Pandemic and pandemonium
One month ago when I last wrote (mid-May), American churches were about nine weeks into enduring the government’s orders against public gatherings. Now (mid-June), most states in the U.S. and some provinces in Canada have relaxed the restrictions, although others in Canada have not. Many people of God have not attended public worship for months. We have ecclesiastical friends in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere, where tight restrictions remain for public gatherings and travel is limited or simply cut off. We have suffered under this heavy hand of God in the world. That’s the pandemic.
Since then, pandemonium has supplanted the pandemic at the top of the news around the world. The police’s killing of George Floyd in the U.S. state of Minnesota has occasioned protests worldwide, calling for justice, with their banner “No Justice, No Peace.” Following that motto, these protests are anything but peaceful demonstrations. These are the mayhem of riots and looting, the bedlam of property destruction, and the lawless abuse of government officials seeking to maintain peace and order.
Pandemic is from the Greek, referring to a disease among all (‘pan’) people (‘demos’). Pandemonium is from the Greek, referring to the chaos, bedlam, mayhem, and disorder among people, as if all (‘pan’) the host of devils (‘demonium’) were let loose. Satan and his minions seem to have their way among men and women who reject all rule except mob rule, which is anarchy, also from the Greek meaning no (‘a’) rule (‘archy’).
We live in a very difficult time, when our Father’s hand brings disease and gives the world over to the lawlessness it so fervently seeks.
Reformed theology has the best, really the only, way to interpret for the people of God these otherwise strange and fearful happenings in the world. Reformed theology, we are convinced, is simply the doctrine of the Bible, and the Bible is the lens through which the believer must look in order to bring order out of the disorder. That is, Reformed theology is faith’s seeing what unbelief and false teaching cannot see. Reformed theology is faith’s understanding of what unbelief and heresy find utterly confounding.
Last time I gave a sampling of doctrines from four of the six chapters (loci) of Reformed theology that help clarify what otherwise might be fuzzy to men, that shed light on what otherwise might be dim or even dark. That editorial treated theology and God’s sovereign providence and just judgments; anthropology and man’s fall into sin and death; soteriology and the graces of sanctification and hope that God works through affliction; ecclesiology and the importance of public worship and the relationship between church and state. Here, I follow up with the last two chapters, eschatology and Christology.
Eschatology (the doctrine of the end times): Heaven on earth?
If it is true that Christians wrongly react to the pandemic, and churches wrongly explain troubles in the world on account of bad theology, anthropology, soteriology, and ecclesiology, it is even more so on account of false teachings in eschatology. Eschatology teaches the people of God what to expect in the end times, what is the goal of God with the church’s labors in the world, to what believers ought to aim, and unto what they press their efforts. Eschatology deals with the future—the near future and the distant future, the future of the church and the future of this world, the future of the devil and his hosts and the future of King Jesus and His relationship to all created things.
Getting eschatology wrong has been disastrous for most nominal Christians these days because their hope is earthly. Their expectations are for improvements here and now, soon. They believe God’s goal with the church’s labor is a Christianized world. So they press their efforts to fulfill the ‘cultural mandate.’ They labor hard to create an earthly kingdom. Rather than carry out the Great Commission to bring to the nations the gospel of forgiveness in Jesus Christ, they want to redeem society from its chaos. Their desire is to bring the nations the ‘good news’ of social equality, food for the poor, clean water, justice for women and other oppressed people, and probably a vaccine for COVID-19. They are convinced that these are what God wants for the world and that the church is the instrument to bring them about.
In addition to being bad ecclesiology, it’s also false teaching regarding eschatology. Instead of quickening hope in the coming of Christ, the false teaching leads to despondency, because the depressing happenings in the world do not bode well for a Christianized world. And as for the nominal Christian church—her drift towards Roman Catholicism and her ecumenical adulteries have rendered her impotent for gospel good.
Someone once said that when a man expects to be “hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Wrong eschatology does not concentrate one’s mind, but clouds and then confuses it. It dulls one’s thinking, lulls the church to sleep, as it imagines a future of ease and prosperity. If the future is to be so bright, how can such evils increase in the world? And what can be done to turn the world into a peaceful place, to make the crooked straight and the rough places plain, when men and nations are so vile? Their hopes are shaken. Worse, they expose themselves to the allurements of the Antichrist who, Scripture teaches, will someday solve the world’s problems.
This is the major error of neo-Calvinism today, in which the false teaching of ‘common grace’ predominates special, redeeming grace. Common grace prided itself in being a ‘two-track’ theology—special saving grace on one track, common grace on the other. God’s ‘common grace’ will remedy the world’s violence, poverty, injustice. Special grace saves souls and prepares them for heaven. But the two-track theology has become a monorail of common grace. Neo-Calvinists focus on the common grace that will save bodies and give a good life on earth. Neo-Calvinism is completely exposed to N.T. Wright’s “heaven is on earth” mantra.
The bracing realism of Reformed orthodoxy ‘concentrates our minds wonderfully.’ Reformed theology focuses our minds on, and directs our efforts to, preaching the gospel of God’s gracious salvation and establishing churches. Reformed ecclesiology teaches that the true church is the “Israel of God,” the new ‘nation’ for which He cares, and that the church institute is the messenger of that gospel. And Reformed eschatology is amillennial (that is, does not teach an earthly millennial kingdom).
