Volume Twenty-Three — Article 10 Volume 23 | Home

Recovering the "Blessed Hope" of the Second Coming of Christ

Whenever the church is full of the gospel, she is full of hope in the Second Coming of Christ. The New Testament church burned with ardent desire and enthusiastic expectancy of Christ's soon return. Paul even found it necessary to warn some against neglecting their daily work as they waited for the parousia.

This bright hope of the return of Jesus soon faded from the church. It was revived to some extent in the Reformation, especially by Luther. As the gospel came into sharper focus, so did the Second Coming. To Luther, the end was no longer the doomsday of medieval thought, but the "happy last day." Sometimes he saw it close at hand. But the bright eschatological hope of Luther soon faded in the era of Protestant scholasticism and church building. By the time of Daniel Whitby (1638-1726) the church could even accept the idea of 1,000 years of Christian supremacy before the coming of the Lord.

In the last 100 years eschatology, the study of Last Day events, has become a major preoccupation in some sections of the church. But in many cases it is a "carnal," speculative or Judaistic type of eschatology that is not really related to the gospel of the Christ event. It is not eschatology seen through the telescope of the gospel. It is not the hope of a cosmic disclosure of what has already happened in Jesus Christ. Consequently, instead of highlighting the gospel, this type of eschatology competes with the gospel at best and utterly denies the gospel at worst.

We need to look at the causes behind the church's loss of eschatological hope and then try to understand the principles necessary for a true recovery of that hope.

Causes Behind the Loss of the Hope of the Second Coming

The gospel proclaims that the kingdom of God, the judgment of God, the Yom Kippur of God, and the life of the age to come have been inaugurated in Jesus Christ. Christ has returned to heaven. The kingdom of the gospel is the kingdom of heaven. It is not only of heavenly origin, but it is in heaven and may be entered only by faith (Col. 1:13).

"He has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love." Colossians 1:13

Paul declares,

"For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ," Philippians 3:20

Peter also says that the believer's inheritance is in heaven (1 Pet. 1:3, 4).

"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 to an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you," 1 Peter 1:3-4

That is why the people of God are exhorted,

"Set your affections on things above, not on things on the earth." Col. 3:2.

In the same way, the righteousness which is of faith is not on earth, not in the believer, but in heaven! The believer therefore waits in faith for the "hope of righteousness" (Gal. 5:5),

"For we through the Spirit eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness by faith." Galatians 5:5

with which the righteous Judge will crown him "at that day." 2 Tim. 4:8.

"Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing." 2 Timothy 4:8

And of course, the life of the believer is in heaven, "hid with Christ in God." (Col. 3:3).

"For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God." Colossians 3:3

Although eschatology has been inaugurated in Christ, it has yet to be consummated.

It is this tension between what has been inaugurated and what is yet to be consummated which creates an

"earnest expectation . . . for the manifestation of the sons of God." Rom. 8:19.

The New Testament church is essentially an eschatological community, already part of the new age and the new creation by faith, but waiting for this to be manifested in empirical reality at the coming of Christ.

However, the church soon ceased to be such an eschatological community. She lost that faith which is directed to heaven. That which the church has in heaven at God's right hand was cast down to the earth (see Dan. 8:11,12).

"He (the Little Horn) even exalted himself as high as the Prince of the host; and by him the daily sacrifices were taken away, and the place of His sanctuary was cast down. 12 Because of transgression, an army was given over to the horn to oppose the daily sacrifices; and he cast truth down to the ground. He did all this and prospered." Daniel 8:11-12

To be specific:

1. The church ceased to truly pray, "Thy kingdom come," for instead of entering the kingdom only by faith and waiting for its manifestation, she began to conceive of herself as the kingdom of God on earth. The man who formulated this idea into a systematic theology was Augustine. The church itself was set forth as the stone of Daniel 2, the kingdom of God which overthrows and replaces the kingdoms of this world. Why wait for the kingdom to come when the church is thought to be the reality of this eschatological hope?

