itself with worship, doctrine, and faith.  “Where the temporal authority presumes to prescribe laws for the soul, it encroaches upon God’s government and only misleads souls and destroys them.”  For civil government to decree, judge, and enforce belief and confession of the gospel is madness and folly.


For faith is a free act, to which no one can be forced.  Indeed, it is a work of God in the spirit, not something which outward authority should compel or create….  The blind, wretched fellows fail to see how utterly hopeless and impossible a thing they are attempting.  For no matter how harshly they lay down the law, or how violently they rage, they can do no more than force an outward compliance of the mouth and the hand; the heart they cannot compel, though they work themselves to a frazzle….  They only compel weak consciences to lie, to disavow, and to utter what is not in their hearts.


      The state must “let men believe this or that as they are able and willing, and constrain no one by force.”

      Luther’s condemnation of the state’s punishment of heretics was brilliant, and conclusive.  In light of the fact that this condemnation of the state’s attempt to eradicate heresy by its sword is at the same time a condemnation of the state’s attempt to promote the gospel, the following long quotation of the greatest of all the Reformers is warranted.


Heresy can never be restrained by force.  One will have to tackle the problem in some other way, for heresy must be opposed and dealt with otherwise than with the sword.  Here God’s word must do the fighting.  If it does not succeed, certainly the temporal power will not succeed either, even if it were to drench the world in blood.  Heresy is a spiritual matter which you cannot hack to pieces with iron, consume with fire, or drown in water.  God’s word alone avails here, as Paul says in II Corinthians 10 [:4-5], “Our weapons are not carnal, but mighty in God to destroy every argument and proud obstacle that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, and to take every thought captive in the service of Christ.”  Moreover, faith and heresy are never so strong as when men oppose them by sheer force, without God’s word.  For men count it certain that such force is for a wrong cause and is directed against the right, since it proceeds without God’s word and knows not how to further its cause except by naked force, as brute beasts do.  Even in temporal affairs force can be used only after the wrong has been legally condemned.  How much less possible it is to act with force, without justice and God’s word, in these lofty spiritual matters!  See, therefore, what fine, clever nobles they are!  They would drive out heresy, but set about it in such a way that they only strengthen the opposition, rousing suspicion against themselves and justifying the heretics.  My friend, if you wish to drive out heresy, you must find some way to tear it first of all from the heart and completely turn men’s wills away from it.  With force you will not stop it, but only strengthen it.  What do you gain by strengthening heresy in the heart, while weakening only its outward expression and forcing the tongue to lie?  God’s word, however, enlightens the heart, and so all heresies and errors vanish from the heart of their own accord.27 


      A few years earlier, Luther had written: 


I refuse to fight for the Gospel with force and slaughter.  With the Word, the world was won, and by it the Church is preserved, and by it the Church will be restored.  For as Antichrist [the pope] arose without arms, so without arms will it be confounded.  If the Gospel were of such a nature that it could be propagated or preserved by the powers of this world, God would not have entrusted it to fishermen.28 


      On one occasion, Luther remarked that if heresy could be destroyed by physical force the hangman would be the best evangelist.

      Luther’s insight is not nullified by his own undue dependence upon the state or by his failure, later in his life, to adhere to the principle that the state is not to punish heresy and false religion.


Separation of Church and State

      By no means, however, does the denial of the state’s calling to establish, support, and promote the true church imply that there is no relation between church and state, or that the state does not have a God-given calling to serve the church, or that the state is not a servant of the kingdom of Christ.

      The state, or civil government, is an institution of God, not in His grace, like the church, but in His providence.  Whether the origin of civil government, biblically, is the family as ordained by God in His creation of man on the sixth day of creation, or the divine Word to Noah in Genesis 9:5, 6 concerning the execution of murderers, civil government is not grounded in the gospel, but in the revelation of God in creation.  Civil government does not concern itself with the salvation of sinners, but with the existence and order of the nation.  The validity of civil government does not depend upon the state’s adherence to Scripture, or upon the Christianity of the rulers, but “the powers that be are ordained of God,” whether Shih Huang-ti of China, or Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, or Caesar Nero of Rome, or Hitler of Germany.

