(This is the third article in a series on the New Perspective on Paul) We now come to a much vexed question: Did Paul disagree with Moses? What concord hath command with promise? Is it law versus grace verses? Is … Continue reading
(The following is a prayer and an exhortation taken from a recent service at BBC.) Almighty God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, We bless Thee as the One, True and Living God. Thou doest according to Thy own … Continue reading
(This is the second article in a series on the New Perspective on Paul) As we continue this series of articles on the New Perspective on Paul, we come now to the second point of contention: does faith replace works? … Continue reading
I like N.T. Wright. The man can write. When Wright is right it is a sight to behold. But there is a sense in which it might be helpful for us to right some of Wright’s apparent wrongs. In the next several articles I hope to accomplish two modest goals. The first of these is the more modest of the two, and it is simply to record my thoughts on what has come to be called the New Perspective on Paul. Stating those thoughts for the record has become increasingly important because in some conservative Presbyterian and Reformed circles the issue has been quite controversial. Not surprisingly with the rising heat of that controversy there has been a corresponding diminution of light. Once dust starts getting thrown in the air, we usually learn very little except that Diana of the Ephesians is great. It may be a vain hope, but I would like set down in written form a brief account of what I think about the New Perspective.
This is important because many of those who have been so exorcised over the issue have not exhibited too great a concern for what theologians of another era used to call the truth. In other words, if the facts had a case of the small pox, many Reformed Christians would be quite free from any fear of contagion. In some parts of the Reformed world, it is thought that the scriptural requirement to have two or three witnesses against a brother is satisfied simply by hitting the send key twice.
The second goal is to interact with some of the central themes of the New Perspective. Because this is no longer a question of scholars debating among themselves, but is rather a very practical question that is roiling congregations, presbyteries, and schools, perhaps some interaction with the material will provide practical guidance for some who are seeking light on the issue. This squares with the general Reformed view that all theology is pastoral theology.
For those who may be interested, a good introduction and summary of some of the central concerns of the New Perspective can be found in a small booklet entitled The New Perspective on Paul. Written by the Rev. Dr. Michael Thompson of Cambridge, the booklet is distributed in the United States by Reformation and Revival Ministries. The writer is clearly in sympathy with the New Perspective, but also does good work in pointing out some of the places where the New Perspective could be responsibly challenged from the text of Scripture.
In my response, I am creating my outline from key comments made in Thompson’s booklet. I have rearranged their order according to my own predilections and purposes, but I am nevertheless interacting with six basic concerns about the so-called “Old Perspective” as raised by someone clearly sympathetic to the New Perspective. Both James Dunn and N.T. Wright are key figures in this debate and controversy, and both of them reviewed the manuscript of Thompson’s booklet sympathetically. So that should warrant its use. If forced to deal with a summary of a giant subject in the space of a few short articles, this seems to me to be a fair way of proceeding.
But fair or not, some might say that it is still not very scholarly to interact with a distillation of such a massive corpus of work in this way, but for that I make no apology at all. N.T. Wright can write faster than I can read, and if we adopted the total-tonnage standard, and if he kept his pace up, we would never get anything done. At the same time, I will refer to the work of Wright, Dunn, and E.P. Sanders, including them where they fit in with the themes outlined by Thompson.
The six concerns with the Old Perspective are listed below. Over against the Old Perspective, the New Perspective wants to deny the following:
1. that justification by faith was a new revelation;
2. that faith replaced works;
3. that law stands in opposition to grace;
4. that Paul’s focus was on the individual’s relationship to God;
5. that Judaism was a religion of merit;
6. that Judaism did not resolve Paul’s burden of guilt.
In line with the New Perspective, I also deny the first three points as stated above. But this is simply because I hold to the historic Reformed faith, over against contemporary dispensationalism or historic Lutheranism. This shouldn’t be surprising. Does this make Calvin or Turretin advocates of the New Perspective also?
