Millenniums and Mandates

One of the key differences between amillennialism and postmillennialism is how they relate the economy of redemption to the economy of consummation. To put it differently, amillenialism and postmillenialism disagree on the relationship between the Great Commission and the cultural/creation mandate. This seems more or less to be the crux of the issue, at least at the dogmatic level (not necessarily at the exegetical level).

The issue works as follows. In Scripture, there are two basic projects: creation and reconciliation, or consummation and redepmtion. The project of creation is the original setup. You could say “Plan A,” ignoring for now the fact that God always knew and planned for everything else. In creation/consummation, God creates the world and humanity good but incomplete. They are both designed to bring Him glory and receive His grace, but man as God’s image is tasked with bringing this end to its fullness. Man is to take the raw goodness of God’s creation and fashion it into something greater and more beautiful, taking the world from glory to glory. This is what has been called the cultural mandate.

Of course, man’s fulfillment of the cultural mandate was almost immediately upset by sin. The Fall represented the introduction the intrusion of a foreign element, sin, into creation. Sin is diametrically opposed to God, the darkness to His light, and thus its introduction into humanity and the rest of creation prevents the complete fulfillment of the cultural mandate. While man can still advance the creation toward God’s glory to some extent by industry, art, language, and other products, the ubiquitous taint of sin will obscure the image. There will be dark spots, stains, and structural weaknesses at nearly every point. If the cultural mandate is to be fulfilled, sin and death must be removed from the world. This is the project of redemption. The work of Christ is the means by which sin is removed, restoring man to his proper status and role as God’s image.

The division between millennial views emerges here, at the intersection of creation and redemption. If redemption solves the problem of sin which interrupted the project of creation and consummation, then when does the creation project get back on track? The world still needs to go through the process for which it was intended: being brought by humanity from glory to glory in order to display the glory of God in as much fullness as creation can. When and how will this take place?

Amillennialism and postmillenialism answer this question differently. In amillennialism, the project of consummation cannot truly get back underway until the project of redemption is complete. As long as sin and death still exist, mankind will not really be able to fulfill the cultural mandate. Until humans are fully redeemed, the unredeemed elements of human culture will so poison the project as to make its effects null. Only once Christ returns and completes our redemption will we be able to move on and fully glorify creation as intended.

Postmillennialism offers a different answer. In postmillennialism, the projects of creation and redemption operate in parallel. As God redeems, He enables and calls forth the fulfillment of the cultural mandate. This means that the cultural accomplishments of redeemed man are not going to be perfect, since redemption is not yet perfected, but this can be improving in an ongoing way, and in the end purified when Christ returns. So in the time between the first and second advents, we are able to make real progress on both the Great Commission and the cultural mandate simultaneously. The atonement has not only brought redemption to the world, but in bringing redemption has put the work of consummation back in business.

This difference is basically why theonomists and Christian Reconstructionists are nearly all postmillennial. Their project assumes a degree of temporal unity between the two great projects. Work on creation and work on redemption can overlap and interlock. By contrast, this is why so many Reformed Baptists become amillennial but few become postmillennial. Baptist ecclesiology and anthropology tend to assume that the economy of consummation is entirely separate from the economy of redemption, and thus that the cultural mandate is mostly impossible to implement on a scale of any consequence before the Great Commission is finished and Christ returns.

Millenniums and Mandates

Are We All God’s Children?

Are we all God’s children? In this case by “we” I don’t mean specifically Christians, but all people in all of the world. Is it true as some say that all people are children of God? The more pop-theology answer tends to be “yes,” whereas more theologically astute Christians usually tend to answer “no, only Christians are” though there are exceptions. But the best answers have never been quite so simplistic. We should recognize that there are multiple dimensions to the Fatherhood of God, and in fact I would present it as having three aspects in particular. Depending on what you mean, it can be right or wrong to call God “Father” of all people. So what are these three “fatherhoods?”

  • Creational fatherhood: In one sense, because God is the Creator all things He is also their Father. Paul says this while preaching to Greek thinkers in Acts, “as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ Since we are God’s offspring…” As a human father creates a child, so God created the world. (The fact that God creates the world as apart from Himself, rather than enclosing it within Himself like in panentheism, also makes it more true to speak of God’s role as Creator in terms of fatherhood than motherhood.) In this sense, God is Father of everyone and everything He has created. We should not make light of this. God is every bit as much love and every bit as generous in His creational fatherhood as in anything else.
  • Covenantal fatherhood: In another sense, God is specially regarded as Father in His covenant relationships. When God elects and establishes a covenant, He sets Himself up as Father to the newly elect. Of Israel God said, “Israel is my firstborn son,” (Exod. 4:22), and He later says when He makes a covenant with David, “You are my son: today I have begotten you” (Ps. 2:7). Likewise, He now calls those in the new covenant His children (Rom. 9:8). This is a more intimate use of the term “Father,” for in this case God is highlighting a special relationship of love, care, and obedience between God and His covenant partner.
  • New creational fatherhood: As God is Father to all He has created, He is also Father to all that He creates anew. There is a special sense in which those who are born again into the new creation are God’s children. Their new birth involves a change of parentage. They were once, by their sin, children of Satan, but now they are reborn into God’s family. John basically says everything we need to know about this sense of God’s fatherhood in 1 John 3:1-2.