      The state is separate from, and independent of, the church.  A strong doctrine of the separation of church and state is not an American theory.  It is the plain teaching of the Bible in both testaments.  As regards the teaching of the New Testament, there can be no dispute.  Alongside the churches in all countries were civil governments.  These governments had no connection with the churches whatever, had little, if any, knowledge of the churches, and certainly did not establish, support, and promote the churches.  For the most part, the rulers were pagans.  But these civil governments were institutions of God among men.  As citizens of a particular nation, the members of the churches were called to honor the rulers in the state as vested with authority from God (Rom. 13:1-7; I Pet. 2:13-17).

      Also the Old Testament clearly teaches the separation of church and state.  It recognizes the legitimacy of the rulers of the nations as appointed by God to their office, even though those rulers sustained no relation whatever to the Old Testament church (Israel) and even though those rulers were heathens.  “Thou, O king, art a king of kings,” said Daniel to Nebuchadnezzar, “for the God of heaven hath given thee a kingdom, power, and strength, and glory” (Dan. 2:37).   “The most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever he will” (Dan. 4:25, 32; see also Dan. 2:21 and 5:21).  These heathen rulers rightly kept order in their nations, punished murder, and defended their countries against invasion.  When, occasionally, the God-fearing Israelite came into contact with these rulers, as Joseph with Pharaoh, David with Achish, and Daniel with Darius, he honored them as appointed to their rule by God.

      The only argument from the Old Testament, indeed from the whole of Scripture, for an intimate relation, even union, of church and state in which the state actively supports and promotes the church rests on a serious misunderstanding of Israel.  This is the argument that contends that the distinctly ecclesiastical and distinctly national character of Israel is fulfilled in a modern Christian state that will support the true church, as King Josiah supported the high priest Hilkiah. 

      Arguing for “the lawfulness of a friendly alliance and co-operation between the Church … and the state,” James Bannerman appealed to the union of religion and political authority in Old Testament Israel.


Under the Jewish economy there was a close and intimate union between the Church and the state—between religion on the one hand, and the civil magistrate on the other.  The Church and state were not merged into each other under that system, but still remained separate and independent.  They were different in regard to their laws, to their office-bearers, and to a certain extent in regard to their members; but nevertheless they were nearly connected, and that, too, for a lengthened period of time, and under the express sanction of the Almighty.  In this fact we acknowledge and assert a warrant for the alliance of things civil and sacred, for the connection and co-operation together of the king and the priest, of the throne and the altar.29 


      The misunderstanding is that Israel as a nation is fulfilled in some earthly nation or other, especially Scotland.  The truth is, as I Peter 2:9 clearly teaches, that Israel as a nation, as well as Israel as the church, is fulfilled in the New Testament church of believers and their children.  The local congregation is both the kingdom and the church of Jesus Christ.  The distinction between, and relation of, the ecclesiastical and the national in Old Testament Israel have nothing to do with any political state in the present age and nothing to do with proper relations of the church and the state in the New Testament.

      Such is the witness of the Bible to the separation of church and state that one of  the most fervent advocates of the supposed duty of the state to establish and promote the church acknowledged this separation.  James Bannerman wrote:  “The separation between Church and State [is] so strongly asserted in Scripture.”  He continued:


There can be no doubt that the principle so plainly laid down in Scripture, of the entire separation between the religious and political societies [church and state] as to the nature of their powers and as to the subject-matter of their administrations, legitimately and inevitably carries with it the conclusion, not only that each is complete within itself for its own work and its own objects, but also that each is independent of any control not lodged within itself, and brought to bear from any foreign quarter upon its internal arrangements.30 


      That Bannerman could still plead for the establishment of the church is baffling.  Establishment is fatal to the church’s independence “of any control not lodged within itself, and brought to bear from any foreign quarter upon its internal arrangements.”  That the Scottish Presbyterian was, in addition, open to the state’s financial support of the church defies belief.  Surely he knew that “the queen’s shilling is followed by the queen’s command.”


Outward Order

      As an institution of providence, rather than grace, as an institution based on God’s revelation in creation, rather than the revelation of Scripture, and as an institution separate from and independent of the church, the state has it own peculiar calling.  This calling is radically different from the calling of the church.  The calling of the state is to maintain earthly peace and order in the life of the nation.  By carrying out this calling, the state proves itself the servant of God.

