It is the privilege of Christians to be members of the Kingdom of Jesus. As a consequence we are enabled to enjoy something of the first fruits of what we shall enjoy in their fullness in the new heaven and earth. But we are not to be so heavenly minded that we are of little earthly use. We live, for the time being in this world. We reside at present in the United Kingdom. Like the Reformers and the Puritans who followed them we should have a vision of seeing a godly Commonwealth here on earth. We know such will never be perfect. Heaven on earth is for the age to come. In the mean time we are in the world to so let our light shine before men that they may to turn to Jesus and glorify our Father who is in heaven (Matthew 5:16).
How are Christians to live in the world? The question can be answered in many ways. The topic is potentially vast in scope — that becomes more obvious once we start to break it down into a consideration of matters to do with personal morality on the one hand and matters devotional and spiritual on the other. There are a plethora of issues upon which a distinctive Christian perspective could be considered: marriage, medical ethics, economics, the environment, education, and crime and punishment are but a few. However our focus now will be on Christians and the State.
To set the scene, let us turn to two scriptures. First, let us note what the apostle Peter was inspired to write. In the second chapter of his first letter we are informed that Christians are:
a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy (1 Peter 2:9-10).
Secondly, Paul instructed the followers of Jesus in Rome in these terms:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience (Romans 13:1-5).
There you have it. Christians live in two realms: the Kingdom of God and a kingdom of this world. That is true of all believers whilst they sojourn in the land of the living (Psalm 27:13; 52:5; 116:9; 142:5). Thus at present we reside in the United Kingdom, a Kingdom of this world. But as those born from above, that is regenerated by the Spirit of the God (John 3:1-10), we are new creations in Jesus our Lord (2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:15). We have been, in the sovereign and amazingly gracious purpose of Almighty God, delivered from the domain of darkness and transferred into the kingdom of his beloved Son (Colossians 1:13).
The question, How we are to live in this world? is a relevant one. It will never be redundant for as long as the present condition of mankind in a fallen state prevails before the second coming of the Saviour. However, it will surely come as no surprise to hear that it has been answered in different ways down the years. Put simply, and at the risk of being deemed simplistic, there are those who argue for separation from the world. To a greater or lesser degree that is what monastic movements have done and do. They are not alone. After the Reformation separatist groups emerged such as, more latterly, the Amish, but before them the Hutterites and the Mennonites. And then there are those who in many respects argue for a convergence or melding of church and state to the point that the church appears barely distinguishable from the world. Such is the fruit of liberalism, which in a Christian context is characterised and driven by a defective and deficient hermeneutical principle. Put differently, the varied expressions of liberalism fail to articulate a proper and legitimate doctrine of the authority of Scripture. As a consequence, apart from practising religious rites and rituals of some kind, liberal morality frequently apes the morality of the surrounding culture. It fails to be ruled by the whole counsel of God.
Our question, How are we to live in the World? needs to be explored further. How are those here on earth whose citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20) to behave as citizens of an earthly state? This matter inevitably came to the fore at the time of the Reformation. Biblical Christians parted company from the corrupt medieval church centred in Europe as it was on Rome. But after the fall of the Roman Empire, clerics gradually came to people of influence in society. That was partly due to the fact that monasteries and the more senior clergy were educated. They were in a position to take on clerical tasks in the state in a way that many others were not. A legacy of this is indicated in the shades of meaning associated with the word clerical. On the one hand it refers to clergy, whilst on the other it is used to describe administrative duties and tasks. Why are we saying this? Because by the time of the Reformation the leaders of nations, who did not embrace a secular philosophy or hold to the tenets of another religious system, invariably accepted some form of allegiance to the corrupt expression of the Christian faith associated with Rome. Thus the progress of and acceptance of Reformation principles in a country in the sixteenth century was invariably related to stance of the monarch or equivalent ruler. Was he persuaded that Protestant principles are right? If he did then the likelihood was that the state would favour them notwithstanding the fact that for many people their allegiance to the same could well prove nominal rather than by conviction.
So how are Reformed Christians to live in the world? The first person to attempt and provide a theological and scriptural formulation in response to the question was Martin Bucer (1491-1551). He was for some years a prominent leader of the Reformation in Strasbourg and southern Germany. Prior to that he was a Dominican monk steeped in the Thomist tradition. He became a follower of Luther at the beginning of the Reformation in 1518. From him he learned that the Bible is to be the source and centre of all theological thinking. He differed from Luther in his emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit in the elect. And after coming under the influence of Zwingli as he laboured to establish the Reformation in Strasbourg he went further than Luther in insisting that it was not only the church in its corporate life but also the whole of human life in its individual and social expressions that is to be ordered according to the will of God as revealed in the Bible.
When Strasbourg came under the power of forces associated with the pre-Reformation church in 1548, Bucer was invited to England. He arrived on these shores in 1549 and quickly immersed himself in the life of the church in England. In 1550 he wrote a seminal book which was not published until 1557, some six years after his death. Furthermore it was not published in London or Cambridge, where he laboured, but in Basel. Its title in Latin is De Regno Christi, and in English, On the Kingdom of Christ. But, please note, an English translation of it did not appear until 1969. In fact, to read it all in English you have to go to two sources. You will find most of the treatise, minus the section on Divorce, in Melanchthon and Bucer, edited by Wilhelm Pauck. The section on Divorce, book 2, chapters 22-46, was not included by Pauck because it had been translated in the seventeenth century by John Milton (1608-1674). You will find it an edition of Milton’s prose works.
We will return to Bucer in a moment. Before we do mention should be made of two other seminal works. One is Lex, Rex, or The Law and the Prince by Samuel Rutherford. The other is Christian Worldview by Herman Bavinck (1854-1921).