Don Carson, kingdom, ethics and individual salvation

Read time: 5 minutes

I managed to get an internet connection on the bus between Antakya (Antioch on the Orontes) and Tarsus and followed a link from Michael Bird to a Themelios article by Don Carson on “Kingdom, Ethics, and Individual Salvation”, republished on the Gospel Coalition site. It doesn’t seem an inappropriate theme to reflect on as we ride in air-conditioned comfort in the footsteps of Paul.

Carson is responding to a number of different views on the kingdom of God advanced in recent years that diverge from “traditional evangelicalism and traditional Reformed thought”. Most of them are attempts to reintroduce a social and ethical dimension to the church’s understanding of the kingdom of God, either alongside or in displacement of a supposedly Pauline focus on individual salvation. As Carson puts it:

…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).

Carson allows that there is some truth in these various proposals but he thinks that “in each case there is something either reductionistic about the proposal or just plain exegetically wrong or both”. He picks a few specific holes in them and then attempts to show how reductionist they are by outlining a number of ways in which “kingdom” is used in the New Testament. I have conflated some of them:

  • In many instances the kingdom of God is “virtually coextensive with God’s sovereignty” over all people and all things. But it may also constitute “that subset of God’s total reign under which there is acceptance with God and eternal life”. The kingdom is something that we have to enter. “One is either in the kingdom or one is not.”
  • The kingdom is often presented in the Gospels as something that is either in the process of coming or will come in the future, but the emphasis is on it coming progressively, like seed sown in different soils or yeast transforming dough, not in a great “climactic burst” as some Jews expected.
  • At any particularly moment the coming or dawning kingdom includes both wheat and weeds, which Carson thinks is another way of stating the first point.
  • In the New Testament the kingdom of God increasingly becomes the kingdom of Christ. In particular, Jesus becomes king by virtue of his resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of God. “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.”
  • Matthew’s preferred phrase “kingdom of heaven” suggests a slightly different perspective: kingdom viewed “a little more focally from heaven’s vantage point”.
  • There is occasionally an ethical dimension to kingdom, but ‘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’.

This seems to me a typically confused and contradictory theological account of the kingdom of God as it is presented to us in the New Testament. It is confused and contradictory for the simple reason that it fails to reckon with the historical frame both of Jesus’ message to Israel and of Paul’s (and John the Seer’s) message to the pagan world. If we accept that in Jewish thought the reign of God signifies a political reality in the sense that it speaks of God dealing decisively with his people in history and especially in relation to the nations, I think we can construct a much more coherent account of the New Testament concept.

  • Kingdom is fundamentally a future event from the perspective of the New Testament. Any experience or realization of kingdom in the present of Jesus’ followers or of the early churches should be understood as in some way or other an anticipation of or pointer towards the kingdom to come. It is only this in anticipatory or prophetic sense that we may talk about the kingdom in the first century being both “now and not yet”.
  • The coming of the kingdom of God is portrayed as a crisis for the communities addressed. It is expected within a foreseeable future. From Jesus’ point of view this crisis will consist in the catastrophe of judgment on Jerusalem and the temple, by which the “Son of Man” will be publicly vindicated. From the point of view of the apostles, this will be part of a much bigger crisis involving, finally, judgment on the Greek-Roman oikoumenē or empire.
  • The coming of the kingdom of God will be the moment when YHWH acts sovereignly in history to judge, first, his people, and secondly, the nations. But that coming or moment will have lasting consequences both for God’s people and for the nations.
  • The authority to judge and rule, as Carson notes, was given to Jesus following his resurrection. What follows the moment of the coming of the kingdom of God, therefore, is the reign of Christ (and the martyrs) throughout the coming ages of human history, until the last enemy, death, is defeated.
  • In his fascinating book Constantinople: The Last Great Siege 1453, which I have been reading en route, Roger Crowley quotes the inscription on the column of Constantine the Great in Constantinople: “O Christ, ruler and master of the world, to You now I dedicate this subject city, and the sceptres and the might of Rome.” That, to my mind, is the coming of the kingdom of Christ.
  • Kingdom is not incidentally ethical, as Carson rather implies. It is thoroughly ethical but not in the manner supposed by many in the “emerging church” and others who regard it as a synonym and pretext for social justice work. The coming of the kingdom of God means judgment on Israel because of sin and on the Greek-Roman world because of sin.
  • Kingdom is not new creation. The coming of the kingdom of God is the moment of judgment on and restoration of God’s new creation people; and the kingdom of Christ is then the means by which the integrity of that people is preserved until all sin, all opposition, and the last enemy, death, are defeated. At that point there will be a new heaven and a new earth, and there will be no further need for kingdom, so Jesus will hand back the right to rule to God the Father, so that “God may be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:25-28).