      Romans 13:1-7 describes the state’s duty as the punishment of those citizens who do evil and the praise of those who do good.  Since the specific state in view is the Roman empire of that day, the evil referred to is outward acts of violence that threaten the order of national life, specifically, treason, murder, theft, rape, and the like.  The good is external obedience to the laws of the land.

      Rome was not an avenger executing wrath upon the high priests of false religion, idolaters, blasphemers, and heretics, nor did the apostle expect that Rome would punish such sins.  Similarly, the good that the Roman state praised was not the worship of the triune, one, true God, but submission to Rome’s political authority and obedience to Rome’s laws governing national life.

      The same divine calling of the civil magistrates is found in I Peter 2:14:   “Governors … are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well.”  No governor anywhere in the world at that time punished men for the evil of denying or subverting the Christian religion or praised citizens for their faithful confession of Jesus Christ.  Indeed, precious few governors have done so since that time.  But governors—governors in general, all governors—carry out the divine mandate to punish evil and praise the good, because the evil in view is disturbance of the outward order in a nation and the good is external keeping of the peace of society.

      For this work, the state has authority.  It has this authority, not from the people, but from God.  “Power” in Romans 13:1 is the Greek word meaning ‘authority.’  The authority of the state is “of God,” so that whoever resists the state resists the ordinance of God and will be damned (Rom. 13:2, 3).  Because the state is vested by God with His own authority, the Christian must be subject to the state, not only on account of the wrath that the state can inflict upon the rebel, but also “for conscience sake” (Rom. 13:5).   I Peter 2:13, 14 suggests that the governor’s right to rule is from God when it calls on Christian citizens to submit to the king and his governors “for the Lord’s sake.”

      For this work of keeping order and peace in the nation, the state has also the capability and power.  Its power is the sword—the very real threat of physical punishment, including the death penalty—which every state knows how to wield, and when to wield it, in defense of itself and the earthly security of its citizens.  The state has this knowledge by the natural light of reason, altogether apart from the light of special revelation. 

      By keeping outward order in the nation, every kind of civil government, to one extent or another, is God’s servant.  Every state actually carries out God’s will for government and fulfills its mandate.  The apostle does not teach in Romans 13 that the powers that be ought to be God’s servants, or that one day (in the dream-world of the millennium) they will be God’s servants (by establishing the true church and punishing heretics).  Rather, he teaches that the powers are God’s servants. 

      States are God’s servants in spite of their ignorance of the true God and in spite of their opposition to the true God.  They are servants of God unconsciously and unwillingly.  They are the servant of God as Cyrus was God’s anointed servant in decreeing the return of Israel to Canaan (Is. 45:1).  States are God’s servants, not by the operations of grace that make them willing, but by the secret power of providence that causes them to fulfill God’s will regardless of their will.


Second Table, Both Tables, or Neither?

      In the light of these truths about the state and its God-given calling must the age-old controversy among Reformed theologians, whether the state is called by God to enforce the entire decalogue or only the second table, be decided.  This issue is part of the controversy over the proper duty of the state.  Those who insist that the state must support and promote the church contend that the state is called to enforce both tables of the law of God, all ten commandments.  Those who restrict the duty of the state to the keeping of outward order in society traditionally hold that the state must enforce only the second table of the law.31 

      The truth is that the state is not called to enforce either the entire decalogue or the second table.  God did not give the ten commandments to the state for the state to enforce among its citizens, whether in whole or in part.  God gave the ten commandments to Israel, His chosen, covenant people and holy nation.  He gave the ten commandments to guide the thankful life of a people redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ and sanctified by the Spirit of Christ.  The preface, which is an integral part of the law, makes this plain:  “I am Jehovah thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Ex. 20:2).   The ten commandments, or the second table, can be enforced on its citizens by Scotland, or the Netherlands, or the United States, if—and only if—the enforcing magistrate can also say to Scotland, or the Netherlands, or the United States, in the name of God, “I am Jehovah thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”

      That the state is not called to enforce the entire decalogue is evident to all from the fact that the decalogue includes the tenth commandment, “Thou shalt not covet.”  Even the most ardent defender of the duty of the state to enforce the entire moral law of God must agree that the tenth commandment falls outside the jurisdiction of the state.

      As regards the second table of the law, excepting now the tenth, commandments five through nine do not consist merely of prescription or proscription of outward deeds.  They require love for the neighbor in the heart out of a grateful love for the triune, one, true God.  If the state is to enforce the second table of the law, it must require love for the neighbor in the heart of every citizen.  It must also punish the citizens for any lack of love for the neighbor in their heart.

