Book Review: Empires of Dirt, by Douglas Wilson


As our public discourse has become more polarized and politicized, calls for Christian nationalism have begun to resonate with well-meaning believers. Doug Wilson’s Empires of Dirt reads like a manifesto. His “Mere Christendom” is not as mere as it appears.


Wilson begins by reminding us that public secularism is not religiously neutral. “Soft socialism” has advanced its own salvation narrative (8, 9). American Zionism and Exceptionalism were idols. And compassionate conservatism was never a convincing stand-in for Christianity. But raw secularism looks like the last man standing in the public square, and it leaves the state (apparently) answerable to no one. Whither then a Christian public theology?

Wilson first dismisses radical Anabaptist separation of church and state as pessimistic (Hauerwas, Willimon) and pacifist (Greg Boyd). Since “Christ already humiliated the principalities” (80) in binding Satan. Wilson says, “This should have obvious political implications” (81), one of which is Christian nationalism. Buttressed by an ecclesial application of Psalm 2 and Revelation 19:15, the church rules with the rod of iron, which is “the preaching and declaration of God’s gospel authority in this world” (89, 90). When kings kiss the Son, they lead their nations—as nations—to espouse Christian views and virtues, and nations become disciples as national people units (95, 259).

Wilson then dismisses, maybe even torches, what he calls Radical Two-Kingdoms theology (R2K for short) as argued for by the Escondido brothers (Horton, VanDrunen, Clark). In Wilson’s mind, R2K is nothing short of a departure from an otherwise robust Reformed tradition of cultural impact. He opines, “The Reformed theology I have read and studied and loved built a great civilization. The Reformed theology of the truncated R2K brethren, consistently applied, would have trouble building a taco stand” (145). Wilson critiques R2K as a system built on “principled cultural irrelevance for Jesus,” which he likens to the pop evangelicalism that drove him to Reformed theology in the first place (146). According to Wilson, R2K is more at home with the “anabaptists and revivalists” than the Reformed faith.

Wilson, on the other hand, understands his own position as being in lockstep with Reformed stalwarts like Knox, Bucer, Calvin, Kuyper, and Edwards (147). The assertion that Christ is King over everything implies that Christianity must be political, like John the Baptist when he took it to Herod over having his brother’s wife (120). The kings of the earth must kiss the Son (Ps. 2, 123). “To say that the temporary governments of this world are not the church of God is not the same thing as saying that they should not, or need not, be Christian. ‘Temporal’ and ‘secular’ are not synonyms” (123).

For Wilson, though, discipling the nations simply “means preaching the gospel in the narrow sense, saving souls, planting churches, building parish life” (125–126). “I believe that Christian republics and commonwealths are formed by preaching, baptizing, and discipleship, not by campaigning, legislating. . . and so on” (157). Still, Wilson aims at a culture shaped by the Christian cultus (121). “I want to live in a baptized civilization. That is what I mean by mere Christendom” (143). He wants “a culturally potent and world-transforming faith” (147). He sees this in Daniel’s victory in Babylon and Joseph’s success in Egypt (151). Anything less would be equivocation. “Christians who argue for a secular public square are caught on the horns of a dilemma. Either Jesus wants this or he doesn’t” (155).

For Wilson, the bracing truth is “Jesus is King of Kings. . . President of Presidents. . . It is already the case. The world will gradually come to recognize this and will become Christian, and this is good news indeed. This is the good news” (157). That sounds an awful lot like he’s saying Christendom is the gospel, not a result of the gospel. Clearly, Wilson’s postmillennialism is front and center in his celebration of inevitable mass conversion and the Christianization of nations, as nations, around the world.

On Wilson’s lay of the land, “the church is formal worship, the cultus. The Kingdom is the culture that surrounds the church, having grown out of it. The reformational work of reclaiming education or the fine arts is Kingdom work, done by Christians, to be distinguished from the formal work of the church, done by ministers, elders, deacons, and congregants” (184). Still, the suggested pace of transformation is gradual, even generational—reform, not revolution.

In Wilson’s mere Christendom, “Muslims could come from other lands and live peaceably. . . What they could not do is argue that minarets have the same rights of public expression that church bells do. The public space would belong to Jesus” (176).