This problem of anachronistic agreement reveals that a good part of this controversy is simply the resurgence of an old denominational debate. The picture is complicated yet further because many in the amillennial Reformed tradition have been influenced (and more than a little) by Lutheranism. And many conservative southern Presbyterians have been influenced by the same revivalist mentality that gave us fundamentalist and baptistic dispensationalism. This means that a good portion of the contemporary Reformed world challenges the New Perspective for denying these first three points. But this, I want to argue, is the result of Reformed writers drifting away from their own historic confessionalism, and trading it in for something else.
But to the extent the New Perspective has simply got the vapors about Lutheranism, there ought to be no controversy within the Reformed world. Our Reformed forefathers were not Lutherans for a reason. But the issue is made even more complex because some of the reasons the New Perspective denies the last three points above extend to some classical Reformed formulations of the gospel, which we will consider later. And further, some of the confusions resident in the New Perspective critique of the last three points will also spill over into their discussion of the first three. So historic Reformed thought denies the first three points, just like the New Perspective does, but the language of denial is sometimes markedly different. And the historic Reformed position differs significantly from the New Perspective on the last three points.
Before tackling the first three of our six issues, it is important to make an important distinction. Despite the fact that the Reformed are not Lutherans, the natural tendency among the Reformed has still been to grant a certain pride of place to the Lutherans in the history of the Reformation. After all, as we all know, Luther started the Reformation ball rolling when he nailed the 95 theses to the cathedral door at Wittenberg, and we all owe a debt of gratitude to him for that if for nothing else. Now as a matter of gratitude for the grace of God that was with Luther, this is most fitting. Luther is one of the truly great figures in the history of the Church. But as a matter of historical accuracy, we really do need to acknowledge some additional complicating factors.
Instead of thinking of the Reformation as an avalanche caused by Luther, Luther being the one who dislodged the first rock, it might be more helpful to think of the Reformation as a huge pot coming to a boil, and Luther being one of the first bubbles to break the surface. But the whole pot was coming to a boil already, and Zwingli was preaching reformational truth shortly before Luther was. And of course, Zwingli had his own insights and confusions alongside each other, just as Luther did—although it must be said that Luther lived on a much grander scale.
But even if we were to grant a chronological primacy to the Lutheran reformation, or even a primacy of honor, this is not the same thing as granting a doctrinal primacy. We ought not to make the mistake of thinking that the Lutheran formulations on justification by faith (for example) are in some sense the primitive meaning of that doctrine. Our concern should be, in the first place, to understand the teaching of the Bible. That is the primitive meaning of the doctrine. By this I mean the teaching of Genesis about the justification of Abraham, and not just the later harmonious teaching about this thousands of years after in the book of Romans. The first recorded justified sinner to die in faith and go to God was Abel at the hand of his brother. And the history of justification by faith alone needs to put less emphasis on Wittenberg, and more on Ur of the Chaldees.
Justification by Faith a New Revelation?
That said, this leads into our discussion of the first point of agreement between the historic Reformed faith and the New Perspective. Justification by faith is in no way a new revelation that finally arrived in our midst at the time of the New Testament.
While this point is correct, there are two issues here that get entangled. Thompson observes, rightly , that a basic premise of Paul’s argument in Galatians and Romans is that justification by faith is not something new, but was true for Abraham” (Gal. 3:6-9; Rom. 4). But who is Thompson arguing with? Earlier he states, “At the risk of caricature and oversimplification, we can summarize some key points of the ‘old’ (primarily ‘Lutheran’) perspective as follows . . .” But even here it would have been nice to cite some Lutherans who were maintaining, for example, that Abraham was not justified by faith. I believe at this point the criticism of the Lutheran position, as Thompson anticipated, is something of a caricature. But if the criticism is then extended to another form of the “old” perspective, that of the Reformed, then it is not oversimplified, but rather simply false. One of the distinctive features of the historic Reformed faith has been its insistence of just this point.