Biblical doctrine of the end times does promise victory to the church by faith in Jesus Christ. But it teaches that the victory comes through tribulation, suffering, persecution (John 16:33, Acts 14:22). It teaches that Christ’s coming is preceded by wars and rumors of war, pestilence and other troubles in this life, and apostasy in the church (2 Thess. 2). It teaches that the days right before the coming of Christ will be like the days of Noah (Matt. 24:37-39), terrible days of apostasy and unbelief when the true church will be small and preachers of God’s righteousness ridiculed.
So Reformed eschatology helps believers to see clearly and to keep balanced in troubling times like today.
On the one hand, Reformed folk must be careful not to be extreme, as though the present troubles are ‘unprecedented’ and indicate the coming of Christ must be within a year or two. Reformed believers study history so that they remember there have been many, and far worse, plagues than COVID-19. A terrible plague that killed millions ended the Pax Romana. The Black Death (1346-1353) killed fifty percent of Europe’s population, scores of millions. Smallpox killed nine of ten in Mexico and Central America. The Spanish flu killed over 20 million in 1918. At that time and for other plagues before it, government authorities forbade public gatherings, including churches. Civil unrest and riots have plagued the world for millennia. The nation-wide civil rights riots of the ’60s are not forgotten, nor the Los Angeles riots of just twenty-five years ago. Reformed believers are not ignorant of history.
On the other hand, neither do they fail to hear these troubles as increasingly loud footsteps of Christ’s coming. For much of the 2,000 years of New Testament history, the people of God have been saying, rightly, “The Lord’s coming is near!” Some may have been wrong to say, “In my own lifetime!” But they have all been right to say with eager expectation, “Soon, and very soon!” Even more is this true in 2020.
Reformed eschatology also teaches that the troubles in society will end, for a little while, with the appearance of Antichrist, the “man of sin” (2 Thess. 2:2, 3). The world and false church will be united under his rule. Then matters will become far worse for the true church. Persecution will increase and the little church will be almost squeezed out of existence (could there be so few, as in the days of Noah?). Are not the troubles of these days, in the year of our Lord 2020, only more opportunities for Antichrist to ‘rehearse’ for persecution of the church?
But all the while, believers are waiting, hoping, longing for, expecting, crying out for, the appearing of the Bridegroom. After what seems like such a “long time” (Matt. 25:19; Luke 20:9) Jesus Himself will appear on the clouds to judge the living and the dead. He will destroy this old world and usher in the new creation that will never end. Finally, He will be with us in perfect covenant love.
This all is the eschatology of the Reformed faith, as explained in the Heidelberg Catechism (Q&As 52, 115, 123, 127), the Belgic Confession (Art. 37), and the Westminster Standards, (CF:33; LC: 191; SC: 102).
Christology (the doctrine of Christ): Ruling on His throne
Eschatology, therefore, is not separate from Christology, for all things lead to the appearance of Jesus Christ. Christ will appear! Soon! The One to whom I belong! He redeemed me! I’m married to Him and the consummation of the marriage is coming!
And this Christ, Lord of lords and King of kings, enthroned in the heavens, is guiding all things to the perfect end He designed—righteous judgment of the reprobate wicked and the gracious deliverance of His precious people unto Himself.
The troubles in society and the distress in the church all lead to Christ’s perfect goal for His creation.
It makes sense, then, that if I take my eyes off Christ and His coming, I begin to sink like Peter did on the Sea of Galilee. During the whole of my sojourn I must look at Him, and look for Him. According to the Reformed creed, God’s lonely, persecuted child confesses: “in all my sorrows and persecutions, with uplifted head I look for the very same person, who before offered Himself for my sake…to come as judge from heaven: who shall cast all His and my enemies into everlasting condemnation, but shall translate me with all His chosen ones to Himself, into heavenly joys and glory” (Lord’s Day 19).
So, although the classic division of Reformed theology does not conclude with Christology but with eschatology, yet eschatology really is the culmination of Christology. The Christ of God will appear to make all things new. The Redeemer of Israel will rend the heavens and come down. Jesus will appear to perfect my redemption and bring me into His chamber of love forever.
And when He does this, God’s redeemed will all turn (again) to theology. For theology is not one of the six chapters of biblical doctrine, not even merely the first. Theology—God—is the subject of all doctrine. The Reformed faith emphasizes that the triune, Jehovah God is “all in all.” As young people may learn in the “Essentials of Reformed Doctrine” course, the six chapters of Reformed theology may be spoken thus: “God (theology) made man (anthropology) who fell and needs Christ (Christology) to deliver him from death and give him a gracious salvation (soteriology) in the church (ecclesiology) until the end (eschatology) when God (theology) will be all in all.” True, biblical doctrine, begins and ends with “God!”
Then cometh the end, when he shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father; when he shall have put down all rule and all authority and power…. And when all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all (1 Cor. 15:24-28).
Reformed theology’s ‘take’ on today’s troubles—in the world and in the church—is that God reigns. The Father of the Lord Jesus who, for Jesus’ sake is my Father, is governing the world in perfect wisdom, leading all creatures great and small to this end: Christ will come to judge the world, by which He will publicly justify God (the “theodicy,” see Rom. 2:5), after which He will bring all His chosen ones to Himself. There and then and forever we will live with Him, who loved us, and gave Himself for us.
The Reformed Christian is not confused. Neither is he afraid.
That is Reformed theology’s take—on the pandemic and the pandemonium.