God’s Two Sustaining Hands

Pray. Pay. Obey. Pray for your leaders. Pay your taxes. Obey the laws. For many of the German Lutheran peasants who emigrated to America, this pretty much summed up their responsibilities as citizens. They had little experience in how to live in a participatory democracy when they started out their new lives in America (although it might be noted that Luther did not refrain from giving advice to the princes and rulers of his day—but that’s a topic for another day). And on top of that, when WWI and WWII came along, those who were not soldiers overseas supported America by buying war bonds and keeping their heads down.

Lutherans have typically viewed their life of citizenship within the framework of the distinction between the two realms. God governs civil affairs in the left hand realm through the law, and governs the church (gathering of believers) through the gospel. Melanchthon brings this out clearly in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article 16. The spiritual realm is about the Gospel. The Gospel is not about establishing new laws in God’s left hand realm. And so the Apology also assures Emperor Charles V that he can have no better citizens than Lutherans, for Lutherans unlike others (Anabaptists, monks, etc.) do not seek to withdraw from participation in the world but readily enter it as the realm in which they live our their lives.

Lutherans frequently describe church and state issues using the “Two Kingdoms” distinction: God’s reign is active both in the church (Kingdom of the right hand) and in the world (Kingdom of the left hand). However, we must be careful not to confuse the two realms/reigns distinction with the American separation of church and state. They are not identical. For Lutherans, the church (as an “association of external ties”) also exists in the left hand realm,  the realm of the wider human society. Here the church uses, as an institution or organization in the left-handed realm, the law for the regulation of its affairs. But in the right hand realm, where it lives from the Word and through the Word, it exists as a gathering of believers. In the left hand realm it manifests itself as an organization that abides by the laws of incorporation and governance.

Yet I wonder if sometimes the distinction between the two realms has been two narrowly construed, especially, when considering God’s left-hand realm. If we think of the left hand realm primarily or even exclusively in terms of the first use of the law, we will think of this realm as dealing primarily with the restraint of destructive human behavior. However, we might then view God’s left hand reign as primarily negative He reigns solely as judge, as punisher. When we think this way, we will tend to think of government as a burdensome thing, as more a necessary evil than an honorable form of service. This can lead to an unhealthy view of the vocation of service to society through government. For who would want to get their hands dirty with “the government” when we can serve God in the church and focus our work exclusively on the Gospel? To put it personally, how many of us would encourage our children to pursue a life in politics? Do we reflexively regard the left hand realm as “secular” and the right hand realm as “spiritual,” which translates into our our American context as the view government is bad and a threat to Christian values? This may indeed occur, as the history of the church has unfortunately, on occasion, demonstrated. But it is not the case that God has abandoned government; he may indeed, and often has, exercised his left-hand reign through good government.

What if we broadened the framework in which we view our two realms distinction? Where the terms “left hand” and “right hand” realms are a bit abstract, we have in our theology the biblical/creedal framework of “creation” and “redemption.” If we think of the “left hand realm” as part of God’s creation activity, it might acquire more positive connotations and images for us that expand our thinking beyond only the restraining of sin to include also the positive activities of preserving, promoting, and supporting of creation and creaturely life within it. Consider two points.

First, if we think of the left hand realm of God’s rule in terms of creation, it immediately prompts us to expand our imagination beyond only a passive approach to government. Luther’s Small Catechism models this. The second half of the explanation to the first article of the creed indeed focuses on the protecting, guarding, and defending of life. But the first half of the same  explanation to the first article embraces the positive side of God giving, providing, and supporting of creation and creaturely life. In other words, God rules creation so that life within creation may flourish in spite of the sin and destruction that we have brought to it. Amazingly, God continues to bless his creation by bringing forth new life ever day despite our society’s best efforts to destroy it. And how does he do it? Through his creatures. This bring us to one of my favorite texts in the Large Catechism. Creatures are the hands, instruments, and means through which God bestows all blessings… (LC I, 26). So God is at work restraining sin and keeping sinful creatures from destroying life even as he is at work in giving, providing, and sustaining that life. And so government has a role in attending to the well-being of creation and its citizens. This is not to say that government always gets it right any more than parents or employees always get it right. But it is all the more remarkable that God is willing to work through creatures—even sinful creatures—to carry out his creative work!

