The Substance of Things Hoped For

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These are my notes for my talk at the Bahnsen 2022 conference. Many thanks to the organizers for inviting me.

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Postmillennial eschatology is not just that branch of theology that talks about when all the roses bloom. It is far more than that. Postmill eschatology is itself the rose of all theology—and is the rose of all true theology in full bloom. Or put another way, an optimistic eschatology is not when a bunch of theologians gather at a conference and exchange learned papers on the value of June. No, biblical eschatology is June.

Now this kind of thing can be said in a way that seems doctrinally self-serving—like that time when two ministers from different denominations were talking, and one of them wrapped up the conversation amicably enough by saying, “Well, we both serve the Lord—you in your way, and I in His.” Let us stay far away from that sort of serene and un-self-aware conceit. But let us also stay far away from the faux humility that doesn’t ever want to maintain anything in particular, and whenever a disagreement threatens to break out, rushes in to say “we’re all saying the same thing really.”

Just as Philip Schaff once said that the greatest triumph of the medieval church was the Reformation, so also Warfield once said that pure and undefiled religion was simply . . . Calvinism. “For Calvinism is just religion in its purity. We have only, therefore, to conceive of religion in its purity, and that is Calvinism.”

However abrasive to modern ears this kind of thing sounds—because the spirit of obligatory moderation is an attitude that won’t take up its own side in an argument—there is nevertheless a gracious Christian way to maintain such things without turning into a bigot. To believe that proposition x is true is the same thing as thinking that “not x” isn’t. If heads is up, then tails is down. And to think something in definite and particular terms is synonymous with thinking at all. Unless you think something, you aren’t thinking.

A Matter of Faith and Unbelief

Having said these things, I hasten to add an important qualification. Even though it is November, a month in which I have dedicated myself to being thought unreasonable, I am out of my home state, and a guest of others at their conference, and so I thought to unbend just a little. To state baldly that postmillennialism should be thought of as the culmination of all that is good in Reformed theology is shooting the moon, is it not?

As I hope you will see in a few moments, the exegetical groundwork is firm. The footings are poured, and I believe they will support the building. So why then are eschatological issues so vexed and troubled in our time?

The answer is one that I take from the toolbox of pre-suppositionalism. Van Til would tell us, were he here, there is no such thing as a raw fact, as an uninterpreted fact. There is no such thing as raw data. And in the same way, there is no such thing as raw exegesis. The message of the Bible is always to be apprehended and taken in by faith.

What Jesus said on the Emmaus road is pertinent here.

“Then he said unto them, O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken:”

Luke 24:25 (KJV)

Jesus was here speaking to His disciples, to two who loved Him, and who were no doubt better Christians than I am. But it is still possible for dedicated followers of Christ to struggle with believing “all that the prophets have spoken.” And just a few verses down from that encounter, Jesus appeared to His apostles and opened up their understanding of the prophets (v. 45).

Like the grace of the postmillennial fulfillment, understanding the nature of the stupendous promises is also a grace. And grace is always to be received by faith and faith alone. And so faith alone is the framework upon which all of this rests.  

An Autobiographical Excursus

In just a moment I am going to share with you some of the things I see in the text, but first I want to tell you how I came to see them. When I fell down the reformational stairs, hitting my head on every step, the very first paradigm shift I went though was postmillennialism. First that, then about three years later, in 1988, Calvinism. So yes, I was a postmillennial evangelical Arminian Baptist for a few years. Pretty lonely. A couple years later, probably, presbyterianism came in matters of polity, and in 1993 I became a paedobaptist. I was making quite a clatter going down those stairs, but things have been pretty stable for the last thirty years or so. Now the reason I tell you all this is so that you will recognize that when it first came time to repaint my Baptist Arminian house, almost forty years ago now, the first base coat was postmillennialism. And I will never forget how the house looked after that first coat.

Now that first paradigm shift . . . how did it happen? Sometime before I had jettisoned as non-exegetical the generic premill assumptions of modern evangelicalism—the kind of eschatology I had picked up just through loving Jesus in North America. I then spent a short stint in Ladd’s historic premill world, but soon dropped that because I didn’t see it arising out of the text either. So in the early eighties there were a few years where I was an agnosti-millennialist. I would say things like, “Jesus is coming back sometime, and don’t push me.” I continued reading my Bible, and different verses would taunt me, making faces at me. This would happen particularly in Psalms and Isaiah, and provoked bumfuzzled marginalia from me.

In that condition, I picked up a postmillennial book, and to be frank, the hermeneutic it contained was a bit gaudy for my taste—it was Paradise Restored by David Chilton. Still is a bit gaudy for me, but I remain forever grateful. So there I was, going along, muttering, and at one point he quoted 1 Cor. 15:25—Christ “must reign, until He has put all enemies under his feet.”

And when I read that, something snapped in my head, and an entire postmillennial worldview began to assemble, like one of those transformer thingies in a CGI movie. Out of all the paradigm shifts I mentioned earlier, this one was by far and away the most fun. Some of the others were no fun at all.

This was exhilarating, to put it mildly. I am an evangelical, the son of evangelicals, of the tribe of Benjamin, and what I am doing here is giving you my testimony. This is how I have come to see what I believe Abraham saw—the substance of things hoped for.

What Abraham Saw

I would like to begin by weaving a few passages together, passages that talk about faith, and about Abraham, and about our inheritance of the world. There is a lot going on here, and so it will be a tight weave. Please bear with me. But having laid down that pattern, and handed it to you, I would use up the remainder of my talk to expand on the kindness of God extended to our sorry planet, and the glory of the Great Commission.

