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Volume 17, Issue 3: Stauron

Reading the Lines: Gilded Pages, Gelded Pulpits, I

Gary Hagen

C. S. Lewis once wrote, "We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful."

We certainly live in the age of a gelded church. Of course, the eschatology that a church holds to often makes all the difference between a confident masculine approach that engages the surrounding culture, and one that is diffident—even retiring—in disposition. But beyond this, a primary reason that relatively few study what the Scriptures truly teach in this area is that it is widely assumed to be a theological topic quite detached from core Christian doctrines, and chiefly from those that affect daily living. But is this really the case?
If you have ever listened to an pop-evangelical sermon preached on the final chapters of Ezekiel, what you may have heard was an extended proclamation and description of the rebuilding of a millennial or tribulation temple, complete with a reinstatement of Old Testament animal sacrifices despite the return of Christ.
But upon hearing this, many reformed minds turn immediately to the eighth, ninth, and tenth chapters of Hebrews. "How can evangelical pastors preach a final return to the system and trappings of the first covenant when the Scripture so clearly opposes this?" we ask. We think it is because they lack—among other things—the virtue of Berean nobility, or a simple modicum of Bible study enterprise. They just imbibe and re-echo an error that has enjoyed increasing popularity in various seminaries ever since the time of Scofield. "But haven't they read Hebrews 8-10?" And yet aren't those in the Reformed camp who use this rebuttal just as lacking?
Of course the writer of Hebrews is admonishing against returning to Old Covenant animal sacrifices, but not per se. And this is where Reformed churches often get their argument wrong, and for much the same reasons. We, too, simply regurgitate the counterarguments that have also been around for a long, long time. And we, too, fail to read the lines of Scripture to see what is really being said.
Let us quickly review what the writer of Hebrews affirms on this. In 8:13, a declaration is made that sets the stage for the discussion of the next two chapters: Christ has made the former covenant obsolete by his death, resurrection and ascension.
Chapter 9 develops the case that even under the Mosaic system, the Holy Spirit was teaching that this was only symbolically preliminary to true redemption (vv. 8, 9 cf. 12, 15). He goes on to spell out clearly that neither blood of bulls and goats nor ashes of red heifers could put away sin (vv. 13, 26). Not then, not now, not ever. The Law of Moses and its attendant sacrificial system were only shadows and dust (10:1). It was impossible for the blood of animals to take away sins (10:4, 11). Yet God gave these to teach the coming Messiah (10:1). Finally, the writer warns that if his readers reject Christ's atonement and return to the Jewish temple system of sacrifice they will have insulted the Spirit of grace and will be numbered among those that draw back to judgment and perdition (10:26-29 cf. 27, 39).
At first glance, this would seem like a slam-dunk and custom-made rebuttal against the doctrine of millennial temple sacrifices. But there are several fatal flaws with using such an answer.
For one thing, the leading dispensational premillennial theologians, including both C. I. Scofield and the late Dr. John F. Walvoord, have always acknowledged the message of Hebrews. They readily concede that millennial sacrifices will not be salvific. They hold them to be only memorial in nature, "looking back to the cross,"1 in much the same way that the bread and wine of a communion service makes no atonement in and of itself. They admit that the Mosaic Law served only as a schoolmaster to teach of a redeeming Messiah. And therefore they simply look upon their millennial sacrifices as a future recovery of the former tools of learning that they say will be employed once again to teach the nations the gospel upon Christ's return.
But this rubs our Reformed fur the wrong way and we wonder how supposedly sane people can close their eyes to the pointless slaughter of thousands of animals for something so clearly impotent. But these "crazies" will simply point out that God already imposed the death of hundreds of thousands of animals that were killed for an equally impotent purpose up until the time of reformation under the old covenant (9:10). And while they would admit that their proof texts in Ezekiel clearly speak in the robust language of sacrifices atoning for sin, they would also point out that the Old Testament passages for Levitical animal sacrifice speak identically, even though the writer of Hebrews proves these were impotent as well. Of course, on this last point at least, they would be correct. And our problem is that we don't know the Scriptures nearly as well as we think.
In our next issue, we will finish our look at the shortfalls of the typical Reformed rebuttal to this dispensational doctrine, and continue our look at Ezekiel's temple and its relationship to the atonement of Christ.

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