At the end of the day, Wilson is “trying to persuade Christians that we will win the race and that we should run it as those who intend to win it. . . We should want Christians to know this now—they don’t have to do it all now” (195). And “societies need to know God just as individuals do. . . When Jesus Christ is declared to them, in their office of nationhood, the biblical process of biblical transformation gets underway. . . Jesus said to baptize the nations. Jesus said to disciple the nations. Whatever do you suppose he meant by it?” (259).

This sounds like a muscular alternative to a feminized faith. The problem is what Wilson means by mere Christendom: “By mere Christendom I mean a network of nations bound together by a formal, public, civic acknowledgement of the lordship of Jesus Christ and the fundamental truth of the Apostles’ Creed” (9). The brief rationale is: “Religious neutrality is an impossibility. So mere Christendom stands in contrast to sectarian Christendom on the one hand and complete secularism on the other” (9). In fact, for Wilson, “mere Christendom . . . provides the only real antidote to American exceptionalism on the one hand and radical Islam on the other” (28, cf. 47).

To his credit, he’s unmistakably clear. “I am arguing for a Christian America . . . [and] referencing the Lordship of Jesus Christ in the Constitution . . . would make me happy, for starters” (160). “[The magistrate] should propose an amendment to the Constitution that consists of the text of the Apostles’ Creed” (193). “I am simply saying that our nation—our leaders, our judges, our poets, our jesters, and our people as a whole—must confess that Jesus is Lord. They must confess that only Jesus is Lord. Other nations are called to do the same and, as they do, they would of course recognize one another as sister nations in Christ” (33). Of course, he says . . .

Some evangelicals tend to lionize such talk. But is “mere Christendom”—amendments in national constitutions and all— really the best forward? Even when made dependent on gospel advancement, should Christians really expect the kind of success Wilson guarantees? And should Christians equate that success with the gospel itself, as Wilson appears to do? I think Wilson’s argument raises more questions than it answers.


For example, what about common grace under the Noahic Covenant (Gen. 9:1–7) as the space Christians share with unbelievers under the triune God as Creator and Preserver of all? God’s covenant with Noah was preservative, not redemptive. It’s with all creation, not just God’s people or even humanity in general. Its symbol is the common rainbow. It provides for marriage, pro-creation, food provisions, and retributive justice, the latter implying that this is the realm of state oversight, accountable to the triune God as Creator and Preserver.

This divine covenant with creation remains until the end of time. Therefore, the New Covenant does not abrogate the Noahic Covenant. Rather, the Noahic Covenant is the temporal and spatial atmosphere in which redemption lives and moves and has its being.

Noahic space is common-grace space. It is common both in the sense of shared by all humanity regardless of religion, and common in the sense of outside the cultus. It is secular, profane—not wicked or obscene, but not holy in the sense of devoted-because-redeemed. Yet it is also gracious in the sense that it postpones final judgment to create time and space for redemption, and it is provided by God, so all beneficiaries are still accountable to God, redeemed or not.

A Noahic framework is the theological umbrella that accommodates God’s plan of redemption alongside his patience with a still-unbelieving world, as seen by David VanDrunen, Meredith Kline (Kingdom Prologue, 153–160), Stuart Robinson (The Church as an Essential Element of the Gospel, 84–88), Herman Bavinck (Reformed Dogmatics, 3:216–222), and Herman Witsius (Economy of the Covenants, 2:239–242). In other words, we Christians can share public space with unbelievers under God’s covenant, while not giving up our convictions. Jesus is King over all of it, but in different ways, for different ends. The one he rules as Creator-Sustainer, the other as Savior-Redeemer. Jesus rules . . . even if Christians don’t.

Wilson’s dismissiveness of a Noahic framework leads to confusion between the preservative and the redemptive, the common and the holy. Meredith Kline discerns the irregular heartbeat of the theonomic pulse at just this point, “their failure to understand the biblical concept of common grace culture” (Kingdom Prologue, 157). This oversight leads to the anomaly of theonomy; it skips a beat.

The anomaly is that Jesus is said to redeem what God has only promised to temporarily preserve—the common or civic realm. Yet this is the realm whose destruction is forewarned by the flood, by Sodom and Gomorrah, and by the herem ban of the conquest in Joshua and Judges—the end of all common grace for the unbelieving world (Luke 17:26–29; 2 Pet. 2:5–9; 3:8–13). This is the realm whose destruction is signified in the downfall of Babylon and its supersession by the New Jerusalem descending from heaven (Rev. 18).

