Volume 38 - Issue 2

Kingdom, Ethics, and Individual Salvation

By D. A. Carson


In recent years a number of stances have arisen that have set themselves over against traditional evangelicalism and traditional Reformed thought, not a few of them arguing, in part, on the basis of a particular understanding of the kingdom. These stances claim to be more biblical and thus more faithful than traditional stances. To some extent they overlap; to some extent each is identifiably different from the others. . . .

1. The Challenge

In recent years a number of stances have arisen that have set themselves over against traditional evangelicalism and traditional Reformed thought, not a few of them arguing, in part, on the basis of a particular understanding of the kingdom. These stances claim to be more biblical and thus more faithful than traditional stances. To some extent they overlap; to some extent each is identifiably different from the others. What are these stances, what can we learn from them, and what should be resisted—and why?

1. The kingdom, especially as emphasized in the Synoptic Gospels, is often tied to communitarian ethics rather than individual ethics. By contrast, Paul downplays the kingdom and focuses rather more on individual salvation. This has played into the individualism of the West, which must be resisted by restoring a return to Jesus himself, achieving a better balance with Pauline emphases.

2. The kingdom is bound up with a way of looking at reality that undermines the perceptions of the fallen and broken world order. Many of the “parables of the kingdom” have this fundamental reversal at their core, so it turns out that the last are first and the wild and wayward son is given the party. In this kingdom, we do not govern the way the world does: the one who wishes to lead must be the slave of all, even as Christ came not to be served but to serve (Matt 20:20–28). The kingdom-cross has more to do with ethics, especially the ethics of reversal, than with atonement.

3. With the triumph of Christ achieved on the cross and through his resurrection, the kingdom has dawned—a glorious anticipation of the spectacular glory of resurrection existence in the new heaven and new earth. That means Christ’s people are mandated to begin now to work out the dimensions of righteousness and justice that will be consummated at the end: saying “No” to raw power, caring for the poor and needy, reversing discrimination, being good stewards of the created order that anticipates the consummated created order. All of this is the mission of Jesus.

4. The clear command of Jesus is to seek the kingdom of God and his righteousness—and Jesus makes clear, not least in the Sermon on the Mount, that this entails a range of shocking ethical transformations: turning the other cheek to violence, recognizing that the heart is more fundamental than mere action, and forgiving others (because, quite frankly, we will not be forgiven unless we do). This stance is often associated with the Anabaptist movement, whether in its more traditional guise or in its Hauerwas form. The broad pacifism Jesus mandated finally means that the church in some measure, in some way, must withdraw from the world: our job is not to transform culture, but to constitute a new people, to live by the shaping constraints and privileges of the kingdom. It is not our job to tell the world what to do, or even to figure out how to interact with the broader culture; it is simply our job to be the people of God.

5. A postmillennial anticipation of the coming of the kingdom, combined with either a soft sphere-sovereignty (think Kuyper) and/or with some form of theonomy, develops its own ways of thinking about the transformation of the culture.

6. At a popular level (think “Left Behind”), it is still not uncommon for some to think of the kingdom as virtually an exclusive reality, so that terms like “gospel” and “church” may be nicely tied to this generation, but “kingdom” has to do with the future, millennially conceived or not.

These are all distinguishable ways of thinking about the dawning of the kingdom. Four of the six devote a lot of thought to the challenge of transforming culture; one (the fourth option, Hauerwas) specifically sets itself against such reflection, but devotes a lot of thought to the challenge of being a distinct society over against the surrounding culture. All but the last tend to depreciate individual salvation, while the last tends to emphasize it to the depreciation of large-scale communitarian and ethical reflection (i.e., where it focuses on ethics, it tends to emphasize the ethics of the priorities of individuals). By contrast, many in these camps who align themselves with social and communitarian ethics would take umbrage at the charge that they downplay individual salvation, since they acknowledge that individuals must repent and believe. Nevertheless, the focus of their frame of reference is one or another of these large visions, usually tied to a distinctive understanding of the kingdom, heavily leaning toward societal transformation (either of the entire society or, in the Anabaptist heritage, the ecclesial society). Individual supporters of these movements tend to emphasize different needs: the overwhelming challenges of poverty, of AIDS and other diseases, of abuse of power, of ecological responsibility, of reconciliation of various sorts (racial, ethnic, religious).

2. Preliminary Responses

1. Like most positions that claim to right a wrong, there is some level of truth in these proposals. Nevertheless, in each case there is something either reductionistic about the proposal or just plain exegetically wrong or both. For instance, with respect to the first proposal, which tends to pit Jesus and the kingdom over against Paul: once one has noted the difference in both literary genre and temporal location of Gospels and epistles, one can nevertheless trace out the many theological connections between Jesus and Paul.1 Or again, with respect to the second proposal, which elevates ethics in the Gospels above the atonement, it painfully overlooks just how central the cross is to the entire Bible’s storyline. Even in the Gospels, to abstract the ethics passages from the narrative that drives toward the passion and resurrection (one of Brian McLaren’s approaches), ultimately distorts both the ethics and the narrative—as the better commentaries invariably show, and as Peter Bolt, for instance, has dramatically demonstrated in Mark.2 So much of the exegesis in this camp is slightly distorted, but this “slightly” turns out to be massively corrupting. For instance, I recently heard a well-known NT scholar argue that the famous utterance, Mark 10:45 // Matt 20:28, is not really about the atonement at all, but about politics and the nature of leadership. Well, yes and no: the entire pericope is about the nature of leadership among Christ’s disciples, but the fundamental ground and standard is Christ and his atoning cross-work. Far from pitting ethics and the atonement against each other, the passage grounds the former in the latter. Or again, the third proposal, though not superficially wrong, becomes deeply wrong because (a) the storyline on which it is based is reductionistic, and (b) the applications commonly pursued are merely hyped echoes of contemporary agendas that compared with Scripture are at best decentered and at worst naive. And so we could work through all the proposals.

2. Several of these proposals depend on reductionistic approaches to the nature of the “kingdom” in the NT. The easiest way to demonstrate this is by outlining some of the uses of “kingdom.”

(a) In many uses, the kingdom of God is virtually coextensive with God’s sovereignty: God’s kingdom rules over all, and he does what he wills. Everyone is in the kingdom in that sense—atheists, Buddhists, Christians, and so forth. It is impossible not to be in the kingdom. In this sense, the kingdom is neither something to pursue nor something that can be avoided.

(b) On the other hand, in many uses the kingdom of God is that subset of God’s total reign under which there is acceptance with God and eternal life. For example, one can neither see nor enter the kingdom (in this sense) unless one is born again (John 3). One is either in the kingdom or one is not.

(c) Very frequently the Gospels present the kingdom as coming—either in process of dawning now or promised for the future and yet already inaugurated. Often this tension is implicitly cast over against the anticipation of some Jews that the kingdom of God would come in a climactic burst that would usher in righteousness and destroy the ungodly. Instead, it comes like seed sown in various soils, like yeast transforming dough.

(d) This coming or dawning kingdom can itself, at the moment, include both wheat and weeds. That makes it like (a), above—except God’s sovereignty cannot be said to “come” or to be anticipated. That it is not to be identified with all of God’s providential reign makes it akin to (b), above—except that this usage includes both wheat and weeds.

(e) Increasingly in the NT, the kingdom is distinctively Christ’s kingdom. In many of the parables, Jesus speaks of the kingdom of God. In some, however, such as the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt 25:31‒46), the King is clearly Jesus. That raises the question as to when Jesus becomes king. At one level, Jesus is born a king (e.g., Matt 2); at another, he enters into his kingship with the onset of his public ministry; at yet another, in deepest irony he reigns from the cross (e.g., Matt 27:27‒53); very frequently in the NT his kingship is thematically connected with his resurrection, ascension, and session at the Father’s right hand, assuring him that all authority is given to him in heaven and on earth (e.g., Matt 28:18). Paul sums up this vision by insisting that all of God’s sovereignty is currently mediated through Christ and that this will continue to be the case until the last enemy has been destroyed (1 Cor 15). That means that Jesus’ mediatorial kingship is contested. The consummation of the ages finally arrives when his foes, including death itself, have been utterly vanquished.

(f) None of this descriptive analysis mentions Matthew’s preference for “kingdom of heaven” over “kingdom of God.” Of the various proposals advanced to explain the semantic difference, that of Jonathan Pennington is as believable as any.3 The difference is not one of referent, but of emphasis or perspective: the kingdom, we might say, is viewed a little more focally from heaven’s vantage point.

(g) In no instance is kingdom to be identified with church, as if the two words can on occasion become tight synonyms. Even when there is a referential overlap, the domain of “kingdom” is reign, and the domain of “church” is people.

