Is the kingdom present or future? Is it now or not yet? Could it in any way be both? If so, how?
In evangelical circles this question has been answered for the last half-century with a view called “inaugurated eschatology.” This view affirms Christ’s present royal position as seated at God’s right hand, even as he rules the church by way of his Spirit (Matthew 28:20; John 16:7; Ephesians 1:21–23). At the same time, his kingdom has not been yet consummated, and the people who have believed the good news of the kingdom await the day when he will return to establish his rule on the earth.
Among the many names who have advocated this position, few are more important than George Eldon Ladd, the late New Testament professor from Fuller Seminary. During the middle decades of the twentieth century, his books on the kingdom of God engaged Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology alike. And in each, he provided a rich biblical exposition on the subject.
Ladd maintained that the kingdom of God is found in Christ’s reign more than the location of his rule (i.e., his realm). He understood the kingdom as a future reality, but one that had broken into the present. Against a view of the kingdom of God as spiritualized in the individual—a view based on a poor translation of Luke 17:21 (“the kingdom of God is within you,” KJV; rather than “the kingdom of God is in the midst of you,” ESV)—Ladd centered the presence of Christ’s kingdom in the church, without confusing the church with the kingdom. In this way, Ladd opposed both replacement theology and classical Dispensationalism.
Today, his works remain invaluable for students of eschatology. Indeed, those who are unfamiliar with him or inaugurated eschatology are missing the best exegetical research on the kingdom of God for the last two generations. While certainly fallible—as his biography shows—his studies have been a major catalyst in evangelical theology.
The Kingdom and the Church
(1) The Church is not the Kingdom
In the Gospels, the disciples were never equated with the kingdom. It is wrong to base such a reading on Matthew 16:18–19. While Reformed theologians like Geerhardus Vos equated church and kingdom and spoke of the kingdom as an internal reality, according to Ladd, he missed the metaphorical language. Just the same Matthew 13:41 cannot be used to defend the equivalency of church and kingdom. The parable is self-interpreting and Jesus clearly teaches that the world is the field, not the church. Moreover, Christian apostles and missionaries proclaimed the Gospel of the kingdom, not the gospel of the church. In a sentence, then, the Church is the people of the coming Kingdom; the citizens of heaven. Local churches, therefore, live out their calling as embassies of king Jesus, anticipating and announcing Christ’s coming kingdom.
(2) The Kingdom Creates the Church
The rule of God, proclaimed in the gospel of Jesus Christ called (and calls) men and women to fellowship in God’s kingdom. It should not be supposed that the result is the creation of a totally pure church—i.e., a local church who contains only sheep and no goats. Ladd, following Jesus teaching (Matthew 13), is clear on this: the kingdom brings in good fish and bad. Nevertheless, in the proclamation of the gospel of the kingdom, local churches comprised of Spirit-born citizens of the kingdom are created.
(3) The Church Witnesses to the Kingdom
Speaking specifically, the church cannot “build” or “become” the kingdom; rather it “witnesses” to the kingdom (Acts 1:8; 26:16). Hence the primary activity of the church is defending the truth of the gospel (1 Tim 3:15) and declaring its contents (2 Corinthians 5:21). In this context, Ladd explains how the gospel of the kingdom must be proclaimed to all the nations. While growing up out of Jewish soil, the gospel is for all peoples. The seventy emissaries sent out in Luke 10 evidence the fact that God seeks to gather men and women for his kingdom among all peoples—seventy is the number of nations in Genesis 10. Thus the church will be established among all nations, and once established a multi-national people will bear witness to the king and his kingdom.
The church not only witnesses the kingdom through its proclamation, but also in its character. The Sermon on the Mount reflects the kind of living, true disciples of the kingdom will exhibit. In demonstrating mercy, meekness, and forgiveness, the world beholds the love of God’s kingdom. Thus while inhabiting an age of hostility and oppression, the church is a community of forgiveness, humility, and peace-making.
(4) The Church is the Instrument of the Kingdom
In addition to proclaiming the gospel, the church also functions as a means of healing and restoration. While Ladd is not as clear on this point, it means at least that in the age of the apostles, Christ gave his messengers the power to cast out demons, heal the sick, and perform miracles. This continued in Acts, and in some ways the power of God continues today, in that miracles of conversion and healing continue.
Likewise, the church functions as an aggregate of believers who are salt and light in the world. In these ways, the blessedness of the kingdom is leaked into the present age, but only in ways that tell of the coming kingdom. The church does not convert this age to the coming Spiritual age (contra postmillennialism); rather, in the present age churches are communities of hope and healing which foreshadow the kingdom to come.
(5) The Church is the Custodian of the Kingdom
Ladd contrasts the church with Israel. Under the old covenant, Israel functioned as the elected custodian of God’s kingdom. However, in Christ, the people chosen to steward the keys of the kingdom are the people of the church—comprised of Jews and Gentiles. Ladd shows how this develops in the gospels themselves. Matthew 21:43–44 (“Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him”) records the way that the kingdom has been taken away from Israel and given to a people bearing fruit. From the teaching of Jesus (see John 15), the fruit-bearing people are those who receive the gospel—the Jew first and then all nations (cf. Romans 1:16–17).
This is similar to Old Testament Israel, who functioned as the custodian to saving knowledge. Sadly, the teachers of the Law failed to lead people to saving faith (Matthew 23:13). Thus, God chose a new people—a remnant from Israel and Gentiles too—to be his appointed custodians of salvation. Interestingly, in Mark 10:17–31 (the story of the Rich Young Ruler), we find Jesus speaking of the kingdom, salvation, and eternal life as three synonymous realities. Thus, those who receive Christ’s salvation are guaranteed eternal life; and such eternal life is the present experience of the coming kingdom.
Ladd continues to explain the content of the church’s custodianship. At minimum it is the onerous task of declaring forgiveness and condemnation. What Matthew 16:18–20 and 18:15–20 describe as binding and loosing, is the church’s task. In baptism, the church publicly declaring that a man or woman has been forgiven by God (cf. John 20:23). Likewise, in the act of church discipline the church is declaring the judgment of Christ’s royal law. The Lord’s Supper, too, is officiated by the church, where the congregation—a royal assembly—admits to the table those who have identified with Jesus and walk in his ways. As custodians of the kingdom, the church has the royal authority to bind and loose, what the king in heaven has already declared.
The Great Commission Bridges the Two Phases of the Kingdom
In these five ways, Ladd provides a very concrete explanation of the way God’s kingdom operates in the world today. Wherever the gospel of the kingdom is present, there exists a covenant community that reflects the power, values, and life of the age to come. Salvation means eternal life in King Jesus, the Messianic King. In this way, inaugurated eschatology is not abstract or theoretical; rather, it is tangible in our communion bread and wine and visible as disciples of King Jesus are made through the fulfillment of the Great Commission.
May we who proclaim the gospel remember that we are proclaiming that Christ’s future kingdom has broken into the present, and that all who place their faith in Jesus will experience the presence of the king today, even as they await the coming of his kingdom. Accordingly, may we avoid the twin errors of believing we can build Christ’s kingdom in this age or that Christ’s kingly rule is absent from his people today. As Matthew reminds us in the closing words of his royal gospel,
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.
And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18–20)
Soli Deo Gloria, ds
 Ibid., 103–117.