      There is no one, therefore, not even the most fiery Scottish Presbyterian or most aggressive Christian Reconstructionist, who believes that the state must enforce either the entire decalogue or the second table of the decalogue.  At most, some believe that the state must enforce the external conduct required or forbidden by the first nine commandments of the decalogue, or by commandments five through nine.

      In his exposition of the decalogue, Herman Hoeksema warns the preacher against proclaiming the ten commandments “as an external code of precepts,” which, says Hoeksema, is implied by that supposed use of the law known as the “usus politicus.”  A preacher might be tempted to use the law in this political manner in order to reform an increasingly lawless society.  But the law is given to the church.  The proper uses of the law are teaching the redeemed people of God their misery and especially guiding them in their life of thankfulness and holiness (“usus paedagogicus” and “usus normativus”).32  

      Although Hoeksema is addressing the preacher, the implication of his admonition is that the ten commandments were not given to the state for a “usus politicus” and that the state certainly cannot enforce the ten commandments upon ungodly society.

      That this is his position comes out clearly in his Revelation commentary, Behold, He Cometh!  Explaining the whore and her relation to the beast in Revelation 17:15-18, Hoeksema describes the calling of the state as the maintenance of “law and order in the midst of a corrupt world,” by punishing evil-doers and protecting the good.  The state is a purely “temporal institution.”  The power by which the state fulfills its calling is strictly “material”:  the sword.  The state has no “spiritual” power, namely, the Word of God. 

      This view of the state’s calling is closely related to Hoeksema’s rejection of the notion that the state ever represents “the development of the kingdom of Christ.”  As soon as a state becomes dissatisfied with being a “punishing power upon evil and a maintainer of public order” and takes up “rooting out evil and establishing real righteousness and peace by main power, by the power of the law and by the action of the sword,” the state becomes “the beast.”33 


The Law in Creation

      The law of God that the state enforces is the same law of God that gives rise to some form of civil government among all peoples and in all times.  This is not the law written down on the pages of Scripture.  What did all the civil governments in all the nations other than Israel during the time of the Old Testament know of the written law of God, the ten commandments?  What did the Roman government directly referred to in Romans 13:1-7 know of the decalogue?  Nevertheless, the Roman government existed as a valid government on the basis of the law of God, and the Roman government functioned as a servant of God by enforcing the law of God.

      The law of God that grounds states and that states enforce is the law of God in creation itself.  God makes known to all men that there is a difference between right and wrong, that right should be rewarded and wrong should be punished, that the doing of the right and prevention of the doing of the wrong—order in society—are necessary for human life together, something of the nature of right and wrong, particularly as they bear on human life together in a nation, and that for the securing of order in society it is necessary that some men rule over the rest. 

      Paul teaches this revelation of the law of God in creation in Romans 2:14, 15:   “For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves:  Which show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another.”  Although the pagans do not have the written law of God—the decalogue—they possess a form of the law of the God, for they have the work of the law written in their hearts.  That is, God shows them something of the difference between right and wrong, as also the importance of doing the right and abstaining from the wrong.

      To this law of God in creation the Canons of Dordt refer, when they acknowledge that fallen man possesses “glimmerings of natural light,” so that he retains some knowledge of the “difference between good and evil, and discovers some regard for virtue, good order in society, and for maintaining an orderly external deportment.”34 

      This law of God in creation is not sufficient to establish the kingdom of Christ in any nation.  Indeed, this “light of nature” is not even sufficient to enable men to perform good works in the realm of “things natural and civil.”  Rather, “this light, such as it is, man in various ways renders wholly polluted, and holds it [back] in unrighteousness; by doing which he becomes inexcusable before God.”35 But it is not God’s purpose with the law that it establish the kingdom of Christ.  It is God’s purpose, which He also accomplishes throughout history, that the kingdom of Christ be established by the gospel.  The law revealed in creation, including the minds of fallen men and women, is sufficient to keep outward order in society.  This is God’s purpose with the law.