Precisely here is where theonomy is in danger of becoming a new legalism—demanding of the church what Jesus does not demand and what the church cannot in any case do. Because there is no recognized common realm, the argument of Empires takes the Great Commission to necessitate that the church disciple nations as nations (95), which means Christianizing their governments. In Wilson’s words: “‘But you want the government to be explicitly Christian?’ You have understood our position exactly” (121).

Yet it’s only individuals from among ethnicities who are taught and baptized in Acts, never nations as such. John’s grammar in Revelation 5:9 confirms this: “You ransomed a people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (so also in Rev. 7:9). He did not ransom multiple nations. He ransomed one new international people from among the nations. Preaching the gospel to societies “in their office of nationhood” (259, emph. orig.) simply is not what Jesus commissioned his church to do.

It is only by overlooking the common-grace space that theonomy can misspeak about the identity of the Christian nation. Peter thinks Christians in the world are like Israelites in Babylon—exiles (1 Pet. 1:1; 2:11). What’s more, Peter labels the multi-ethnic church itself as the kingdom of priests, the holy nation (e;qnoj a[gion), a people (lao,j) for his own possession—not the modern nation-state or the culture within it that grows up out of the church (184; cf. Rev. 1:6; 5:10). The church itself is to be a holy nation within a common nation—that is, within a non-Christian nation, accountable to God in Christ, not under the New Covenant with God’s people, but under the Noahic Covenant with all creation. When Christians overlook common grace, the impulse is to christen the state, rather than to reform the church.

Wilson critiques J.D. Hunter’s “faithful presence” take on Jeremiah 29:4–7 (150–151) for giving short shrift to the cultural reversal and triumph of Daniel 6:23–28. But God’s counsel to the exiles in Babylon was “‘build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce’” (Jer. 29:4–7). Noticeably absent from God’s counsel to the exiles is any command to re-work Babylon into a New Jerusalem. Israel’s exiles find their welfare in the welfare of Babylon as Babylon, not vice versa. What’s more, God commands them to build and plant in Babylon, knowing that in seventy years he will destroy the same city whose welfare they are to seek.

For Wilson, “The church turns the world into what the world ought to be” (183). This is where I part with the post-mill vision. It’s not that Christians cannot or should not have cultural impact. It’s that such impact is only a preservative and temporal byproduct of the gospel, not a redemptive aim for Christians that will produce eternal results, and certainly not the gospel itself (157). We shouldn’t be pessimistic or insular. We still work together for biblical justice and mercy in economic, political, and social ways. We still build and plant, but we do so as salt, a temporary preservative. Such work is significant, even if only temporary; important, even if not redemptive.

The pastoral concern here is that many neo-Calvinist Kuyperians put what VanDrunen calls “an eschatological burden” on cultural transformation that simply is not there, whether in the Bible or in Reformation thought.[1] Our vocational work in the world is part of our responsibility under the Noahic covenant—temporary, preservative work; not eternal, redemptive, kingdom work (contra Wilson, 149–150). Our evangelism, discipling, and church planting is part of our responsibility under the New Covenant—redemptive work, true kingdom work. Confusing those categories courts disillusionment by seeking eternal significance from temporal vocations. More importantly, it courts confusion over what counts as evangelism.

The exiles’ presence in Babylon might be redemptive for individual Babylonians, but it is not redemptive for Babylon the nation. Daniel’s rise to power in exile did no more to “redeem” Babylon than Joseph’s did to redeem Egypt. In fact, God redeemed his holy people in the very act of judging the common nation that conquered them. God still destroys Babylon and the rebel world it represents (Rev. 18:1–24). Wilson argues from Joseph and Daniel that we’ll win the culture war (151-153). Yet there’s nothing for us to win in Babylon but souls.

True, as more people in a society become Christians, more people might voluntarily vote for amendments in constitutions. But that also seems more like Christianized democratic populism. That’s a tough sell to the Syrian Christian whose home was bombed by Bashar al Assad, or the Middle Eastern Christian living under Sharia Law. Jesus is the one who must turn the world into what it ought to be. And when he does, he will finalize what Adam failed to do. That is what faith believes. It is not “unbelief to place the fulfillment outside the course of history” (194). It is patient hope against all appearances to the contrary.

