This address was presented at the 2017 annual gathering of Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ in Minneapolis to lay out the theological basis for a panel discussion on Luther's doctrine of two kingdoms. It's posted here at the request of Deborah Lunde who so graciously asked for a copy.
Luther’s thinking about God’s work in two kingdoms is something I swim around in daily. In my vocation at Grand View University, I operate within two realms. I have a letter of call from the church to serve as a pastor, one of its public proclaimers of the gospel, and to function in that capacity at our little college of the church in Des Moines. That means it’s my business to have the gospel of Jesus Christ ever at the ready when the right moment, the kairos, of a sinner with ears to hear presents itself. At the same time, I’m also what my doctoral advisor used to call a “fully-tenured old fart professor.” I have a yearly contract I sign every spring to teach a certain number of courses, engage in the shared governance of the university, and do my dangedest to make some learning happen in my relationships with my students. In the eyes of the Internal Revenue Service and Social Security, the two aspects of my vocation are separate. But because of Luther’s doctrine of God’s two realms, I know that, in spite of an American first-glance separation of church and state, both the spiritual and the secular realms operate within the 200-odd pounds of flesh and bone that walks into the classroom each day.
We could spend hours looking at how this doctrine connects with and parallels law and gospel, fearing and loving God, the Commandments and Lord’s Prayer, and all kinds of other theological categories Luther played with in the course of his life and career. But I want to come at our two kingdoms through what Luther said about you: who you are, what makes you tick, and how God pulls you into Christ’s mercy. In 1520, after Luther had received the pope’s bull of condemnation and while he waited the 60 days for excommunication to go into effect, he wrote On the Freedom of a Christian, one of four great treatises published that year. In his little essay, Luther declared that there are two people inside you: the old, outer you of the body (that is, the you who walks around in the kingdom on the left), and the new, inner you of the spirit who dwells securely in the kingdom of heaven that Jesus declared was at hand.
The old you functions under the structures of creation, the demands of relationships, and the very commands of God. You face this each day as you work to pay the bills, accomplish job tasks, raise kids, gather funds for retirement, pay taxes, and try to be a beacon of peace and order and security in this crazy, broken world. On the surface, it seems like we’re pretty much on our own out here in left field where Dan Gladden once played with the Minnesota Twins. Here in the kingdom on the left it seems like everything runs according to Newtonian physics: for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction or, in practical terms, you get what you pay for. We become these old outer people of the flesh because, in spite of all our efforts life in this realm seems so insecure. We’re little better off than bees in their hives who buzz around doing their routine pollen-collecting work with little worry until a windshield hits ‘em and they’re gone. We sinners from the sinestral realm must make life work on our own powers.
Luther called this coming under the demand for proper righteousness. And because there’s no mercy here, only demands for justice, we can say the kingdom on the left is the realm where Christ is not preached. Apart from Christ, we can only approach God’s judgment seat where we’ll be declared wanting. What’s more, in this kingdom God is undiscoverable. Sure God may be omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent, but in this realm the psalmist’s declaration that God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love looks pretty sketchy. Have you watched the news lately? Disasters, shootings, disease, and Kardashians without end. This is the realm where Luther said God who allows all this could hardly be distinguished from the devil. How are we ever to see God present in the way God wants to be known – as God “for you”?
But in the dextral realm, the kingdom on the right, this is where you can be found as the new, inner person of the Spirit, for this is the realm where Christ is preached. This is the territory chartered as the land of mercy for us godless sinners. Here Newton and philosophy and psychology and sociology and politics are set aside, for there is only one around whom everything revolves. This kingdom has abandoned the project of getting your act together. It sees your attempts at progress and commitment as irrelevant. It regards your gain as loss and your loss as gain, because this is where your power has ended and Christ’s has begun. No longer is active proper righteousness demanded of you, but, as Luther discovered 500 years ago, righteousness and sanctification in this realm are given as gracious gift. You can’t even say it’s offered for you to assent to here. This is a realm where Christ bends from the cross to your ear to say, “You’re mine,” where he reaches into your grave to say, “Get up,” and where the gospel says, “Believe this,” and it’s already done for you. When this justifying faith happens to you, that new you is created and sustained and draped with eternal life before your tomb can even be carved or your grave clothes laid out for you.
For Luther, we Christians live our lives between these two realms. We know well the demands of the left. I have mid-term grades due at noon today, and boy has that last week been a grading marathon that just about killed me. I’ve had to obey speed limits coming up I-35 from Iowa. And, sadly, I even had to put on clothes to appear before you today. It all chafes on the independence and autonomy of the old person in me. I want to ask, “Really, God? This is how you’re going to work it?” But the new person of faith stands within the gospel’s intruding promise in the world and begins to see things differently
Because I don’t have to justify myself, I can let go of my insufferable neediness. I can let go of my continual desire for approval. I can see my neighbor not as threat or competition but as gift. And I can see everything in the kingdom on the left in a new way: as masks God wears to maintain and sustain the creation made as a gift and blessing. Not only do I see God’s hand behind Minnesota maples in the Iron Range turning yellow, orange, and red and behind live oaks spreading their gnarled boughs in New Braunfels, Texas, in faith I can also see God’s hand killing and making alive in disasters and disease. To be in the world but not of it is not to veer away from the world, which, after all, is God’s good creation. Instead, it means we inhabit the kingdom on the left with eyes from the kingdom on the right. Thus, this awful season of category 5 hurricanes, my sister’s lung cancer, my bee allergy that could kill me at any moment, and whatever crosses you bear today are places not where God abandons us but moments where the old sinner in us loses power and is forced to turn to God’s mercy seat.
Where faith enters into the simul iustus et peccator mix of our lives, I can begin to see that my letter of call and my yearly contract are both places God is active through me. My custodian Jose’s daily round of toilet-cleaning is no less holy than your Sunday morning pew-sitting and pulpit-proclaiming, for both realms belong to God. For you to see God active in both realms as wonderful counselor, heavenly father, good shepherd, bread of life, or Lord of Lords, Luther says in Freedom of a Christian only one thing is needed: the word of God.
And if God is going to be the God of two real kingdoms and not just one imaginary religious and pious one, then what our calling is, brothers and sisters, is to deliver the word like Luther at Worms, to be the leading edge of the gospel’s entry by means of our work, work, and witness.so that both kingdoms are realms of Christ preached, mercy declared, and the Lord’s benefits delivered. Short of that we will continue to see through a glass dimly. Our engagement with the world will be befogged. Our vision for the church’s mission will look the blind man’s “trees walking around,” in Mark 8. And the world will remain mired in demands, enslaved by its so-called free will, and trapped in its graves of self-help, therapies, politics, power, and every ism around you. Luther’s two kingdoms doctrine is a call to action. Now. Today. In your lives.