      Should there be a Christian prince, a “rare bird,” as Luther observed,36  or a Christian politician, equally a rare bird, he would certainly take instruction concerning righteousness from the much clearer ten commandments, as from the equity of the political laws of Israel.  But he would apply the law of God strictly to the outward behavior of the citizens of the nation as that behavior concerns national, earthly, temporal life.  The fact that the prince or politician is a Reformed Christian would no more require, or allow, him to punish Arminians, Roman Catholics, or Muslims, or to prohibit their false worship, than the fact that an employer is Reformed requires him to punish employees for heresy, or to fire them for adultery.


The Sword’s Service of the Cross

      By keeping outward order in the nation, the state serves the church.  The state does indeed serve the kingdom of Christ.  The sword serves the cross.  God compels His unwilling servant, the state, to serve His willing servant, the church.  The external order in a nation provided by the state allows the church to exist and function institutionally and permits the members of the church to live quiet and peaceable lives in all godliness and honesty.

      The church does not ask the state for help in her financial support, her discipline of heretics and other ungodly members, her warfare with the kingdom of darkness in the false church, cults, pagan religions, and the godless, her government, or her work on behalf of the gospel.  The church does not need the help of the state.  She dishonors herself and her king when she seeks help from the state.  Besides, the state lacks all ability to help her in these spiritual matters.  The only sword the state has is a physical one.

      Indeed, the urgent calling of the church today is vehemently and strenuously to resist all efforts by the state to meddle in the church’s affairs.  “Hands off!  Keep out!  Mind your own business!” is the warning of the sovereign kingdom of Christ to the state.  In the words of the “Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches,” which is the church order of Dordt, the consistory shall take care that “they may never suffer the royal government of Christ over His church to be in the least infringed upon.”37 

      What the church does require of the state is that the state attend to its own, God-given business, which is the maintenance of order in society.  The state accomplishes this by protecting those who do well and punishing those who do evil and by defending the citizens of the nation from aggression on the part of other nations.

      When a state keeps outward order, so that the church can exist and do her work, the state shows itself, not only a servant of God, but also a servant of the Lord Jesus.  God has certainly given states and political rulers into the power of the risen Jesus Christ, who sits at God’s right hand in the heavens as king of kings and lord of lords (Matt. 28:18; Eph. 1:20-23; Rev. 19:16).  



Nations and their rulers are, as we have seen, the subjects of Christ.  They are under, not only his providential control, but his moral authority.  Now the religion of Christ, that is to say, his Church or spiritual kingdom, must be to him an object of the deepest interest; it is that, indeed, to which everything else is subordinate.  To it, of course, the nations of the world must be subordinate; and if so, is it not utterly inconceivable that they should be freed from all obligation to have respect to the interests of religion?  …The dominion of the Head of the Church over civil society, renders it, not only expedient and safe, but dutiful and obligatory, for nations, as such, to interest themselves about the true religion.38 


      But Christ’s mediatorial rule of nations in no way implies that Christ now saves all kings and lords, commands them to throw the full force of the state into the promotion of the church and the gospel, and uses states to support the true church and root out heresy and false religion.  The history of the past two thousand years proves that this explanation of Christ’s mediatorial kingship over princes and nations is false.  Christ has been mediatorial king over nations and rulers since His ascension into heaven.  God “set him [Christ] at his own right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come:  and hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church” (Eph. 1:20-22).   Nations and kings have been subject to Him for the past nearly two thousand years.  But they have not been subject to Him by establishing the church and harassing heretics.

      The lordship of Christ over states and political rulers consists of His sovereign rule of them so that they, mostly apart from their consciousness and against their will, keep outward order in society and thus provide room for His beloved church.  Most governments have done this.

      The disobedience of a political ruler, therefore, as regards his exercise of his office, for which also he will be judged by his lord, is not that he fails to establish the church.  Rather, it is that he fails to punish the evil-doer and protect the well-doer.  Invariably, he then protects the evil-doer and punishes the well-doer.  He coddles criminals, while exposing law-abiding citizens to the violence of the unrestrained rapists, robbers, and murderers.  He refuses to execute murderers, while murdering millions of unborn citizens, who are innocent before the law of the land.

      The state is also disobedient to its divine calling when it extends its dominating power into virtually every aspect of the life of the citizens:  education; business; welfare; the arts; and even the family.  The jurisdiction of the state is limited:  justice, public order, and defense.  The omnipresent, omnicompetent, and omni-intrusive state is a beast that soon threatens the life and labor of the kingdom of Christ and persecutes the citizen of the kingdom of Christ in its midst.  This state deifies itself. 

