PMT 2015-123 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

Mustard seedIn this article I am continuing a response to a reader who wonders if the NT teaches a gradualistic development of Christ’s kingdom to victory. He was especially curious since Rom 8 appears to speak of the fulfillment of Isa 11, with Rom 8 speaking of the consummation rather than history. I recommend reading my previous article to get his particular question before you.

Postmillennial gradualism and the final order

Postmillennialists not only believe in a large measure of historical victory for Christ’s kingdom but also that we are to expect a final, absolutely perfect order in eternity. We do believe that the whole creation is now groaning under the weight of sin which shows its effect in bodily weakness (Rom 8:22–23). We also believe that even at the very height of kingdom victory before Christ returns and history ends, sin will remain. Even when Christianity has gained ascendency, all will not be perfect, there will still be aging, dying, and groaning. Because there still will be sin. Death is the last enemy; it will be finally defeated in fulness at Christ’s return (1 Cor 15:26, 42–58). See my chapter in: Kenneth Gentry, ed., Thine Is the Kingdom: The Postmillennial Hope.

In addition, we argue that the historical advance of the postmillennial kingdom points to final consummate glory. And this finds an analogy in our own personal experience. We each long for full sanctification in the eternal state, even while we are growing in sanctification here on the earth. Our current gradual growth in grace is a pointer to our final, full sanctification in eternity. Likewise, the kingdom’s growth upon the earth develops the glory-principle on earth even as it looks forward to the full fruit of that glory beyond this fallen realm.

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Theologians have discerned the Now / Not Yet principle in biblical theology. That is, they recognize that since the first coming of Christ to establish the new covenant, the eternal order exists in seed form even now in history. We can see this in two clear examples from the NT. Just as we long for a future bodily resurrection (John 5:28–29), even now we are spiritually resurrected in Christ (John 5:24–25; Eph 2:6). Even as we long for the consummate, perfected new creation (2 Pet 3:13), we are now a spiritual new creation growing toward that end (2 Cor 6:17; Gal 6:15).

Thus, we enjoy the “Now” even as we long for its fuller expression in the “Not Yet.” The Now / Not Yet principle fits perfectly in postmillennial theology regarding the kingdom.

But now, where in the NT do we find any mention of historical victory for the gospel by means of gradualistic development? My inquirer asks: “apart from 1 Corinthians 15 (‘and he must reign…’) and The Parable of the Mustard Seed and leaven in the lump, I see very little in the New Testament itself which seems to envision the slow growth of the kingdom resulting in a victorious display within an historic millennium.”

Postmillennial gradualism in the NT

Let me respond to the reader’s concern by offering the following:

First, to ask the question in this way effectively answers the underlying concern, which is: Is the teaching of gradualistic kingdom victory biblical? By that I mean, the questioner opens with an admission that gradual victory is, in fact, taught in Scripture, at least in 1 Corinthians 15 and in the Parable of the Mustard Seed. If it is taught in those places by Christ and by Paul, then it is manifestly biblical.

Second, attached to the Parable of the Mustard Seed is its twin parable, the Parable of the Leaven (Matt 13:31–33). The Mustard Seed to presents the kingdom’s external growth (from small seed to large plant), whereas the Leaven Parable teaches its penetrating power (leaven gradually permeates three bushels). Both of these truths are significant for the postmillennial scheme: the victory will come to dominance, it will come gradually, and it will do so from growth within rather than imposition from without.

Third, contained within this same set of Kingdom Parables is another one that teaches the kingdom’s remarkable growth: the Parable of the Sower and Soils. In this parable, the Sower (Christ) sows seed (the gospel) in the earth with the following result: some seed “fell on the good soil and yielded a crop, some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty” (Matt 13:8).

It is true that this is one of four soils upon which the seeds land, and the other three do not grow well, if at all. Nevertheless, the Sower surely prepared his garden for planting so that most of it involved good soil. Though there are four types of soil this does not mean that three-fourths of the seed fail. Otherwise the Sower would be shown as incompetent. The soil to which he aims his seed surely receives the most seed. And that seed produces remarkably well.

Fourth, Jesus gives still another parable that teaches the same gradualistic truth: the Parable of the Seed. In Mark 4:26-29 we read: “The kingdom of God is like a man who casts seed upon the soil; and he goes to bed at night and gets up by day, and the seed sprouts and grows—how, he himself does not know. The soil produces crops by itself; first the blade, then the head, then the mature grain in the head.” Though this one does not speak of the kingdom’s dominance, it does present its developmental growth. And in Mark 4 this leads into the Mustard Seed Parable (Mark 4:30–32).

