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Reflections on the Pandemic, and Signs of the Last Days

March 22, 2021 17 comments

What a year this has been.  It was a year ago, March 17, that I and co-workers first started working from home due to the pandemic lockdown, and we are still working from home for the foreseeable future.  As I reflect back on all the events of the last year, I frequently think of the term “apocalypse” in its broader, general meaning — as a “revealing,” and the revealing of the hearts and minds of people as a result of particular trials and afflictions, such as what the events of the last year have revealed.  

The people of Israel in Exodus 4:31 heard from Aaron and Moses, and believed them.  Yet one chapter later, in Exodus 5:21, the same people (a group within the overall group from Exodus 4:31) declared that the LORD should judge Moses and Aaron, for putting a sword in the Egyptians to kill them.  The different circumstance brought out a very different response. Likewise, in our day, the unusual events of the last year have been a revealing of people’s hearts under afflictions and difficulties.

A recent Wall Street journal article has considered how the pandemic has affected people — and the comments section at the Facebook posting also reveals the divide in the country and the experiences of many more.  A recent report from the Business Insider tells of at least a few cases where church pastors have left their congregations, due to radicalized conspiracy followers, and notes the high percentage of professing church-goers who hold to conspiracy ideas such as QAnon.  When fewer people returned to church services last summer and fall, it was speculated by those who were still attending (often at churches that considered face coverings optional) that the people at home viewing online would decide they preferred that instead of meeting in person.  Yet as noted in a recent survey, and observed locally, the vast majority, over 90%, do plan to return and already are returning to in person, now that a medical treatment, a vaccine, has become available.

A resource I’ve read from time to time over the last several years, the SGAT — the Sovereign Grace Advent Testimony — has published a booklet, based on a set of sermons delivered on January 3, 2021, called “Where Are We In God’s Calendar?”  The booklet can be ordered online (I received it in the postal mail along with the latest two newsletters), and the original sermons, with some of the same content are online here, part 1 and part 2.  From the booklet comes this observation, regarding the signs of the times, and Christ’s Return:

Creeping Awareness

Is there not a creeping, growing awareness of things prophetic amongst a remnant?  …  Is there not a growing consciousness amongst true believers of the deepening apostasy, the universal rejection of God’s Word amongst those nations privileged for centuries to hear it proclaimed, and a recognising that, as never before, men are embracing everything that is unholy and ungodly?
There was a slow awakening to the wickedness of the World Council of Churches amongst evangelicals and likewise to the wicked departures of Billy Graham but light did finally dawn!
The darkness reigning over the nations is seen in that nothing seems to have been brought home to the multitude by this ‘Coronavirus’ plague.
Only a few have noted the ‘spirit’ of this day!
In the midst of the pandemic, the deaths and sicknesses, there has been little or no public reference to God.  Political leaders have purposely avoided any mention of Him altogether while the so-called ‘church leaders’ in the mainline churches have made such scant and irrelevant mention of Him, silence on their part would have been more beneficial!
Pulpits in evangelical assemblies are also largely silent on the matter, many with contempt dismissing the Covid virus as a mere ‘flu!
I believe that the events that are revealed by the opening of the first seal indicate the great need of this hour–a revealing of the approach of the Saviour’s return.
It is something for which we ought to be praying!  I will not be dogmatic about this but I think that what I say is worthy of some consideration.  If I am correct in suggesting that we are near to the opening of the first seal and the revealing and emphasising afresh to God’s people the great doctrine of the Saviour’s return in glory, then soon there will follow the events shown us here under the likeness of the opening of the pages of a book.  

God’s word tells us we should not be surprised, when we see ever deepening and widening apostasy, as we continue in these general “last days” and as we approach the days just before Christ’s return.  Just as the Jews of Jesus’ day were more focused on Christ’s Second Coming, His coming to rule and reign, so the NT church has focused mostly on His First Coming.  In Luke 18 Jesus observed, ‘when the Son of Man comes [His Return], will he find faith on earth?’  As I’ve been studying through the gospel of Luke, it is refreshing to read J.C. Ryle’s Expository Thoughts on the Gospel of Luke, which has many great observations concerning our attitude toward Christ’s Return, and how we should be living, in light of this great truth. 
 
As indicated in texts such as Luke 18, also other accounts that describe even the people of God as “sleeping” and unaware and not looking for Christ’s Return, as the time lengthens and He has been gone for a long time — so it has unfolded in church history, that most are not looking to Christ’s Return in glory, nor thinking about the things that must take place before then.  It is said that dispensationalism has an imminent return of Christ, that He could return at any time, nothing has to take place before the ‘rapture of the church;’ the dispensationalist has some awareness of end times things that must occur, such as Israel back in the land — but tends to think that he/she will not be around to see all of these things that will take place.  The post-millennialists (a rare group nowadays, unlike the pre-World War I era) are looking for the world population to come to Christ, to become a Christianized world, a ‘golden age’ before Christ returns.  The amillennialist, and particularly the common form of preterist amillennialist, is the one with a strong “imminent” any-moment return of Christ, since in this view most of the “prophetic texts” have already happened, in the first century, and — in an odd way they have this much in common with dispensationalist — Christ can return at any moment: and even more so for them, no reason to look for the “general season” of things that will occur shortly before the Second Advent. 
 
Historic premillennialism, the view I hold to, affirms a non-imminent return, that certain things must take place before Christ’s Return:  at first, such things as Peter’s death prophesied, and the gospel going forth to other lands, and time to allow for prophecies indicating wars and rumors of wars; then, other “stage-setting” events that are implied in the descriptions of texts about the Lord’s return:  Israel regathered in unbelief, and a world with great technology such as we now see for our own eyes.
 
Among the prophetic texts are some lesser known passages that describe things that, if taken in their normal, plain language sense, could very reasonably occur in our day, with our 21st century technology.  For example, Revelation 11’s description of the two witnesses laying dead for 3 1/2 days and their bodies observed by people from all over the world, and the people of the world rejoicing and exchanging gifts with each other, all in the space of 3 1/2 days, could very well occur in today’s instant worldwide communication, a literal fulfillment that Horatius Bonar thought, based on 19th century technology, could not really mean 3 1/2 days.  Likewise, Revelation 13’s description of technology that limits people’s ability to transact business, is already occurring in some form, for some types of transactions, in China and possibly other totalitarian government countries.  It’s also interesting that at least some evangelical leaders are also realizing at least this much — such as a clear statement from Al Mohler in a podcast interview last fall, stating his belief that the technology exists today for the literal fulfillment of the biblical prophecies.
 
Another interesting thing I’ve observed recently in the overall culture:  people who do not even recognize and acknowledge anything of the providence of God, of “acts of God” events — such as weather storms or the spread of new diseases around the world.  As one example, the recent winter storm here in the American South, of a severity not seen in a lifetime, was actually considered by some TikTok users a “fake” storm perpetrated by the “powerful left” who somehow created something that looked like but wasn’t really snow.  The fact that some people actually ascribe such powers over the weather, or at least the ability to create a “fake” snowstorm — to mere man, rather than recognize what society has always understood as an “act of God,” is telling.  It appears that, more and more, our technological age has brought about what has been called the “social imaginary,” to the point where some are denying the reality of actual events that have occurred — a pandemic that has caused soaring hospitalization rates and higher than normal levels of death, and even severe winter storms — instead ascribing these to “fake” events caused by mere human political actors.
 
These are just some thoughts to consider, regarding the times we now live in.  In closing, a few selections from J.C. Ryle, from his Expository Thoughts on the Gospel of Luke:
The disciples and all the Jews of our Lord’s time appear to have seen only one personal coming of the Messiah. They expected a Messiah who would come to reign, but not one who would come to suffer.
The majority of Christians, in like manner, appear to see only one personal coming. They believe that Christ came the first time to suffer. But they seem unable to understand that Christ is coming a second time to reign. Both parties have got hold of some of the truth, but neither, unfortunately, has embraced the whole truth. Both are more or less in error, and the Christian’s error is only second in importance to that of the Jew.
Also
It is well to know that He lived for us, and died for us, and rose again for us, and intercedes for us. But it is also well to know that He is soon coming again for us! … The course of this world shall not always go on as it does now. Disorder, confusion, false profession, and unpunished sin shall not always cover the face of the earth. … Let us wait patiently when we see wickedness triumphing in the earth. The time is short. There is One who sees and notes down all that the ungodly are doing!   
. . .
When the Lord Jesus left the world, He ascended up into heaven as a conqueror leading captivity captive. He is there sitting at the right hand of God, doing the work of the High Priest for His believing people, and ever making intercession for them. But He will not sit there always. He will come forth from the holy of holies to bless His people. He will come again with power and glory to put down every enemy under His feet, and to set up His universal kingdom on earth.
. . .
Jesus’ coming in person the first time to suffer, and Jesus coming in person the second time to reign are two landmarks of which we should never lose sight. We stand between the two. Let us believe that both are real and true.

Philip Ryken, and J.C. Ryle, on the Gospel of Luke

October 2, 2020 5 comments

A weekly Bible Study at church has started on a study of the gospel of Luke this year, and included Dr. Ryken’s Commentary in the list of recommended resources. So I’m listening to the next best thing to the commentary: the volumes of sermons from Dr. Ryken that form the basis of his commentary, a set of 14 volumes from the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals’ podcast “Every Last Word,” available at ReformedResources.org.  The first three volumes cover the first 5 chapters of Luke, and are straight-forward sermons with exposition and application, on the wide range of topics within these first chapters of Luke’s gospel.

One pleasant surprise has been the frequent references to J.C. Ryle, with quite a few quotes from the great 19th century Anglican bishop.  In fact, in the early chapters at least (I’m currently in Luke 6) of Ryken’s sermon series, J.C. Ryle is one of the most (or possibly the most) frequently cited resources — along with quotes from a few others such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and at least one quote from existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard.

That brings me back to reading J.C. Ryle, several years after I read  his books such as Practical Religion, Holiness, and his book on prophecy, Coming Events and Present Duties.  Over the years I’ve read selected portions from his Expository Thoughts on the Gospels (full e-book in PDF, Kindle, and EPUB formats available here), and now it’s been refreshing and enjoyable to read sequentially through J.C. Ryle’s full commentary on the gospel of Luke, alongside Ryken’s sermons each week.

Ryle’s writing style here is similar to other works, a devotional and educational commentary, simple and clear statements packed with truth, and always very quotable.  He well described the faith of the Old Testament saints, with the original, plain historic understanding that believers always had the Holy Spirit indwelling, though in less measure (quantity) — unlike several modern day teachers who want to come up with innovations, even such as a few who would come up with a “spirit of Christ” that indwells New Testament saints in contrast to Old Testament saints that were regenerated but not actually Spirit indwelled (since, supposedly, the Spirit of Christ did not exist in that earlier era).

Ryle’s Expository Thoughts also addresses the basics, with great application of texts, to exhort believers on the importance of Bible reading and study, evangelism, and diligence and hard work in our occupations and callings.  His comments on the Lord’s Day Sabbath, at the beginning of Luke 6, are also spot-on, instructive regarding Christ’s teaching on works of necessity and works of mercy brought out in the text, and in response to the same Sabbath criticisms in our day:  We live in days when anything like strict Sabbath observance is loudly denounced, in some quarters, as a remnant of Jewish superstition.  We are boldly told by some people, that to enforce the fourth commandment on Christians, is going back to bondage.  Let it suffice us to remember, when we hear such things, that assertions are not proofs, and that vague talk like this has no confirmation in the word of God.   J.C. Ryle elsewhere wrote an excellent short summary tract, Sabbath: A Day to Keep, referencing  many scriptures and how they relate together; but the additional comments in his Luke 6 commentary add to the full picture.

Just in going through the first chapters of Luke, it’s also interesting to see his clear statements regarding the future millennial era and ethnic Israel’s future, as with this sampling:

Christ was indeed “the glory of Israel.” The descent from Abraham–the covenants–the promises–the law of Moses–the divinely ordered Temple service–all these were mighty privileges. But all were as nothing compared to the mighty fact, that out of Israel was born the Savior of the world. This was to be the highest honor of the Jewish nation, that the mother of Christ was a Jewish woman, and that the blood of One “made of the seed of David, according to the flesh,” was to make atonement for the sin of mankind.  . . .

The day shall come when the veil shall be taken from the heart of Israel, and all shall “glory in the Lord.” (Isaiah. 45:25.) For that day let us wait, and watch, and pray. If Christ be the light and glory of our souls, that day cannot come too soon.  . . .

“and He shall reign over the house of Jacob forever.” The literal fulfillment of this part of the promise is yet to come. Israel is yet to be gathered. The Jews are yet to be restored to their own land, and to look to Him whom they once pierced, as their King and their God.  . . .

The full completion of the kingdom is an event yet to come. The saints of the Most High shall one day have entire dominion. The little stone of the Gospel-kingdom shall yet fill the whole earth. But whether in its incomplete or complete state, the subjects of the kingdom are always of one character.

Also, a sampling of general application from passages in Luke’s gospel:

We do not expect a child to do the work of a full-grown man, though he may one day, if he lives long enough. We must not expect a learner of Christianity to show the faith, and love, and knowledge of an old soldier of the cross. He may become by and bye a mighty champion of the truth. But at first we must give him time.

and

In every calling, and vocation, and trade, we see that great effort is one prominent secret of success. It is not by luck or accident that men prosper, but by hard working. Fortunes are not made without trouble and attention, by bankers and merchants. Practice is not secured without diligence and study, by lawyers and physicians. The principle is one with which the children of this world are perfectly familiar.

Antinomianism: Reformed Theology’s Unwelcome Guest? (Review)

January 6, 2020 2 comments

From free books provided (for this one, free copies provided at the local church), I recently read Mark Jones’ Antinomianism:  Reformed Theology’s Unwelcome Guest? (from 2013).  Online articles at the time, including these two from Kevin DeYoung (this one and also this one), recommended it as one of a few books responding to the modern-day antinomianism error.

My study on this topic over the last few years has included some online sermon series including a 1689 confession series, Reformed articles and a few books such as Barcellos’ Gettting the Garden Right and R.C. Sproul’s Crucial questions booklet How Does God’s Law Apply to Me?.  Jones’ book covers a lot of similar Reformed understanding, with reference to the moral law and the third use of the Law and other doctrines that are taught in the Reformed confessions (and included in SermonAudio confession-study series).  Jones’ book is at a more academic level, with many quotations and footnotes, and especially looks at the historical situation in England in the 17th century.

Among the highlights:  discussion of Christ’s intercessory work and the importance of strong Christology, as well as the Reformed understanding of rewards (good works, chapter 16 in the 1689 LBC and the Westminster Confession of Faith), assurance, gospel threatenings (as different from Law threatening, the type to bring unbelievers to see their need of Christ, as the first use of the Law).  This book also covers the differences between Lutheran and Reformed views; though the Lutheran view includes the third use of the law, it emphasizes the first use, in contrast to the Reformed (Calvinist) emphasis on the third use.

Many good Puritan quotes are sprinkled throughout, such as this one from John Flavel:

I will further grant, that the eye of a Christian may be too intently fixed upon his own gracious qualifications; and being wholly taken up in the reflex acts of faith, may too much neglect the direct acts of faith upon Christ, to the great detriment of his soul.

But all this notwithstanding, the examination of our justification by our sanctification, is not only a lawful, and possible, but a very excellent and necessary work and duty.  It is the course that Christians have taken in all ages, and that which God has abundantly blessed to the joy and encouragement of their souls.

The discussion about law obedience versus gospel obedience reminded me of the first time I read this, and the encouragement in this explanation, well described by J.C. Ryle (excerpts from Holiness) — that the believer’s works (though imperfect) are yet acceptable and pleasing to God the Father:

Sanctification is a thing which cannot justify a man, and yet it pleases God. The holiest actions of the holiest saint that ever lived are all more or less full of defects and imperfections. They are either wrong in their motive or defective in their performance and in themselves are nothing better than “splendid sins,” deserving God’s wrath and condemnation. To suppose that such actions can stand the severity of God’s judgment, atone for sin and merit heaven is simply absurd. …

For all this, however, the Bible distinctly teaches that the holy actions of a sanctified man, although imperfect, are pleasing in the sight of God. “With such sacrifices God is well pleased” (Hebrews 13:16). “Obey your parents . . . for this is well pleasing unto the Lord” (Colossians 3:20). “We . . . do those things that are pleasing in His sight” (1 John 3:22). Let this never be forgotten, for it is a very comforting doctrine.
Just as a parent is pleased with the efforts of his little child to please him, though it be only by picking a daisy, or walking across a room — so is our Father in Heaven pleased with the poor performances of His believing children. He looks at the motive, principle and intention of their actions — and not merely at their quantity and quality. He regards them as members of His own dear Son, and for His sake, wherever there is a single eye — He is well pleased.

This book includes a quote from Thomas Shepherd that well summarizes the difference between gospel obedience and law obedience:

the law calling and urging of it that so hereby we may be made just, it therefore accepts of nothing but perfection; but the gospel requiring it because we are perfectly just already in Christ, hence, though it commands us as much as the law, yet it accepts of less, even the least measure of sincerity and perfection mixed with the greatest measure of imperfection.”

The book is applicable to us in our day, in which antinomian teaching is quite common.  Jones interacts with current-day teaching, with quotes from and responses to Tullian Tchividjian (reference also old articles such as this one):

According to Tchividjian, ‘We’ve got work to do—but what exactly is it?  Get better? Try harder? Pray more?  Get more involved in church?  Read the Bible longer? …. God works his work in you, which is the work already accomplished by Christ.  Our hard work, therefore, means coming to a greater understanding of his work.’  How does this fit with Paul’s exhortation to work out our salvation with fear and trembling?  Paul surely did not reduce Christian living to contemplating Christ—after all, in 1 Thessalonians 5, toward the end of the chapter, Paul lists over fifteen imperatives.  But Tchividjian’s type of antinomian-sounding exegesis impacts churches all over North America.

The book covers many other interesting topics as well, even some quotes from Puritan writers about the ‘boring’ limited-selection preaching of the Antinomians.  The whole counsel of God includes so much more, the many doctrines set forth in the Reformed Confessions, beyond this limited issue that the antinomians wanted to continually ‘harp on’.  Antinomianism: Reformed Theology’s Unwelcome Guest? is another great and very informative book in the Reformed tradition, well researched and addressing this issue and how the Puritans responded to it.

Hermeneutics and Old-New Testament Revelation

September 22, 2014 Leave a comment

In my recent studies — different aspects of covenant theology, NCT, the law and types of antinomianism — I have noted one interesting aspect of hermeneutics and continuity/discontinuity between the Old and New Testament, a common element in two unrelated teachings that challenge the clarity and sufficiency of the Old Testament for OT saints: 1) full “replacement theology” and amillennialism with the NT revelation changing the meaning of the Old Testament land and literal kingdom promises; and 2) “doctrinal antinomianism” that teaches that Christ gave new law in the Sermon on the Mount, law that was unknown to Old Testament saints and that “expanded” the original meaning beyond a supposed “legalistic and ceremonial-only understanding”.

Premillennialists have rightly pointed out this hermeneutical problem with the spiritualized re-interpretation of what the Old Testament described regarding a future literal kingdom of God upon the earth, in which Israel as a nation would play a role (along with a few other nations specifically mentioned, ref. Isaiah 19:23-25), and a literal future restoration of the people of Israel to the land promised to Abraham in Genesis. As Paul Henebury has observed, “this maxim would mean that Christians without the NT – and there were many of them in the First Century – could not comprehend the scripture they had – the OT.”

Interestingly enough, a similar issue comes up in articles discussing antinomianism as contrasted with the Reformed/covenantal view of the moral law (that Christ came to fulfill the law, and that meant restoring it to its original high level, from the lower level that the Pharisees had reduced it to). Note that here I am specifically addressing the “full” teaching of “New Covenant Theology” in its extreme view that places a sharp division between the Old and New Testaments, rejecting any understanding of true moral law pre-Christ, such that very few people pre-Christ were saved (the prophets and the few godly kings), and whose adherents even declare (as seen recently in an online discussion group for NCT) how unimportant the Old Testament is and that for evangelism they are now only using the New Testament. (Really?! But how did the apostles evangelize, per the book of Acts?  They used the only Bible they had, the Old Testament. They proclaimed Christ from the Old Testament scriptures, proving that the promised Messiah was Jesus of Nazareth.)

If the “law of Moses” was really a more primitive type, strictly legalistic, ceremonial and civil, with no true moral intent — and Christ actually gave “new law” that was not known in the OT — then how does one explain the true faith and spirituality of OT saints, such as the psalmists, including their descriptions of delighting in God’s law and desiring to do His law (Psalm 119 and elsewhere)? Further, to suggest that people before Christ did not have the full revelation of God’s law, also contradicts the many Old Testament passages that make it clear that all along, even then, God delighted more in their obedience and their heart attitude, than in sacrifices; sometimes even God declared that He hated their ceremonial feasts and sacrifices, because they were not done from a sincere heart motivation. Reference Hosea 6:6, “For I desire steadfast love (mercy) and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings,” also Samuel’s words to Saul in 1 Samuel 15:22, “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams.” But if Christ somehow added to the law, that which was not known before He came, that also means that the Old Testament believers had a different method of salvation and did not have the same basic belief in the same God as we New Testament believers. Also according to this idea, the Old Testament saints were inferior in quality; and we could call them hypocrites for their appearance of showing great love for God and His law and their great devotion to God: since the OT law did not really require that of them and it had not even yet been revealed to them.

Some closing words from J.C. Ryle regarding the Old Testament and its importance (from his commentary on Matthew 5):

Jesus came to fulfill the predictions of the prophets, who had long foretold that a Savior would one day appear. He came to fulfill the ceremonial law, by becoming the great sacrifice for sin, to which all the Old Testament offerings had ever pointed. He came to fulfill the moral law, by yielding to it a perfect obedience, which we could never have yielded – and by paying the penalty for our breaking of it with His atoning blood, which we could never have paid.

Do not despise the Old Testament under any pretense whatsoever. Let us never listen to those who bid us throw it aside as an obsolete, antiquated, useless book. The religion of the Old Testament is the embryo of Christianity. The Old Testament is the gospel in the bud. The New Testament is the gospel in full flower. The saints in the Old Testament saw many things through a glass darkly. But they all looked by faith to the same Savior and were led by the same Spirit as ourselves.

Also, beware of despising the law of the Ten Commandments. Let us not suppose for a moment that it is set aside by the gospel or that Christians have nothing to do with it. The coming of Christ did not alter the position of the Ten Commandments in the least. If anything, it exalted and raised their authority (Romans 3:31). The law of the Ten Commandments is God’s eternal measure of right and wrong. By it, is the knowledge of sin. By it, the Spirit shows men their need of Christ and drives them to Him. To it, Christ refers His people as their rule and guide for holy living. In its right place it is just as important as “the glorious gospel.” It cannot save us. We cannot be justified by it. But never, never let us despise it. It is a symptom of an ignorant and unhealthy state of religion when the law is lightly esteemed. The true Christian “delights in God’s law” (Romans 7:16-20).

Millennial Views: When Is Christ Returning?

May 7, 2014 4 comments

Recently, in an example of perhaps an extreme reaction against popular dispensational-style “date setting,” R.C. Sproul Jr. opined that Christ will likely not return for tens of thousands of years, apparently basing his view on an interpretation of Exodus 20:5-6, where “showing mercy to thousands” means “thousands of generations” rather than thousands of people – and extrapolating out many thousands of generations even beyond the current 3400+ years since Moses. (I note here from the ESV translation and footnote, that this text may also mean “to the thousandth generation.”)

As to his reaction against dispensational-style date setting (“I know that every odd astronomical event, every middle eastern hot spot fires up the end times hysteria machine, but I’m not willing to get on that ride,”), a wise observation from J.C. Ryle comes to mind – and a good reminder that extremism in reference to the Second Coming is nothing new:

It proves nothing against the doctrine of Christ’s second coming and kingdom, that it has sometimes been fearfully abused. I should like to know what doctrine of the Gospel has not been abused.  Salvation by grace has been made a pretext for licentiousness, election, an excuse for all manner of unclean living, and justification by faith, a warrant for Antinomianism. But if men will draw wrong conclusions we are not therefore obliged to throw aside good principles. .. And where is the fairness of telling us that we ought to reject the second advent of Christ because there were Fifth Monarchy Men in the days of the Commonwealth, and Irvingites and Millerites in our own time. Alas, men must be hard pressed for an argument when they have no better reasons than this!

I am not familiar with the specifics of Sproul Jr’s beliefs, though suspect his could well be similar to Sproul Sr.: non-futurist and likely preterist, and amillennial. The main point I would address here is the general worldview of scripture: is the Bible really just a book about spiritual truths, in which the message of the gospel itself is the primary and only clear teaching? Or is God’s word all-encompassing, to include God’s purposes to be accomplished in history and in the real world around us?  Can we really “watch” for signs of Christ’s return and recognize the general season; or is Christ’s Return a truly sign-less, imminent event that could come at any time, just as likely in 28,000 years as in 50?

Discussions among premillennialists often consider the question of “imminence” versus whether certain events must first come to pass (before the resurrection and rapture), but generally all premillennialists recognize at least “stage setting” of events that must come to pass in order to literally fulfill Christ’s Second Coming (in similar manner as the literal fulfillment of prophecies regarding Christ’s First Coming). For instance, in 2 Thessalonians 2:2 Paul describes a future “man of lawlessness” entering the temple and declaring himself to be god – which presupposes a future temple to exist in order for such to happen. The Old and New Testament prophecies concerning Babylon have not literally been fulfilled, which led even 19th century expositors (Benjamin Wills Newton, for example) to expect a future rebuilding of Babylon – which has actually begun within the last several years. Stage setting to make possible the communication logistics described in Revelation 11:8-11 has already occurred (reference this post with quote from Horatius Bonar). The regathering of Jews into the land of Israel, predicted by historic premillennialists (from their reading of God’s word) such as Charles Spurgeon and J.C. Ryle – has come to pass, though they did not live to see it.

Thus, the premillennial worldview recognizes in God’s word 1) events that truly have not happened yet (and logical precursors that only recently developed), and 2) the real world impact, the relationship between God’s word and real world history and actual world events; the full counsel of God is not merely that which gives spiritual guidance and “the plan of salvation” but a “both / and” reality affecting both our spiritual lives and the physical creation itself. As such, we can see the development of world events to know at least the general season and anticipate Christ’s return as likely within the next 50 to 100 years, perhaps sooner.

It turns out that actually, it is the non-futurist non-millennialist, who thinks all prophecy (except Christ’s return) has already been fulfilled, who really has a “sign-less” and “any moment” Second Coming – a Second Coming that might as well be tens of thousands of years from now and will be completely unexpected without any warnings and nothing to “watch for.”

The Tender Conscience and Assurance: J.C. Ryle and S. Lewis Johnson

March 25, 2014 5 comments

In going through S. Lewis Johnson’s 1 John series, here is a section I can especially relate to: study of one aspect of Christian living can lead the “tender conscience” to discouragement and doubting one’s salvation, if the teaching is not properly balanced. Indeed, the superficial teaching at a local church several years ago (including its approach to 1 John), with emphasis on external, outward religion and our good works as evidence of salvation, affected me in just this way. In-depth teaching is always the remedy for proper balance on this (and any) issue, and I still remember the impact to my understanding, when I first read similarly encouraging words a few years ago, in this excerpt from J.C. Ryle’s Holiness:

The only righteousness in which we can appear before God is the righteousness of another — even the perfect righteousness of our Substitute and Representative, Jesus Christ the Lord. His work, and not our work — is our only title to Heaven. … For all this, however, the Bible distinctly teaches that the holy actions of a sanctified man, although imperfect, are pleasing in the sight of God. “With such sacrifices God is well pleased” (Hebrews 13:16). “Obey your parents . . . for this is well pleasing unto the Lord” (Colossians 3:20). “We . . . do those things that are pleasing in His sight” (1 John 3:22). Let this never be forgotten, for it is a very comforting doctrine.
Just as a parent is pleased with the efforts of his little child to please him, though it be only by picking a daisy, or walking across a room — so is our Father in Heaven pleased with the poor performances of His believing children. He looks at the motive, principle and intention of their actions — and not merely at their quantity and quality. He regards them as members of His own dear Son, and for His sake, wherever there is a single eye — He is well pleased.

From Dr. Johnson’s 1 John series, a good analysis of the believer’s conscience, exposition of 1 John 2:12-14:

one can see that a person with a tender conscience might be tending to discouragement at this point because, if you feel as I do, and I don’t say that I have a tender conscience, but sometimes I have something like that, and when I read some of the statements of Scripture that say we know that we know him if we keep his commandments — I recognize that in my life there are many of those commandments that I have questions about whether I’m really keeping them.

And I’m not always sure that I’m always walking in the light. In fact, at times, I know I’m not walking in the light. We talked about that and how the Christian life is a sin-judged life, and that characteristic of the Christian life is the necessity of continual confession of sin. So I can understand that a person with a tender conscious might have problems, and then when this apostle says that, “He that saith he is in the light, and hateth his brother, is in darkness even until now,” that really comes home because I must confess that I have had problems with some of my brethren, that is my professing brethren in Christ. And I have often had to get down upon my knees, and ask God to give me the strength to love, and the mind to love this brother or sister, as the case may be. So I can see that someone with a tenderer conscience than mine might have questions about his salvation.

He might really say, “I don’t think I’m keeping the commandments. I know I fail in loving my brothers and my sisters. Perhaps I’m not a Christian at all.” And so, I think that what John writes now is a kind of interlude in which he wants to encourage people like me, and maybe even more so, those whose consciences are even more tender than mine. I think, therefore, it’s very fitting that in this brief paragraph, this apostle of love, the elderly apostle, the last of the apostles still living — the apostolic age is drawing to its conclusion — assures the ones to whom he writes these very strong words of test, that he is confident of their faith and life.

Classic Premillennialism And Progressive Dispensationalism

October 29, 2013 1 comment

In my continuing study of different variations of premillennialism, I often come across the idea of neatly “categorizing” particular beliefs as being unique to “dispensational premillennialism” and completely different from the historic premillennial view.  For instance:  “historic premillennialism means Covenant Theology;” or specific beliefs (such as the view concerning Ezekiel’s Temple having literal animal sacrifices) are only held by dispensationalists.  Regarding the latter, I note that not even all “classic dispensationalists” believed in the future literal sacrifices, as evidenced by the “secondary explanation” in the Scofield Bible, and which H.A. Ironside held to; that issue is determined by the literal grammatical hermeneutic and not by a “system” of “dispensationalism.”  Also, not all historic premillennialists held to Covenant Theology – and certainly not to the spiritualizing/allegorizing hermeneutic commonly associated with non-premillennial Covenant/Reformed Theology.

As one person recently observed, historic premillennialism and progressive dispensationalism have much in common.  Indeed, a recently stated broad definition, six essentials of “dispensationalism” actually represents the historic premillennial position and is not unique to “dispensationalism”:

1. Progressive revelation from the New Testament does not interpret or reinterpret Old Testament passages in a way that changes or cancels the original meaning of the Old Testament writers as determined by historical – grammatical hermeneutics.

2. Types exist but national Israel is not a type that is superseded by the church.  Dispensationalists acknowledge types in which certain OT persons, things, and institutions prefigure greater realities in the NT. But Israel is not a type that is swallowed up the NT church

3. Israel and the church are distinct, thus, the church cannot be identified as the new or true Israel.  All dispensationalists reject a “replacement theology” or “supersessionism” in which the New Testament church is viewed as the replacement or fulfillment of the nation Israel as the people of God.

4. There is both spiritual unity in salvation between Jews and Gentiles and a future role for Israel as a nation.

5.  The nation Israel will be both saved and restored with a unique identity and function in a future millennial kingdom upon the earth.

6. There are multiple senses of “seed” or “descendants” of Abraham,” thus, the church’s identification as “seed of Abraham” does not cancel God’s promises to the believing Jewish “seed of Abraham.”

Note the following interesting example (by different types of premillennialists) regarding use of types and hermeneutics.  Progressive Dispensationalists, while generally keeping the pre-trib rapture (though de-emphasizing its importance), in another area attempt to move closer toward the Reformed/Covenantal approach:  reasoning that Christ is now presently reigning (in a spiritual sense) upon David’s throne – along with a future literal reign on David’s throne.  Yet classic premillennialists have always correctly understood this, seeing no need to change hermeneutics and “accommodate” the amillennial spiritualizing hermeneutic.  Note for instance J.C. Ryle (a covenantal premillennialist who believed in infant baptism), who yet had a very common-sense understanding and applied the example (type) of David in the wilderness on the run from King Saul, as a type of Christ in the present age:  He has the promise of the kingdom, but He has not yet received the crown and is not yet reigning upon that throne.

Also this, from classic premillennialist Benjamin Wills Newton (Thoughts on the Apocalypse) regarding the difference between the universal kingdom/throne of God and the future Davidic throne that Christ will rule upon in the future:

It is true indeed that Christ (for He is God, and one with the Father) is able to exercise, and does exercise, all the power of the throne on which He is now called to sit. It was His before He was incarnate, for ‘all things were created by Him,’ and ‘all things upheld by the word of His power.’ … He has all plenitude of power and almighty control; even as He himself said, “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth.” But the power of the throne of God which He thus exercises, is carefully to be distinguished from the authority which, as soon as the appointed hour comes, He will receive from that throne, as the minister thereof; and which He will exercise, sitting on His own throne and on the throne of His father David. …. The nature of the power which Christ will formally assume when brought before the Ancient of days (see Dan. 7), is that kingly government of nations which, when taken from Israel and the throne of David, because of their sin, God delegated to the king of Babylon and to the Empires that were appointed to succeed him, till the time for the forgiveness of Israel should come. This power, as described in Psalm 72, Christ inherits as the true Solomon, Heir to the throne of David. … As yet Christ is still seated on the throne of the Father, “waiting.”   (emphasis in the original)

The Differences Between Historic and Futurist Premillennialism

February 22, 2013 3 comments

In an online group someone recently asked, what are the main differences between historic premillennialism and futurist premillennialism?

Of course variations exist even within the term “historic premillennialism,” but here I am defining historic premillennialism as that view of many post-Reformation premillennialists: a view sometimes referred to as “covenantal premillennialism,” the perspective of those teachers from the Calvinist Covenant Theology background, yet who appealed to literal hermeneutics especially regarding the future for Israel and a future literal 1000 year kingdom of God upon the earth.  Names representing this view include 18th century preacher John Gill, plus 19th century preachers Horatius Bonar, J.C. Ryle, and Charles Spurgeon.  It is also worth noting  that the early church fathers were also “historic premillennial,” the original form, though not Covenantal — since Covenant Theology itself is a relatively recent development, from the 17th century.  Following are several  areas of difference between historic premillennialism and futurist premillennialism.

1) The theological covenants of Covenant Theology, or the biblical covenants of scripture? Historic premillennialism follows the theological covenants set forth in Covenant Theology, and is silent concerning the biblical covenants (Abrahamic, Davidic and New covenants). This comes out, for instance, in Spurgeon sermons talking about the covenant of grace, God’s grace to all the elect, or about the covenant made within the Triune Godhead.  J.C. Ryle, too, though very strongly premillennial with future for Israel, also taught the full understanding of Covenant Theology regarding infant baptism.

Futurist premillennialists emphasize the importance of the biblical covenants, especially the Abrahamic, Davidic and New Covenants, and all the promises in those covenants including the land promises.

2) The nature of the Church and Israel.  Historic premillennialism does not see a distinction between Israel and the Church, but one general category: the people of God, the church. Like futurist premillennialists, they do follow a generally literal hermeneutic in interpreting the OT prophecies as being about Israel, including Israel’s future regathering and their being returned to their land in connection with the Second Coming events and the future Millennial Kingdom — in great contrast to amillennial spiritualizing the Old Testament prophecies as being about the church age.  John MacArthur’s six-part series, “Why Every Calvinist is a Premillennialist,” addresses this aspect of historic premillennialism, the future for Israel. Barry Horner’s emphasis in Future Israel also fits in here. (Both MacArthur and Barry Horner, though, do teach the biblical covenants, point 1 above.) Historic premillennialist preachers will sometimes talk about “the Jewish church” or refer to examples from the Old Testament while talking about the church. As another example of literal interpretation but without the distinction between Israel and the Church, Spurgeon pictured Ezekiel’s temple as some type of church/worship structure that would exist during the Millennial Kingdom.

Futurist premillennialism sees a greater distinction between the Church and Israel, that the Church began in Acts 2.  Several other teachings flow out of this difference.  Ezekiel’s temple will be a structure specifically for the people of Israel.  The Day of the Lord/Great Tribulation/Jacob’s trouble is something specifically for Daniel’s people — Daniel’s 70th week.  The millennial kingdom includes Israel’s prominence: the people of Israel’s role in going out and being a blessing to the world, as pictured in the Old Testament prophecies about people from the Gentile nations coming to Jerusalem with their gifts and offerings.

3) Are the events of Revelation future, or past/present?  Historic premillennialism generally sees the events in Rev. 6-18 as unfolding throughout history in a general way — such as identifying “Babylon” as the Catholic Church and applying the texts symbolically to events happening during this the church age. Also note, the term “futurist” can apply to any millennial view, as described in this previous article.

Futurist premillennialism sees these events as future, taking place during the last seven years (Daniel’s 70th week) before Christ returns.

4) The purpose for the millennial kingdom: both historic and futurist premillenialism recognize one of the purposes for the millennial kingdom, as the final test of man.  With all conditions perfect, even Christ ruling on the earth, man still rebels at the end, showing man’s complete inability — and all the more glory to God.  Futurist premillennialism recognizes the above purpose for the millennial kingdom, but goes beyond it to add another purpose: the biblical covenant promises yet to be fulfilled to Israel.

Futurist Premillennialism recognizes the above purpose for the millennial kingdom, but goes beyond it to add another purpose: the biblical covenant promises yet to be fulfilled to Israel.  Reference FP’s distinction in point 2 above: Israel’s prominence in the future kingdom of God upon the earth.

5) Historic premillennialism has a post-trib rapture timing, and generally very little, if any, said about the rapture or the Great Tribulation events (reference point 2 above). Within Futurist Premillennialism, the pre-trib rapture is not the most important feature (and not an essential), but is part of the overall teaching and sequence of future events.

The Literal Hermeneutic, Described by Historic Premillennialists

September 19, 2012 6 comments

For those who still associate any form of premillennialism with classic dispensationalism, and who think that premillennialists’ literal hermeneutic is wooden literalism (which never was the case) rather than normal, plain language: I am revisiting some great quotes from 19th century non-dispensational historic premillennialists:  Charles Spurgeon, J.C. Ryle, and Horatius Bonar.

Consider the following, in which these men in their own words describe and explain the literal hermeneutic along with specific examples from God’s word:

Charles Spurgeon, concerning the First Resurrection in Revelation 20:

… if the First Resurrection here spoken of is a metaphorical, or spiritual, or typical resurrection—why the next, where it speaks of the resurrection of the dead, must be spiritual, and mystical, and metaphorical too!  When you read a Chapter, you are not to say, “This part is a symbol, and is to be read so, and the next part is to be read literally.” Brothers and Sisters, the Holy Spirit does not jumble metaphors and facts together! A typical Book has plain indications that it is so intended, and when you come upon a literal passage in a typical Chapter, it is always attached to something else which is distinctly literal so that you cannot, without violence to common sense, make a typical meaning out of it! The fact is, in reading this passage with an unbiased judgment—having no purpose whatever to serve, having no theory to defend— … I could not help seeing there are two literal resurrections here spoken of—one of the spirits of the just, and the other of the bodies of the wicked; one of the saints who sleep in Jesus, whom God shall bring with Him, and another of those who live and die impenitent, who perish in their sins.

Also from Spurgeon, (full quote posted here) concerning Ezekiel 37:1-10:

If there is meaning in words this must be the meaning of this chapter! I wish never to learn the art of tearing God’s meaning out of His own Words. If there is anything clear and plain, the literal sense and meaning of this passage—a meaning not to be spirited or spiritualized away—it must be evident that both the two and the ten tribes of Israel are to be restored to their own land and that a king is to rule over them. “Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will take the children of Israel from among the heathen where they are gone and will gather them on every side and bring them into their own land: and I will make them one nation in the land upon the mountains of Israel. And one king shall be king to them all.”

From J.C. Ryle (previously posted here and also here):

Beware of that system of allegorizing, and spiritualizing, and accommodating, which the school of Origen first brought in, in the Church. … Settle in your mind, in reading the Psalms and Prophets that Israel means Israel, and Zion means Zion and Jerusalem means Jerusalem. And, finally, whatever edification you derive from applying to your own soul the words which God addresses to His ancient people, never lose sight of the primary sense of the text.

and

What I protest against is, the habit of allegorizing plain sayings of the Word of God concerning the future history of the nation Israel, and explaining away the fullness of their contents in order to accommodate them to the Gentile Church. I believe the habit to be unwarranted by anything in Scripture, and to draw after it a long train of evil consequences.

Where, I would venture to ask, in the whole New Testament, shall we find any plain authority for applying the word “Israel” to anyone but the nation Israel? I can find none. On the contrary, I observe that when the Apostle Paul quotes Old Testament prophecies about the privileges of the Gentiles in Gospel times, he is careful to quote texts which specially mention the “Gentiles” by name. The fifteenth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans is a striking illustration of what I mean. We are often told in the New Testament that, under the Gospel, believing Gentiles are “fellow heirs and partakers of the same hope “with believing Jews. (Ephes. 3:6.) But that believing Gentiles may be called “Israelites,” I cannot see anywhere at all.

And from Horatius Bonar (previously posted here and here):

To attach a general meaning to a whole chapter, as is frequently done, shows not only grievous irreverence for the Divine Word, but much misconception of the real nature of that language in which it is written. Yet such is often the practice of many expositors of prophecy. They will take up a chapter of Isaiah, and tell you that it refers to the future glory of the Christian Church; and that is the one idea which they gather from a whole chapter, or sometimes from a series of chapters. Their system does not admit of interpreting verse by verse and clause by clause, and affixing an exact and definite sense to each. Bring them to this test, and their system gives way. It looks fair and plausible enough, so long as they can persuade you that the whole chapter is one scene, out of which it is merely designed that one grand idea should be extracted; but bring it to the best of minute and precise interpretation, and its nakedness is at once discovered. Many prophecies become in this way a mere waste of words.  What might be expressed in one sentence, is beaten out over a whole chapter; nay, sometimes over a whole book.

