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Prof. Engelsma is professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament History in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.

The Reformed Confessions (concluded)

The last article—Article 37—of the Belgic Confession (1561) is devoted to the doctrine of the last things (the French original and an English translation are found in Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, vol. 3, Harper & Row, 1877; because of the length of the article and because copies of the creed are readily available, I do not quote the article in its entirety here). In this article, Reformed believers confess a future corporal and visible coming of Jesus Christ as Lord. His main purpose will be to conduct a final judgment of all humans, including the “righteous and elect.” The judgment will be public: “the secrets and hypocrisy of men shall be disclosed and laid open before all.” In order that He may conduct the judgment, Christ will raise all the dead: “For all the dead shall be raised out of the earth, and their souls joined and united with their proper bodies in which they formerly lived.” The outcome of the judgment will be the torment of “everlasting fire” for the wicked and the devils in God’s “terrible vengeance,” but “glory and honor” for the “faithful and elect” as their “gracious reward.” The judging and redeeming work of Christ at His coming will be cosmic: He will burn “this old world with fire and flame to cleanse it.”

Even though Article 37 of the Belgic Confession does not explicitly take up the question of the church’s earthly prospects before Christ’s coming—the issue of the millennium—the article makes clear that throughout the present age, and especially at the very end, the church is, and will be, a persecuted church. Always, and especially just before Christ’s coming, the righteous and elect are “most cruelly persecuted, oppressed, and tormented … in this world.” As at the time when the Belgic Confession was written, the cause of the true church is always “condemned by many judges and magistrates as heretical and impious.” Christ will not come personally to join in the saints’ joyful celebration of their earthly power, peace, and prosperity, but to wipe all tears from the eyes of those who confess His name in the world.

The Belgic Confession suggests the importance of election for eschatology. What controls the time of the coming of Christ, according to God’s eternal appointment, is that the “number of the elect (is) complete.” Twice, Article 37 deliberately refers to those who will be delivered and glorified through the final judgment as the “elect.”

Although in a more personal way, the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) confesses the same fundamental truths of eschatology that are taught in Article 37 of the Belgic Confession: Christ’s coming again as judge of all men; the resurrection of the body; the “everlasting condemnation” of Christ’s and the believer’s enemies; and the translation of the chosen church “into heavenly joys and glory.” Like the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism sees the life of the believer as a life of persecution “under the cross” right up to the coming again of Jesus Christ. It too indicates the fundamental importance of election for one’s comfort with regard to the second coming of Christ for judgment. The main eschatological section of the Heidelberg Catechism is Q. and A. 52:

Q. 52. What comfort is it to thee that Christ shall come again to judge the quick and the dead?

A.That in all my sorrows and persecutions, with uplifted head, I look for the self-same One who has before offered himself for me to the judgment of God, and removed from me all curse, to come again as Judge from heaven; who shall cast all his and my enemies into everlasting condemnation, but shall take me, with all his chosen ones, to himself, into heavenly joy and glory.

The resurrection of the body of the believer is taught in Q. and A. 57: “What comfort does the resurrection of the body afford thee?… That this my body, raised by the power of Christ, shall again be united with my soul, and made like unto the glorious body of Christ.”

The Catechism also makes two important affirmations about the “intermediate state” of believers, that is, the state of believers after death and before the coming of Christ. In answer to the question, “Since, then, Christ died for us, why must we also die?” the Catechism says, in A. 42: “Our death is not a satisfaction for our sin, but only a dying to sins and entering into eternal life.” More definite is the first part of the answer of the Catechism to Q. 57, quoted above: “That not only my soul, after this life, shall be immediately taken up to Christ its Head,” etc. (Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, vol. 3, Harper & Row, 1877, pp. 307-355). The Reformed faith confesses the believer’s conscious enjoyment of eternal life with Christ upon death. The believer who dies—every believer who dies—has this life in the soul, apart from the body (which, of course, is in the grave). It is a confessional matter with Reformed Christians, therefore, to deny both the theory of soul-sleep and the teaching that the death of the believer is total until the resurrection of the body. It is also a confessional matter for one who subscribes to the Heidelberg Catechism to repudiate the Roman Catholic dogma of purgatory.

Of the “Three Forms of Unity,” the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dordt (1618, 1619), it might seem that the last has nothing to say about the last things and, therefore, nothing to contribute to a Reformed defense of the truth of eschatology in the face of contemporary errors. The Canons are a defense of the gospel of salvation by the sovereign, particular grace of God in Jesus Christ alone against the false gospel of salvation conditioned by the will of the sinner. In fact, however, the Canons speak decisively against one of the most prominent and powerful eschatological errors of the present day: universalism, that is, the doctrine of the eventual salvation of all humans without exception.

The influential Karl Barth grounded his doctrine of universal salvation in his teaching that Jesus Christ was reprobated by God in the place of all so that all are elect in Him. Jurgen Moltmann similarly argues that there will be no “double outcome” of the final judgment in an everlasting hell as well as in an everlasting heaven because, in Jesus Christ, who has reconciled all to God, God has elected all unto salvation. Moltmann recognizes that there is one obstacle, biblically, to universalism. This is the “Calvinistic” doctrine of God’s predestination of some to salvation (election) and of others to damnation (reprobation). Rejecting predestination as a “terrible doctrine,” Moltmann has no further difficulty in asserting the eventual salvation of all humans without exception. Indeed, he confidently promises the salvation even of Satan and all his demons.