The title of my talk is taken from Hebrews 11:1.

“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”

Hebrews 11:1 (KJV)

Faith is not simply a demeanor of nebulous trust in whatever. Faith is not getting yourself into a faithy frame of mind—such that you radiate vague trust vibes, like heat from a wood stove. Faith is the evidence of things not seen. But the fact that they are not seen does not mean that they were not promised, and does not mean that the promise was not specific and understandable. Faith is the substance of things hoped for, and this is not an exercise in wish fulfillment, whatever those wishes might be. The things hoped for were the things promised.

When Hebrews 11 gets to Abraham, just a few verses down from our text, what is said there is quite striking.

“By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went. By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise: For he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God.”

Hebrews 11:8–10 (KJV)

The Gnostic undertow in our time is a strong one, and it is the easiest thing in the world here to imagine that Abraham was thinking about going to heaven when he died. But that is not what this is talking about at all. When Abraham was looking for a city, he was looking forward to what was promised. The substance of things hoped for, remember?

But what had God promised him?

“And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.”

Genesis 12:3 (KJV)

God had promised him that all the families in the world, that all the nations of earth, would be blessed, and blessed through him.

Not only so, but in Galatians, Paul calls this promise of “blessing the world through Abraham” the gospel. God preached the postmillennial vision to Abraham, and Paul says that this promise of universal blessing was the gospel. Lest you think I am padding my argument surreptitiously, trying to sneak something in, let me quote him directly.

“And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed” (Galatians 3:8).

God promised the world to Abraham, and Abraham believed what was promised. It was not just the way he believed that was credited to him as righteousness, although it was that also, it was that he believed what he believed that was credited to him as righteousness.

“For the promise, that he should be the heir of the world, was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith.”

Romans 4:13 (KJV)

Given all of this, it should not be surprising that Jesus commends Abraham for seeing so far.

“Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad.”

John 8:56 (KJV)

Abraham’s joy was not the result of seeing “Abraham’s bosom” in Sheol or Hades. Neither was Abraham’s joy grounded in an upper story afterlife—although there is such an afterlife. The promise was that he would be the heir of the world, and it was a promise he believed. If we would be strengthened in our status as Abraham’s seed, Abraham’s children, we should believe it also. Father Abraham had many sons, many sons had Father Abraham. If we count ourselves among them, we would do well to expect myriads of multitudes more.

When John the Revelator heard the symbolic number of the elect, it was 144,000, tribe after tribe (Rev. 7:4). But how many were there exactly? He heard the number, but after that he turned and looked (Rev. 7:9). And what did he see? He saw “a great multitude, which no man could number.” How many sons of Abraham and daughters of Sarah will be saved in the end? The scriptural answer is that we can’t count that high. God so loved the world.

Inverting the Terms

We have no authority from Christ or from His Spirit to turn everything upside down. We have no right to invert all the terms. We have no right to substitute one thing for another, emptying the promises of their sweetness and glory. The fact that we do this so readily, and so easily, and without being challenged on it, is an indication of just how much an other-worldly spirituality has crept into the entire church.

Christ tells us to pray in the Lord’s prayer “thy kingdom come.” There was no word that told us to pray for “thy kingdom to go” (Matt. 6:10).

The Word does not say “blessed are the meek, for they shall go to heaven when they die.” No, they will inherit the earth (Matt. 5:5).

We are not told that Christ did not come into the world to condemn the world, but that despite His good faith attempts, the world will succeed in getting condemned by Him anyhow (John 3:17).

We are not told that the knowledge of the glory of the Lord will cover the earth as might happen with a heavy dew on a parking lot (Hab. 2:14).

Among the many glorious titles that crown our Lord Jesus, the ostensible Savior of the world is not among them (1 John 4:14).

We are not instructed to think that while the Lord Jesus did in fact bind the strong man, somehow during the night the strong man got away (Mark 3:27).

The Word does not say that Christ will be seated at the right hand of the Father until His enemies are put under His feet, which is why He will always remain there (Ps. 110:1).

Like Those Who Dream

Am I trying to weave a spell? Perhaps I am. But if I may, I would like to repurpose a quote from C.S. Lewis, which seems to me to be exactly on point here—even though some might think there is a contraction between my argument here and his larger point. But there is no contradiction, and his illustration remains.

“Do you think I am trying to weave a spell? Perhaps I am; but remember your fairy tales. Spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as for inducing them. And you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us for nearly a hundred years.”

C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory

We are jaded in a disillusionment that we actually have no right to. Which of His promises has He not kept? When Jehovah showed the night sky to Abraham, what did Abraham have to go on if he were limited to the opinion page of The Ur of the Chaldees Gazette? And yet he believed, and it was credited to him as righteousness.

What makes us think that God no longer wants to leave His children gobsmacked?

“When the Lord turned again the captivity of Zion, we were like them that dream. Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing: Then said they among the heathen, The Lord hath done great things for them. The Lord hath done great things for us; Whereof we are glad. Turn again our captivity, O Lord, as the streams in the south. They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.”

Psalm 126 (KJV)

We are Christians. Why do we not believe the prophets? Why is the Reformed and evangelical church lagging so far behind King Agrippa? “King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you do believe” (Acts 26:27).

Jehovah God sent His Son into the world, not to condemn it, but rather so that the world through Him might be saved (John 3:17).

“But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.”

1 Corinthians 2:9 (KJV)