Secondly, even in making the correct point that Paul argues that faith is the biblical instrument of justification, and not just the New Testament instrument of justification, important categories are confused. Thompson says, for example, “If the essence of Paul’s way of relating to God changed, what does this say about the nature and value of Old Testament faith? Have there been two ways of salvation?” This issue will be treated in greater depth in a subsequent section, but note the significant confusion here. There is a difference between Paul as an individual representing a particular erroneous understanding of the Old Testament, and the Old Testament itself. Paul was a Jew, but this does not mean that he was a faithful Jew, rightly understanding the Old Testament.
The issue here is whether the unconverted Paul was a good representative of that Old Testament faith. Paul tells us that he had been a blasphemer, persecutor, and an insolent man (1 Tim. 1:13). He was therefore not one to be trusted in a spiritual exegesis of the Scriptures. The word rendered injurious in the AV could be rendered as insolent —the word is hubristes. Paul was full of overweening contempt for others, and he was therefore not a reliable guide for Old Testament studies in his unregenerate state.
So to answer Thompson’s question, what does it say about the nature and value of Old Testament faith if the essence of Paul’s way of relating to God changed? It says nothing . Paul had been an evil man, and the law was holy, righteous, and good. Because Paul was a covenant member, his wickedness meant that he was a hypocrite, not a pagan, but he was wicked nonetheless. He consistently misrepresented the Old Testament until he repented of his sin and began teaching the true meaning of the Old Testament.
But returning to the substance of Thompson’s point, it is fully orthodox in the Reformed sense to maintain that the just in the Old Testament shall live by faith and that the just in the New Testament shall live by faith. From the beginning, the Reformed faith has insisted upon this. The continuity of the covenants was a cornerstone in the argument for infant baptism, over against the anabaptists, for example. Calvin in his Institutes, in arguing against them, says this about the Jews of the Old Testament:
For they [the anabaptists] depict the Jews to us as so carnal that they are more like beasts than men. A covenant with them would not go beyond the temporal life, and the promises given them would rest in present and physical benefits. If this doctrine should obtain, what would remain save that the Jewish nation was satiated for a time with God’s benefits (as men fatten a herd of swine in a sty), only to perish in eternal destruction?
Men who have come to God in truth have always come to Him in the same way, by grace through faith, lest any should boast. The eleventh chapter of Hebrews alone settles this question. The gallery of saints presented there throughout the course of the Old Testament were characterized by their faith working through love. This has always been the way that God saves. So there is fundamental agreement on this point between both “Old” and “New” perspectives on Paul’s theology.
More to follow…
Pride and Prejudice
Before I came to understand and embrace the Doctrines of Grace, I was kept away by a combination of factors. One reason, of course, was my own prejudices and ignorance. Certain truths tend to rub our theological fur the wrong way, and they have had that tendency since at least the time of Paul (Rom. 9:19). But there was also another reason. I had trouble because my ignorance and prejudices were sometimes reinforced by how I heard these issues presented. Consequently, I thought I understood what in fact I did not. What I despised was a caricature and rightly so.
Having recently written here on the subject of the human will, I though that it would be appropriate to follow up with a few words on the zombie apocalypse. Sort of.
What Saith the Scriptures?
What is the condition of man prior to regeneration? How may we best describe him in his lost estate? The best place to start is with the Biblical description and the Biblical terms. When the Lord showed the prophet Ezekiel the valley of dry bones, He said, “`Son of man, can these bones live?’ So I answered, `O Lord God, You know.’ Again He said to me, `Prophesy to these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord!’ Thus says the Lord God to these bones: `Surely I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live'” (Ezek. 37:3-5).
Before regeneration, we are nothing but dead, dry bones. Unregenerate man is dead in his transgression and sin (Eph. 2:1-2; Col. 23). He is not sick, he is not crippled, he is not ailing; he is dead. Now to say that he is dead in this respect is not to assert that he is physically dead, or dead in every aspect of his being. It simply means that he is dead with regard to spiritual things. He has no connection with the life of the Spirit,which comes only as a gift from God. Since man is dead, he must be born again (John 3:5-7). Because he is dead in sin, he is hostile to God and will not submit to His laws. Even further, he cannot submit to His laws (Rom. 8:7-8). The natural man is incapable of understanding spiritual things, and since the gospel is in the front rank of spiritual things which require spiritual understanding, this means the natural man has no ability to comprehend the gospel ( I Cor. 2:14). That tends to be a problem for him.