Instead of being a community which confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims in the earth, having no continuing city but seeking one to come (Heb. 11:9-16),

"By faith he dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise; 10 for he waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God. 11 By faith Sarah herself also received strength to conceive seed, and she bore a child when she was past the age, because she judged Him faithful who had promised. 12 Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born as many as the stars of the sky in multitude—innumerable as the sand which is by the seashore. 13 These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. 14 For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland. 15 And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them." Hebrews 11:9-16

the church settled down to become a permanent institution. She became a divinized institution which claimed complete monopoly over the treasures of salvation. In thus putting the kingdom on earth, the great St. Augustine became the father of the papal system and the horrors of the Inquisition.

2. The judgment of God was also cast down to the earth. Luther saw that the church in itself was always a "poor sinful creature," holy only in its Head. But Augustine's exaltation of the church led her to presume to be God's supreme tribunal on earth. As judge, she justified herself and condemned others. The saints fell

"by the sword, and by flame, by captivity, and by spoil, many days." Dan. 11:33.

The church substituted righteousness on earth (infused righteousness) for the righteousness in heaven (imputed righteousness) as the ground of justification with God. The Pauline truth of righteousness by faith was cast to the earth and utterly lost. Moreover, the rules and enactments of the church on earth were substituted for the commandments of God in heaven (Dan. 7:25; Rev. 11:19,15:5).

He shall speak pompous words against the Most High, Shall persecute the saints of the Most High, And shall intend to change times and law. Then the saints shall be given into his hand For a time and times and half a time. Daniel 7:25

Then the temple of God was opened in heaven, and the ark of His covenant was seen in His temple. And there were lightnings, noises, thunderings, an earthquake, and great hail. Revelation 11:19

After these things I looked, and behold, the temple of the tabernacle of the testimony in heaven was opened. Revelation 15:5

3. The sanctuary of the new covenant is not on earth, but in heaven (Heb. 8:1; Rev. 11:19:15:5).

Now this is the main point of the things we are saying: We have such a High Priest, who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, 2 a Minister of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle which the Lord erected, and not man. Hebrews 8:1

Then the temple of God was opened in heaven, and the ark of His covenant was seen in His temple. And there were lightnings, noises, thunderings, an earthquake, and great hail. Revelation 11:19

After these things I looked, and behold, the temple of the tabernacle of the testimony in heaven was opened. Revelation 15:5

Christ alone is the Minister of this sanctuary, the only Mediator between God and man. From this temple in heaven He executes His own will and testament, makes intercession for the saints, and rules as Priest upon His throne. But the spirit of antichrist, working in the church, cast the new covenant temple and its service of intercession to the ground. The church itself was made to be the tabernacle of the new covenant. Her human priesthood presumed to be the antitype of the Aaronic priests and the Levitical tabernacle. They polluted "the sanctuary of strength" (that which was the stronghold of the church's faith and life) and substituted "the abomination that maketh desolate." Dan. 11:31 (cf. Rev. 17:4, 5).

And arms shall stand on his part, and they shall pollute the sanctuary of strength, and shall take away the daily sacrifice, and they shall place the abomination that maketh desolate. Daniel 11:31

And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet colour, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication: 5 And upon her forehead was a name written, MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH. Revelation 17:4-5

4. The biblical truth of life only in Christ was also cast to the earth in the church's claim to inherent immortality. This error was parallel to the doctrine of justification by an inherent (infused) righteousness. We cannot here pause to discuss the various errors which spring from this unscriptural notion of natural immortality, except to say that Luther was brave enough to call it a "monstrous error" which came from "the dunghill of Roman decretals." —Martin Luther, Assertion of All the Articles Wrongly Condemned in the Roman Bull, Nov. 29,1520.

How do these four major errors relate to a loss of eager expectation of the Second Coming of Christ? When 1.) the kingdom of God, 2.) the righteousness of God, 3.) the sanctuary of God, and 4.) the immortal life of God are seen to be in Christ alone, in heaven alone, and possessed in the now by faith alone, then the church earnestly prays, waits and rejoices in the prospect of Christ's coming — for it is only then that salvation will become an actual possession. But when all these things are prematurely seized and cast down to the earth, real eschatological hope ceases to be. In her attempt to fulfill life and history, the church loses both faith in the gospel and hope in the second coming of Christ.

