The Gospel and the Second Coming

B. B. Warfield
Wednesday, June 13th 2007
Sep/Oct 2001

The term "millennium" has entered Christian speech under the influence of the twentieth chapter of the book of Revelation. From that passage, imperfectly understood, there has also been derived the idea that is connected with this term. We say, from that passage imperfectly understood. For the book of Revelation is a symbolic book; that is to say, what it describes it describes not directly but indirectly, through the medium of symbols. To take its description literally is therefore to substitute the symbol for the reality. That is what is done when the opening verses of the twentieth chapter are read as if they predicted a period of long duration in the earthly history of the Church, in which Satan is to deceive the nations no more and the resurrected martyrs are to live and reign with Christ.

What is meant to be conveyed to us by this beautiful description of the holy peace of Christ's saints is probably not prophetic knowledge of an episode in the earthly history of the Church, but a deeper sense of the bliss of Christ's people "safe penned in Paradise." It is what is called "the intermediate state," in other words, which is here symbolically depicted. The seer wishes us to bear in mind the whole Church of Christ as it exists during these long years before the blessed hope of the consummated Kingdom is realized. There is the Church struggling here below-the "militant Church" we may call it; the triumphing Church he would rather teach us to call it-for the essence of his presentation is not that there is continual strife here to be endured, but that there is continuous victory here to be won. The picture of this conquering Church is given us in the nineteenth chapter. But there is also the Church waiting there above, but not waiting merely, but living and reigning with Christ, free from all strife and safe from all assaults of the evil one. This is depicted for us in the opening verses of the twentieth chapter. Not the one only, but both together-the Church militant and the Church expectant-constitute the Church of Christ; and not the one alone but both together pass unscathed through the great trial (the latter part of chapter 20) to inherit the new heaven and new earth (chapter 21). John is here only saying in symbols what Paul says in more direct language when he tells us that, whether we wake or sleep, we shall all live together with our Lord Jesus Christ in that great day when death is swallowed up in victory (1 Thess. 4:15; 5:10; 1 Cor. 15, 39 ff.).

Pre-millennial, post-millennial are therefore unfortunate terms, embodying, and so perpetuating, a misapprehension of the bearing of an important passage of Scripture. They are not, however, on that account meaningless, and the antithesis of the view which they express is neither imaginary nor unimportant. The Scriptures do promise to the Church a "golden age," when the conflict with the forces of evil in which it is engaged has passed into victory; and it is far from a matter of indifference how this "golden age" stands related to the second coming of our Lord. Infelicitous as the names "pre-millennialism" and "post-millennialism" are, they stand for a divergency of view on this important point which has far-reaching consequences. According to the one view, the second coming of the Lord is the productive cause of the "golden age" of the Church. According to the other, the "golden age" of the Church is the adorning of the bride for her husband and is the preparation for his coming. Otherwise expressed, according to the one view, the mission of the Church, endowed for its work by the manifold gifts of the Spirit, is not to convert the world to Christ, but only to bear witness to the redemptive will of God, not meanwhile to be exerted in its full power, but to wait for its real triumph for a future dispensation in which it operates by means of different instrumentalities. While according to the other view, precisely what the risen Lord, who has been made head over all things for his Church, is doing through these years that stretch between his First and Second Comings, is conquering the world to himself; and the world is to be nothing less than a converted world.

The mere statement of the antithesis suggests its resolution. For surely it is the burden of the New Testament that Jesus Christ, the propitiation for the sins of the whole world, has been sent by the Father into the world not to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through him (1 John 2:2; John 3:17). That is to say, this is his definite mission, not to judge but to save, and he has come to be the Savior of nothing less than the world (1 John 4:14); and in fulfilment of this mission he has sent those whom the Father gave him into the world, even as the Father sent him into the world (John 17:18). As is his wont, Paul puts the whole matter in a nutshell. What has been given to us who are charged with preaching the gospel is, he tells us, distinctively the ministry of reconciliation, and it is the ministry of reconciliation for the specific reason that God was reconciling the world with himself in Christ (2 Cor. 5:19). Every word here must be taken in its full meaning. The ministry that Paul exercised, and which everyone who follows him in proclaiming the gospel exercises with him, is distinctively the ministry of reconciliation. It has as its object, and is itself the proper means of, that actual reconciliation of the whole world. That its full point may be given to this great declaration, we should go on to observe that Paul proceeds at once to proclaim that therefore-because it is this ministry of reconciliation that has been committed to us-the period of the preaching of the gospel is "the acceptable time" and "the day of salvation" predicted by the prophets. His meaning, when he cries, "Behold, now is the acceptable time, behold, now is the day of salvation," is not, as it has sometimes been strangely misunderstood, that the day in which we may find acceptance with God is swiftly passing by, but rather that now at length that promised day of salvation has fully come. Now, this time of the preaching of the gospel of reconciliation is by way of eminence the day of salvation. It is not a time in which only a few, here and there, may be saved, while the harvest is delayed. It is the very harvest time itself in which the field is being reaped. And the field is the world.