Some may object here and say that the gospel was designed for unregenerate men; how can we say that unregenerate men cannot understand it? In reply, I agree that the gospel was designed for unregenerate men, but I deny that it was intended to function apart from the resurrection given by the Spirit of God. Unless regeneration occurs, the gospel, like all spiritual things, remains gibberish to the natural man. As Paul says in I Corinthians 1:18, “…the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (also see II Cor. 2:15 and 4:3). Note what is foolish to him; it is the message of the cross.
Because man is in this condition, he cannot come to Christ unless he is drawn by the Father (John 6:44,65), by means of the Spirit (John 3:5-8). This means that a Biblical evangelist must preach, like Ezekiel, in a graveyard. He is not preaching in a hospital ward, trying to get the patients to take the medicine. Those who preach the gospel are not recruiters; they are heralds and instruments of a God-given resurrection. In accomplishing this, the dead men do not cooperate in their resurrection. The dead men have something they must do (repent and believe), but they do not do it until they are given life.
Another picture used by the Scripture to communicate this truth is the picture of slavery. Just as a dead man is not free to walk about, so a slave is not free to walk off. Jesus teaches us that everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin (John 8:34). Paul reminds the Roman Christians that they were at one time slaves to sin and free from the control of righteousness (Rom. 6:20). In Titus 3:3, he says that we were all at one time foolish and slaves to various passions. Unlike physical slavery, it is impossible to escape from this bondage since the slavemaster is our own twisted nature — our own passions and lusts. Wherever we go, there we are. And this, too, is a problem.
Coming to Terms with Terms
In discussions like these, extra-Biblical theological terminology is both a blessing and a hindrance. It is a blessing because it enables us to pin down our definitions with better precision. This is necessary because there are many evangelical Christians who are not willing to submit to certain truths of Scripture, but they are constrained to agree with the phrases of Scripture. So they would agree, for example, that man is dead in his sins because Ephesians says so. But they would then hasten to add that “dead” doesn’t mean dead (to their minds it means something akin to “very much alive”) and that we mustn’t press such figures of speech too far. As such a discussion progresses, the defender of Biblical truth is constrained to use other words and phrases that will communicate the content of Scripture.
The hindrance lies in the fact that such extra-Biblical phrases are not inspired and may not always communicate effectively. For example, the doctrine of the total depravity of man sounds like we are asserting the absolute depravity of man, i.e. that man is as bad as he could possibly be. This is quite obviously false. Man is constrained and held back from such an absolute depravity by the common grace of God. If we were all as bad as we possibly could be then there would certainly not be two political parties. But I digress.
The doctrine of total depravity is this: man is totally unable to contribute to his own salvation in any way, because he is dead in his sins. For example, the resurrection of Lazarus was not a joint effort between Christ and Lazarus. Lazarus came forth because he was raised, not in order to be raised. Lazarus wasn’t pushing while Jesus was pulling.
The denial of man’s inability will ultimately undermine our faith in the necessity of the new birth and the proclamation of the gospel. How so?
Scripture teaches us that faith is pleasing to God. It also teaches us that we are to live our Christian lives the same way we began our Christian lives (Gal. 3:1-6; Col. 2:6). Now if unregenerate men, on their own, are capable of saving faith, without having been regenerated by the Spirit of God, then they should be able to continue to exercise that same kind of faith, after they are saved, without any help from the Spirit of God.
If a man can become a believer on his own, then he can continue to believe on his own. And if he can continue to believe on his own, then what did regeneration accomplish?