Daniel, I sympathize with the author’s argument and agree with much of it, not least his complaint that Carson’s article makes kingdom very difficult to understand. But I don’t think it works to expound kingdom directly in creational or universal terms. Kingdom in the New Testament has reference to Israel’s story, not to humanity’s story. It looks to me as though Horne has tried to take a short cut between Jesus as Son of Man (rightly understood in relation to a community) and humanity’s dominion over creation, by passing the all-important narrative about Israel. 

peter wilkinson | Sat, 08/17/2013 - 17:53 | Permalink

The historical frame, as Carson sees it, is summed up here:

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.

Apart from the omitting your own viewpoint on kingdom, Andrew, a fairly major omission, I thought Carson was summing things up historically and coherently, with possibly another major exception.

Carson glances at Matthew 6:10, continuing an association with “certain virtues or conduct (e.g., Matt 5:3, 8), even with righteousness” which he has just mentioned.  He then asks: “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?”, but immediately reverts to its interpretation as having to do with ethics: “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”.

It’s strange that Carson does not mention, unless I have overlooked it, an on-going association of the kingdom with God’s supernatural, transcendent power, which I’d have thought has been and continues to be a major current interpretation of its activity, anticipating a yet to come consummation, but changing people, societies and cultures where it operates.

None of this has to do with your own interpretation of kingdom though, which tends to associate the word with the political expression of God’s will, à la inscription of Constantine on his column in Constantinople. As I’ll be there in October, following in your wake, as it were, I’ll give it careful attention, and ruminate on its significance. (Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ comes to mind). If it’s still there, that is.

I agree that the Spirit of God—which I presume is what you mean by “God’s supernatural, transcendent power”—is essential for the definition and experience of the people whose king is Christ. But how do you see the link between kingdom and the Spirit appearing in the New Testament? And what basis is there for the view that the Spirit changes societies and cultures?


Ill take a quick thought/shot at this. I’ll apologize now for not using lots of bible verses and assume that the flow works and we are familiar with the story. 

Andrew, you asked, “But how do you see the link between kingdom and the Spirit appearing in the New Testament?”

At the end of Luke they say that they were hoping Jesus was the one that was going to redeem Israel. Then Jesus opens their eyes. Then they have a 40 day bible study with the master bible teacher on The Kingdom. 40 days. Thats it. The Kingdom. Then Jesus tells them to stay in Jerusalem and wait for the Spirit. They get all xcited and ask if the time has come to restore the Kingdom to Israel. Jesus, contrary to what every commentary seems to say, does not rebuke them but says that knowing the time is not the issue. Just go and wait. Because when the Spirit comes it will give them power to be His witnesses to the whole world. And when the Spirit comes they started quoting Joel, which I think was because the master bible teacher had taught them ALLLLLLLLL about the Kingdom for 40 days so they were all caught up on the prophecies. So then…

“And what basis is there for the view that the Spirit changes societies and cultures”

Well, the whole world was preached to, paul says this like 3 times, becuase the Spirit enabled them to, or at the very least allowed for Stephen to deliver one amazing speech, and the worlds societies and cultures were changed. For proof of this I would recommend: The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom 



Darren, thank you for your excellent response!

