We live in an age that resembles the book of Judges. If you view the history of humanity as man’s journey from infancy to maturity (Adam to Solomon; fallen man to the resurrected man), then it seems to me that we are currently living through our teens.
Everybody (and by everybody, I mean the church) is doing what is right in his own eyes. It’s like lunchtime at Kick-a-tin high school. The kids have gathered, each according to his tribe, and are scattered throughout the playground in a perpetual stand-off.
Much of that standoff is the result of our doctrinal factions, and much of those factions have to do with our tendency to fall headlong into one bucket of glorious truth while ignoring the glorious truths on the other side.
As a wise man once said to me regarding the sticky question of predestination and our responsibility to willingly come to Christ for salvation: Both are true, but you must never jump into either bucket.
While the growing number of splintered Christian groups have an almost infinite number of differences when it comes to culture, belief and practice, most of those differences boil down to things that start with the letter “P”. Preterism, postmillennialism, and predestination.
Here is a quick rundown of those gloriously sticky truths.
Preterism is the belief that much of the New Testament prophecy was fulfilled during the lifetime of the disciples.
Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled. (Matthew 24:34)
This belief stands alongside the truth that there is still prophecy to be fulfilled in the future. Namely, the resurrection of the saints and the final judgement at the Lord’s return.
The term preterism comes from the Latin praeter, meaning something “past”. In Christianity, preterism is the view that the prophecies of the New Testament, particularly those of Jesus, Paul and John have been largely fulfilled. It stands in contrast to a futurist view which sees most New Testament prophecies as yet to be fulfilled.
In Matthew 23:37-24:3, Jesus announces the destruction of the temple and the judgement of Jerusalem.
In response, the Disciples ask,
When will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age? ( Matthew 24:3)
A natural reading of this verse suggests that the disciples were asking questions about a particular event, as opposed to three different questions about three very different events.
When will Jerusalem and the temple be destroyed? What will be the sign (of your coming to destroy it) and, what will be the sign that the time of the current age (epoch) has come to an end?
Jesus answers the disciples’ question. He tells them what to look out for and how to behave. This only makes sense if they are going to be around to witness and experience the end of an era (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:11) that, as Jesus says, would come upon that generation.
For the preterist, the same understanding holds true of the book of Revelation and much of its prophecy.
In Revelation, John is writing to a Christian community in the midst of tribulation and turbulence about events that were, “about to take place”, “at the door” and “at hand”. If John was talking about events, the bulk of which were not going to take place for another 2000 years, then, to be fair, his words would carry very little importance to his audience and be of very little comfort in their distress (cf. 1 John 2:18).
For the preterist, the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD appears to be the historical fulfilment of much of the New Testament’s prophecy on what we call “end time events”.
A Preterist understanding of scripture has its limitations and doesn’t paint the whole picture, but it does help us rethink and clarify a multitude of otherwise difficult passages.
In the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple, the Old Covenant had passed away (Hebrews 8:13), and though we still await the promises of the resurrection and the final judgement, a New Covenant has now opened the way for both Jew and Gentile to be brought together and saved through Christ.
Postmillennialism is the belief that Jesus Christ confirmed His earthly rule (was coronated, cf. Daniel 7:13-14) at His resurrection and ascension to the right hand of God (The Ancient of Days), and that we now live in an era of progressive gospel triumph.
And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. (Matthew 28:18)
This belief stands alongside the truth that there is still a good deal of mopping up that needs to be done and plenty of rebellion that needs to be quashed. Just like Israel through the wilderness, there will be dark days. But, we are nevertheless heading somewhere glorious.
For the postmillennialist, this mop-up project is the work of the church as Christ continues to build, expand and bear the visible fruit of His kingdom on earth through the advance of the gospel.
Scripture testifies to the progressive nature and victory of His kingdom in several places. Here are two examples.
But the stone that struck the image became a great mountain that filled the whole earth. (Daniel 2:35)
And from Isaiah,
Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. (Isaiah 9:7)
From what time? According to the previous verse (Isaiah 9:6), from the time of His birth (cf. Matthew:2).