      In addition, it is disobedience to its calling on the part of a state to envision and then embark on world conquest and world domination.  It is one thing for a nation to subdue another, aggressor nation in self-defense; it is quite another thing for a powerful state arrogantly to impose itself and its ways on other nations.  God wills the government of mankind by many nations, whose bounds He has appointed (Acts 17:26).   Imperialism is demonic.  It is the urge and effort of Satan to rear up the kingdom of the beast of Revelation 13.   God wills one universal kingdom in history—and everlastingly:  the peaceable, spiritual kingdom of Jesus Christ ( Ps. 72; Dan. 7; Rev. 11:15).

      The very worst disobedience by the state to Christ is the persecution of the church.  In this rebellion against its lord, the state directly opposes Christ’s main purpose with the state:  the protection of the church.

      But even when the state persecutes the church, the antichristian state serves the church, for the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.  Even then the state is servant of God, for the persecuting state chastises and purifies the church, displays the church’s glory as she confesses Christ by the suffering and death of her members, and prepares the church and all things for the coming of Christ.  Bloodthirsty Assyria was a rod in God’s hand (Is. 10:5).

      To pray, “Thy kingdom come,” is, as regards states, to ask that God will so rule states that the church may freely do its work in the midst of them.  It is not to ask God for the “Christianizing” of nations so that they become the Messianic kingdom.

      On her part, the church is submissive to the state.  She is obedient to the “powers,” as long as the “powers” do not forbid her to do what God commands or require her to do what God forbids.  She preaches to her members to be well-doers in the nation, not evil-doers, submitting to the civil authorities and paying the taxes they exact, regardless that invariably the taxes are exorbitant (Rom. 13:1-7). 39  The members of the church are to be motivated in their submission to the state, not only by fear at the threat of punishment, but also, and especially, by gratitude to God for the relative order the state provides on behalf of the church and the Christian.  One pays the taxes gladly when he remembers that the state, for all its corruption, great robberies of its citizens, and vile officials, still serves the church by maintaining the order within which the church can preach the gospel and worship and the Christian can live his holy, covenant life.

      Under the great blessing of God to her, consisting of the outward order and earthly peace provided by civil government, let the church be diligent in the right worship of the true God, in preaching and teaching the gospel, in building up her members and in making disciples of God’s elect in all nations.  Served by earthly kingdoms, let the church be what she is—the spiritual kingdom of Christ in the world—and do what she alone is called and empowered by God to do—maintain and extend the Messianic kingdom.  

David J. Engelsma is a professor of Dogmatics at the Theological School of the Protestant Reformed Church. He has earned his A.B. from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI. B.D. from the Protestant Reformed Seminary in Grand Rapids, MI where he studied for three years under Herman Hoeksema. Th.M. from Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, MI. His Master's thesis was a 140-page study of the relation between the Trinity and the covenant. David is a very gifted Christian writer, a quality that is not an exception among the ministers of Protestant Reformed Churches (Herman Hoeksema, Homer Hoeksema, Herman Hanko, Ronald Hanko, Robert Decker, Barry Gritters, Steve Houck, Angus Stewart and many others).


End Notes

 1 William Cunningham, Historical Theology, vol. 1 (London:  Banner of Truth, repr. 1969), p. 391.

 2 On the idea and history of “Voluntaryism,” see James Bannerman, “Note on the History of Voluntaryism,” in The Church of Christ, vol. 2 (Edinburgh:  Banner of Truth, 1960), pp. 354-360.  The analysis is that of a sworn foe of voluntaryism.

 3 John Calvin, Institutes, ed. John T. McNeill, tr. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia:  Westminster Press, 1960):  4.20.9.  It is significant that the only biblical proof adduced by Calvin for his position is from the Old Testament, where the reference is to the godly ruler in Israel.

 4 John Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel according to John, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1956), p. 210.

 5 “The Scottish Confession of Faith, 1560,” in Reformed Confessions of the 16th Century, ed. Arthur C. Cochrane (Philadelphia:  Westminster Press, 1966), p. 183.

 6 “The Belgic Confession, AD 1561,” in The Creeds of Christendom, ed. Philip Schaff, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids:  Baker, repr. 1983), p. 432.