The implication of a declaration like this is, of course, that God's saving activities have now reached their culmination; there is nothing beyond this. This implication is present throughout the whole New Testament. It pervades, for example, the Epistle to the Hebrews, the burden of which is that in this dispensation the climax of God's redemptive work has been attained, and there is nothing to be hoped for after it. In his Son and in the salvation provided in his Son God has done his ultimate. This note is already struck in the initial verses of the epistle and swells thence onward. Accordingly, these days of the Son and his word are explicitly designated "the end of these days" (Heb. 1:2), a phraseology running through the New Testament in the various forms of "the end times" (1 Pet. 1:20), "the last days" (Acts 2:17; 2 Tim. 3:1; James 5:3; 2 Pet. 3:3), "the last time" (Jude 18), "the last hour" (1 John 2:18). These "last days" may themselves terminate in a more pointedly "last day" (John 4:39; 11:24) or "last time" (1 Pet. 1:5)-the very last of the last-but just because they are the last they cannot be succeeded by any day or any time or season whatever. They close what is called "this world" or "this age" and are followed only by "the world or age to come," which is what we commonly call "eternity." In the face of this stated designation of the period of our Lord's first coming (Heb. 1:2; 1 Pet. 1:20) and of the outpouring of the Spirit (Acts 2:17) as the last, it will be hard to maintain that there remains another and different earthly dispensation to be lived through before the end comes. And the difficulty is further increased when we observe that The Second Coming of the Lord (Matt. 24:3-6; cf. 1 Cor. 15:24) is identified with this "end" (cf. Matt. 24:6-14; Mark 13:7; Luke 21:9; 1 Cor. 15:24).

Let us turn, however, to the Great Commission itself ( Matt. 28:19, 20). From it surely we may learn the precise nature of the mission that has been committed to the Church of our age. The task laid upon it, we note, is that of "discipling all the nations," and the means by which this discipling is to be accomplished is described as baptism and instruction-obviously just the ordinary means by which the Church is extended through the ministry of the gospel. The full point of the matter comes out, however, only in the accompanying promise: "And lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world." The promise, of course, must correspond with the command. The Lord would not encourage his followers to fulfill his command to disciple all nations, by promising to be continuously with them ("all the days") while time lasts ("even unto the end of the world"), unless the process of discipling the nations here commanded was itself to continue unbrokenly to this end. Of course, everything depends on the meaning of the phrase, "unto the end of the world." But that is not doubtful. Our Lord employs it twice elsewhere-in his explanations of the parables of the tares and the drawn net (Matt. 13:39, 40, 49). In the former he declares that "the harvest is the end of the world," and explains that to mean that, as, " the tares are gathered up and burned with the fire; so shall it be in the end of the world; the Son of Man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that cause stumbling, and them that do iniquity, and shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth; then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father." In the latter he explains that in the end of the world "the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the righteous, and shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be the weeping and the gnashing of teeth." "The end of the world" here is clearly the last judgment and the consummation of the kingdom. The phrase is used again by our Lord's disciples when they inquired of him; "What shall be the sign of thy coming and of the end of the world?" (Matt. 24:3). Here the Second Coming of our Lord and the end of the world are treated as a single event-an identification in which our Lord acquiesces when, with obvious back reference to it, he speaks (vv. 6, 14) of the time of "the end" as of what he has yet to explain to them in response to their question. "The end of the world" then is, as Alford explains it, "the completion of the state of time" after which "time shall be no more." So long as time endures, so long the commission of the Church to disciple the nations by baptism and instruction continues in force.

