Rev. denHartog is pastor of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Redlands, California.
Some time ago we wrote an article for this department reflecting on what our Reformed confessions say regarding the return of the Lord. It was our intention at that time to write a second article on the above named subject as a follow-up. We believe that the perspective of the Reformed confessions (especially the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession) on the return of the Lord is hardly ever heard in the church world today.
The Reformed confessions focus on the truth that Jesus will return for judgment. This is of course also what we confess in the Apostles’ Creed. The Reformed confessions maintain that Jesus will come to judge this ungodly world. This world will continue to increase more and more in ungodliness as the end grows nearer. This world will not, as is so often imagined, grow better and better and finally evolve into some kind of earthly utopia. In fact, one of the great signs of the end of the age is abounding wickedness, lawlessness, and immorality in this world. The Reformed Christian denies that the world will become a better place. He knows that according to Scripture, it will only get worse and worse.
How much are we as Christians sensitive to the reality of the growing wickedness of this world? Are we slowly, and perhaps not so slowly, without realizing it, allowing our thinking and life-style to be compromised by the ungodly world in which we live? How much are we toning down our condemnation of the world rather than understanding the ever more urgent need of this condemnation?
The last days will also be days of great apostasy in what calls itself the church. It will not be a time of mass revival and worldwide conversions, as some claim. It will be a time when the true church will be but a small remnant in the world. The last days will be days of great deception, when the lie will be paraded in the church as though it were the truth of God’s Word. On the other hand, the truth will be evil spoken of. Those who promote the lie will present themselves as though they are champions of the Lord and are promoting the cause of His kingdom. They will boast of their love and benevolence towards all men, their great human sympathy and broad-mindedness towards their fellow man. This broad-mindedness will be considered to be the height of virtue. The faithful saints of God who strive to live sincerely by the law of God and for His righteousness in the earth, and who condemn the wicked life-style of the world and separate themselves from it, will be considered bigots who are judgmental and unloving.
The faithful church of Jesus Christ desires to fulfill her Lord’s great commission to preach the gospel unto the end of the earth. She rejoices at the conversion and salvation of God’s elect. For according to our confessions the gathering of the full number of God’s elect is the great purpose of history. The saints of God give thanks to God when they witness the power of the gospel of Christ to gather His church from the heathen nations of the world. The church also gives thanks when the Lord preserves His people in the line of generations according to the promise of His covenant. She therefore maintains faithful catechism instruction of covenant children. When there is renewal and reformation by the Spirit and truth of God in the church, the church praises the name of her God. On the other hand, the members of the church do not despair when the true church seems ever so small over against the millions of this world, because they see this as the fulfillment of biblical prophecy. Though the saints of God grieve over the apostasy of so much of the church, they rejoice that God reserves unto Himself 7000 who have not bowed the knee to Baal.
We are confident that the Lord will not forsake the church He has chosen to be His own. The full company of God’s elect must and will be gathered. The Lord has so loved this church that He gave His own beloved Son for her final salvation. The saints of God believe that God will always preserve His true church in the world. The gates of hell will not prevail against her. Though the true church is small in the eyes of the world, though she is despised by apostate Christendom, she is precious in God’s sight and He will make her glorious. The church of Jesus Christ shall finally be presented before God in heaven as the glorious bride of Christ.
How blessed it is by grace, then, to be a member of that church and to be a faithful member who loves the Word which the Lord has given to His church. How important it is to submit to the discipline and admonition and spiritual care of that church. The Heidelberg Catechism teaches us to say with joy in our hearts that we are and ever shall be a living member of the glorious church of Christ Jesus.
The members of the church are called in the last day to stand fast in the truth. They must maintain the truth of God’s Word without compromise, the truth in all of its power, beauty, and holiness. The members of the church are called to labor for the cause of the kingdom of Christ in the world.
The Lord will come in judgment on the wicked nations of the world which will until the end remain ungodly. The ungodly are the enemies of the living God and of His church. There are in the world many who are the enemies of God. They are always far greater in number than the saints of God in the earth. The enemies of God reveal themselves in their wicked, worldly philosophy of life and in their brazenly evil conduct before the Lord. They shall not be able to stand before the sovereign judge of heaven and earth when He comes again. They will be judged for all their ungodly deeds which they have done in disregard and defiance against God. (See Jude 15.)
Many of the most serious enemies of God and of His people are those in apostate churches. This was true in the time of the Reformation and this is increasingly true in our modern day. Most of the persecution of the faithful saints comes not from the heathen world but rather from nominal and apostate Christendom. It is clear from Scripture that the Antichrist will arise from a union between the powers of the ungodly world and the apostate church. This apostate church is portrayed in the book of Revelation as the great whore. The false church in the last day will have imposing organizations in the world. Today we would call them mega-churches. The false church boasts of great numbers. She claims the authority of great antiquity. She makes high claims for herself. She boasts of doing great things for God and for the kingdom of Christ. She glories in her great earthly strength, the large numbers of her membership, her glorious institutions, and the great influence she has in the world. At the same time, she uses her great power to persecute the faithful church and her members. She looks with contempt on the faithful people of God. The apostate church mocks the faithful church, which dares to expose and condemn her false doctrines and worldly glorying.
The truly Reformed church today keeps watch on the church of Rome, as she has the marks of being the Antichrist. This all the Reformers believed. While we do not see the final manifestation in this church of Rome, we do continue to see signs of her acting like the final Antichrist. This is not time for reconciliation with her at the expense of the truth of the gospel, as some Protestants today are advocating.
