Our thesis has been that the preaching of the gospel is the principle sign of the return of Jesus Christ. It is the principle sign because it is the means in the purpose of Christ to bring about the other signs both in the history of the world and in the development of the church. In our last article we discussed in what way the preaching of the gospel realizes the fundamental division of the world into the two camps of Christianity and Paganism, “Jerusalem” and “Gog and Magog.” We pointed out that in the Christian nations, the gospel has national impact. The gospel has influence on the life of the nation and alters its character so that the nation becomes civilized. But the gospel never accomplishes this in all the nations of the earth. Nor is this God’s intention. Rather, in the nations of paganism, the gospel only saves those “who are ordained to eternal life” without having this national influence which brings the nation into the camp of civilization. The nations themselves remain in dark heathendom.
As the end of the world nears therefore, there is a fundamental difference between the two camps into which the world is divided by means of the gospel. On the one hand there is the camp of Christian nations. Already in our day these nations are clearly defined. They are the nations in which the gospel has run its broadest course. When the gospel was first preached, it was limited to Jerusalem and surrounding environs. But, according to the Lord’s command, the gospel was brought to the entire known world of that day. It spread to Antioch in Syria. And from there the gospel of the cross was carried into Asia Minor and Greece, Macedonia and Italy. With the close of the apostolic era, the gospel had been preached in every nation then known.
With the fall of the Roman Empire and the settlement of Europe by the barbarian tribes, the gospel was also brought into the heartland of Europe north of the Alps. Through extensive and oftentimes heroic: missionary labors, the gospel was brought to every barbarian tribe and Europe was converted. With the opening of a new continent in our own land, the gospel was preached here also. And when the vast migrations of Europe filled this land, the gospel was brought to these shores and the church established in America.
But always in these nations the gospel influenced the entire life of the nation so that it became Christian. The entire nation was affected by the preaching of the gospel; civilization was developed; the lands were Christianized. This has continued till the present day.
The result is that the nations of the “West” are what we commonly call “Nominal Christendom.”
However, this does not mean in any sense of the word that all the citizens of these Christian nations are elect people of God and members of the church which is the body of Christ. Such is far from the case. We need only look about us today at our own land to see how far from the truth this really is. Yet these Christian nations are characterized by certain distinguishing marks. In the first place, as we have already said, these nations have become the centers of civilization. In them has been found the progress of science, art, technology, philosophy and all branches of learning. They have been the leaders in subduing the earth and have stood in the vanguard of the advance of knowledge. No doubt, this is chiefly true because the gospel in its very nature emphasizes education and learning because it emphasizes the knowledge of God. And therefore as the gospel has penetrated into the very life of the nation, the nation has become a repository of culture.
In the second place, generally speaking, this has taken place in nations divided according to the age-old division of the sons of Noah. It is particularly the descendants of Japheth who have been chiefly involved in this. That is, the gospel has been brought to bear upon these nations who are descendants of him of whom it was said: “Japheth shall dwell in the tents of Shem.” The civilizing force of the gospel has been chiefly found among these people.
In the third place, the entire nation has been brought into the institutional church. Not simply a few scattered individuals; not simply a minority of families; but the entire nation has become a part of the institution of the church of Christ. The result is that the nation, in its generations, and organically considered, is composed of those who belong to the broad lines of the covenant. The generations are born within the historical dispensation of the covenant, are brought up under the influence and teaching of covenant instruction, receive the signs of the covenant and live within its historical influence. In subsequent years, many of these children no longer are a part of the covenant lines; but this is because in the generations that follow, many fall away. They did belong to the covenant at one time; and the results of this are still evident in them.
In the fourth place, no matter how wicked a nation may become, it still retains some evidences of the fact that it was part of the church. In our own country there is, e.g., an ostensible belief in God. This is recognized to such an extent that the name of God is included in many state documents; the motto “In God we trust” is included on our coins; the name of God is retained in oaths taken for public office; the pledge of allegiance to the flag includes the phrase: “one nation under God”, etc. It may be nominal Christianity which characterizes our nation; but it is most emphatically Christianity. So much is this true that Scripture calls such nominal Christendom by the name of “Jerusalem” or “the camp of the saints,” etc.
These distinguishing features are of considerable importance in our understanding of the role of the preaching of the gospel as a principle sign of Christ’s return. These characteristics do not mean that all these people in the nation are God’s elect. This is far from the case. Rather, the situation is as it always was in the nation of Israel during the Old Dispensation. The nation as a whole was Israel “to whom pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises.” But the fact of the matter was that “they are not all Israel that are of Israel.” This was never the case. Many who belonged to the nation were not true Israel. They were a part of the nation; they bore in their flesh the sign of the covenant. But they were not God’s elect. The true Israel was only a small minority, a “remnant according to the election of grace,” a “seven thousand who had not bowed the knee to Baal,” a “cottage in a vineyard, a lodge in a garden of cucumbers, a besieged city.”