These expositors think that there is nothing in prophecy, except that Jew and Gentile are all to be gathered in, and made one in Christ. Prophet after prophet is raised up, vision after vision is given, and yet nothing is declared but this one idea! Every chapter almost of Isaiah foretells something about the future glory of the world; and every chapter presents it to us in some new aspect, opening up new scenes, and pointing out new objects; but, according to the scheme of some, every chapter sets forth the same idea, reiterates the same objects, and depicts the same scenes. Is not this handling the Word of God deceitfully?

What liberties do some interpreters take with the prophetic word! They find in every page almost what they call figurative language, and, under this idea, they explain away whole chapters without scruple or remorse. They complain much of the obscurity of the prophetic language. It is an obscurity, however, of their own creating. If they will force figures upon the prophets when they are manifestly speaking with all plainness and literality, no wonder that darkness and mystery seem to brood over the prophetic page. . . . Proceeding, then, upon this principle, that we must take all as literal till we are forced from it by something inconsistent or absurd, we shall find a far smoother and straighter way through the fields of prophecy than most men will believe. If we take the waters as we find them, we shall enjoy them clear and fresh; but if we will always be searching for some fancied figure at the bottom, or casting in one when we do not readily discover it, we need not be astonished nor complain that the stream is turbid and impure.

The True Historical Premillennial View: Not George Ladd’s Version

September 14, 2012 19 comments

From the material available online today, many would conclude that “historic premillennialism” refers to the teaching of 20th century theologian George Elton Ladd—and no other view.  See, for example, Michael Vlach’s article “How Does Historic Premillennialism Differ from Dispensational Premillennialism?”,  this “Eschatology Comparison” chart, and this article “An Historical Premillennialist Takes Issue With Pretribulational Dispensationalism.”

Similar to how many people associate the specific teachings of classic dispensationalism with any reference to dispensationalism, here too is a real point of confusion: the failure to recognize the different beliefs within the label of “historic premillennialism”–or any form of premillennialism other than “dispensational premillennialism.” Occasionally people mention “covenant premillennialism” to highlight the view of some, such as Charles Spurgeon and J.C. Ryle, who believed premillennialism yet who held to the theological covenants of Covenant Theology (as contrasted with the Calvinist disp-premill emphasis on the biblical covenants).   “Historic premillennialism” is the more common term, though, and yet George Ladd’s version of premillennialism could more accurately be called “contemporary (non-dispensational) premillennialism.”  As a commenter at the last link above pointed out, “Ladd’s overall position appears to be of more recent vintage than Classic Dispensationalism. Thus I find it ironic that he’s now considered to be the standard bearer for Historic Premillenialism. He departed significantly from the historic premillenialism of men like Horatius Bonar, J.C. Ryle and C.H. Spurgeon, just to name a few. None of the above men were pretrib, but they all believed in a physical restoration of the Jews to the land, which today is generally regarded as a dispensational distinctive.”

In recent years Barry Horner has done much in researching and publishing the history of millennial views, as in his “Future Israel” book and related website, as well as this work available online: “Judeo-Centric Eschatology: An Ethical Challenge to Reformed Theology.”  In this publication, Horner suggests another term to describe the truly historical premillennial view:  Judeo-Centric Premillennialism.  Chapter Five especially looks at the views of many premillennialists from centuries past, sketching out the details concerning “Israel and Judeo-centric Premillennialism beyond the Reformation” followed by “Israel and the Contemporary Historic Premillennialism of George Eldon Ladd.”

As Barry Horner explains regarding true historic premillennialism as opposed to the current day George Ladd version:

“… (then) explanation is made that one believes in a glorious future time when the redeemed people of God, distinctively comprising national Israel and the Gentile nations, will enjoy the consummation of their salvation on an earth of renovated spiritual materiality where the glorious, spiritually tangible and substantial Jesus Christ will reign from Jerusalem in the midst of Israel. At this juncture, the common response is that such a belief identifies one as a dispensationalist, especially since Ladd is said to have not incorporated such particularity concerning Israel within his premillennialism. In other words, if a person was an historic premillennialist, he would not retain any clear-cut distinction between Israel and the church, but especially within the one redeemed people of God in their future manifestation. When one then points out and specifically names a number of notable Christians who were not dispensationalists, such as Horatius Bonar, J. C. Ryle, and C. H. Spurgeon, even postmillennialist Jonathan Edwards, who nevertheless believed in the aforementioned scenario, that is, Israel and the Gentile nations retaining their distinctive identity under the earthly reign of Christ, the frequent response is that of a blank stare.”

…we will most definitely maintain that, in general, both historic premillennialism and progressive dispensationalism have upheld a diversity involving Israel and the Gentile nations within the redeemed people of God. Reluctance on Ladd’s part to bring Judeo-centric clarity and definition into his eschatology at this point places him outside the overwhelming emphasis of historic premillennialism. Hence, in this most important aspect of premillennialism, his perspective is decidedly not historic or normative.

The outline of this chapter further explains:

1. The two peoples of dispensational premillennialism:

… earlier belief in two new covenants was eventually abandoned by Walvoord, Ryrie, and presumably Fruchtenbaum, in favor of the one new covenant revealed in Jeremiah 31. … further development … has more willingly accepted the implications of this one new covenant for the redeemed, whatever distinctions they might incorporate…. Israel and the church are in fact one people of God, who together share in the forgiveness of sins through Christ and partake of his indwelling Spirit with its power for covenant faithfulness, while they are nonetheless distinguishable covenant participants comprising what is one unified people.

2. The one people of classic historic premillennialism: classic historic premillennialism, with exceptions acknowledged, nevertheless has specifically upheld the place of national Israel within the people of God of the church of Jesus Christ.

3. The one people of Jesus Christ’s assembly/church according to Scripture.

In a world where Gentile Christianity predominates, there is a necessity to offer some considerations here concerning the “Church” which name has, over the centuries, been “Gentilized” so that its mention is commonly identified with Gentile congregations, indeed a Gentile kingdom of God…. Hence the New Jerusalem shall not only acknowledge the twelve gates named after the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel, but also the twelve foundation stones named after the twelve apostle, all twenty-four names being Jewish.