    See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.

    We should also understand, though, that in Christ this new creation is already accomplished for all people (John 5:29, 2 Cor. 5:19), even though not all have yet received it by faith in Him (Gal. 3:26). Not all will ever receive this new status as new creation children personally, but it objectively exists in Christ.

So from these three we can see that it can both be appropriate to speak of all people as God’s children and to speak specially of believers as God’s children. The one God is the one Father of all (Eph. 4:6), but it is also true that many are children of Satan rather than children of God (1 Jn. 3:8-10).

What we should see underlying all of this, however, is the eternal Father-Son relation of the Trinity. If anyone else is to be God’s child, it is first grounded in the fact that Jesus is the Son of God. It is is because Christ is the firstborn over all creation (Col. 1:15b) and the image in whom we were made (Col. 1:15a, cf. Gen. 1:27) that God is our Father creationally. Israel became God’s son, but their destiny was always defined by the coming of the only-begotten Son (Matt. 2:15). Of David and Solomon it was said that God became their Father, but Israel’s kings were only ever types of the one true Son and King (Heb. 1:5). And we are God’s children now, but only by union with Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:26, Eph. 1:5). Thus it all comes back to Jesus. He is the Son of God, and no one else can claim any such honor except through Him. And in that way it is true both that all are God’s children in Christ, and yet we who believe alone are God’s children in Christ. May we live our lives with the goal of seeing these two groups become one!

Are We All God’s Children?

The Bible, Limited Atonement, the Church, and the World

When I originally ran into Calvinism, limited atonement was the most frightening doctrine to me, and it almost sounded heretical. Even when I was a Calvinist, I originally and in the end found it awfully stretchy in relation to what Scripture actually says, and for that reason I was quite happy to abandon it when the time came. But for Calvinists I know, this repudiation seems strange. They can hardly see how a logical approach to the Bible can go without limited atonement. Yet I am convinced that to let Scripture say what it says entirely rules out the doctrine.

For this post, then, I would simply like to propose the basic outline of my approach to texts in Scripture which relate to the extent of the atonement. I believe that this approach is more faithful to what the Bible actually says and means than the Calvinistic one. I will try to present each in a strong and credible form for comparison, and I will then present a few verses which I think can serve as decent test cases for your own evaluation as readers.

First, the basic Calvinistic approach to atonement texts. In the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement, Christ only died to atone for the sins of the elect, at least in any full and strict sense. Jesus hung from the Cross as the penal substitute and representative of the elect alone. He paid the full legal price for their sins alone. Some Calvinists will also say that Jesus’ death at least brought some kinds of benefits to the rest of humanity, though this is a limited blessing (one which I tend to think is actually a curse, as I will explain in a later post someday).

Obviously, this view of the atonement creates tension with texts like 2 Corinthians 5:14-15 or Hebrews 2:9. So how do Calvinists address them? It depends both on the specific context and the particular interpreter, but there are usually three main approaches. The first looks for clues in the context that show the “all” should be understood as referring to all of the Church/elect/redeemed rather than every member of humanity. Another method is to view the “all” as a reference essentially to the universal generality and diversity involved rather than the total number of people, i.e. “all” means “all kinds of people” (cf. Rev. 5:9) or specifically “Jews and Gentiles together” (cf. 1 John 2:2) rather than “every person.” And a final method, historically not very common until recently, is to take it as a reference to the supposed general, non-saving benefits of Jesus’ death for all people, such as common grace.

On the other hand, Calvinists seem to have a prima facie stronger grasp of certain texts which specify Christ as dying for His Church or His people. They take these as straightforwardly saying that, when it comes to actual atonement for redemption, Jesus died simply and exclusively for the elect, His own people. These are the only people that Jesus was crucified in order to save.

