Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Eschatology precedes soteriology

My latest sermon, preached at Providence Reformed Presbyterian Church in Singapore, was on 1 Corinthians 1:1-9, and it can be heard here. In that sermon, one particular emphasis that I made was on the Christian hope, the revealing (ἀποκαλυπσις) of the Lord Jesus Christ in glory, which ought to re-orientate the way we live our lives. It is when we keep our eyes on this hope that the priorities in our lives will be ordered properly, in a way that glorifies God, and also in the way we were made to live.

It is this latter point that I attempt to elucidate when I introduced the phrase "Eschatology precedes soteriology." These three words encompass a very important concept in biblical theology. Eschatology, the doctrine of the last things, precedes soteriology, the doctrine of salvation, not because we ought to focus our attentions on one's view of the millennium or the rapture, but rather because the main points of Reformed eschatology (as oppose to Dispensational eschatology) concerns the breaking-in of God's glory, where God tears open the fabrics of the heavens (metaphorically and phenomenologically of course) and the glory of God, the knowledge of the glory of God, floods the earth as the waters cover the sea (cf. Hab. 2:14). (Reformed eschatology, whether of the pre-, post-, or a-millennial varieties, all have this as their focus, as opposed to the Dispensational predilection for dates, timelines and literal fulfillment of biblical figures of speech). This focus of Reformed eschatology precedes soteriology primarily because of our understanding of Adam and the Covenant of Works, and therefore those who deny the Covenant of Works can never have this full-orbed understanding and comfort in the Christian hope.

The traditional Reformed understanding of the Covenant of Works, which is confessed both in the Presbyterian and the (European) continental Reformed churches, is that Adam was bound by God a short time after his creation. In this covenant, God bound Adam to perfect and perpetual obedience to His commands, as expressed in the one explicit command given to Adam (and Eve) not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. By divine fiat, the fruits of this one tree was forbidden to Adam and Eve, our first parents. If Adam and Eve were to obey God's commands as they are focused on this one simple prohibition, God promised eternal life to them. If however they were to disobey God, they would merit death and surely die.

In Hebrews 2: 5-9, the author of Hebrews cites Ps. 8:4-6 and expounds on it in relation to Christ. The context of Psalms 8:4-6 concerns how God has glorified Man in creation and crown him with glory and honor. In Man's original creation, Adam was a great priest and king before Creator God. But of course, we know Adam failed the test and fell from his glorious estate. Hebrews 2:5-9 brings up this motif to show us how Jesus fulfilled what Adam was tasked to do and bring us believers to the state of glory that Adam was meant to have brought about. In other words, the goal of the Eschaton, that of God coming down from heaven in all of His glory, was the intended telos of Adam's probation. The Fall interrupted that goal however, for now where God's glory was to be made manifest upon the earth, now sin pollutes all of God's creation. Eschatology precedes soteriology because the telos existed (in time) before even the Fall. We are saved from sin in order to get us back to the intended telos of creation. Salvation follows upon the interruption of the telos of the world, and serves the restoration of all things when Christ comes again, and therefore eschatology precedes soteriology.

As a short excursus, it is of course true that God's plan has always been for the Fall to happen and for Christ to die for the sins of the elect, from a Systematic Theological point of view, whether ones takes an infralapsarian or supralapsarian perspective. But the truths of God's plan on the vertical transcendent plane does not negate the truths of God's plans acted on along the horizontal plane of redemptive-history. So it is true that God decrees the Fall to happen and that Christ would die for the sins of the elect, but it is also true that the Fall interrupts the intended telos of the in-breaking of the glory of God upon the earth if Adam had obeyed. Those who desire to pit Systematic Theology against Biblical Theology and make one prior to the other have a stunted view of God and His glory, as if God is limited to one plane of operation. Both are true, as such both show us different facets of God's plan and God's glory.

Eschatology precedes soteriology. The in-breaking of the full glory of God upon this earth has been interrupted by the Fall, and it is this that is our hope, when Christ will come again from heaven with glory to cleanse the creation and restore it and bring it to its glorified state. This very public revelation or unveiling of God is the blessed hope for the Christian, the one who puts his hope and trust in Jesus Christ. We are not just saved from hellfire, as if Christianity is merely a hell insurance policy. Rather, we are being saved towards the intended goal of all creation, so that we might revel in the manifest glory of God and in communion with our Lord. So Maranatha, come Lord Jesus! Come!

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