It cannot be said, indeed, that the mere command to the Church to disciple all nations carries with it as a necessary implication that, before time ceases, all the nations shall have been actually discipled. This much, however, is certainly included in the command: That the goal set before the Church in its evangelistic work, the object for which it is to labor, and the end by the accomplishment of which alone its task may be fulfilled, is "the discipling of all nations." Under this commission the Church cannot set itself a lighter task or content itself with a lesser achievement. Least of all can it take refuge in the prediction of our Lord (Matt. 24:14; cf. Luke 24:47) that "this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world for a testimony unto all the nations" before "the end" comes, as if nothing more could be asked of it but to bear an unavailing testimony to Christ before all nations. Duty is not to be determined by predictions but by commands, and the command is not to preach the gospel as a testimony unto the nations, but, by means of the gospel, to disciple all nations. The appeal would, in any case, be meaningless. It is not said in the prediction that the testimony shall be unavailing. It is simply predicted that the gospel shall be faithfully preached in all the world before the end. From it we may learn that this much at least shall be accomplished, and there is nothing in it to forbid either the hope or the assurance that much more will be accomplished. And elsewhere we are given firm ground for both the hope and the assurance. Even in the Great Commission, the promise annexed, "And lo, I am with you," surely implies something more than that the power of the Lord will sustain his followers in the trials and disappointments of the heavy task laid upon them. There certainly throbs through it an intimation that because he is always with them in their work, they shall meet with some measure of success in it. What this measure of success shall be, we are told elsewhere. There is the parable of the mustard seed, intimating that small as it was in its beginning, the Kingdom of Heaven is to grow into a great tree in the branches of which all the birds of heaven shall lodge. And there is the parable of the leaven, which declares that though it was at the first but a speck of leaven, apparently lost in three whole measures of meal, yet by its power at last shall "all be leavened" (Matt. 13:31-33). And there is Paul's clear, didactic statement that "the fullness of the Gentiles shall come in; and so all Israel shall be saved" (Rom. 11:25, 26), importing nothing less than a worldwide salvation.

Let us look for a moment at another line of representations. What do the Scriptures teach us of the time of our Lord's return? Those men in white apparel who stood by the disciples as they gazed into the heavens into which their master had disappeared assured them that he would come again, but said nothing of when he would do so (Acts 1:10; cf. 7). But Peter who witnessed this scene informs us in his very first sermon, the great Pentecostal discourse, that Jesus, having, unlike David, ascended into heaven, has there taken his seat on the throne of the universe, at the right hand of God, and that he will remain in heaven upon his throne until all his enemies have been made the footstool of his feet (Acts 2:35; cf. Heb. 10:12, 13; 1 Cor. 15:25). All conflict, then, will be over, the conquest of the world will be complete, before Jesus returns to earth. He does not come in order to conquer the world to himself; he comes because the world has already been conquered to himself. In quite similar fashion this same Peter in his very next sermon (Acts 3:21) defines the time of our Lord's return as at the end of the world. "The heavens must receive him," he tells us, "until the time of the restoration of all things." The allusion is to the re-creation of the heavens and the earth, the "regeneration" that our Lord himself identifies with the last judgment (Matt. 19:28). Accordingly this same Peter, when men began to fret because the Lord-in their opinion-unduly delayed his coming, intimates that, though the mills of God may seem to grind slowly, they grind exceedingly surely (2 Pet. 3:4-8) and reaffirms that here will certainly come in its own good time that day of the Lord "in which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall be dissolved with fervent heat, and the earth and the works that are therein shall be burned up" (2 Pet. 3:10). This, according to him, is the coming of the Lord; and this is the consummation of all things. Where is there place for a subsequent earthly dispensation?

So we might pass from representation to representation until well nigh the whole substance of the New Testament was reviewed. Enough has doubtless been said to show that the assumption that the dispensation in which we live is an indecisive one, and that the Lord waits to conquer the world to himself until after he returns to earth, employing then new and more effective methods then he has set at work in our own time, is scarcely in harmony with the New Testament point of view. According to the New Testament, this time in which we live is precisely the time in which our Lord is conquering the world to himself; and it is the completion of his redemptive work, so sets the time for his return to earth to consummate his Kingdom and establish it in its eternal form.

1 [ Back ] This essay appears in B. B. Warfield's Selected Shorter Works (ed. by John E. Meter, Phillipsburg, N.J.: P& R Publishing, 2001). Warfield (1851-1921) taught systematic theology at Princeton Theological Seminary.
Wednesday, June 13th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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