Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Postmillenialism and Suffering 3 (updated)

The Christian life is characterised by the cross. Does this refute postmillenialism - the idea that the gospel will triumph in history?

1. Of course, we must affirm that the Christian life is characterised by the cross. To say anything less is an over-realised eschatology. However, we can say more (and a-mill brothers and sisters would of course want to agree with this) – the Christian life is characterised by the cross because of union with Christ.

2. Union is with the whole of him, and therefore his resurrection as well as his cross.

3. In fact the two (cross and resurrection) cannot be separated. For the cross is the route to glory, the cross is (because of the resurrection) an example of victory through suffering. The Christian life is a life of cross and resurrection.

4. But what shape does this victory/resurrection aspect of the Christian life take in the present (i.e. before its ultimate in bodily resurrection at the 2nd coming)?

a. Patient endurance despite persecution and suffering.
b. Justification.
c. Regeneration.
d. Sanctification (progressive, though not perfect, victory over sin in the life of the believer, increasing moral conformity to Christ, etc.).

Few would disagree with a. through d. However, are there any other manifestations of resurrection-life/victory-through suffering spoken of in the scripture? I would say yes. Consider these verses from 1 Peter - an epistle in some ways majoring on the 'Christian life involves suffering and persecution' theme;

1 Peter 2:11-12. The suffering of the Christian under persecution results in the conversion of the persecutor.

1 Peter 2:15. The good living under fire of the Christian silences the ignorance of the persecutor.

1 Peter 5:10. God establishes and strengthens the church after she has suffered for a little while.

The poignant thing here is how these promises of victory are connected to persecution. Now, we could argue forever about ‘when’ 5:10 happens – is it within history or only at the 2nd coming? But, it is pretty hard to argue that 1 Peter 2:11-12 and 15 are only to be experienced at the 2nd coming. Even if ‘the day of visitation’ is ‘end of time judgment day’ (which I don’t think it is) then what is being predicted in that verse is still undoubtedly conversion – a within-history victory of the gospel over some of the church’s persecutors.

Also, just because Peter seems only to be putting forward 2:11-12 as a possibility doesn’t undermine the point. It’s clearly something that does happen (Saul of Tarsus anyone?) – I assume Peter’s uncertainty to be related to his not knowing the elect status of the specific persecutor’s in mind, rather than his doubting that this is a strategy for gospel growth that God uses! That he even puts it forward as a possibility shows that we have a further category to add to a. to d. with regard to the sort of victory that the Church can experience within history.

e. Gospel-conquest through the cross-living of the Church.

Peter doesn’t see this silencing and converting of former persecutors as being in conflict with the cross-shaped reality of the Christian life. Rather he sees the cross-living of Christians as instrumental in the whole thing.

The point is not that these verses somehow prove postmillenialism (there are many other passages and themes that we could turn to for mounting that argument) but rather that, even before considering 'proof-texts' for postmillenialism it can be demonstrated that e. is a part of the resurrection/victory side of union with Christ experienced by the Church prior to Christ's return. That the Christian life is cross-shaped does not mean the gospel won't win, or that persecution can't be reduced by that victory. Postmillennialism argues that what the apostle Peter is suggesting could happen on a local scale for the believers in Asia Minor, the bible elsewhere predicts will eventually and gradually happen on a massive scale before Jesus Christ returns. Cross-shaped living is instrumental in the victory of the gospel.

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