In the recovery of the gospel in the sixteenth century, we see a partial recovery of New Testament eschatology. Yet is it not all too evident that the spirit of casting truth from heaven to earth has been at work in the church since then? The medieval church put the church and her traditions in the place of the kingdom of God and the authority of His Word. Today it is a preoccupation with subjective religious experience which has cast down the truth to the earth. As a consequence, 'most modern Protestant scholars have adopted the Roman view of the doctrine of justification, as Doellinger pointed out in his lectures on reunion of the Christian Church.  ". . . modern Protestant theology . . . develops doctrine from 'experience and other subjective sources, and has discarded the Christian doctrine of justification."—F. Pieper, Christian Dogmatics (Concordia, 1951), Vol.2, p.555.

There are a few teachers, like stars in a tempestuous night, who hold to the truth and primacy of the New Testament doctrine of forensic justification, but these are the exception, not the rule. Religious internalism has not only led whole sections of the church away from the objective gospel, but it has led them to deny and repudiate the necessity of any objective law as a rule of life for the Christian. It is said that an inward experience called "love" or an inner voice called "Spirit" now provides the believer with infallible guidance. With this wholesale rejection of what the Reformers called "the third use of the law,"1 the church has virtually joined hands with those who teach situation ethics or moral relativism. In some cases it seems that the church will sanction almost any abominable thing so long as it is done in "a loving spirit." Only as men confess the reality of a law external to themselves will they appreciate the value of a righteousness which is also external to themselves.

When the gospel is lost, New Testament eschatology is lost. Much of the eschatology which currently fascinates so many evangelical minds is not New Testament eschatology, for it is not an unfolding and disclosure of what has already happened in Christ. It is an eschatology that has no real relationship to the Christ event. People take passages from the Old Testament and interpret them eschatologically without any reference to their fulfillment in Jesus Christ. This is a Judaizing eschatology that is contrary to the apostolic gospel.
 

Principles Necessary for a Recovery of New Testament Eschatology

If the church is to be awake and alive, she must be a genuinely eschatological community, waiting on tiptoe for the parousia. She must know when Christ's coming "is near, even at the doors." Matt. 24:33. Let us therefore make a summary of the elements necessary for a recovery of New Testament eschatology:

1. The Christ event as the fulfillment of all Old Testament hopes must not only be the starting point, but the vantage point from which everything else is seen. We must become as preoccupied with expounding its significance and witnessing to its glory as was the New Testament church. The essence of Christian experience is to be caught up in the wonder and grace of Christ, our Substitute, Representative, Righteousness, Propitiation, Reconciliation, Redemption, Mediator, Intercessor, High Priest, Atonement and Life. Christian witnessing is witnessing to a vicarious experience and not to our own.

2. The objective, outside-of-me nature of the great Christian truths must be grasped. The fulfillment of Old Testament hopes and promises is in Christ. The kingdom of God, the righteousness of God, the sanctuary of God, and the eternal life of God are all in heaven. We enter them and possess these blessings only by faith. "Righteousness by faith" means to be where we are not and to be what we are not.

3. The fulfillment in Christ of the eschatological hopes of the Old Testament will not lead us to ignore their future consummation at the time of Christ's second advent. We will not only see how the eschatological things of Daniel 2, 7, 8 and 12 were fulfilled in Christ, but we will seek to understand how they are to be consummated in "the time of the end." Dan. 12:4.

4. The Christ event must be seen as the mirror of eschatology. What unfolds at the end can only be what is already enfolded in Him. If it did not take place in Christ, it will not take place at the end. Eschatology, therefore, must be seen as "the revelation of Jesus Christ" (Rev. 1:1)—the disclosure of what really took place in His death and resurrection.

5. The gospel and eschatology must not compete with each other for our attention, but each must highlight the other to our attention. Such a message is represented as being sounded just prior to the return of Jesus Christ. Says the Revelator:

And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people, saying with a loud voice, Fear God, and give glory to Him; for the hour of His judgment is come: and worship Him that made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and the fountains of waters. —Rev. 14:6, 7.