Fifth, before his crucifixion Jesus promised his disciples: “Now judgment is upon this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out. And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself” (John 12:31–32). Here he teaches that Satan is about to lose the power that has kept the nations beyond Israel from turning to God. And as a direct result of that casting out, he says he will be lifted up so that he might “draw all men to Myself.” This surely implies a gradual drawing, not everyone all at once. And it certainly speaks of a dominant influence, an influence that can be expressed as involving “all men.”

Sixth, after his crucifixion he presents to his disciples the Great Commission. In that Commission we have a truly great command that involves a great expectation: a promise and expectation of worldwide victory: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” (Matt 28:19–20a).

In that he introduces this command with the bold claim that he has “all authority” both “in heaven and on earth” (Matt 28:18), he certainly has the power to seek a great end. And a great end he does seek, for he commands them to “make disciples of all the nations.” He does not call them simply to be a witness to the nations or just to preach to the nations. But actually to disciple them by baptizing and teaching them. This entails global victory over the nations in that the nations are to be baptized and taught.

And we should note that the Great Commission requires gradualistic development. How can these eleven disciples (Matt 28:16) expect to disciple the whole world suddenly? Besides, he even braces them for the historical long run when he assures them by promising: “lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20b).

Seventh, besides all of this (and I could provide more, if space allowed), what about the many Old Testament references to the kingdom’s gradual development to victory? I would mention just a few samples. In Dan 2 the stone that destroys the evil statue “becomes a great mountain” (Dan 2:35). In Ezekiel 17:22–24 God promises to establish the kingdom as a small “sprig from the lofty top of the cedar.” Then he will nurture it until it becomes “a stately cedar.” In Ezekiel 47:1–9 redemption flows forth from God’s temple in stages. The waters of life initiate from under the altar, first “to the ankles” (47:3), then to the knees (47:4a), then to the loins (47:4b), then it “was a river that I could not ford” (47:5). As a result: “everything will live where the river goes” (Eze 47:9).

One additional comment

This series opened with a brief analysis of Isa 11 and its reference to the peaceable kingdom. In that glorious prophecy we read: “the wolf will dwell with the lamb, / And the leopard will lie down with the young goat, / And the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; / And a little boy will lead them” (Isa 11:6). These are natural enemies brought to peaceful coexistence. This certainly will be the case in the new heavens and new earth after all sin is removed.

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We must understand, however, that this too involves a Now / Not Yet operation. After all, Christ’s death effects peace between warring parties where the gospel gains victory. We clearly see this in Paul’s teaching in Eph 2:11–18, where such happens to be his main point:

Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called “Uncircumcision” by the so-called “Circumcision,” which is performed in the flesh by human hands— remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity. And he came and preached peace to you who were far away, and peace to those who were near; for through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father.

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  1. Eschatology Reader October 15, 2015 at 12:12 pm

    Thank you Dr. Gentry for the convincing and informative article.

    Also, the theme of victory in history before Christ’s coming, can be seen in the following verses of the new testament. (Note: of course, this reigning is not by force, but by quantity and quality (increased number of regenerated people, increased sanctification, gospel proclamation in words and deeds and excellency in matters of business, science, education, media, government, arts, literature ect,)

    1) Believers reigning in life now (Rom 5:17) “For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign IN LIFE through the one man Jesus Christ

    2) Believers are ROYAL priesthood, and they are currently also kings, not just priests (1 Peter 2:9; Rev 1:6). Therefore some level of reigning in different spheres and disciplines and to different degrees must be expected and seen by believers (if they are faithful) during this life before Christ comes.

  2. Eschatology Reader October 15, 2015 at 12:57 pm

    I’m seeing two themes here: a) New Testament theme of victory in history prior to the second advent b) the gradual increasing nature of this victory. Dispensationalists not just deny the point (b) but also the point (a). They believe in an increasingly weakened, sick, apostate Church. We don’t find that defeatist theme regarding the Church in the NT.

    Already Dr. Gentry showed in the article above, the verses that contain both victory theme in history and gradualism at the same time, but we do not necessarily need to search for these two points appearing in the same verse every time.

    Thus, under the NT victory theme in history we can find also the following verses (other than Rom 5:17; 1 Peter 2:9; Rev 1:6 that I mentioned above).

    1) Matt 16:18. Christ is building His Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail over the Church.

    2) Born again believers overcoming the world (1 john 4:4; 5:4-5)

    I’m not quoting the Scriptures that can be easily dismissed by defeatists. (Ex: if we suffer we shall reign with him in 2 Tim 2:12 Or “ruling the nations” in Rev 2:26-27), dispensationalists may easily dismiss these verses by saying these are all in the future, not in history prior to the advent.

    Thus, if we took Matt 24 and 2 Tim 3 in a preterist viewpoint, we don’t find in the NT pages a picture of an overall increasingly weakened sick defeated Church in history prior to the second advent.

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