In an earlier article on the topic of Christ’s kingship in all of life, I offered a summary of what today is known as “the two-kingdom/natural law” (2KNL) perspective. Proponents of this perspective are leery of the idea that Christ’s work of redemption has direct implications for the way believers fulfill their calling or vocation in every area of human life. One of the most frequent claims of 2KNL advocates is that there is nothing distinctively Christian about the way believers carry out their callings in the common kingdom. We may speak of the common callings of “butchers, bakers, and candlestickmakers,” for example, but we should not regard the work of believers in these callings as an uncommon service that advances the interests of Christ’s redemptive kingdom.
Rather than directly refuting the 2KNL rejection of the distinctive calling of believers to acknowledge the kingship of Jesus Christ in all of life, I want in this and subsequent articles to defend the thesis that Christians are called to a transformed life of obedience to Christ in every area of human life, whether in the home, the workplace, the school, science, culture, the arts, and the like. My thesis is that we may properly speak of a distinctively Christian approach to the calling of believers in all of their respective vocations, whether as “butchers, bakers, or candlestickmakers,” to use an old and no doubt, outdated in some respects expression.2
The case I would offer for my thesis derives from four themes that belong to a biblical understanding of the Christian life in the world: (1) the biblical view of the redemptive work of Christ, which involves nothing less than the renewal and perfection of human life within the created order; (2) the believer’s participation in Christ’s threefold office of prophet, priest, and king; (3) the Christian life as a Spirit-authored life of “good works”; and (4) the “vocation” that Christians perform in their work and labor under the rule of Christ. When each of these themes is biblically understood, they offer a compelling case for viewing all of the Christian’s life as grateful obedience under the lordship of Christ (cf. Matt. 28:16–20). In this article, I will take up the first of them.
The Relation Between Creation and Redemption
Perhaps the most important question that needs to be addressed, when considering whether Christians are called to serve the Lord Jesus Christ in their daily callings, is how Christ’s work of redemption is related to the doctrine of creation. If redemption restores the brokenness of life in God’s creation, and if grace perfects but does not displace the natural order, the work of redemption has important implications for life in God’s world. However, if redemption has no direct connection with the original purposes of God for human life, then this too will have considerable consequences for the way we view our calling as Christians.
The story that is told in Scripture is best read as a story that recounts the great works of the triune God, first as the Creator of all things and then as the Redeemer or Re-Creator who reverses all the effects of the creature’s sinful rebellion against Him. The big story the meta-narrative of Scripture as it is sometimes described takes place in four dramatic stages or movements: first, the creation of the heavens and the earth, which God declared to be good or pleasing to Him in its original state of integrity; second, the introduction of sin and evil into God’s good creation, first within the heavenly realm of angelic beings, and second within the human race through the fall and disobedience of our first parents, and of Adam in particular as the covenant head of the human race; third, the redemption or restoration of the human race by means of the covenant of grace whose Mediator is Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, the “last” or “second” Adam (Rom. 5; 1 Cor. 15); and fourth, the consummation of God’s eternal kingdom in the new heavens and earth, which occurs with Christ’s coming at the end of the present age. In short, the storyline of the Scriptures is commonly described as that of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation.3
Within the framework of this story, how are we to understand the relation between creation and redemption?
Against the dark backdrop of the brokenness of sinful human life and the divine curse upon the created order itself, the biblical narrative primarily recounts the story of triune God’s work of redemption through Jesus Christ. At the consummation of God’s work of redemption in Christ, which will not occur until Christ returns at the end of this present age, the redemptive work of God will realize God’s good purposes for the creation, and human life within the creation, in the “new heavens and earth” in which all things will be made new. In the consummation, the original end of God’s purposes in creation, particularly in the creation of human beings after His image to glorify Him and tend the creation under His lordship, will be achieved.
In the work of redemption, therefore, God is making all things new, but He is not making all new things. Because God is making all things new, not discarding but renewing the work of His hands, the calling of believers to renewed obedience in all of life is a beginning of the everlasting life that belongs to the new creation. As those who are inwardly renewed already and indwelt of Christ’s Spirit (2 Cor. 5:5), believers make a beginning of the kind of life that will be theirs in perfection in the age to come (2 Cor. 4:16ff.). In keeping with the literal meaning of the term “redemption,” God aims to liberate His people and the creation itself from the tyranny of the devil and the ravages of sinful disobedience. Redemption regains what was lost through the fall and brings the whole of creation to its God-appointed destiny.
In Christ, what was lost through Adam’s sin, namely, fellowship with God, is granted to a new humanity God’s elect people, comprised of Jews and Gentiles alike, and drawn from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation. Through Christ’s redemptive work, all believers enjoy the grace of free acceptance with God and the beginnings of their full restoration after the image of God. In this way, the destiny of the human race, which was lost or forfeited through Adam’s disobedience, is realized for a new humanity in Christ.