The true church of Jesus Christ has hope as she confronts her enemies. As long as she has her eyes fixed on the Lord’s return, she is not terrified by her adversaries. She does not become discouraged by the smallness of her numbers and her seeming insignificance in the world. She is not discouraged by the ridicule she experiences from apostate Christendom. She does not take vengeance on her enemies. She does not take justice in her own hand and become violent and disobedient to her Lord. She endures persecution and ridicule with patience and leaves vengeance and justice to the Lord.
The comfort of true believers and members of the faithful church of Jesus Christ is the hope of the return of the Lord. They look for the great joy of the final salvation of their souls and the revelation of the glory of their Lord. They look for the reward the Lord will give His faithful saints at His appearing. They look for the appearance of His church in glory before the throne of God.
According to the Belgic Confession, the judgment of Christ shall be justly terrible and dreadful to the wicked ungodly but most desirable and comfortable to the righteous and the elect, because then shall their full deliverance be perfected, and there they shall receive the fruit of their labor and trouble. The saints look for the day when they will see the vengeance of the Lord revealed on the wicked, who have most cruelly persecuted and oppressed and tormented them in this world. The so called imprecatory Psalms sing of the glory of God’s righteous judgments on the wicked and the deliverance of the saints through vengeance on their enemies.
The calling of the saints is to stand in the midst of the faithful church of Jesus Christ to maintain the truth and honor and glory of the name of the Lord. The faithful saints look for Him to vindicate His cause when He comes.
Scripture and our Reformed confessions teach that the hope of the return of the Lord is the mighty incentive for holy living. The saints are called to a life of holiness. Holiness of life demands separation from the ungodly world. It requires that the Christian live absolutely antithetically to this ungodly world. The great command of Scripture is, “Come ye out from among them and be ye separate.” Our day is a day of compromise of the truth of God’s Word and joining with the world. Sometimes even those who profess to be conservative reveal a thinking and life-style that involves woeful accommodations to the world.
I was reminded of this recently at a conference I attended. The speakers at this conference were popular conservative leaders professing the Reformed faith. They had some good things to say, but one thing especially disturbed me. They were constantly making reference to contemporary movie stars and modern Hollywood productions to illustrate points in their presentations. It reminded me how very familiar almost everyone is with the culture of Hollywood and Broadway. How much this culture dominates the thinking of most Americans, so that even when speaking about the truth of God’s Word, illustrations must constantly be made from this culture in attempts to be relevant to our times. How did this come about, even in the more conservative church world, except through hours and hours of television viewing and frequent attendance at the movie houses? I wondered, too, whether reference to the life-style and speech of this culture should be the occasion of lighthearted jest and laughter when it is so terribly wicked before God. How very few are sensitive enough to realize the terrible evil of this culture. How many today realize the absoluteness and radicalness of the antithesis between the truth and holiness of God’s Word and the philosophy of the culture we live in?
Sometimes even conservatives can bring the church farther down the road to worldliness. They do this by, on the one hand, condemning the blatant evil of modern-day society, while, on the other hand, condoning and speaking with amusement about that which is, according to them, less evil. This is one of the issues of the common grace controversy that has been maintained by our Protestant Reformed Churches. The question is whether the antithesis between the world and the church is absolute or whether we can after all find much that is still good in the world. Should we laugh and joke about things that are abominable to the Lord and imagine that they are only mildly evil?
The expectation of the Lord’s return is the hope of the revelation of the righteousness of God in Christ Jesus. The Heidelberg Catechism states that the comfort of the believer is that “the very same person who offered Himself for my sake to the tribunal of God and has removed all curse from me will come as judge from heaven.” For this reason the coming of the judgment is most desirable and comfortable to the righteous and the elect. Modern-day Arminianism and pop psychology have corrupted the Christian’s expectation of the Lord’s return. The members of the church are taught to have great esteem of themselves. The Bible rather calls Christians to abhor and humble themselves before God and to glory and hope only in the righteousness that is theirs because of the cross of Christ. Armin—ianism encourages pride concerning man’s own acceptance of Jesus and concerning the great things he has done for the Lord. The true Christian looks for nothing but the glory of Christ and the praise of His perfect works of salvation.
The only hope of the true saints of God is the righteousness of the cross. They look for the righteousness of the Lord’s judgment on the wicked. They look for the righteousness of Christ to cover them in the judgment and to justify them before God. The day of the Lord will be the glorious revelation of His righteousness. With the apostle Paul we long to be found in Him, not having our own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Jesus Christ. (See Philippians 1:3.)
Yet the faithful saints are also encouraged to look for the reward of the Lord. For when the Lord comes again, He will reward His saints for their faithfulness. He will give a great reward to those who have been persecuted for righteousness’ sake. For this reason they are exhorted already now to rejoice with exceeding great joy. But this reward will not be of merit but of grace. This is another beautiful and classic statement of the Heidelberg Catechism about the proper expectation of the Lord’s return in judgment.
The glory of the final salvation of the saints, the blessedness of heaven, is far greater than any glory of this world. The faithful saints who often suffer great loss in this present world, and from whom the wicked sometimes take away every ease and comfort in this world, have this hope. They will live forever in perfect glory and blessedness in the presence of their God and Savior. So great is the glory of this, that eye hath not seen nor ear heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man to conceive, what God has prepared for those who love Him. The proper expectation of the Lord’s return for the faithful saints requires that they not set their hearts on the riches and glory of this world. By faith we must fix our eyes on the unseen world of glory in the new heavens and new earth. For this glorious salvation we must be ready to forsake all, and to sacrifice our very life.