Law, Gospel, Flood, And Fire
The New Testament’s pilgrim eschatology and ethic is patience. Both our Lord Jesus and the Apostle Peter compare us to Noah, with whom God graciously made a covenant to redeem him and that little church (Gen 6:18). Our Lord said, “For the coming of the Son of Man will be just like the days of Noah.” (Matt 24:37; NASB) How did Noah spend his life as he waited for the coming judgment? Was he transforming “the world that then was?” (2 Pet 3:6) He was not. He was a “preacher of righteousness.” (2 Pet 2:5) He was preaching the law and the gospel, i.e., he was announcing the coming watery judgment, calling for repentance, and calling for faith in the God who created the world, who judges in righteousness, and who promised a Savior, his Son, Jesus the Messiah. By the way, for those who think that “all means all, and that’s all that all means” (as a pastor once memorably said in 1977), well, Genesis 6:13 says, “The end of all flesh has come before Me; for the earth is filled with violence because of them; and behold, I am about to destroy them with the earth.” (NASB) Obviously it was not the end of “all” flesh literally since Noah and his family were redeemed. That was prophetic hyperbole of the same sort that we see in Jeremiah 31:31–34. There are teachers in the New Covenant; not everyone in the New Covenant literally knows the Lord just as God himself, and his apostles instituted teachers. Still, it was a terrible judgment and it prefigures the final judgment, which will not be with water but with fire.
For when they maintain this, it escapes their notice that by the word of God the heavens existed long ago and the earth was formed out of water and by water, through which the world at that time was destroyed, being flooded with water. But by His word the present heavens and earth are being reserved for fire, kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men. (2 Pet 3:5–7; NASB)
This is why the Reformed confess:
Finally, we believe, according to God’s Word, that when the time appointed by the Lord is come (which is unknown to all creatures) and the number of the elect is complete, our Lord Jesus Christ will come from heaven, bodily and visibly, as he ascended, with great glory and majesty, to declare himself the judge of the living and the dead. He will burn this old world, in fire and flame, in order to cleanse it. (Belgic Confession, art. 37)
One will find nothing in the Belgic Confession about a coming future golden age on the earth. That is because the pastor who wrote it (Guy de Bres) believed no such thing. He understood, as Calvin and the rest of the magisterial Protestants did, that God promises no such thing. Indeed, as I keep reminding us all, the Reformed confessed:
We further condemn Jewish dreams that there will be a golden age on earth before the Day of Judgment, and that the pious, having subdued all their godless enemies, will possess all the kingdoms of the earth. For evangelical truth in Matt., chs. 24 and 25, and Luke, ch. 18, and apostolic teaching in II Thess., ch. 2, and II Tim., chs. 3 and 4, present something quite different.
When the Swiss Reformed said “evangelical truth” they meant “gospel truth.” The gospel truth is different from the Karlstadt’s postmillennial vision of the future. He was the fellow to whom the Lutherans also responded in the Augsburg Confession (1530), with which, on this point and others, the Reformed agreed.
They condemn also others who are now spreading certain Jewish opinions, that before the resurrection of the dead the godly shall take possession of the kingdom of the world, the ungodly being everywhere suppressed (Art. 17).
The “they” to whom the Lutherans referred were “the Evangelicals.” In 1530, that word did not denote or connote someone who had walked the sawdust trail or listened to K-Love, but rather it referred to one who subscribed to the theology of the Protestant Reformation. Many Reformed theologians, including John Calvin, signed a version of the Augsburg Confession. It was, however, revised by Melanchthon (c. 1540, Art. 10, on the Lord’s Supper), but it was not changed on this point.
The Reformers were pilgrims. They criticized the Roman communion. They attacked it as corrupt and corrupting, and for their troubles they were exiled from family, church, homes, comfort, and privilege. They experienced what it was to be an exile. Calvin was a quiet classics scholar who was more or less forced to stay in Geneva to help Guillaume Farel with the Reformed Reformation there. When he had irritated enough of the powerful families in Geneva, they chased him off to Strasbourg, where he was never happier, for three glorious years only to recall him for decades of (figurative and spiritual) torture, and then he died a terrible death (e.g., internal bleeding etc) at a relatively young age. They gave up all because they read the New Testament closely (in Greek!) and they knew that it describes Christians as “strangers and aliens” to this world, this age, and this life. They were looking forward to the judgment, when they expected to be vindicated only on the basis of Christ’s righteousness imputed, and received only through faith resting, receiving, and trusting.