1. So the connection between Spirit and kingdom is that the Spirit empowers the disciples to do what Jesus had done—that is, proclaim the coming of the kingdom to Israel. That is not quite what Peter had in mind, it seems to me, when he suggested that there is an “on-going association of the kingdom with God’s supernatural, transcendent power”. Matthew 12:28 should also be considered: “But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” But I still suspect that this work of the Spirit in casting out demons is a prophetic pointer to the coming kingdom of God rather than a direct expression of it. Apart from this, I’m not sure I can think of anywhere else where divine sovereignty is said to be exercised through the Spirit.

2. Well, I can hardly argue with that—though Peter might. But isn’t it actually more accurate to say that the Spirit changed God’s people and the preaching and witness of God’s people changed the pagan oikoumenē? In other words, the Spirit indirectly, rather than directly, “changes societies and cultures”.

I’ve only just noticed this.

I take “God’s transcendent supernatural power”, which is indeed what is meant by the Spirit of God, as the very essence of God’s expression of the kingdom.

It is described in individual verses, such as Matthew 12:28, where demon expulsion is directly related to the operation of the kingdom. In other words, without the manifestation of the Spirit, there would be no demon expulsion. The Spirit is the power which puts into effect God’s authority through Jesus, from his baptism onwards. This was true of OT experience: that power came when the anointing of the Spirit took place. When Jesus poured out the Spirit at Pentecost, it was available to all — Acts 2:38-39, and came to stay.

The gospel of the kingdom, which Jesus came to proclaim, is the appearance in many different forms of God’s power being expressed through the agency of the Spirit. This receives its climactic and determinative expression at Pentecost, with the outpouring of the Spirit being immediately followed by the proclamation of Jesus as Lord, or King. Although the word ‘kingdom’ is not used in Peter’s sermon, it’s quite clear that we are looking at a royal enthronement, and the executive power of that enthronement being the outpouring of the Spirit.

The immediate consequence of the enthronement/Spirit outpouring/proclamation was the conversion of the 3,000. The on-going consequences were the effects of this royal proclamation across Asia and Europe in the rest of Acts.

How does the Spirit change cultures and societies? It’s generally the pattern that major reformations of society followed significant mass movements which had their origin in Spirit encounters. In Ephesus, this was seen in the impact of the Spirit empowered proclamation of Paul on the worship of Diana. John Wesley had his baptism in the Spirit (not to be confused with the “heart strangely warmed” experience which is more well known). The consequence for society is well known and undisputed. One could say the same for the Quaker movement in its origins in the 17th century and consequences throughout the 19th century especially. One could look at Evan Roberts and the Welsh revival of 1904, transforming South Wales especially, beginning and continuing in spectacular Spirit encounters which are well documented. In fact round the world there are so many accounts of Spirit encounters leading to society and culture changes that the connection between Spirit and change in societies and cultures is beyond doubt.

Kent Haley | Tue, 08/20/2013 - 02:23 | Permalink

I don’t quite get your last bullet point: If Christ does not hand over the kingdom to God until sin and death are defeated, are you saying that we are still in the kingdom presently, since these things have not yet been defeated? I’ve always understood you to say that the kingdom is in the past from our post-christendom perspective.  


Kent, my argument is that the coming of the kingdom refers to the series of political-religious events, anticipated in the death and resurrection of Jesus, by which YHWH “judged” first his own people and then the nations. It refers to the process by which the ancient world was turned upside down, so that God’s people became the tail and not the head. That series of events or historical process is now in the past, from our post-Christendom perspective, as you say. But it has left a new state of affairs in place: YHWH has given authority to his Son to rule as king throughout the coming ages, above all other powers, above all enemies. What kingdom means in this “everlasting” sense, I think, is that it is now Jesus who does for his people what Israel’s king was supposed to do: he rules over them and he defends them against their enemies—until the last enemy, death, is defeated, and there is no longer any need for a king.