In a previous partial review of Michael Horton’s The Gospel Commission: Recovering God’s Strategy for Making Disciples, I began documenting some of his duplicities in regard to the Lordship of Christ and the meaning of the subject matter of that book. I mentioned how clearly he writes of Christ’s all-encompassing power early in the book, but then spends the rest of the book qualifying it to death. He began:
All authority in heaven and on earth belongs to him. As the risen Lord, he is given by the father the power to judge and to justify. Salvation is not just “fire insurance” or “sin management.” The gospel promises far more than going to heaven when you die. It is an all-encompassing pledge from God for the total renewal of creation. It involves the resurrection of our bodies and the liberation of the whole creation from its bondage to sin and death.1
But then began waffling only a few pages later: “Jesus possesses all authority in heaven and on earth, but what does that mean for us here and now?” (35).
Last week, we discussed how Horton relies on a watered-down view of what the “gospel” is (in fact, he never even defines it scripturally or otherwise), and uses this inadequate view to condemn any efforts at social reform, etc. Maintaining this view forced him to ignore several aspects of Scripture, including an important part of the very passage of Matthew 28 which the book is supposed to be about. In other words, where the exegesis of Scripture would force him to alter or abandon his position, he skips that section of Scripture. He also must ignore the social sins of the church in abdicating the welfare of widows and orphans to the State—things that Paul (and other writers in Scripture) expressly directed the Church to do.
In this article, I plan to add a few words concerning Horton’s underlying eschatology, including his misinterpretation of Matthew 24–5 as mostly future events, and in relation to this, Jesus’ and Paul’s use of the phrases “this age” and “the age to come.” We also need to expose the underlying laziness of the system.
The Eschatological Escape
In order to escape the meaning of Jesus’ claim to “All power in heaven and on earth,” Horton simply relegates the application of this power to a future dispensation. Much like dispensationalists, he sees the Church age as an intermission:
The Great Commission is given to the church for this time between his first and second comings. It is an intermission between his accomplishment of redemption and his return to consummate its blessings (63).
In fact, Horton goes so far as to adopt the old language of dispensational theology, calling the time in which we now live “the parenthesis” for the church’s preaching of the gospel (67).
As I noted last week, he adds that this does not mean we are merely waiting for an escape from this world someday; rather it is a time of loving and serving our neighbors through witnessing and our daily callings. Yet, he nevertheless seems at greater pains to say that the Great Commission as “given to the church,” is distinctly separate from both the “cultural mandate” of Genesis 1:28 (64) and, get this, the great commandment to love God (and neighbor, Matt. 22:37–40) (210–46). And while Horton, again, states that Christians are responsible for both, he wants to maintain that the Great Commission is only the proclamation of the gospel, while the Great Commandment pertains only to good works. Thus, one is gospel, the other law—and we should never confuse law and gospel.
This artificial division among Christ’s commandments to His people leads Horton to some pretty stark conclusions. He claims things like,
“There is nothing in the Great Commission about transforming culture” (226).
“There is no mandate for the church to develop a political, social, economic, or cultural plan” (88).
“We are not sent out into the world to change it, to transform it, to make it into the kingdom of God” (146).
Now compare these statements to his opening paeans of Matthew 28:18: “The gospel promises far more than going to heaven when you die. It is an all-encompassing pledge from God for the total renewal of creation. It involves the resurrection of our bodies and the liberation of the whole creation from its bondage to sin and death.” My, we’ve come a long way!
From these statements, we can deduce one of two things about this type of theology. Either, 1) Horton was entirely insincere in his earlier statement, or 2) Horton’s theology contains some kind of dialectic, or dualism, in which he can say one thing and mean another simultaneously. Or perhaps both.
Either choice, I would submit to you, is inadequate for the Christian. Of the two, I believe the problem lies in the second option. Horton does have a dualistic nature to his theology—there are “two kingdoms” and two laws. Following Luther, he has a “kingdom of power (secular government) and the kingdom of grace (the church’s ministry)” (282). He keeps these two separated by an appeal to “two ages.” While both of these kingdoms are under God’s power, Horton says, “Yet in this time between Christ’s two advents we do not yet see the assimilation of the kingdoms of this age to the kingdom of Christ. So the question is not whether Christ’s redeeming work extends to bodies and souls, but the timing” (282). This view allows Horton to pay lip service to Christ’s “all power in heaven and in earth”: sure He has all power, BUT, it’s not time yet!