But that is not all. Just as the first Adam was created from the dust of the ground and placed in the garden of Paradise, so the new humanity in Christ will ultimately be fitted for life in communion with God in a renewed heavens and earth. Accordingly, the work of redemption in Christ includes both the redemption of a new humanity and the re-creation of an entirely renewed world, one in which righteousness dwells and every remainder of the curse has been vanquished (Rom. 8:18–25; 2 Peter 3:11–13). Redemption in Christ involves nothing less than the realization of the goal of creation itself: the new heavens and earth will be a renewed creation-temple where God enjoys communion or fellowship with the whole company of the elect, the new humanity in Christ, and all of the life of the redeemed people of God serves one great purpose of glorifying God and enjoying Him forever. Paradise lost is become paradise regained, but now in consummate glory (Rev. 20–22).
The Kingdom of God
The biblical understanding of the relation between creation and redemption can be illumined in terms of the doctrine of the kingdom of God. According to the Scriptures, before the fall into sin, the whole world and its inhabitants comprised the realm over which the King of creation reigned. Though good and devoid of any rebellion against God’s kingly rule, the world and the human race were not yet perfected or glorified. The calling of God’s image-bearers to rule the world under God’s authority, and to be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth (Gen. 1:26–27) was not yet fulfilled. Since the fall into sin through Adam, the covenant head of the human race, God did not relinquish His kingdom but immediately commenced the great work of gathering to Himself a new humanity through Jesus Christ, the last Adam, who is the head of the new humanity (Gen. 3:15; Rom. 5; 1 Cor. 15).
The kingdom of God has now become the kingdom of His Son, Jesus Christ, whom God appointed heir of all things and through whom the power of sin and death will be finally vanquished. Sin in all its expressions has broken and ruined what God originally created good. Human life and culture evidence in all sorts of ways that the world is “not the way it’s supposed to be.”4 But in and through Jesus Christ, God is making all things new restraining sin, restoring fallen sinners to fellowship with Himself, forgiving sins, healing diseases, mending what was broken, renewing what was in disrepair, reiterating the obligations of obedience stipulated in His holy law, and so on.
Thus, the story of redemption unfolds in Scripture as a thoroughgoing kingdom project: God redeems for Himself a new people in Christ, the last Adam, and thereby reasserts His kingship over the human race with a view to the ultimate triumph of His kingdom in the consummation at the end of this present age. God’s work of redemption accomplishes in Christ what was forfeited in Adam: the granting of unbreakable and perfected communion with God in the context of a renewed creation.
By contrast to the biblical understanding, the lack of integration between creation and redemption in the 2KNL paradigm is evident in its failure to link the renewal/resurrection of the believer’s body with the renewal/resurrection of the creation itself.5 In the scriptural view of the future consummation of God’s work of redemption, the resurrection of the body of believers is paralleled by a renewal of the whole creation. Just as the first Adam’s destiny was linked to his life in the body within the creation, so the destiny of those who belong to the last Adam is linked to their everlasting life in renewed bodies within a sanctified creation. The same kind of continuity and discontinuity between the present and the future resurrection body of believers obtains as well between the present creation and its future cleansing. The radical discontinuity that the two kingdoms paradigm posits between the present state of the world and the world to come does not appear to do justice to this element of scriptural teaching.
There are two passages in Scripture that bear witness in a clear way to the parallel between the resurrection of believers and the renewal of the whole creation. These passages also confirm that the new heavens and the new earth will not be radically discontinuous with the present state of the creation.
The first of these passages is Romans 8:18–25. In this passage, the apostle Paul emphasizes three points. First, we are reminded that sin has adversely affected not only the human race but also the whole creation. As the apostle expresses it, the creation has been subjected to “futility,” to “vanity” or “pointlessness,” because of the sinful rebellion of God’s image-bearers. Although creation has not become unrelievedly evil, sin has brought corruption to the entirety of God’s handiwork. The fabric of creation has been torn and broken, corresponding to the humility and weakness that now affect the human body (1 Cor. 15; Phil. 3:21).
Second, the redemption for which the children of God eagerly wait and the redemption of the creation itself are intimately connected. Individual eschatology and general eschatology are so joined together that what is true for believers holds true for creation. When the children of God are revealed in glory and freedom, a similar glory and freedom will be granted to creation. Its present corruption and distortion will be removed. Its torn fabric will be mended. Remarkably, the language describing the restoration of creation corresponds exactly to the language describing the restoration of the children of God. The same process of renewal that will transform the believers’ present bodies of humiliation into bodies of glory will transform the creation itself.
And third, the metaphor of childbirth suggests that the transformation of the creation will be in substantial continuity with its present state. The creation groans, according to this passage, like a woman in childbirth prior to the delivery of her child. So the new creation, born of the old, will bear a resemblance and similarity to the original. To suggest that the new creation will be radically other than the former creation would violate the clear implication of this passage.