(h) The kingdom is sometimes associated with certain virtues or conduct (e.g., Matt 5:3, 8), even with righteousness (Matt 6:33). Sometimes such passages seem to relish a certain eschatological tension: Does “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth at it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10) envisage the consummation, the presence of the future (to take up Ladd’s unforgettable title), or both? Certainly there is nothing in the NT quite like the current infatuation for expressions like “kingdom ethics,” in which “kingdom” is reduced to a mere adjective.

One could extend this analysis quite a bit further, but this is enough to flag the dangers of reductionism.

3. Several of the proposals mentioned at the beginning of this editorial are difficult to evaluate in short compass because they depend on debatable assumptions regarding the meanings of several other biblical terms or theological themes. Nowhere is this more notable than in current debates over the meaning of “gospel.” Someone brings up the expression “the gospel of the kingdom,” assures us that the kingdom has to do primarily with ethics, and then assures us that the only way to develop a really “robust” gospel is to integrate kingdom ethics into our gospel. The methodological missteps bound up with such word-association games are too complex to be untangled here. But if “gospel” refers primarily to the great news of what God has done in Christ Jesus to redeem and transform his people, we ought to distinguish what God has done from its entailments in how his people will respond. One could do a lot worse than read Greg Gilbert’s What Is the Gospel?4

4. There is a huge need to test all of these proposals and systems by all the great turning-points in redemptive history, keeping in mind all of them all the time.5

3. Four Concluding Reflections

Here I wish to do no more than prime the pump:

1. There are important and sometimes neglected things to learn from the actual practice and focus of the NT documents. For example, we cannot help but observe that some of the priorities of these stances do not seem to be the first priorities of the Book of Acts or of any of the epistles, Pauline or otherwise. One wonders why, if Paul had been focally concerned about being a good steward of creation in his own time, he did not say a bit more about cleaning up the horse poop in Rome. There is plenty of biblical warrant for thinking through our stewardship of creation on the broadest canvas, but one should be careful to make the first things the first things.

2. In much of the contemporary discussion, there is an alarming lack of eternal perspective—or, better put, a mere tipping of the hat toward the eternal, but not any acknowledgement that viscerally and powerfully affects conduct and priorities. “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt 10:28).

3. Doubtless some in the broad evangelical camp overreact and think exclusively of saving souls as opposed to people in all the complexities of their existence (whether because they spring from an older dispensationalism or because they have been burned by the heritage of a 1920s social gospel). But somewhere along the line Christians have to wrestle with what it means to do good to all, even if our first responsibility is toward the household of God, serving as salt in a decaying world, as light in a dark world.

4. Finally, it is desperately important not to try to slaughter the complexity and balance of biblical mandates on all these fronts by the simple expedient of universalizing our slot in history and culture. Many of us are quick to identify the ostensible imbalances and errors of Christians in other generations without adequately reflecting on our own blind spots or on the blind spots of our heroes. One wonders what stances Kuyper would have adopted had he been born in China in 1940.

[1] See esp. David Wenham, Paul: Follower of Jesus or Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995); or, more briefly, Wenham’s Paul and Jesus: The True Story (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002); or older short books on this topic by Herman Ridderbos and by F. F. Bruce (both titled Paul and Jesus); or Paul Barnett, Jesus and the Rise of Early Christianity: A History of New Testament Times (Downers Grove: IVP, 1999).

[2] See Peter G. Bolt, The Cross from a Distance: Atonement in Mark’s Gospel (New Studies in Biblical Theology 18; Downers Grove: IVP, 2004).

[3] Jonathan T. Pennington, Heaven and Earth in the Gospel of Matthew (Supplements to Novum Testamentum 126; Leiden: Brill, 2007); ibid., “The Kingdom of Heaven in the Gospel of Matthew,” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 12, no. 1 (2008): 44–51.

[4] Greg Gilbert, What Is the Gospel? (9Marks; Wheaton: Crossway, 2010).

[5] This is one of the larger themes of my Christ and Culture Revisited (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007).

D. A. Carson

D. A. Carson is emeritus professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and cofounder and theologian-at-large of The Gospel Coalition.

Other Articles in this Issue

Carl Ferdinand Howard Henry (1913–2003) was an American theologian in the conservative evangelical tradition...

Will everyone one day be saved? Is hell only temporary, if it exists at all? If the answer is yes to either of these questions, the historic Christian commitment to the conversion of the world to Christ would appear to be somewhat silly...

People rightly note the way Christians in English-speaking Western culture have moved in a generation from being ‘moral majority’ to ‘immoral minority’...

One of the deepest impacts of the Reformation on Western Culture arose from the robust rearticulation of the biblical doctrines of creation and vocation...