So how is my own approach (one which, of course, has plenty of parallels outside of Calvinism) different? First, I take the “all” passages at face value. When 2 Corinthians 5:14 says, “one died for all,” I accept that as meaning Jesus died for all people indiscriminately. Same goes for a host of other passages. The “all” passages seem to be clear and explicit. Unlike in the Calvinistic reading, these mean exactly what you would think and exactly what they say. When Jesus suffered on Calvary, He suffered on behalf of the entire human race as a whole, on behalf of humanity as one race. This is because He, as the divine Word in whom all humanity is created, represents them all in His own human flesh. He organically stepped into the place and guilt of all people through His stance in several layers of covenant ultimately encompassing the whole race.

So what about the passages which speak of Christ’s death as specifically for His Church or His people, the many? I believe we should also fully affirm them, without diluting their force. I mean, on one hand, obviously “all people” includes the Church. But that’s not a convincing way to understand verses as strong as Eph. 5:25. In what way did Christ die specifically and especially for His Church? For this, I look to the way that the Church is not merely meant to be individuals who don’t have to go to Hell, but is instead a renewed Israel and through Israel also a renewed humanity. The Church is the humanity of the new creation. In Christ’s death the old humanity dies, and in His resurrection the new humanity is born. In this way we can say that Jesus died specifically to create His Church as a redeemed people for a redeemed world. This isn’t saying that Jesus only paid the penalty for the sins of people who actually end up saved, but says that the atonement was especially designed to form a new humanity, a new image-bearing people of God, out of the old one by union with Christ in His death and resurrection. So it truly makes sense to speak of Jesus giving Himself for His Church to save and sanctify Her, even while at the same time affirming that He died for the sins of the world unequivocally.

So, with these two approaches, a classical one and a more Evangelical Calvinist-style one, in mind, I offer a handful of texts related to the extent of the atonement, and you can judge which view makes more sense on your own:

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired man, since he is not the shepherd and doesn’t own the sheep, leaves them and runs away when he sees a wolf coming. The wolf then snatches and scatters them. This happens because he is a hired man and doesn’t care about the sheep.

“I am the good shepherd. I know My own sheep, and they know Me, as the Father knows Me, and I know the Father. I lay down My life for the sheep. But I have other sheep that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will listen to My voice. Then there will be one flock, one shepherd. This is why the Father loves Me, because I am laying down My life so I may take it up again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down on My own. I have the right to lay it down, and I have the right to take it up again. I have received this command from My Father.” 

John 10:11-18

For Christ’s love compels us, since we have reached this conclusion: If One died for all, then all died. And He died for all so that those who live should no longer live for themselves, but for the One who died for them and was raised. 

2 Corinthians 2:14-15

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her to make her holy, cleansing her with the washing of water by the word. He did this to present the church to Himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or anything like that, but holy and blameless. In the same way, husbands are to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own flesh but provides and cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, since we are members of His body.

Ephesians 5:25-30

For He has not subjected to angels the world to come that we are talking about. But one has somewhere testified:

What is man that You remember him, or the son of man that You care for him? You made him lower than the angels for a short time; You crowned him with glory and honor and subjected everything under his feet.

For in subjecting everything to him, He left nothing that is not subject to him. As it is, we do not yet see everything subjected to him. But we do see Jesus — made lower than the angels for a short time so that by God’s grace He might taste death for everyone — crowned with glory and honor because of His suffering in death. For in bringing many sons to glory, it was entirely appropriate that God — all things exist for Him and through Him — should make the source of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the One who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. That is why Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers, saying:

I will proclaim Your name to My brothers; I will sing hymns to You in the congregation.

Again, I will trust in Him. And again, Here I am with the children God gave Me.

Now since the children have flesh and blood in common, Jesus also shared in these, so that through His death He might destroy the one holding the power of death — that is, the Devil — and free those who were held in slavery all their lives by the fear of death. For it is clear that He does not reach out to help angels, but to help Abraham’s offspring. Therefore, He had to be like His brothers in every way, so that He could become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For since He Himself was tested and has suffered, He is able to help those who are tested. 

Hebrews 2:5-18

He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not only for ours, but also for those of the whole world.

1 John 2:2

The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life — a ransom for many.

Matthew 20:28

This is good, and it pleases God our Savior, who wants everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and humanity, Christ Jesus, Himself human, who gave Himself — a ransom for all, a testimony at the proper time.

1 Timothy 2:3-6

The Bible, Limited Atonement, the Church, and the World

Jesus the New and True Israel

What do God’s redemptive plan and the movie Inception have in common? Complex layers within complex layers. If you don’t know Inception, the movie is about dreams, and involves dreams within dreams within dreams. Each dream is very different, but also very connected to the dreams on the higher and lower levels. The dreams are all important and, after you wake up, end up changing your real life.