The second passage of special importance on this question is 2 Peter 3:5–13, in which the apostle Peter answers mockers who conclude that the promise of Christ’s coming is untrue. The gist of Peter’s answer to these mockers is clear: the Lord will indeed fulfill His promise, but in His own time and in accord with His desire to grant all an opportunity for repentance. In His patience and mercy, the world continues so that the gospel might be preached and the day of salvation prolonged. No one, however, should misjudge the Lord’s patience and conclude that the day of His coming will not arrive. Two features of this passage speak about the present and future state of creation.
First, Peter compares the destruction of the world in the great flood with the future destruction of the world at the “‘day of God” (2 Peter 3:6–7, 10–12). When God’s judgment fell upon the world at the time of the flood, the world was destroyed only in the sense that its inhabitants were subjected to judgment and the earth cleansed of wickedness.
And second, imagery drawn from the field of metallurgy (purifying of metal) suggests a process of refinement, but not of utter annihilation. The language of this passage suggests a process by which the present creation is refined and left in a state of pristine purity. Just as the refiner’s fire is used to produce the highest and purest grade of gold or silver, so the refining fire of God’s judging this sin-cursed creation will yield a holy and pure heavens and earth.
Both of these passages confirm that God’s powerful and redemptive work will involve the renewal of all things. This creation will undergo a sanctifying process, and all of God’s renewed creation-temple will be holy unto the Lord (Zech. 14:20–21), suitable for His dwelling with His people and their service to Him.
By comparison with this biblical view, the 2KNL perspective implies a much greater discontinuity between the present creation and the world to come. In the words of one advocate of this perspective, “[t]he New Testament teaches that the natural order as it now exists will come to a radical end and that the products of human culture will perish along with the natural order.”6 Because the present world will be completely destroyed with all of its cultural artifacts and activities, the believer’s life in the so-called common kingdom has no lasting value. The believer’s calling in the common kingdom is not a distinctively Christian calling and is of little or no significance for the life to come. When Christ returns, the present creation, together with all that belongs to the common kingdom, will be cataclysmically and utterly destroyed. Though believers will enjoy the resurrection/renewal of their bodies in the life to come, there will be no corresponding resurrection/renewal of the creation.7 Grace adds to nature but does not perfect it.
Contrary to this dualistic view of Christ’s mediatorial rule, the Scriptures typically identify Christ’s present kingship as a comprehensive, all-inclusive kingship, in which His rule over all things is administered in the interest of His purposes of redemption. Even the title “Christ,” which refers to His anointing to a threefold office as prophet, priest, and king, is used inclusively to designate the way He simultaneously sustains and governs all things in order to effect His work of redemption. When Christ gives the Great Commission to the church, He declares that “all authority in heaven and on earth” belongs to Him. As the king over all, He claims the nations as His rightful inheritance (cf. Ps. 2). When the apostle Paul speaks of Christ’s kingship, he speaks of the one Mediator who is the “head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:22).
The work of reconciliation that Christ accomplishes aims to reunite all things, whether in heaven or on earth, under His lordship (Eph. 1:8–10). The same Christ who is the “firstborn of all creation,” and through whom all things were created, is the one who through His work of redemption wills to be “pre-eminent” in all things (Col. 1:15–20). According to the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, the great chapter on the resurrection of Christ, the present reign of Christ is one that involves a work of subjecting all His enemies under His feet, including the “last enemy,” death itself (1 Cor. 15:25–28 ). Christ is the Son of God, who God appointed “the heir all things, through whom also he created the world” (Heb. 1:2). 1. In this and in several subsequent articles, I am presenting, with permission of the editors, a slightly revised version of an article published in Mid-America Journal of Theology 25 (2014). 2. The expression may be outdated, but it is interesting to me that these vocations are still common today. In the local church of which I am a member, we have a butcher who works at a local grocery chain. We also have sales persons who work at a local furniture store. And while I am thinking of it, a cousin of mine is the owner of a family bakery! 3. For more comprehensive treatments of the relation between creation and redemption that support my summary, see Albert M. Wolters, Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965); Cornelius Plantinga Jr., Engaging God’s World: A Christian Vision of Faith, Learning, and Living (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002); and Michael Green and Craig Bartholomew, Living at the Crossroads: An Introduction to Christian Worldview (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008). 4. The phrase derives from the title of a book on the doctrine of sin by Cornelius Plantinga Jr. (Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995]). 5. For a more extended treatment of this question, see Cornelis P. Venema, The Promise of the Future (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2000), 456–68; and John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955), 178–81. 6. David Vandrunen, Living in God’s Two Kingdoms: A Biblical Vision for Christianity and Culture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 64. 7. Vandrunen, Living in God’s Two Kingdoms, 66: “Our earthly bodies are the only part of the present world that Scripture says will be transformed and taken up into the world-to-come.”
Dr. Cornelis P. Venema is the president of Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, IN. He is a contributing editor to The Outlook.