Volume 10, Issue 3: Thema
We often approach our discussions and debates about the future of our world from the wrong end. We all have various eschatological theories, and so we think we should debate them in an eschatological setting. Thus we are all identified as premill, postmill, amill, historic premill, pretrib 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 Bible's 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 modern evangelicals 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; cf. 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 won't. 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 Saviour 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 and limited 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 distributively. 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" (John 10:11,26). 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 lightswitch 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.
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.
Boiled down, our problem is that we are slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken.