Prof. Engelsma is professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
A third eschatological error exposed by the truth that Jesus Christ is the end, or goal, of all things is the theory of common grace. As propounded especially by the Dutch Reformed theologian Abraham Kuyper, the theory of common grace teaches that, alongside His purpose of redeeming the church, God has a purpose of developing a good, God-glorifying culture. The fall of Adam made the fulfillment of this purpose impossible. But God realizes this purpose in unregenerated men and godless nations by the operation of His “common grace.” God pursues, and achieves, two goals in history: the salvation of an elect church by His special grace and the development of culture by His common grace.
Therefore every view that would confine God’s work to the small sector we might label “church life” must be set aside. There is beside the great work of God in special grace also that totally other work of God in the realm of common grace. That work encompasses the whole life of the world, the life of Kaffirs in Africa, of Mongols in China and Japan, and of the Indians south of the Himalayas. In all previous centuries there was nothing among Egyptians and Greeks, in Babylon and Rome, nor is there anything today among the peoples of whatever continent that was or is not necessary. All of it was an indispensable part of the great work that God is doing to consummate the world’s development. And though a great deal in all this we cannot connect with the Kingdom or the content of our faith, nevertheless it all has meaning. None of it can be spared because it pleases God, despite Satan’s devices and human sin, to actualize everything he had put into this world at the time of creation, to insist on its realization, to develop it so completely that the full sum of its vital energies may enter the light of day at the consummation of the world.
According to Kuyper and other proponents of common grace, God’s purpose regarding the development of culture is independent of His purpose regarding the redemption of the church.
The highly ramified development of humanity acquires a significance of its own, an independent goal, a reason for being aside from the issue of salvation…. “Common grace” will thereby achieve a purpose of its own. It will not only serve to bring about the emergence of the human race, to bring to birth the full number of the elect, and to arm us increasingly and more effectively against human suffering, but also independently to bring about in all its dimensions and in defiance of Satanic opposition and human sin the full emergence of what God had in mind when he planted those nuclei of higher development in our race…. The fundamental creation ordinance given before the fall, that humans would achieve dominion over all of nature thanks to “common grace,” is still realized after the fall. Only in this way, in the light of the Word of God, can the history of our race, the long unfolding of the centuries as well as the high significance of the world’s development, make substantial sense to us (Abraham Kuyper, “Common Grace,” in James D. Bratt, ed., Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998, pp. 176, 178, 179; for a recent defense and development of Kuyper’s theory of a cultural purpose of God with history, see Richard J. Mouw, He Shines in All That’s Fair: Culture and Common Grace, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001).
Also the two purposes view of common grace sins against the apostolic teaching in Colossians 1:13-20 that Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, is the one purpose of God with all things. God created all things for Him. The one goal of God in history is to reconcile all things to Himself by the blood of the cross of Jesus Christ. Of a cultural purpose of God apart from Jesus Christ and the blood of His cross, Colossians 1knows nothing. To posit, and then pursue, such apurpose detracts from the preeminence of Jesus Christ, which is God’s eternal purpose. Creation, providence, history, time, space, nations, angels, devils, and the falling of a sparrow from a housetop serve to bring about the purpose of God to exalt Jesus Christ as “firstborn of every creature” and “head of the body, the church.”
It is Jesus Christ who brings humanity to its highest level, not pagan Greece, or equally pagan Western civilization at the present. “Behold, the man” (John 19:5). Christ raises humanity to the heights God always intended for it, not by educating unregenerated men and women so that they become more sophisticated and able sinners, or by erecting grand earthly empires that oppose God on a grand scale and that soon perish, but by dying for the sins of elect mankind and rising from the dead. By His resurrection, He made His own human nature incorruptible, glorious, powerful, spiritual, heavenly, and immortal (I Cor. 15:35-58). In Him, elect humanity also rises to these heights.
Nor is it reprobate men and women who liberate the groaning creation and develop its energies and powers by their cultural efforts. Jesus Christ will free the entire creation from the bondage of corruption and take it into the realm of His own glory at His coming (Rom. 8:19-22). Christ will raise and renew the creation. Thus, creation will attain the end for which it longs. God’s purpose with the world when He created it in the beginning was that it become a grand and glorious city and civilization, not by the cultural efforts of an unfallen Adam, nor by the cultural work of totally depraved sinners, but by the cultural labors of Jesus Christ in dying for the world, rising from the dead, and recreating the world at His coming. Thus does the last Adam cultivate what the first Adam turned into a wilderness and make it the Paradise of God.
The practical effect of all three of these eschatological errors, evolution, premillennial dispensa-tionalism, and common grace is the same. They take the hope of professing Christians off the coming of Christ. Evolution destroys hope entirely. Premillennial dispensa-tionalism directs the hope of its followers to the rapture and to the earthly dominion of the Jews during the millennium. Common grace locates the hope of those who believe the theory—hope that corresponds to a main purpose of God with all things—within history and in this world. Those who hold the theory of common grace eagerly look for the “Christianizing” of this world in the future, before the coming of Christ.
As God has one end of all things, so the church must have one hope: the coming of Jesus Christ.
This end of all things will be the fulfillment of the promise. The end comes strictly by the unfailing power and faithfulness of the promise of God. Eschatology was revealed with the “mother promise” of Genesis 3:15: the crushing of the serpent’s head by the victorious Seed of the woman. Romans 16:20 assures the church of the final destruction of Satan, yet in the future, in terms of that original promise: “And the God of peace shall bruise (Greek: ‘tread under foot and crush’) Satan under your feet shortly.” The promise of the gospel was, and is, eschatological. Therefore, one who lives by faith in the promise lives, and must live, consciously, day and night, eschatologically, that is, in hope of the future—the future of the coming of Jesus Christ: “Come, Lord Jesus.”
That the end is the coming of Christ in the future must not, however, obscure the fact that already now there has been a breaking into our age of the end of eschatology and that already now the church enjoys the beginning of that end. Already now, the church enjoys the beginning of the life, power, and glory that will be hers perfectly at the coming of Jesus Christ. Indeed, she already enjoys the presence of Jesus Christ with her, who in a real way has come to her already.
Eschatology is by no means a matter exclusively of the future; it is also a matter of the present. There is, of course, the intermediate state for every saint at death. There are also, already now, the coming of the kingdom (the gospels); life in the Spirit as the earnest of our inheritance (Paul); eternal life (John); and the enjoyment of “the powers of the coming age.” This last is the literal translation of Hebrews 6:5 (KJV: “powers of the world to come”). The phrase expresses the gripping truth that the coming age is pressing in on our age, eager to take over. The force of the coming age is so mighty that the coming age breaks into the present age, so that even unregenerate hearers of the good Word of God, the instrument of the powers of the coming age, “taste” the advance powers of the coming age. Much more, of course, do the “beloved” of God not only taste but also savor and digest these powers.
The church’s enjoyment of a beginning of the end already in this life is the confession of the Reformed believer in Question and Answer 58 of the Heidelberg Catechism:
What comfort hast thou from the article of the life everlasting?
That, inasmuch as I now feel in my heart the beginning of eternal joy, I shall after this life possess complete bliss, such as eye hath not seen nor ear heard, neither hath entered into the heart of man, therein to praise God forever (Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, vol. 3, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1877, p. 326).
Whereas the subject in the article of the Apostles’ Creed, which the Catechism is explaining, is certainly the life that Christ will give the believer at His coming, when He raises his body, the Catechism affirms that the believer already feels in his heart the beginning of the eternal joy of this coming life. He feels it because he already has it.
The last days began at Pentecost (cp. Joel 2:28ff. andActs 2:14ff.). For this reason, the prophecy of the outpouring of the Spirit includes prophecy of judgment and of the destruction of the present creation “before that great and notable day of the Lord come.” Everything in the present age, from Pentecost on, drives on to the day of the Lord, that is, the coming of Christ. And the central reality of these last days is the name of the Lord—Jesus—and calling on this name.
In the Spirit and by the gospel, Jesus Himself is already present to us. Although we hope for His bodily coming, we have His spiritual coming. In the Spirit of truth, Jesus does not leave us comfortless, but comes to us (John 14:16-21). The more we live in the consciousness of His spiritual presence, the more we long for His bodily coming.
B.Confessions: Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 48; Belgic Confession, Article 37.
C.Reading: H. Hoeksema, Reformed Dogmatics (RFPA, 1966), pages 729-745.
D.Questions for study:
1.What does Scripture mean by “the end” of the world or “the end” of all things, e.g., Matthew 24:3, 14; I Corinthians 15:24; and I Peter 4:7 (Greek: telos, whence the English “telic”)? Is it merely that time stops and history runs out?
2.What determines the end? Is the sovereignty of God fundamental to biblical eschatology?
3.What is the temptation to the church, as regards the end, from the scoffers in the last days, according to II Peter 3? What makes this temptation so serious? What lends credence to their challenge to the biblical promise of the end? How is their apparent evidence for their challenge to be answered? Who are these contemporary scoffers?
4.What is done to the biblical doctrine of the end by the theory of evolution?
5.How does the theory of common grace conflict with the truth of the end?
6.What actually is the goal that God purposed with the end? Prove from Scripture.
8.Can the end come “at any moment”?
9.What practical effects, according to Scripture, must the truth of the end have in the life of the believer? In the life and work of the church?