Second, if we see our lives within that larger framework of creation, might we see a more positive role for our lives in the various arenas of creation—including a life of citizenship and work in government. In the first article of the Large Catechism, Luther speaks of good government as one of the creaturely gifts of God. And so citizenship becomes one of the arenas in which we carry out our vocations. Government and citizenship provides the larger context in which we carry out our other vocations in the family, economy, and the church. The latter three need and depend upon the government (perhaps this is why Melanchthon suggests that military affairs is superior to agriculture or eloquence/statesmanship is superior to architecture in Apology 23, 38-40) and vice versa. Government looks after the well-being of creation and its citizens and protects the boundaries so that all may flourish (and we do depend upon the well-being of creation for our own well-being not to mention the conditions of peace).

Here we may need increasingly to see our citizenship as more than voting and participating in political parties/causes. It also includes community engagement and involvement. One of the major forms of citizenship in the twenty-first century may take place through NGOs (non-governmental organizations). I once read that there were fewer than 900 in the 1950s but more than 20,000 today. They may become an important way  by which God tends the needs of society and creation in our century as well. Consider, for example, the work of  Lutheran World Relief and the Lutheran Malaria Initiative  For they can work both with governmental agencies and corporations alike. These can also provide great opportunities for Christian witness as we rub shoulders with and work with those who are not Christians.

When we view the left hand realm as the realm of God’s ongoing creative activity (creatio continua), we might gain a greater appreciation not only for all of the various creatures who serve as the gloves on God’s hands for our benefit, but for our role as his co-workers for the benefit of His creation. In some ways, it will take us back to God’s original commission for us to look after his creation (Gen 1:28). Indeed, we need to see ourselves as “redeemed and renewed co-workers of God.” For in the right hand realm, God rules by re-creating and renewing his relationship with his human creatures. But he does not then remove from this world; instead he sends us back into his realm of creation, into the various arenas of government, citizenship, family, economy, and community.  Living as new creatures within these walks of life,  Christians can go beyond a minimalistic understanding of life in creation as merely restraint of sin or doing the bare minimum and instead go “above and beyond the call of duty,” so to speak. We can go crazy in a life of activity for the well-being of creation and all who live within it. And isn’t this the pattern of the Luther’s explanations in the Ten Commandments? He starts out with the prohibition (don’t harm our neighbor in his body), namely, the bare minimum. He then proceeds to the instruction, “help and befriend in every time of need.” And we do so in anticipation of the final renewal of creation when Jesus returns.

All of this is not to say that governments always act according to God’s will or carry out his will. Those who hold public office—as those who work in corporate boardrooms or pastors’ studies—are sinners and often have only self-interests in view. And so often those who govern and those who are governed act counter to and contrary to his vision for life within creation. For that reason, Christians need to be active participants in government and its workings for the well-being of the present creation and for the witness it gives to the new creation. Fortunately, we have been given this opportunity with our participatory democracy, whose birthday we celebrate this week.

For further reading, be sure to check out one of the very fine CTCR report on this subject, “Render Unto Ceasar.” It’s one of the better resources on this topic.





8 responses to “God’s Two Sustaining Hands”

  1. Jaime Nava Avatar
    Jaime Nava

    Could it be that we consider “Law” as a negative thing especially when compared to the Gospel? Yet the Lord commanded Adam to do something in the Garden (to be a man) and the Lord created Eve to be man’s helper. This was before the Fall yet I would not call this Gospel. So in a sense, to love God’s order of Creation as intended and re-created, we thus love the Law of the Lord in a way that unregenerate sinners cannot do without the Gospel, as Adam and Eve had before them in the garden.
    So if we see only Law in the Left Hand Realm it may not be a wholly horrible thing. It remains horrible for the one in despair. For the one predestined (Romans 8:29-30; Ephesians 1:5, 11) and re-created (2 Corinthians 5:17), it does not remain a place of despair but rather a revelation of the will of God.

    Psalm 119:97 (ESV) Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day.

  2. Alf Danbolt on Facebook Avatar

    Lesverdig om hvordan Gud handler i vår verden.