Their big agenda was not for this world, but for the visible, institutional church, which they understood to be the visible manifestation of the Kingdom of God on the earth. They did not give their lives for the cultural approval and influence of secular power. They gave them for Christ, his gospel, and his church. They were looking for a city whose builder and maker is God (Heb 11:10).
This Is My Father’s World
When I say pilgrim, one might be tempted to fill that word with the American evangelical escapist eschatology—pre-tribulation, pre-millennialism, with its bizarre and profoundly unbiblical doctrine of the “secret rapture.” One might be tempted to think of the world-fleeing monks of the Patristic and Medieval periods. I mean nothing of the sort.
The Protestants again help us to recover the New Testament way of thinking about our status as pilgrims. We are pilgrims with a vocation. We have significant work to do in this world. We are not merely polishing brass on a sinking ship. We are divine image bearers, redeemed by the grace of God in Christ and called (vocatio means call) in God’s Word to fulfill our duties and obligations to God and to our neighbors in this life.
We do not have to choose between a golden-age triumphalist eschatology (e.g., theonomic postmillennialism) and world flight (e.g., pre-trib, pre-millennialism). There are other options. The Reformers were ecumenical Christians who agreed with the ancient Christian fathers (e.g., Irenaeus) that God is good and that he created this world good. They rejected as heresy against the ecumenical faith the Gnostic view that matter is inherently evil and that any god associated with creation (e.g., Yahweh Elohim) was an inferior deity.
Rather, they believed and confessed that God is good, the world he made is good (if deeply corrupted by sin), and that humans are not mere shells containing souls waiting to escape a prison. They saw humans as image bearers whose very existence testified to God’s existence and goodness. They thought that secular vocations (e.g., making shoes, fixing roads, cutting hair) were good vocations and provided a useful service to other divine image bearers. To do good work for the glory of God and the good of one’s neighbor is every Christian’s calling. They rejected the Medieval and Romanist view that only priests have a calling.
This means, Christian, that we all have a calling and we live out and fulfill that calling in light of God’s goodness, his Fatherly care for all creatures, and in light of Christ’s coming and the fiery judgement associated with it. We need not “take back” America or anything else to fulfill our vocation in this world. Being a cop is a good and honorable vocation. Being a teacher is a good and honorable vocation. We love our neighbors by doing our jobs well because God loved us in Christ. We have no other “angle.” We are not merely biding our time until the culture collapses and the Christians are again in charge of politics and the culture (Christendom). The New Testament Christians and the early post-apostolic Christians were not merely biding their time until the gained power. They were fulfilling their vocations, loving their neighbors, worshiping the risen Christ, and, when called upon, testifying his law and his gospel to the secular powers of this age. That is why we call them “martyrs,” because it is the word for witness. Witnessing with one’s mouth and even one’s death, if it comes that it, is not a defeat. It is a victory. It is Christ’s way.
And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself. (John 12:32; ESV)
Was Stephen’s martyrdom a failure? Was he weak? Not according to God’s holy Word:
Now when they heard this, they were cut to the quick, and they began gnashing their teeth at him. But being full of the Holy Spirit, he gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out with a loud voice, and covered their ears and rushed at him with one impulse. When they had driven him out of the city, they began stoning him; and the witnesses laid aside their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul. They went on stoning Stephen as he called on the Lord and said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” Then falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” Having said this, he fell asleep (Acts 7:54–60; ESV).
According to Luke, he was a hero. When the first rock was thrown he did not pick it up and chuck it back at his murders. He was “full of the Holy Spirit.” His attention was not on the rocks and the rock throwers. It was on the ascended, glorious Christ. He did not win by any earthly measure, but he conquered the angry mob and the Holy Spirit conquered Saul of Tarsus, who would look back at that moment (the laying of the robes at Saul’s feet signifies that he was directly responsible for Stephen’s murder) with deep regret.
We cannot know whether, upon Saul’s death, Saul and Stephen met in heaven, but if they did, they did so as fellow witnesses for Christ, who did little to change the Greco-Roman or Jewish cultures of the day, but whose lives and deaths continue to reverberate and give glory to the Jesus who laid down his life for helpless sinners such as they were and we are.
The Scriptural testimony is clear: Christians are strangers and aliens to this age, to the world, and shall be until Christ returns. We are no longer, however, strangers and aliens to Christ and to his covenant of grace, and that is the best news ever. These twin truths should shape our sense of vocation in this world and our expectations for it.
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