Notice how this end-time message links the gospel and the judgment together. The righteous judgment of God which took place in the death and resurrection of Christ does not mean that we face no judgment, but it is the assurance of our final judgment (Acts 17:31). Men will never appreciate, much less understand, the gospel unless they confront the God of judgment and the God of law. How can the truth of justification be understood unless men acknowledge the righteous demands of God's law? His tribunal is one that sees to it that His law is honored in all His dealings with sinful men.

Judgment, law, justification—these all belong together. If, as the apostles affirm, men must finally be judged by the law (Rom. 2:13, 16;James 2:12), then Christ did not die to set aside its demands for perfect righteousness. Calvin said, "When our souls possess that by which we can stand fearless before God's face, then may we know that we possess no counterfeit righteousness."

It is no accident, therefore, that the Revelator puts the message of judgment in the center of gospel proclamation. The judgment was the center of Old Testament hopes and is given clear expression in the book of Daniel.2 It is by God's act of judgment that the kingdom is established (Dan. 2), the sanctuary of God vindicated (Dan. 8), and God's people delivered from death to life in the age to come (Dan. 12).

The Reformers were not wrong in putting justification at the center of the New Testament message, for justification is the verdict of the Judge in His work of judgment. We have seen that Paul's message to the Romans is a revelation of the righteous judgment of God—a judgment which condemns all sinners, intervenes in their hopeless predicament, demonstrates God's wrath in punishing the Representative of the race, declares the believing sinner righteous, and which honors the law (the character of God) in the whole procedure (Rom. 1:17; 3:21-31).

For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith (ed. note: "from faith to faith" means by faith from beginning to end): as it is written, The just shall live by faith. Romans 1:17

But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; 22 Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ (in Jesus Christ) [Greek: objective genitive] unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: 23 For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; 24 Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: 25 Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare His righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; 26 To declare, I say, at this time His righteousness: that He might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus. 27 Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith. 28 Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law. 29 Is he the God of the Jews only? is he not also of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also: 30 Seeing it is one God, which shall justify the circumcision by faith, and uncircumcision through faith. 31 Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law. Romans 3:21-31

We have seen that "the kingdom of God" really means the rule of God. As king, He has a law which is called "the royal law." James 2:8. This law is not only honored in His judgment, but established. Establishing God's kingdom means the establishing of the authority of His law.

To be sure, entering the kingdom means freedom, but it is the freedom that comes by subjection to the divine authority of "the royal law," "the law of liberty." James 2:8, 12.

We have observed that the words, or stipulations, of the covenant have not passed away with the old covenant, but have passed under the new and better administration. Let all with eyes to see look at that new covenant temple in heaven, which contains both the ark and the "testimony" (Rev. 11:19; 15:5). The antichrist has polluted (Dan. 11:31), blasphemed (Rev. 13:6) and trodden this temple underfoot (Dan. 8:11,12) until the cry has gone up for God to arise in judgment and vindicate His sanctuary (compare Dan. 8:13 with Rev. 6:9-11; Ps. 43:1-5; Zech. 1:12,16).


God's act of judgment is also that which justifies and delivers His people. This is true whether we look at the judgment Christologically or eschatologically. It is the decree of the Judge which releases the believer from the pit of sin, and it is the eschatological decree of the judgment which brings the believer's body from the grave. Life comes to man only by a favorable decree of the Judge. Justification — that is, to be judged righteous at the divine tribunal—is a verdict of eternal life (Rom. 5:18).

Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. Romans 5:18

By faith eternal life is a present possession, yet it remains the "hope of eternal life" (Titus 1:2),

In hope of eternal life, which God, that cannot lie, promised before the world began; Titus 1:2

which shall be brought to us at the appearing of the One "who is our life." Col. 3:4.

When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory. Colossians 3:4

What is "life" but to be in harmony with God, to be in His kingdom, under His rule, and in His presence? This is what the gospel teaches us to believe we are, and this is what eschatology teaches us to hope we shall be.

——————————————————————————————————————

Footnotes:

1 The three uses of the law are:

First use—social, to restrain wickedness;
Second use—to convict of sin and drive us to Christ;
Third use—a rule of life to show Christians how they should live in praise of grace.
Click here to return to superscript #1.

2 Daniel means God is my Judge. Click here to return to superscript #2.