The Bible teaches us that the Christian life begins with faith, continues in faith, and concludes in faith (Romans 1:17). The foundation of all godliness is faith, and a denial of man’s inability means that unbelievers are capable of laying that foundation for all godliness on their own. Even if one argues that the Holy Spirit regenerates a man after he believes, such a regeneration is superfluous. What is it for? What does it do? If he can repent and believe the gospel with his old heart then why in the world would he ever need a new one? In this view, it most certainly does not enable the man to believe or trust God. It hardly does honor to the Spirit to say that His job is to just tag along and enjoy the ride.
The apostle Paul rebuked the Galatians when they forgot that they began by grace and then sought to finish the job by human effort. In considering his response to that error, I doubt he would have thought much of the confusion that reverses the order — beginning by human effort and then finishing by the Spirit.
Put bluntly, it amounts to this: If I am saved, sanctified, and glorified through faith (which the Bible teaches), and faith is possible apart from regeneration (which a denial of total inability asserts), then salvation, sanctification, and glorification are possible without regeneration. And that reasoning undermines the necessity of the everlasting and eternal gospel. And this, as you might have guessed, is a problem
The Persistent Problem of Carts and Horses
God gives eyes, and then we see. God gives life, and then we live. For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (II Cor. 4:6).
Contrast this way of thinking with the alternative. I saw, and so God gave me eyes. I came alive, and so God gave me a resurrection. Light came forth from my heart, so God said, “Let there be light.” This is obvious madness; it is God, Paul says, who commanded light to come out of darkness. It is God who commanded that it shine in our hearts.
Notice the comparison in this passage between the gift of new life and the creation of the material universe. It bears mentioning that the material creation was ex nihilo — from nothing. Paul asserts the same about the new creation; it too is from nothing.
The creation does not help the Creator out in the work of creation; the Creator acts unilaterally. The dilemma for evangelicals who want to deny total inability is this: either God must begin the resurrecting work of salvation because unsaved men are dead, or unsaved men are capable of beginning the process of their salvation on their own by means of saving faith. If the former, then we say welcome and shake hands. If the latter, then it follows that unsaved men can finish what they began, and we are confronted with a false gospel. In other words, there is no consistent stopping place between Reformed theology on the one hand, and a Pelagian theology on the other. Of course, plenty of evangelicals do not wind up in one camp or the other, but that is to be considered a triumph of inconsistency. And that should be a problem.
The Bible does not permit us to boast in our salvation at all: “You are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God — and righteousness and sanctification and redemption — that, as it is written, `He who glories, let him glory in the Lord'” (I Corinthians 1:30-31).
If a man has been raised from the dead, there is much cause for rejoicing but there is no cause for pride. And when all human boasting is removed, what remains? Nothing of ours, but there is an infinite ocean of grace. My earnest hope and prayer is that more and more Christians will set out on that ocean, until there is no land in sight. Soli Deo Gloria!
Becoming a Calvinist wasn’t easy. I didn’t personally know but a handful. Most of the ones with whom I was acquainted were all dead, and the ones who were still alive would’ve had a hard time proving it. It wasn’t … Continue reading
This is my Father’s world: the battle is not done:
Jesus Who died shall be satisfied,
And earth and Heav’n be one.
It’s because we’ve never learned the proper order of carts and horses that we usually approach our discussions about the future of our world from the wrong end. We all have our eschatological theories, and so we think we should debate them in an eschatological setting. Then we start with the labels. (Whereas our father Adam named things because he understood what they were, we name them precisely because we don’t. Naming is easier than knowing.) So here we are, all neatly identified as premill, postmill, amill, historic premill, dispy premill, and the rest of it. Having established our eschatological framework, we then have a tendency to pack that framework along with us as we study other aspects of the Bibles teaching. This happens even when we are studying the heart of our faith, which is the cross of Jesus Christ. As a result, we tend to fit our understanding of the cross into some particular eschatological cubbyhole.