 7 “The Westminster Confession of Faith, 1647,” 23.3, in Schaff, Creeds, p. 653.

 8 “The Doctrinal Standards, Liturgy, and Church Order,” in The Psalter (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1977), p. 36.

 9 For the refutation of the postmillennialism especially of Christian Reconstruction and a defense of Reformed amillennialism, see David J. Engelsma, Christ’s Spiritual Kingdom:  A Defense of Reformed Amillennialism (Redlands, California:  The Reformed Witness, 2001).

 10 Geerhardus Vos, The Kingdom of God and the Church (Nutley, New Jersey:  Presbyterian and Reformed, repr. 1972), p. 42.

 11 A more extensive treatment of the related truths, that the Messianic kingdom is spiritual and that the kingdom is the church, appeared  in a series of editorials in the Standard Bearer under the title, “The Kingdom of God.”   See David J. Engelsma, “The Kingdom of God,” the Standard Bearer 77, no. 4 (November 15, 2000):  76-78; 77, no. 5 (December 1, 2000):  100-102; 77, no. 15 (May 1, 2001):  341-343; 77, no. 16 (May 15, 2001):  364-366; 77, no. 19 (August 2001):  436-438; 77, no. 20 (September 1, 2001):  460-462; 77, no. 21 (September 15, 2001):  484-486.

 12 William Cunningham, Historical Theology, vol. 2 (London:  Banner of Truth, repr. 1969), pp. 557-569.

 13 James Bannerman, The Church of Christ, vol. 1 (Edinburgh:  Banner of Truth, repr. 1974), pp. 124-135.

 14 Ibid., p. 183.  The Scottish theologian astutely noted that a basic error of those who call on the state to execute idolaters and heretics is their notion that the civil laws of Israel are still binding upon earthly nations.  This notion is inexcusable in one who subscribes to the Belgic Confession or the Westminster Confession of Faith.  Article 25 of the Belgic Confession states that the “ceremonies and figures of the law ceased at the coming of Christ, and that all the shadows are accomplished; so that the use of them must be abolished among Christians” (Schaff, Creeds, p. 413).  The Westminster Confession of Faith teaches that the “sundry judicial laws,” which God gave to Israel as “a body politic,” have “expired together with the state of that people, not obliging any other, now, further than the general equity thereof may require” (19.4, in Schaff, Creeds, p. 641).

 15 Bannerman, Church of Christ, vol. 2, pp. 389, 390.

 16 It is amusing, how Christian Reconstructionist Greg Bahnsen shrewdly backed away in public debate  from the stand of theonomic Christian Reconstruction, that the coming Christian, or “Christianized,” state must and will execute idolaters and heretics.  The question to him was, “Should we execute idolaters?”  Bahnsen answered:  “The prima facie understanding of the biblical texts would seem to support the justice of punishing idolatry, even today.  But I have not done sufficient homework and reflection on this question” (God and Politics:  Four Views on the Reformation of Civil Government, ed. Gary Scott Smith, Phillipsburg, New Jersey:  Presbyterian and Reformed, 1989, p. 268).  In fact, it is not difficult to imagine North, De Mar, Gentry, and the other disciples of Rushdoony stoning to death, among all the others, the few remaining uncompromising Reformed amillennialists as blasphemers.  For Rousas J. Rushdoony’s charge that Reformed amillennialism is “blasphemy,” see his article “Postmillennialism versus Impotent Religion” in the Journal of Christian Reconstruction 3, no. 2 (Winter, 1976-77):  126, 127.

 17 Schaff, Creeds, p. 432.

 18 Ibid., p. 653.

 19 On Calvin’s active role in the execution of the heretic Michael Servetus, see Francois Wendel, Calvin:  The Origins and Development of His Religious Thought (London and New York:  William Collins Sons, 1963), pp. 93-98.  Wendel observes that “Calvin was convinced, and all the reformers shared this conviction, that it was the duty of the Christian magistrate to put to death blasphemers who kill the soul, just as they punished murderers who kill the body” (p. 97).  The Roman Catholic Church must not open its mouth in criticism of this one instance of Calvin’s involvement in the execution of a genuine heretic by anyone’s standards.  Rome is guilty of the judicial, as well as strictly ecclesiastical, murder of hundreds of thousands of the precious saints of God.  Think of the Inquisition in the countries where the Reformation gained a foothold!  Think of the bloody persecution of the Reformed in the Netherlands in the sixteenth century!  Think of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in France in the sixteenth century!  Thomas Aquinas taught that the church has the duty to hand the impenitent heretic over to the state for execution:  “If he [the heretic] is yet stubborn, the Church no longer hoping for his conversion, looks to the salvation of others, by excommunicating him and separating him from the Church, and furthermore delivers him to the secular tribunal to be exterminated thereby from the world by death” (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica,  vol. 2 [New York:  Benziger Brothers, 1947], p. 1226).

