We can’t tell the story of the Bible in all its fullness without talking about the kingdom. Not only does Jesus make the kingdom a central theme in his teaching, we also see the importance of the kingdom in Acts and in Paul. And the whole concept, of course, has its roots in the Old Testament, in God’s kingship over his people and in Israel’s own kingly office. In other words, the kingdom–predicted, coming, and already here–is essential to the storyline of Scripture.
But the kingdom of God is not just one thing in the Bible. We will obscure the storyline of Scripture more than illuminate it if we fail to make distinctions in our kingdom language. Likewise, we can miss the big story of what God means to do in our world if we misunderstand how the different aspects of the kingdom fit together.
In classic Reformed theology, Christ’s kingdom is distinguished in three ways.
First, there is the regnum potentiae, the kingdom of power. This is the dominion of Jesus Christ over the universe, the providential and judicial administration of all things which Christ exercises by virtue of being the eternal Son of God.
Second, we can speak of the regnum gratiae, the kingdom of grace. This refers to Christ’s reign over his saved people, the spiritual kingship which Christ exercises by virtue of being our Mediator and the head of the church.
Finally, there is the regnum gloriae, the kingdom of glory. This is Christ’s dominion in the age to come. The kingdom of glory is the kingdom of grace made perfect and complete.
Of course, in one sense Christ’s kingdom is one and only one. We should not think of these distinctions crassly as three different nations. But the distinctions are important. As God, Christ rules over the kingdom of power, to which all creatures belong. As Mediator, he rules over the kingdom of grace on earth, to which the elect belong. And as Conqueror, he rules over the kingdom of glory in heaven, to which angels and the redeemed belong. To be sure, there is not one square inch in all the universe about which Christ does not cry out, “This is mine!” And yet, Christ does not reign over every square inch in the same way.
Telling the Right Story
One reason for emphasizing these distinctions is to make sure that we are telling the right story when it comes to the kingdom. In explaining the petition “thy kingdom come,” the Westminster Larger Catechism tells us to “pray that the kingdom of sin and Satan may be destroyed, the gospel propagated throughout the world . . .the church furnished with all gospel officers and ordinances . . .that the ordinances of Christ may be purely dispensed, and made effectual to the converting of those that are yet in their sins, and the confirming, comforting, and building up those that are already converted: that Christ would rule in our hearts here, and hasten the time of his second coming, and our reigning with him forever” (Q/A 191). The Catechism gives us a magnificent prayer for the growth, strength, and health of the church.
But that’s not the end of the answer. Here’s the last line of WLC 191: “and that [Christ] would be pleased so to exercise the kingdom of his power in all the world, as may best conduce to these ends.” Notice the gospel-centered logic of the Larger Catechism. Christ rules over all things for the good of the church. The kingdom of power is subservient to the kingdom of grace (giving way to the kingdom of glory), not the other way around.
This means the kingdom story we are telling is not the story of Christ saving his people so that they might change the world, transform the culture, or reclaim a nation. Instead, the story is of Christ so ruling over the nations of the world that the church might be built up. To be sure, we will be salt and light in a dark and decaying world, but the prayer the Westminster divines would have us pray is for God to so rule over the world for the sake of the church. As J. G. Vos observes in his commentary on the Larger Catechism, “the kingdom of power is not an end in itself, but a means to the furtherance of the kingdom of grace and the hastening of the kingdom of glory.” We pray, then, for the success of the kingdom of power, but to the end that the kingdom of grace may flourish and the kingdom of glory may be brought near.