Empires assumes a Preterist eschatology. Another reading of New Testament eschatology, though, with more explanatory power, sees Babylon (the world in opposition to God and his people) as growing stronger (2 Tim. 3:13; Rev. 12–17.) At the same time, the church is also growing stronger. Though the conflict ebbs and flows, it crescendos to a climax untilJesus returns to destroy Babylon, save the church, and make all things new, all by himself.[2]

Babylon’s destruction by God in Revelation 18, then, envisions God’s future judgment of the world in opposition to Christ, at the end of time, and indicates that Christians are not to renovate it. We seek the kingdom; we see, serve, and enter the kingdom; but we don’t build it in extra-ecclesial, culturally transformative ways from the raw materials we now have. Babylon is not rehabilitated or refurbished by Christians. It is succeeded by the New Jerusalem.

Wilson elsewhere affirms, “The fulfillment of the Great Commission . . . requires the establishment of a global Christendom.”[3] What Wilson argues for in this book is “a baptized civilization. That is what I mean by mere Christendom” (143). Yet the kind of baptism he assumes is aberrant. In 2017, Wilson dissociated himself from the termFederal Vision, but not from his own theology which went by that name. “This statement represents a change in what I will call what I believe. It does not represent any substantial shift or see change in the content of what I believe. . . I would still want to affirm everything I signed off on in the Federal Vision statement.”[4]

We can’t re-litigate the whole Federal Vision here, but Wilson still affirms, “All who are baptized into the triune Name are united to Christ in His covenantal life, and so those who fall from that position of grace are indeed falling from grace. . .The connection that an apostate had with Christ was not merely external.”[5] He also affirms “that God formally unites a person to Christ and to His covenant people through baptism into the triune name.”[6] Wait. Baptism unites you to Christ? How is that not sacramentalism?[7]

Just to be clear, for Wilson’s Mere Christendom to work for you—which he defines as “a baptized civilization” (143) —you must be okay with baptism as, somehow, a nationalized sacrament that in some way unites people to Christ, yet can be jeopardized by post-baptismal sin and only finalized by post-baptismal obedience. Wilson has presented his Mere Christendom as non-sectarian, but he’s based it on a sectarian view of baptism as a nationalized sacrament—a limber move for a self-styled Westminster Puritan.

Of course, Mere Christendom is not the only brand of post-mill on offer today; you can be post-mill without buying this version of it. But Mere Christendom appears to be the Federal Vision for federal governments, which is why it is a kind of post-mill that should be rejected. On this view, there’s one covenant of grace (with no covenant of works, yet somehow Christ’s obedience is still credited to the believer), and all citizens of the state are physically baptized into a kind of election that is not necessarily saving, into the general regeneration of Matthew 19:28 that might still die on you, and into a spiritual union with Christ that might still rupture. The blessings you’re baptized into are contingent on your post-baptismal obedience. This looks like supersized covenantal nomism—get in by grace, stay in by works.


Wilson opines, “I want to live in a baptized civilization” (143). Me too. But we’ll both have to wait until the day when the New Jerusalem comes down from heaven, adorned as a bride for her husband, because only then will it be the case that “nothing unclean will ever enter it” (Rev. 21:27). That will be the truly baptized civilization. But only Jesus can bring it. And praise God, he will.

* * * * *

[1] David VanDrunen, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 349-350, 367.

[2] See William Hendriksen, More than Conquerors (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1940, 1967, repr. 2015).

[3] ‘The Next Christendom’ in “Joint Federal Vision Statement”

[4] “Federal Vision No Mas”

[5] “Joint Federal Vision Statement”

[6] Ibid.

[7] Wilson elsewhere clearly affirms justification by faith alone. To give him the benefit of the doubt here, he’s willing, in paedobaptist fashion, to affirm that some people (namely, infants) are united to Christ, belong to the covenant, and might be designated as “Christians,” but only as an objective identifier, not a subjective one. In other words, he believes that the church, like ancient Israel, is a mixed community by blueprint design, unlike Baptists who believe that the church, by design, always aspires to be entirely regenerate and that “in Christ” means in Christ objectively and subjectively. The trouble is, such language is at best confusing, risks contradicting his affirmation of sola fide, and at best yields rampant nominalism, with a “church” no more healthy than ancient Israel as they chased after other gods.

Paul Alexander

Paul Alexander is the Pastor of Grace Covenant Baptist Church in Elgin, Illinois.

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