How does this relate to God’s redemptive plan? Like the Inception dreams, the history God shapes with His people has many very different but very connected parts. What happened with Adam is connected to what happened with Noah, which is connected to what happened with Abraham, which is connected to what happened with Isaac, Jacob, and all Israel, which is connected to what happened with Jesus. In fact, from the beginning with Adam, everything that happened was similar to and leading up to Jesus.

The most important connections involve Israel. In order to redeem all humanity, God chose one particular human family starting with Abraham (Gen. 12:3). These people came to be known as Israel, and they were not chosen because they were any different than everyone else (Deut. 9:4-5). In fact, as the whole sweep of the Old Testament reveals, the Israelites were no less messed up than all humanity. They had to be for God to bless all nations through them. If a doctor wants to cure a disease, will he study the healthiest person around and use him to test potential cures? No, he will take an average sick person just like all the rest, so that by curing one of them he can cure them all.

So what happened to Israel? First, they were born from a normal family. After an exile to Egypt, who persecuted them and killed their babies, they were baptized through the waters of the Red Sea (1 Cor. 10:1-2) and entered the desert, where they were tempted for 40 years. They received God’s laws so that they would love Him and love each other. As a kingdom of priests, God intended to make them shine before the world so that He would be worshiped by every people. After the 40 years they entered their land and conquered the evil people living there. But they disobeyed, so God let them be conquered themselves and carried off into another exile. Yet He was faithful to His promise, so He brought them back. (See a summary of all this in Acts 7:2-50.)

Since Israel failed so miserably and constantly, God’s plan to bless everyone on earth through them seemed to be at a standstill. How would God save the world if His chosen people were so stubborn and always resisted the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:51)? As the prophets foretold in shadowy and obscure language, God Himself was going to create the perfect Israelite obedience He was looking for. He became a human being, a Jew Himself, so that despite human problems He could fulfill His covenant from both sides. The human being Jesus, who is the eternal Word of God, acted both as the faithful God and the faithful Israelite. But He couldn’t just start from the middle of their failures. He had to go back and redo the whole project.

Jesus was born in a normal family (Matt. 13:54-56). After escaping to Egypt while Herod killed babies, He was called out of Egypt back to the Promised Land (Matt. 2:15-16). There He was baptized in the waters of the Jordan River (Luke 3:21-22), and after that He entered the desert to be tempted for 40 days (Matt. 4:1-11, Luke 4:1-13). He preached to Israel how to really obey God’s law to love Him and others (Matt. 5-7) and made His disciples to be the light of the world for God’s glory (Matt. 5:14-16). Then He went around Israel conquering the forces of evil in all forms: demons, death, suffering, and sin (Matt. 8:16-17). Through the Spirit (Luke 4:14) by means of prayer (Heb. 5:7) He remained obedient to God to the point of death, even death on a cross (Phil. 2:8). But God was faithful to His beloved Son and brought Him back from the dead (Acts 13:30-37).

If you missed the strength of these parallels, try reading the paragraph about Israel again. I didn’t even cover them all. There are several smaller details as well, such as the miraculous feedings (Matt. 14:13-21 with 2 Kings 4:42-44), raising children from the dead (Matt. 9:18-26 with 2 Kings 4:18-37), and judging Jerusalem with the Temple (Luke 21:5-24 with 2 Chron. 36:10,15-19). Jesus relived the history of Israel, but with one crucial difference. Israel gave into temptation and disobeyed, leading to exile, and received a partial restoration simply because God was faithfully merciful, but Jesus resisted temptation and remained obedient, leading to a saving death, and He received a total, one-of-a-kind resurrection because of His own faithfulness to God.

This retelling of Israel’s story in Jesus is actually how we are saved. Israel, as we mentioned before, was only ever made of normal people among normal people. They stood before God as a microcosm of the entire human race. So by blessing and saving Israel God intended to bless and save all the world (again, Gen. 12:1-3). Yet Israel was unfaithful, and was always going to turn out that way, so within God’s chosen people God brought forth His chosen Son, Jesus. Jesus redid and repaired Israel’s history in His own life, winning salvation for His people (Matt. 1:21). His people, by the way, are firstly Israel, since He is a Jew, and secondarily all people, since He is human (Heb. 2:5-18). This is how salvation is from the Jews (John 4:22), and why Paul tells us that salvation and condemnation will come for the Jew first and also the for the Gentiles (Rom. 2:9-10). Jesus’ life fulfilled Israel’s life which fulfills humanity’s life.

Given all this, I can’t think of anything else to say. Words fail the complex reality God has accomplished in His Son. Praise God for Jesus, the new and true Israel!

Jesus the New and True Israel