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"The Church's Hope: The Reformed Doctrine of the End" - A Review

What follows is a review by Rev. Justin Smidstra of The Church's Hope: The Reformed Doctrine of the End: Vol. 1: The Millennium, written by David J. Engelsma.

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Introduction
An integral part of the message of the gospel is that the Lord Jesus is coming again. The gospel proclaims that the same Jesus, who came to save His people from their sins, shall return with great power and glory to raise the dead, to judge all men, to perfect the salvation of His elect, and to bring about the consummation of His covenant and kingdom. This is the future hope of the church of Christ. With the eyes of faith fixed upon this future hope, the calling of the NT church is to be sober and vigilant, to watch and pray, and to make herself ready for the imminent return of her Lord.

This book, The Millennium, is the first of two volumes entitled The Church’s Hope: The Reformed Doctrine of the End. Together these two volumes will be the first part of Professor Engelmsa’s Reformed Dogmatics to be published (the remaining volumes will follow, DV). It is with a pastoral eye upon the needs of the church today that the author begins with the sixth rather than the first loci. In the dark last days in which we live, the church must know eschatology. For the church to fix the eyes of her faith upon her blessed hope, she must know the Scripture’s doctrine of the last things. She must hold for truth all that the Bible teaches concerning the end and she must contend as earnestly for this precious part of the faith once delivered, as she does for the other doctrines of the faith. In this regard, Professor Engelmsa’s work is a great asset to the church in these dark last days. The volume proclaims with clarity and sharpness the truth about the end and also wards off heresies repugnant thereto. The publication of this work is timely and relevant indeed.

The Content
Volume one, The Millennium, consists of twenty six chapters which are grouped into five sections. The first part provides a general introduction to eschatology. Here the author explains the importance and prominence of eschatology in Scripture. A helpful overview of contemporary errors in eschatology is given. In this section, the author makes the important point that although the Reformed Confessions do not spell out the truth of eschatology in detail, nevertheless the Confessions do set the boundaries for development of Reformed eschatology. The Reformed Confessions clearly stand opposed to all forms of millennialism. The Confessions demand that eschatology be developed along amillennial lines.

The second part of the book treats the doctrine of the intermediate state and the various errors that rob the child of the God of the comfort of this doctrine. The intermediate state refers to a person’s state of conscious existence after death. For the unbeliever, the intermediate state refers to the soul’s conscious experience of suffering in hell. For the elect child of God, the intermediate state is the state of conscious glory and fellowship with Christ into which the soul of the elect is taken immediately after death. In this connection, the author brings out an often overlooked aspect of the intermediate state, namely, body sleep. The soul does not sleep, but the body does. The body dies and sleeps in the grave, awaiting the resurrection on the day of Christ’s return. For this reason the intermediate state is only intermediate. God created man body and soul. The saints are destined to enjoy glory and fellowship with God in body and in soul. The intermediate state, though blessed and glorious, is not yet perfect and complete. The fullness of glory will come with the resurrection of the body on the day of Jesus Christ.

Part three introduces the concept of the millennium. As the title indicates, this volume focuses on explaining the millennium, or thousand years, described in Revelation 20. The book develops the correct interpretation of the millennium and defends it over against postmillennialism and premillennial dispensationalism. The author indicates that the millennium is of comparatively little importance, since it is mentioned in only Revelation 20:1-10, and is but one of many symbolic elements used to depict the last days. Nevertheless, in depth treatment is warranted, given the errors that have arisen from its misinterpretation. In distinction from these millennial errors, Reformed amillennialism teaches that the thousand year period of Revelation 20 is a figure for the whole New Testament age, in which Christ rules at the Father’s right hand, and directs all things for the gathering of His church. During this time Satan is bound, not such that he is inactive, but in order to restrain him from deceiving the nations and bringing about the premature rise of Antichrist. During the NT age, the departed saints reign with Christ in heavenly glory. At the end of the age, Satan will be loosed. This will allow Satan to unite the nations and bring forth the Antichrist to persecute the church. It is then that Christ will return on the clouds of glory to cast down the Antichristian kingdom and inaugurate the everlasting state.

Part four consists of a thorough and devastating critique of the false doctrine of postmillennialism. The author devotes a considerable amount of space to refuting this error, due to its history of infiltrating the Reformed tradition. Postmillennialism wrongly teaches that the millennium of Revelation 20 represents a great earthly kingdom of the saints at the end the age prior to the Second Coming of Christ. According to postmillennialism the New Testament age will culminate with a golden age for the church on earth. The majority of mankind will be converted. Believers will dominate every sphere of society. Earthly ills and evils will be largely done away with. In order to support this idea, postmillennialism has to explain away the numerous New Testament texts which prophesy great lawlessness, apostasy, and tribulation in the last days. Postmillennialism nullifies these passages by means of an interpretive maneuver called preterism. Preterism views all these prophecies as having been fulfilled in the past, particularly in 70 AD with the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. The author provides a thorough critique of this postmillennial interpretation of Revelation 20 and demonstrates that it is contrary to Scripture. The author also refutes several of the fundamental elements of postmillennial eschatology. Part four concludes with a chapter on the disastrous consequences of postmillennialism. Postmillennialism is a serious doctrinal error that diverts the hope of the Christian from its proper object, the Second Coming of Christ, to the figment of man’s imagination, a glorious earthly kingdom. The only great worldwide kingdom that the Scriptures prophesy is the kingdom of Antichrist. Thus, postmillennialism also renders its adherents unprepared for the coming of Christ, and unprepared for the tribulation which will precede the Lord’s return. The consequences of this eschatological error are disastrous indeed, and the importance of knowing and maintaining the truth is all the more evident.