Moltmann’s defense of universalism exposes the fatal weakness of the position of many evangelical and Reformed theologians. Maintaining that God does indeed love all without exception with a love in Jesus Christ that wants all to be saved, these theologians nevertheless deny that all will be saved. With appeal to John 3:16, a favorite text of evangelical and Reformed theologians who are determined to find a will in God for the salvation of all, Moltmann too takes his starting point in a desire of God for the salvation of all. His argument against those who share his belief of a wish of God that all be saved, but deny universal salvation, is devastating.

The doctrine of universal salvation is the expression of a boundless confidence in God: what God wants to do he can do, and will do. If he wants all human beings to be helped, he will ultimately help all human beings. The doctrine of the double outcome of Judgment [that there will be an everlasting hell, as well as an everlasting heaven—DJE] is the expression of a tremendous self-confidence on the part of human beings: if the decision ‘faith or disbelief’ has eternal significance, then eternal destiny, salvation or damnation, lies in the hands of human beings. What will happen to people in eternity really depends on their own behaviour. God’s function is reduced to the offer of salvation in the gospel, and to establishing acceptance or rejection at the Judgment. Christ becomes a person’s Saviour only when that person has ‘accepted’ him in faith. So it is the acceptance in faith which makes Christ the Saviour of that man or that woman. But if this is so, do people not really save or damn themselves? The doctrine of the double outcome of Judgment is a relatively modern doctrine compared with the doctrine of universal salvation. It fits the modern age, in which human beings believe that they are the measure of all things, and the centre of the world, and that therefore everything depends on their decision. But what human being does this mean? Can children who die young, for example, decide for faith, or can the severely handicapped? Are they saved or lost? Who makes the decision about the salvation of lost men and women, and where is the decision made? Every Christian theologian is bound to answer: God decides for a person and for his or her salvation, for otherwise there is no assurance of salvation at all (Jurgen Moltmann, The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology, Fortress Press, 1996, pp. 235-255).

The threat to the Christian faith of universalism is not limited to the fully-developed, brazen teaching that all will be saved, including even the devil. Many churches are well on the way to outright universalism by their adoption, or tolerance, of the doctrine of a will of God for the salvation of all men without exception. The doctrine of a gracious desire in God for the salvation of all opens a church up to universalism, if it does not inevitably result in universalism. This is true, regardless that these churches may also claim to hold the contradictory doctrine of a will of God for the salvation only of some (election).

The rock upon which all universalism shatters, not only the fully-developed universalism of a Jurgen Moltmann, but also the incipient universalism of a desire of God for the salvation of all, is the Reformed doctrine of God’s eternal, sovereign predestination of some to life and others to damnation. Confession of this biblical truth, and only confession of this biblical truth, will keep a Reformed church from the heresy of universalism in the days ahead. This confession of all truly Reformed churches with its significant implications for sound eschatology is the content of the Canons of Dordt.

Election is the unchangeable purpose of God, whereby, before the foundation of the world, he hath, out of mere grace, according to the sovereign good pleasure of his own will, chosen, from the whole human race, which had fallen through their own fault, from their primitive state of rectitude, into sin and destruction, a certain number of persons to redemption in Christ, whom he from eternity appointed the Mediator and head of the elect, and the foundation of salvation. This elect number, though by nature neither better nor more deserving than others, but with them involved in one common misery, God hath decreed to give to Christ to be saved by him, and effectually to call and draw them to his communion by his Word and Spirit; to bestow upon them true faith, justification, and sanctification; and having powerfully preserved them in the fellowship of his Son, finally to glorify them for the demonstration of his mercy, and for the praise of the riches of his glorious grace (Canons, I/7).

What peculiarly tends to illustrate and recommend to us the eternal and unmerited grace of election is the express testimony of sacred Scripture, that not all, but some only, are elected, while others are passed by in the eternal decree; whom God, out of his sovereign, most just, irreprehensible and unchangeable good pleasure, hath decreed to leave in the common misery into which they have willfully plunged themselves, and not to bestow upon them saving faith and the grace of conversion; but permitting them in his just judgment to follow their own way; at last, for the declaration of his justice, to condemn and punish them forever, not only on account of their unbelief, but also for all their other sins … (Canons, I/15, in Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, vol. 3, pp. 582, 584).

The eschatology of the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) is substantially the same as that of the “Three Forms of Unity.” Chapter 32 teaches one resurrection of all the dead, just and unjust, “at the last day.” Chapter 33 follows with a full description of the last judgment, the ultimate purpose of which is said to be “the manifestation of the glory of his [God’s] mercy in the eternal salvation of the elect, and of his justice in the damnation of the reprobate.” The outcome of the judgment will be “everlasting life” for the righteous and “everlasting destruction” for the wicked. Chapter 32 also contains a confession of the intermediate state both of the righteous and of the wicked. There is an explicit denial that the souls of men after death either die or sleep.

The Westminster Confession goes beyond the “Three Forms of Unity” in one important eschatological matter. This is its identification of the antichrist of II Thessalonians 2 as the “Pope of Rome.” This occurs in Chapter 25, on the church.

There is no other head of the church but the Lord Jesus Christ: nor can the Pope of Rome in any sense be head thereof; but is that antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalteth himself in the church against Christ, and all that is called God (The Westminster Confession of Faith, in The Subordinate Standards and Other Authoritative Documents of the Free Church of Scotland, Edinburgh: William Blackwood & Sons, 1973; in 1997, Old Paths Publications, now at Willow Street, PA, published The Westminster Standards: An Original Facsimile, containing the Larger Catechism, the Shorter Catechism, the Confession of Faith, and A Directory for the Public Worship of God).

The teachings of Scripture in these creeds constitute the Reformed faith concerning the fundamental truths of eschatology. In the light of these confessional teachings, and within their guidelines, Reformed churches and theologians are called to develop their understanding of the Bible’s doctrine of the last things in these last days.