True story: a boy gets in trouble. When his mother starts to discipline him, the boy responds, “But mom, you should forgive me, because Jesus took my sins away”—to which his mother replies that there are still consequences for his actions. Both mother and child are right, but they are talking about two different things. They are talking about the right-hand and left-hand kingdoms of God.
Luther and his coworkers came to understand that the Triune God works to save us by sending the Holy Spirit to give us faith in Jesus Christ. This work is called God’s “right hand kingdom,” or “kingdom of grace.” Here God uses the means of grace to save sinners. However, the reformers learned from Scripture that God also has a second kind of work. He raises children through parents; he provides for our daily needs through human labor; he preserves the peace through governments. This is called God’s “left hand kingdom,” or “kingdom of power.” Here God uses the law—rewards and punishments, carrots and sticks—to preserve humanity and permit us to enjoy His creation. God is working in both, but His methods and purposes differ.
God uses temporal rewards and punishments in the left-hand kingdom, but faith can be created only through the means of the right-hand kingdom.
The reformers saw numerous confusions of these two kingdoms in their day. Many monks thought that their unique, “sacred” work gave them special standing before God, while some German peasants believed that their freedom in Christ should translate into political freedom. The reformers pointed out the errors of both groups. They argued that spiritual authority pursues different ends and uses different means than temporal authority. Our works in the left-hand kingdom do not save us, and our status in the right-hand kingdom is not a blueprint for politics.
Our own day has its own confusions of these two kingdoms. Some people believe that they cannot serve God unless their work is “a ministry.” Others believe that we can create a Christian nation by enforcing laws consistent with the Scriptures. Others (like the boy above) believe that God’s forgiveness should annul just civil punishments. The Reformers point us back to Scripture to learn the truth: God uses temporal rewards and punishments in the left-hand kingdom, but faith can be created only through the means of the right-hand kingdom. Both kingdoms belong to God, but whenever we confuse them, we lose the good news of forgiveness in Christ.