So it is true in the nations which belong to Christendom. Outwardly Christian they are; but outwardly only.
Yet this is precisely the reason why Antichrist comes from these nations. He is Antichrist (anti Christ) only because he comes in the place of Christ and opposes Christ. But he must know about Christ in order to do this. He must be one who retains an outward profession of the Christian religion and maintains that what he proposes as the religion of his realm is indeed true Christianity. Thus the chief feature of the kingdom of Antichrist is that it is apostasy from the revelation of God in Christ given through the preaching of the gospel. Christendom develops into nominalChristianity; and nominal Christianity develops into anti-Christianity. But Antichrist could not possibly come out of paganism. His kingdom retains the name of Christendom and he is insistent that this be so. No clearer evidence of this is to be found than in our own country, where the church has become in the most literal sense of the word anti-Christian. While indeed there is an effort to retain the name “Christianity” and while surely to deny the fact that our country is a Christian country is to run the risk of denunciation; the fact is that our country is not Christian in the true sense of the word — the sense of a pure and untarnished confession of the truth of Scripture.
But paganism is quite different from all this.
Indeed the gospel has come into these nations. It has been preached in many of them for a millennium now. And there is no doubt about it but that the church has also been gathered from these nations, for God gathers His Church from every nation and tribe and tongue. But a profound difference nevertheless remains between these nations and the nations of Christendom. In the first place, these nations (particularly of Africa and Asia) have, for the most part remained in the darkness of paganism. Civilization and culture have not flourished among them, but passed them by. They remain uncivilized and barbaric. They did not contribute to the advance of knowledge. This is no doubt due to the binding of Satan described so vividly in Revelation 20, for in his binding he was unable to deceive the nations on the four corners of the earth. But this is also due to the fact that the gospel did not enter into the life of the nation and alter its character. The Church was plucked out as the gospel “glanced” off the periphery of the nation.
In the second place, and closely connected with this, the nation was not brought into the institutional church. As far as its national character is concerned, it continued to live in paganism with pagan religions. The religions which characterize these nations are fundamentally different even from the nominal Christianity of the West. Buddhism, Hinduism, fetishism, Confucianism and all the others are pagan religions which bear no resemblance to the religions of Western denominations of whatever kind they may be. And the difference is that while the religions of the West are apostasies from the true faith of God in Christ, pagan religions are corruptions of the manifestation of God in creation. The heathen have not the revelation of God in Christ. They have the speech of God in the things that are made. And their religions are apostasies from this speech of God. These are described in their essential character by Paul in Romans 1. And, no matter that the gospel came also into these nations and gathered the church, as nations they remained wedded to pagan religions. This has not changed until the present day.
In the third place, this fundamental difference between these two “camps” in the world is so great that there is a mutual distrust, a mutual hatred, a mutual bitterness that time cannot erase. Pagan nations cannot tell the difference between true Christianity and false Christianity. And they hate it all. They therefore consider the West to be truly Christian and they deal with them as such. But as nations they have no sympathy with Christianity and with the Christian nations; they despise them and will not have a part of their religion.
Perhaps it is true in our day that these nations are eager to lay their hands on the fruits and luxuries of our advanced civilization. Indeed, who can blame them for wanting a share in our material prosperity so that their lives of poverty, disease and early death are changed? But the Christianity of the West they detest. How evident this is. As the nations which have been sleeping in dark paganism for so many years gradually emerge from sleep and become aware of what is happening in the world about them, they, too, want their own place in the community of nations. But it is their own place they want. The strong nationalism recently characteristic of these countries is a major news item of our times. They want to erase all traces of their former domination of foreign peoples. While they desire to join the community of nations and while they readily receive the benefits of the advanced technologies of their neighbors, they want nothing of the religion of the West. When they become nations, as often as not they expel immediately all the missionaries who labored there. Who can deny that the doors of the nations are rapidly being closed to missionary work? And it happens with startling frequency that once a nation has achieved independence, many in the nation who once were called Christians immediately revert to their old pagan ways. All traces of the religion of the West must be rooted out of these nations. They have their own religions —pagan religions; and with them they are content.
The gospel does all these things. This is the point we are making. And, as the gospel does all these things, the purpose of God is being accomplished.
No doubt, inasmuch as Antichrist will rule over a world-wide empire, he will succeed for a brief time in imposing Western civilization and culture upon these nations against their will. There are strenuous efforts being exerted to accomplish this end today. Antichrist apparently will succeed in welding the entire world together into one empire. But the basic differences that exist between paganism and nominal Christendom are not so easily destroyed. The differences remain. The chasm persists. The unity of Antichrist’s kingdom is a veneer which only hides a bad crack underneath. And before the end comes again, the differences will burst forth and the antagonism which has always characterized the relations between the two will break out in fury.
It ought to be evident that these truths have important implications with respect to the character of missionary work. And to these we shall turn, the Lord willing, in our next article.