But this is backwards, and so we should forget our eschatologies for a moment. Instead of letting an eschatology drive our understanding of the cross, we should come first to an understanding of what the Bible says about the cross and the power of it. We may then look around and see if this has any impact on our view of the future of the kingdom of God. The simple task should be to turn to Scripture, asking the question, “What does the Bible say that the cross of Christ will do in the course of history to the nations of men?” Two things are notable about this approach: it is not a direct question about “end-times,” and the answer to this question is remarkable in its uniformity and frequency throughout the Bible. Another remarkable thing about this biblical answer is the prevalence of unbelief in the teaching of most Christians concerning it.
We have not been left in the dark. Jesus told us what would happen when He was lifted up from the earth. “Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out. And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me. This he said, signifying what death he should die” (John 12:31- 33). Stated another way, Jesus said that His death would throw out the devil and draw the human race to Him. “For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8; Heb. 2:14).
But we, having been taught better than this, prefer a different doctrine. Consequently, a commonplace assumption among modern evangelicals is that the devil has not been thrown out, and that men will not come to Christ. We are willing to admit that maybe Christ appeared in order to try to destroy the devil and his works through His death, but the brave attempt apparently turned out badly. We think His lifting up has secured the possibility that any man might come to Him, but of course, he probably wont. But a possibility cannot be found in these passages.
What does the Bible say about the mission of Christ? What claims are made for it? What intention was behind it? What was actually accomplished?
Beginning with a very famous verse indeed, the Bible says that God loved the world so much that He gave His only begotten Son so that whosoever believed in Him would not perish, but would receive everlasting life. “Ah”, we say, “there is the condition. A man has to believe, and we know that most men do not believe.” But this protest brings us to one of the most neglected verses in the Bible . . . the next one. “For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved” (John 3:17). Why did God send the Son to die on the cross? The answer is plain—in order to save the world.
Every effective preacher seeks to do what John the Baptist did, which is to lift up the arm and point, and say, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). He does not say, “which trieth to take away,” or “which attempteth in vain to take away.” Rather, the Lamb of God actually took away the sin of the world. He did this through His conquering, effectual, glorious, and loving death. The death of Christ was not a valiant attempt or a nice try. Our duty is to preach the conquest and repent of having preached the attempt.
This doctrine of an efficacious and conquering cross is found throughout the Bible. “And we have seen and do testify that the Father sent the Son to be the Savior of the world” (1 John 4:14). So why did Jesus come into the world? The answer is blunt—in order to save it.
We can summarize what the Bible teaches in the following way: Jesus died on the cross in order to save the world. In our unbelief, we have found two effective ways to keep this teaching in our Bibles, while at the same time denying the force of it. We must explain away either the direct object or explain away the verb. One group does not like the force of the verb, and wants to says that save really means “try to save but no telling what free will might do.” The other group limits the meaning of the word world, and says that the world refers to that small tiny band of the elect who will still be hanging on when Christ returns. But this is not what the word world means.
Put another way, if the Bible says that Jesus came to save the world, then a follower of Jesus must say that the world will necessarily be saved. “And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). Propitiation means to turn aside wrath. This verse says that the death of Jesus turned aside the wrath of God against the world. Conditions are not attached here. He is the propitiation, and He is the propitiation for the sins of the world.
Now the Bible says that Jesus died in order that the world would not be condemned. Modern evangelicals say that the world, when all is said and done, will be condemned. The Bible says that He is the Savior of the world. We say that He is the potential Savior for a world which won’t let Him be its Savior. The Bible says that Abraham and his heirs would inherit the world through faith. We say that Abraham and his heirs can go to heaven when they die.
We must come to identify this reinterpreting tendency by its proper name—unbelief. We must come to grips with the fact that this very common popular conception of the death of Jesus really is an anemic affair. For some reason we have desired to preach and teach a watered-down, beggarly atonement. This, frankly, is unbelief concerning the nature of the atonement. This is a limited atonement through unbiblical limitations placed on the verb. Jesus died on the cross in order to “save” the world.
