PMW 2021-032 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.
The principle of gradualism has long been the method of God and the experience of God’s people in Scripture. I will be showing below that if we are to properly understand Scripture’s eschatological victory, we must recognize this important redemptive-historical means of divine operation. In short, this principle expects the kingdom’s developmental unfolding and incremental expansion to grow slowly over time in the historical long run.
Contrary to postmillennialism, though, the dispensational and premillennial views operate on the basis of the principle of catastrophism. As premillennialist theologian Millard Erickson puts it: “Whereas the postmillennialist thinks that the millennium is being introduced gradually, perhaps almost imperceptibly, the premillennialist envisions a sudden, cataclysmic event.”  Dispensationalism believes that at Christ’s second advent “he will depose the earthly rulers and will begin His millennial reign.”  In their theological systems Christ’s kingdom with all of its attendant glory will invade history as a great catastrophe, being suddenly imposed on a recalcitrant world in remarkably brief period of time.
Theological Truths and Gradualism
A careful survey of Scripture suggests that gradualism is a common divine method of operation in history. Consider five clear samples:
Creation. Even God’s creating the universe proceeds upon a gradualistic principle — an accelerated gradualism, to be sure, but gradualism nonetheless. God creates the world out of nothing, but he does not create it as a complete system by one divine command — though he could easily do so. He employs a series of successive divine commands that stretch out over a period of six days (Gen 1; Exo 20:11).
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Though God places Adam in the Garden of Eden with a command to cultivate the soil there (Gen 2:15), he expects Adam to begin working the implications of the Cultural Mandate into all the world (Gen 1:26–28). Chung notes that “Adam’s rule was anticipated to be extended to the entire creation beyond the boundary of the garden of Eden.”  This obviously requires a long, slow process.
Redemption. God promises redemption just after sin enters into the human race in Eden (Gen 3:15). Yet its accomplishment follows thousands of years after Adam, when Christ finally comes “in the fulness of time” (Gal 4:4; Eph 1:10).
Revelation. Rather than giving his total special revelation all at once, God gradually unfolds his word to men over a period of 1,500 years (Heb 1:1, 2; 1Pe 1:10–12).
Sanctification. Even in salvation, justification, which is a once-for-all act (Rom 4:2–3; 5:1), gives rise to sanctification, which comes by process (Php 2:12–13; 1Pe 2:2).
The Kingdom and Gradualism
Now we must note that God’s redemptive kingdom also develops gradualistically. It incrementally unfolds through history, progressing from small, imperceptible beginnings to a glorious, dominant, worldwide conclusion. I will survey several relevant passages illustrating this important principle.
An historical indicator of kingdom gradualism appears in the Promised Land’s conquest. In Deuteronomy 7:22 we read: “And the Lord your God will clear away these nations before you little by little; you will not be able to put an end to them quickly, lest the wild beasts grow too numerous for you.” Here Moses specifically informs Israel that gradual conquest is for her good, allowing her people to conquer where they could secure and maintain control.
In Daniel 2:31–45 Christ’s kingdom comes down to earth as a stone smiting the world kingdom, which exists under a fourth imperial rule. As we read through the passage we learn that the kingdom grows to become a great mountain in the earth:
“You watched while a stone was cut out without hands, which struck the image on its feet of iron and clay, and broke them in pieces . . . . And the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth. And in the days of these kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed; and the kingdom shall not be left to other people; it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand forever.” (Dan 2:34–35, 44)
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In this imagery we have both linear continuity over time and upward development: the stone grows to become a “great mountain.” We also witness struggle and resistance: the stone smashes the image. Finally, we rejoice in its fortunes: the God-defying image is thoroughly crushed.
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.” Ultimately, it will produce great boughs so that “birds of every kind will nest under it.” This growth is certain for “I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will perform it.”
In Ezekiel 47:1–9 redemption flows forth from God’s temple as an ever-deepening stream. The waters of life trickle from under the altar, first “to the ankles” (Eze 47:3), then they flow gradually deeper to the knees (Eze 47:4a), then deeper still to the loins (Eze 47:4b), until the stream finally becomes “a river that I could not ford” (Eze 47:5). This is the river of life (Eze 47:9). In fact, in John 7:38 Christ presents himself as fulfilling this prophecy. This water-from-the-altar is quite consistent with Christ’s presenting himself as the true temple (John 2:19–21). In John 7:38 we read: “He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.” At Pentecost the torrential flow of the living water begins in earnest (Acts 2:33).
In Matthew 13 the Kingdom Parables speak of the kingdom’s growing increase in external size and transformational influence (see Ch. 3 above). Matthew 13:3–9 portrays the kingdom as scattered seed that gradually grows to bear abundant fruit. Matthew 13:31–33 likens the kingdom’s external growth to a mustard seed which becomes a great plant and its internal penetration working like a little leaven leavening three bushels of meal. In Mark 4 God’s kingdom begins as mere seed (Mark 4:26), then it puts forth the blade, then the head, the mature grain (Mark 4:27–28).
In Romans and 1 John the apostles see the kingdom light as already shining, ready to dispel the darkness:
“The night is almost gone, and the day is at hand. Let us therefore lay aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.” (Rom 13:12)
“On the other hand, I am writing a new commandment to you, which is true in Him and in you, because the darkness is passing away, and the true light is already shining.” (1 John 2:8)
Satan will not be able to thwart the kingdom’s progress and growth, for the “gates of Hades will not be able to prevail against it” (Matt 16:18). Though slow, it will advance in God’s good time.
By the way, the Already/Not Yet Principle is also involved in the Gradualism Principle. I will be dealing with that in an upcoming post. So, though I have “Already” decided to write this article, I have “Not Yet” done so. But it is established in principle. Hang on!
- Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (1998), 1217.
- Bobby Hayes, “Premillennialism,” Dictionary of Premillennial Theology, 311.
- Chung in Blomberg and Chung, Historic Premillennialism, 139.