The fifth part takes up a critique of the second major eschatological error: premillennialism and its radical offspring, dispensationalism. The author points out that this error is so far afield from Reformed Christianity that one might be satisfied with a brief critique of it. However, since this error has become the prevailing eschatology of evangelicalism, and because this error so seriously compromises fundamental truths of the gospel, an equally extensive critique is warranted. That the author delivers. Premillennialism and dispensationalism interprets the millennium of Revelation 20 to represent a restored Jewish kingdom in which Jesus Christ will be enthroned in Jerusalem and rule over the world. The Old Testament temple will be rebuilt and its priesthood and sacrificial rites will be reinstituted. All this will allegedly take place after the church has been raptured from the earth. The Millennium provides a thorough and devastating critique of this error. One by one, the fundamental errors of premillennialism are explained and refuted. The author shows how the premillennialists, avowed literalists that they are, engage in extraordinary flights of exegetical fancy in their interpretation of the biblical text. He refutes premillennialism’s denial of the unity of God’s covenant and church. He shows how the error is rooted in the denial of God’ sovereign election. He brings to light the serious implications of premillennialism’s forecasted restoration of the Old Testament priesthood and sacrifices. It is nothing less than a denial of the perfect and finished work of the Jesus Christ. Finally, the volume concludes with an interesting postscript on the connection between premillennial dispensationalism and antinomianism. Antinomianism rejects the law of God, particularly the Ten Commandments, as the authoritative rule of life for the child of God. Dispensationalism is inherently antinomian because it teaches that the law belonged only to the Old Testament. New Testament believers are no longer under the law in any sense. This, the author points out, is perilously close to, if not the same as, full-fledged antinomianism whose cry is, “Let us sin, that grace may abound!”

The Value
The value of this volume for the church and for the believer is manifold. No brief review can fully summarize the value of a lengthy work such as this. I will mention a few things that stood out to this reviewer.

First, this volume is thoroughly exegetical. The author’s exposition and development of doctrine is grounded upon and arises from the sound and sober exegesis of the Scriptures. This is one of the book’s greatest strengths. The author expounds the biblical doctrine of the end and develops this doctrine in a way that is both fresh yet also in full harmony with the Reformed tradition as expressed in the Three Forms of Unity. In short, the work is thoroughly biblical and vigorously Reformed. This is the kind to eschatology the church needs today. Likewise, the extensive polemics against the errors of postmillennialism and premillennialism are firmly grounded on the exegesis of the Scripture. This is why the polemics are so devastating. The author provides careful, in depth exegesis of the most “controversial” passages of the Word of God. Reformed Amillennialism is shown to rest squarely upon the solid foundation of the unbreakable Scriptures. Premillennialism and postmillennialism are shown to be built upon the crumbling foundation of man’s misinterpretation of the Word of God. The work’s polemics pulverize this weak foundation.

Second, this volume is readable and accessible, without sacrificing any of its intellectual rigor. The subject of the millennium is a difficult subject. The millennial errors are complicated and confusing. But the author explains things clearly and simply. This volume is evidently written not only for pastors and professors of theology, but for the ordinary believer and church member. Both the catechism student doing his Essentials homework and the seminary student preparing for his dogmatics exam will find this work valuable and profitable. This readability and accessibility commends the book to a wide audience.

Third, this volume sounds a timely necessary warning against the spirit of eschatological indifference. It is not uncommon today to encounter the viewpoint that premillennialism, postmillennialism, and amillennialism are all more or less equally viable alternatives based on slightly different interpretations of Scripture. Whether you are amillennial, postmillennial, or premillennial is a matter of exegetical freedom, or so it is thought. The author demonstrates the error of this viewpoint. He also shows the great danger of such eschatological indifference. As the end nears, false doctrine in eschatology becomes all the more dangerous. We can only expect that Satan will exert himself all the more in devising counsels against the Word of God and the doctrine of the last things. If the church does not know true eschatology, the church will not be ready for Christ’s return. Both postmillennialism and premillennial dispensationalism leave their adherents unprepared for the rise of Antichrist and the subsequent Great Tribulation. Truth in eschatology is important, as important as in the other loci of dogmatics. Reformed and Presbyterian churches today must hear and heed this warning.

Finally, this volume emphasizes the very real practical significance of true, biblical eschatology: the safeguarding and enjoyment of Christian hope. The true doctrine of the end gives the church hope, solid and certain hope. The millennial errors rob the church of her hope. But the truth of the Word of God fixes the eyes of her faith upon that hope: “Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13). Herein lies a very practical reason to read this volume. The reader who delves into it will find his hope kindled and strengthened. That is what every good study of eschatology should do. It should lead the believer to look with uplifted head for the coming of the Lord and to pray with renewed earnestness “Come. Lord Jesus, Come quickly.”

The first volume is an excellent work, instructive and edifying. It is a volume that leaves the reader eager for the second, indeed, for the rest of the Dogmatics.

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