But another form of unbelief tinkers with the extent of the atonement. This is the view which says the cross is powerful to save something tiny when the Bible says it is powerful to save the world. This is a limited atonement through unbiblical limitations placed on the direct object. Jesus died on the cross in order to save the “world”.
The rejection of these limited atonements does not lead to a fanciful universalism. The Bible plainly teaches that the death of Jesus did not secure the salvation of all men without exception. Hell is a fearful reality. “I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep . . . But ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep, as I said unto you” (John10:11,26). Had they been His sheep, He would have laid down His life for them, and they would have believed. The cross of Christ overcame the unbelief of Saul of Tarsus in a way it did not overcome the unbelief of Judas. So while the cross of Christ does conquer the world, this does not mean that it brings salvation to every last person who lives in the world. But plainly, it does bring salvation to the world. The world, in short, will be saved.
The response to this assertion is typical of unbelief—we look around at the world instead of looking to the Word. We look around and see billions of unbelievers, and so we reinterpret what the Bible must have been trying to tell us. But what about all the unbelief we see in the world? The Bible does not say that with the death of Christ someone hits a celestial light switch and suddenly everyone is saved. The images of the coming of Christ and His conquering cross all teach us to expect exactly what we have seen happening throughout the history of the Church. The conquest of the world and the overthrow of the devil happened definitively at the cross, and this is progressively and increasingly manifested as the greatness of the great commission is made apparent.
The sun has risen, but is not yet at its zenith (Mal. 4:2). The mustard seed has been planted, but the tree is not yet full-grown (Matt. 13:31-32). The leaven of the kingdom is in the loaf, but the loaf is not yet fully risen (Matt. 13:33). The rock has struck the pagan statue on the feet, but the rock is not yet a mountain that fills the earth (Dan. 2:44). The trickle of living water has cleared the threshold of the temple, but has not yet become the river which cannot be crossed (Ez. 47:1-5). The Lord is seated at the right hand of the Father, but His enemies are not yet His footstool (Ps. 110:1). The root of Jesse has been raised as an ensign for the people, but the stream of Gentiles coming to Him is so great that we can honestly say that after many millions of converts, it has barely started (Is. 11:10). The Child has been given to us, but the increase of His government will have no end (Is. 9:7). In short, the Scriptures teach that the taking of this dark world will be as slow and methodical as it is sure and glorious.
Christ is our prince. He reigns in both heaven and earth, and the processes He set in motion are inexorable. All authority in heaven and on earth is His, and on the basis of this authority He tells us to disciple the nations (Matt. 28:18-20). He has been raised from the dead, and therefore God has given Him the name that is above every name (Phil. 2:9-11). He has ascended on high, into the throne room of the Ancient of Days, and at His coronation He was given dominion, glory, and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him (Dan. 7:13-14).
The vision is a glorious one, and crowded with biblical images and phrases. The earth will be as full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. The families of the earth will all name Abraham their father, and by faith will receive the blessing of Abraham. The nations will fear the name of the Lord, and all the kings of the earth will revere His glory. The kings of the earth belong to God, and the nobility of all nations assemble as the people of the God of Abraham. All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord. All the families of all the nations will bow down before Him. Dominion belongs to the Lord, and He rules over the nations of men. The nations are Christ’s inheritance, and the ends of the earth are His possession. The kingdoms of men are shaken down so that what cannot be shaken may remain. And we are solemnly charged to take this gospel from the river to the ends of the earth. So we are called to proclaim the death of Christ and the resurrection of the world through Him.
Such triumphalism frightens us. The task frightens us, and so we feel the need to get away from what the Bible says. But unlike liberals, modern evangelicals do not feel the freedom to reject the words of the Bible . . . at least overtly. And so we prod and squeeze, and exegete, and lop off, and hermeneut, and shape, and form, and publish journals, and tell one another what the Greek word for this is, and figure out what already/not yet is supposed to mean, and settle into our eschatologies.
We walk by sight and not by faith. We measure progress by moments; God measures progress by millennia. Eyes can’t see that far but faith can. Boiled down, our problem is that we are slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken.