Someone might doubt whether there is anything to the theme of this special issue.
That the Reformation recovered the gospel of grace and, in connection with this, the sole authority of Holy Scripture is well known. But did the Reformation say anything distinctive about the last things? Did it do much with eschatology at all? Does it not betray the Reformation’s lack of interest in the last things that both Luther and Calvin neglected, indeed refused, to write a commentary on the book of Revelation?
To be sure, there was the rejection of purgatory. That was definitely important for eschatology. But other than this, did the Reformation really influence the church’s doctrine of the last things?
To all which, the reply is: “Do you, as a Reformed believer, confidently expect to be with Christ at the moment of your death? Do you look forward, without fear, to the coming of Christ as judge in the final judgment? And is this assurance concerning the future your own in a personal, experiential way—the way of heartfelt, living faith in the promise of God?”
You owe this hope (for this is what the positive answer to the questions is) to the Reformation.
The Reformation set the biblical truths of the last things, particularly the second coming of Christ for judgment and the death of the believer, in the joyful light of the gospel of grace. This was a radical reformation of the church’s teaching on the last things.
Day of Wrath, Day of Mourning
The medieval church had plunged eschatology into the gloomy shadows of its gospel of salvation by the will, works, and worth of man. It taught the people to view their death and the coming of Christ for judgment as divine reckoning on the basis of their own works and worthiness.
This was an eschatology of terror.
It terrified the people. The attitude of the people toward the Day of Christ was that of the popular hymn, “Dies irae, dies illa” (“Day of wrath, day of mourning”). The paintings of the middle ages vividly portrayed the terrifying eschatology of a gospel of works. A fearsome Christ descends upon the cowering people.
In no small degree, this explains the popularity of the cult of Mary in the developing Roman church. Representing a god of works and merit, Jesus Christ was frightening to the members of the church. Mary, on the other hand, was seen (and preached up) as a sinner’s only hope—another gross insult to Jesus Christ, who “hath loved us, and hath given himself for us” (Eph. 5:2).
The attitude of Martin Luther before his conversion toward death and the judgment was typical. The thunderstorm near Stotternheim not only terrified him with the prospect of death but also drew from him the vow to become a monk. His fear of death was rooted in the notion that only his own works and worth could satisfy a wrathful God. In the monastery, he dreaded judgment and judge with the result that he intensified his feverish efforts to earn acquittal.
The whole of eschatology was a doctrine of damnation and dread. The cause was the false gospel of righteousness by man’s own works.
Day of Grace, Day of Laughter
The gospel-truth of justification by faith alone thoroughly revised eschatology. The basis of the final judgment will not be the sinner’s own works and worth on account of his free will, but only the perfect work of Jesus Christ on his behalf. In the final judgment, the life-long obedience and atoning death of Jesus Christ will be imputed to the sinner through the faith that God gives him. Indeed, the decisive verdict has already been uttered: the “not guilty” of the gospel, heard by faith. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, for the believing sinner to fear in the coming of Christ for judgment.
On the contrary, there is everything to anticipate!
The judge comes to vindicate the righteous believer publicly, before the world. The judgment will finally bestow the reward of grace, so eagerly desired throughout the burdened and afflicted pilgrimage of the godly: eternal life and glory of soul and body in a renewed creation. And for the enjoyment of both public vindication in the judgment and everlasting bliss as the outcome of the judgment, the body of the elect believer will be raised from the grave into immortal life.
Who would not long for the Day of Christ as the day of grace, the day of laughter. Luther called the day of Christ’s coming “the most happy Last Day.”
The church of the Reformation could again pray, “Come, Lord Jesus.”
The good hope of gracious salvation extends to the believing sinner’s death. The gospel of grace dispels the nightmare of purgatory, which Luther, in the Schmalkald Articles, called a “noxious pest” and the “excrement of idolatry.” How can there be any remaining torment of punishment for one in whose stead Christ died with His all-sufficient death as the gift of a gracious God? The Christian can again face death with calm confidence, indeed desire death, as does the apostle in Philippians 1:21-24. Grace compels the king of terrors to become the believer’s helpful servant.
The effect of the gospel upon eschatology is reflected in the change of Luther’s attitude toward death. Whereas under the malign influence of the gospel of works he had been terrified at death, as a believer in a gracious God he welcomed death.
We must accustom and discipline ourselves to despise death in faith and to regard it as a deep, strong, and sweet sleep. We must consider the coffin as nothing more than the bosom of our Lord, or paradise, the grave as nothing more than a downy bed on which to lay ourselves. . . . Death and grave mean nothing more than that God neatly lays you as a child in his cradle or soft little bed where you sweetly sleep until the day of judgment.