 20 See footnote 14 above.

 21 Bannerman, Church of Christ, vol. 1, p. 133.

 22 Ibid.

 23 “We further condemn Jewish dreams that there will be a golden age on earth before the Day of Judgment, and that the pious, having subdued all their godless enemies, will possess all the kingdoms of the earth” (“The Second Helvetic Confession, 1566,” chap. 11, in Reformed Confessions of the 16th Century, pp. 245, 246).

 24 For a brief account in English of these persecutions of the true church in the Netherlands by alliances of the state and the established church, see D. H. Kromminga, The Christian Reformed Tradition (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1943), pp. 7-20, 79-98.

 25 Cunningham, Historical Theology, vol. 1, p. 394.

 26 Calvin, Gospel according to John, pp. 210, 211.

 27 Martin Luther, “Temporal Authority:  to What Extent It should be Obeyed,” in Luther’s Works, vol. 45, ed. Walther I. Brandt  (Philadelphia:  Muhlenberg Press, 1962), pp. 75-129.

 28 Cited in Gordon Rupp, Luther’s Progress to the Diet of Worms (London:  SCM Press, 1951), p. 94.

 29 Bannerman, Church of Christ, vol. 1, p. 117.  For an extended discussion of the distinction of the civil and the ecclesiastical in Israel, see George Gillespie, Aaron’s Rod Blossoming:  The Divine Ordinance of Church Government Vindicated (Harrisonburg, Virginia:  Sprinkle, 1985), pp. 1-19.  Gillespie, however, was opposing the Erastian confusion of church and state.  William Symington argued for a close alliance of church and state, with the state promoting the church, on the basis of the union of civil and religious authorities in Israel (William Symington, Messiah the Prince or, The Mediatorial Dominion of Jesus Christ [Edmonton, AB, Canada:  Still Waters Revival Books, repr. 1990], pp. 271-277).

 30 Bannerman, Church of Christ, vol. 2, pp. 369, 370.

 31 For a discussion of the issue, whether the magistrate is to enforce both tables of the moral law of God or the second table only, by one who vigorously advocates the former position, see Symington, Messiah, pp. 239-241, 268, 269.

 32 Herman Hoeksema, The Triple Knowledge:  An Exposition of the Heidelberg Catechism, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids:  Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1972), pp. 122-124.

 33 Herman Hoeksema, Behold, He Cometh!:  An Exposition of the Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids:  Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1969), pp. 583-586.

 34 “The Canons of the Synod of Dort, 1619,” III, IV/4, in Schaff, Creeds, p. 588.

 35 Ibid.

 36 “Since the beginning of the world a wise prince is a mighty rare bird, and an upright prince even rarer” (Luther, “Temporal Authority,” in Works, p. 113; Luther added:  “They are generally the biggest fools or the worst scoundrels on earth; therefore, one must constantly expect the worst from them and look for little good”—true still today in the United States, of Republicans and Democrats alike).

 37 Art. 28, in “The Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches, 2002 Edition” [published at Grandville, MI by the Protestant Reformed Churches].

 38 Symington, Messiah, pp. 264, 265.  The capitalization for emphasis is Symington’s.

 39 The evangelical form used in Basel for the administration of the Lord’s Supper included in the section that fenced the table these words:  “Let those be excluded from us who do not honor their father and mother, who are disobedient to the civil authority, being rebellious and loath to meet their interest, taxes, etc.” (“Form and Manner of the Lord’s Supper, Infant Baptism, and the Visitation of the Sick as They are Used and Observed in Basel [1525?]”, in Liturgies of the Western Church, selected and introduced by Bard Thompson [Philadelphia:  Fortress Press, 1980], p. 212).

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