The postmillennialist is a happy soul who, despite what the papers might say, sees the (often imperceptible, cf. Matthew 13:33) progress of the Kingdom throughout the world and throughout history under the present rule and reign of Jesus.
Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For He must reign until He has put all his enemies under His feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. (1 Corinthians 15:24-26)
A postmillennial view of the end times says that Jesus won’t return until there is only one thing left to do—defeat death—which He will do by returning and raising us from the dead, punishing the wicked, and rewarding the saints with eternal life.
While a postmillennial understanding of scripture doesn’t deal with every aspect of the last days of human history, it does affirm the promises of gospel victory from the river to the ends of the Earth. Not in some other world but in this world. In our time. Within human history.
Is the world getting better or worse? According to the postmillennialist, this world is heading somewhere beautiful and, though often unseen, it is heading somewhere good. Why? Because Christ has now taken the reigns.
Predestination is the belief that the road to salvation is grounded in the will of God, not man.
So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy. (Romans 9:16)
The belief that God chooses to bring men to salvation stands alongside the equally true statement that man must come to Christ in faith in order to be saved.
That God chooses His people is evident throughout scripture. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Israel, Mary, and the twelve Apostles were all chosen by God.
These terms, election, chosen, predestined, foreordained, etc, are peppered throughout scripture. Nevertheless, they have caused no end of grief. This is, in part, because the Bible seems to also talk about man’s responsibility to come to Christ for salvation, and also because people assume the antithesis: That if God elects some to salvation that He, therefore, elects others to damnation.
But as C.S Lewis once put it,
In hell, the door is first locked from the inside. It’s only later that God comes and locks it from the outside.
Another problem some have with predestination is that it seems to rob mankind of free will.
A man’s will is governed by his nature and so the Bible talks a lot more about man’s nature than it does his will.
Man’s nature is to rebel against and suppress a knowledge of God.
Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then also you can do good who are accustomed to do evil. (Jeremiah 13:23)
Like a lion in a cage being fed with straw, he will starve rather than eat the straw. For although the straw would give him life, it is simply not in his nature to eat it.
So it is with man apart from Christ. And so Jeremiah,
Turn us Lord, and we shall be turned. (Lamentations 5:21)
It is God, of His own free mercy, who turns hearts, who opens eyes, who saves, who gives us a new nature and who adopts us as His children. Children,
…who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:13)
This fact does not negate man’s responsibility. Rather, it establishes it.
Suppose a man is watching his daughter playing in a sandpit. He longs for his daughter to turn around and come to him but she is engrossed in her castles and shells. Such a child could hardly be considered rebellious. However, the moment he calls her to come, she becomes accountable to respond, and a rebel if she does not.
So it is with everybody who has eternity written on their hearts. We are all accountable because God has called us to repent and believe. But, like Lazarus, we have no legs for the journey.
And so God, in His mercy, must step in—right from the beginning—and supply the kind of heart and the kind of legs that will walk to Him.
Who He gives this new heart—this new nature—to, is a mystery. A mystery that belongs to God. But the fact that He does it is undisputed.
One who heard us was a woman named Lydia… The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. (Acts 16:14)
This calls for humility and rejoicing in the deepest sense (Ephesians 2:4-9).
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
Man must be saved. But He cannot save himself. Man must repent, but God must grant repentance. Man must come to Christ, but God must first raise those dead in trespasses and sins in order for them to come.
Finally, some will say that the three ‘P’s I have mentioned are reserved for theological weird-beards and doctrinal fussers. But it should be our joy to search the riches and depths of God’s word. To wrestle with His nature and His eternal purposes for this world and for our lives.
Thankfully, one of the imperfections that Christ died for was our imperfect theology. We will not always get it right, but, like good Bereans, it should be our joy to mine the treasures of God’s word, that we may grow in the knowledge of the one true God, and adore the Son whom He has sent.