Luther prayed, “Help us not to fear but to desire death.” He confessed, “We should be happy to be dead and desire to die.”
Viewing the death of the believer in the light of the grace of salvation in Christ, Calvin rejected the doctrine of soul-sleep. This was the purpose of his first theological work, Psychopannychia, dating from 1534. For Calvin, the teaching that the soul of the believer falls asleep at death is a miserable error because it implies disruption of our communion with Christ. It sins against grace.
But we must not suppose that biblical eschatology in the light of grace only enables us to die in peace and to await the coming of Christ without fear. It also empowers us to live. The gospel of works paralyzes the guilty sinner. Or it drives him to work with the motive and demeanor of a slave. The gospel of grace moves the justified sinner to work, with grateful love, in the hope of Christ’s coming.
In the hope of Christ’s coming!
Not only did the Reformation put all of eschatology under the sign of grace, but it also made eschatology, that is, the second coming of Christ, the goal of the life of the Christian and of the history of the church. Not this life with its trinkets and pleasures, not the dream-world of an earthly millennium, but the resurrection of the body at the coming of Christ must be the one, lively, steady, intense purpose of every Christian and of the church.
John Calvin gave sharpest expression to this practical aspect of biblical eschatology in that section of his Institutes where he treated eschatology: “He alone has fully profited in the gospel who has accustomed himself to continual meditation upon the blessed resurrection” (3.25.1).
This total recasting of eschatology in the light of grace is evident in the Reformation creeds. “What comfort is it to you that ‘Christ shall come again to judge the quick and the dead?’ asks the Heidelberg Catechism in Q. 52. This question was unthinkable for the apostatizing church prior to the Reformation, as it is for the Roman Catholic Church today. The answer of every Reformed believer is that he positively “look(s) for” the coming Christ as judge, to “translate me with all his chosen ones to himself, into heavenly joys and glory.” The ground of the comfort is indicated: Christ the judge has “before offered himself for my sake, to the tribunal of God, and has removed all curse from me.” In the same spirit, Article 37 of the Belgic Confession declares with a fervor that the medieval church would have thought madness that Reformed Christians “expect that great day with a most ardent desire.”
As for death, the Heidelberg Catechism says that the death of believers “is not a satisfaction for our sin, but only an abolishing of sin and a passage into eternal life” (Q. 42). In Q. 57, the Catechism has every believer confessing that “my soul after this life shall be immediately taken up to Christ its head.”
Get Up, Dr. Martin!
Not to be overlooked in this Reformation-hope for the coming of Christ is the fact that every believer is personally assured that he himself, as one of the justified, shares the hope. Certain later traditions, under the influence of teaching that urges saints to engage in doubtful introspection, devote enormous amounts of time and ink to demonstrating that a few in the church can finally arrive at their own personal assurance. The effect, often, is to spread still more doubt. This is foreign to the Reformation, which simply assumes that every believer will be certain that he shares the hope of the coming of Christ. Faith is both a certain, or assured, knowledge and a hearty confidence. What this faith believes is the gospel of grace. Thus, the Spirit works assurance in every believer, so that he is no more terrified at death than he is at the prospect of falling asleep and no more apprehensive of the coming of Christ than he is of the arrival of a dear brother.
The lively, spontaneous, personal assurance of every believer regarding his own death and Christ’s coming for him, Luther expressed in a touching way: “We must sleep until He comes and knocks at our little grave and exclaims, ‘Dr. Martin, get up!’ Then in the twinkling of an eye I shall rise again and will rejoice with him eternally.”
But this is a reality only under the gospel of grace.
In the Roman Catholic Church, this is an impossibility, as Rome itself acknowledges. A gospel that bases salvation on man’s own will, works, and worth denies to all any certainty of salvation in the face of death and the judgment.
An eschatology of terror!
This same terror characterizes most of Protestantism today. Embracing Rome’s basic theology of free will, Arminian evangelicals and fundamentalists put their people in doubt whether they will be saved at Christ’s coming.
Other Protestants are showing themselves careless with regard to the comfort in the face of death and judgment that is only possible under the gospel of grace. These are the men who have compromised the Reformation’s doctrine of justification by faith alone in the movement, Evangelicals and Catholics Together. These are also the theologians and churches that tolerate the heresy of free will and conditional salvation.
As for us, living and dying in peace is of some importance.
We are determined, therefore, to confess the blessed gospel of salvation by grace alone. We are also determined to curse, damn, and repudiate the false gospel of salvation by the will and works of man.
Here we stand!