  3. Guenter Wedhorn Avatar
    Guenter Wedhorn

    I think too many Americans have hear the words “separation of church and state” and truly believe it’s part of the law of the land. This was the idea of Jefferson who was and enlightenment deist. I am glad the teachings of the two realms are being heard more and more in the Lutheran Church. It needs to be taught outside of Lutheranism as well. People need to understand that the two realms cooperate with one another, however, they should never be confused.

  4. Jim metcalf Avatar
    Jim metcalf

    The metaphors we use are so important. “Left hand – Right hand” may once have communicated well, but the Biblical “Creation – Redemption” metaphor has the advantages of being both Biblical and more concrete, especially when understood that it is Creation that Jesus has redeemed. That is, people see Creation every day and so have some idea of what is meant.

    Within the context of fallen Creation, hunger and hatred, sickness and death, look very much like sin. Redeeming creation means feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger and accepting the taxcollector or prostitute, healing the sick and raising the dead. Redeeming creation looks like forgiving sin in all these ways. Of course, these are hanging offenses (they oppose social norms, especially those of the opinion-setters) and for them Jesus was hung on the cross.

    The world thinks it has won. We point to the resurrection instead and carry on Jesus’ victorious work of forgiving sin, restoring creation.

    Does the church always do this? No, not always.

    Does the government ever do this? Gladly, sometimes, yes. Perhaps it is because Christians are in the government. Perhaps others have also seen it is better to feed the hungry, give clean water to drink, encourage education, establish affordable health care than to let the little ones suffer, than seeing every problem as one that can be solved best by more military spending.

    The Lord wills that his will be done on earth as it is in Heaven. He calls us to walk his way.

  5. Pat Riley Avatar
    Pat Riley

    This article has a good general understanding of the two kingdoms but it seems a bit dated. Rather than Christians hesitantly involved in politics, we have massive, bloated, government that forces everyone to be involved. Todays governments intrude on the realm of Right, destroy economies so that we are not able to “help and befriend in time of need”, and create more need.
    From defining religious practice as only worship services, regulating church activities out of existence, dictating that Christian NGOs must employ non-Christians, or simply excluding Christian opinion from public life the Christian is a target of constant Government intrusion. Other than the actual worship service, is there an area that the government is not regulating? And wait for “health” to justify even more.

    Many Christians have also fallen for the “easy way” of using the Kingdom of the left to force non-Christians (through taxes)to do our work which then inhibits good works. I have Church members who say, “I pay taxes let the government do it” and others who ignore their immediate neighbor because their “ministry” is lobbying the government on behalf of the “poor”.

    Of course, Christians are to be- are- involved in the Kingdoms of the Left. But today when graduates are told that “public service” (with more pay and benefits that the private sector)is more noble than private occupations, yes, many are being told to go into politics (per your question). That is where the money is. Vocations in government are as good as other vocations but the pendulum has swung left to the point that the weight of government will not be a blessing but will cause much suffering. Even if economies collapse and civil unrest comes, the Church will stand. But it will not be a good time for the “well being of creation”. And the the poor and the weak will suffer most.

  6. Matt Priem Avatar
    Matt Priem

    I like this approach. A possible parallel is the twofold nature of the church as both preaching and hearing. God does his “right hand” work in the church when the Gospel is preached and the sacraments administered rightly, but he’s not done there! The church is not only defined by proclamation, but by the hearing and application of its own proclamation.

  7. Jon Bonine Avatar
    Jon Bonine

    Thank you for this reflection on the two realms. I agree that we too quickly connect the Left-hand kingdom with the state and the Right-hand with the church, in an over-simplified way. What does Luther’s understanding of the three estates, church, state, and home have to say that would help us in appreciating the responsibilities we have as citizens?

  8. Dean Skelley Avatar
    Dean Skelley

    I am trying to locate a Guenter Wedhorn. I am trying to send him a copy of the Newsletter of the Bonhoeffer Society and I received a response to [email protected] as “no account.” Is he with your institution? Please provide his email address.

    Dean S Skelley
    Editor, Newsletter
    Bonhoeffer Society – ELS
    [email protected]

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