This view gives its adherents two interrelated problems. First, if there is this great intermission period in which Christ is not ruling over every area of life, then what, exactly, are we supposed to be doing in those areas of life? Obeying pagans? We have a time gap to fill with, apparently, a partial rule of Christ—perhaps “all power” in heaven, but certainly only partial power on earth. What part is this? Horton answers, the great commission. He puts it: “What are we to do in the meantime? We are to fulfill the Great Commission and our daily callings both as disciples and as co-workers and fellow citizens of temporal kingdoms.” Of course, this is the Great “But” Commission in which teaching the nations to obey Christ’s law (Matt. 28:20) is reduced to preaching the saving of souls and working quietly among those who disbelieve.
But this immediately leads to the second and thornier problem: Jesus Himself related the Great Commission work directly to His possession of all power in heaven and on earth. This is why He prefixed the Great Commission with that great announcement of His power (Matt. 28:18–20). The Commission can only be carried out in light of the fact that Christ reigns over every atom of existence. He “upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Heb. 1:3). Indeed, as Paul taught,
For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together (Col. 1:16–17).
All things . . . in heaven and on earth . . . by him . . . and for him. This is the same doctrine Jesus announced in Matthew 28:18. And based directly on this infallible premise, Jesus said “Go therefore.” This “therefore” is a direct logical connection between the fact of Jesus’ power and His command to teach the nations obedience—the Great Commission. The two are vitally related.
And this is a problem for Horton’s view because it means Jesus did not see any separation between His heavenly and earthly power in regards to the scope of the Great Commission. He did not see the Great Commission as a soul search-and-rescue operation to fill the intermission between His comings, and to fill the time period before He returns finally to take control of the physical powers of the earth. No. Obviously, Jesus prefaced His command to disciple the nations unto obedience to Him as the natural outgrowth of His claim to all power in heaven and on earth. This means the scope of the Commission was total from the very first day.
Nor did Jesus see a division in the timing of its application. Since this all-encompassing Commission is to take place with Jesus’ indwelling presence and power “always” and “to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20), it means that the timing issue to which Horton appeals is irrelevant. We are to be engaging in this total Commission while He is seated on the throne, by His Spirit, now. Horton would have us believe that we are to be involved in only a limited aspect of Christ’s reign, and that that the scope of that reign will expand to its total claim after the “end of the age” instead of always and until. Christ, however, expects us—as empowered and led by His Spirit, of course—to spread the full gospel into every corner of creation always and until He returns. On this point, Horton obviously disagrees with Christ.
So, in brief, Horton has cleverly used an eschatological separation of ages in order to falsely separate out aspects of the Great Commission. But we can see that the Bible teaches a separation in neither the scope of the Gospel nor the applications of it during different ages.
But we should look even closer at this idea of two different ages.
This Present Evil Age
Horton continues his explanation of the intermission period by appealing to the language of Scripture concerning time indicators. He quotes, “But the one who endures to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matt. 24:13–14, emphasis added)”(282–3).
Horton earlier in the book appeals to Matthew 24 as well. He writes,
In Matthew 24, part of Jesus’ Olivet discourse, Jesus taught that he will come on the clouds of glory with all of his elect, but there are stages to be realized before this final event. First, the temple then standing will be destroyed (vv. 1–2), as indeed it was in AD 70. Then the disciples asked, “What will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?” (v. 3, emphasis added). Jesus replied that there will be imposters coming in his name, leading many astray, along with wars, “but the end is not yet. For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains” (vv. 6–8). There will be persecution and martyrdom for his followers, with many deserting Christ’s flock. “But the one who endures to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (vv. 13–14, emphasis added). On the last day, Jesus will return on the clouds of glory to “gather his elect” from the whole earth and to judge the living and the dead (vv. 29–31). (66)
There are many problems with this paragraph—so many that a brief section in an article can hardly do it justice (and it deserves lots of justice, believe you me). Gary DeMar has already critiqued this view as Horton expressed it in his recent systematic theology. The same criticisms apply here.
It would do Horton some good to sit down and actually do an exegesis of Matthew 24. He should then publish this. Apart from the strictures of such a verse-by-verse biblical study, Horton is able to impose his own theological categories on parts of the text, while completely ignoring others. Here is an abbreviated list of problems in Horton’s treatment of this passage:
- Horton claims that “In Matthew 24, . . . Jesus taught that he will come on the clouds of glory with all of his elect.” Nowhere in the chapter does it say that Jesus will return in glory with all of His elect. If it did, it would imply that when Jesus returns, He would have already gathered all of His elect in order for them to return with Him. Horton himself refutes this view when he later says that “Jesus will return on the clouds of glory to ‘gather his elect.’” This is what the Chapter actually says.
- Horton also adds to Scripture by saying that this gathering will take place “On the last day.” This phrase appears nowhere in the chapter. The phrase “that day” appears, but this is a far cry from referring to any “last” day. It would certainly be a day marking the end of the old covenant age for old covenant Israel, but not the last day as in a day of final judgment for all of humanity.
- Horton further adds to the text in saying that Jesus’ coming in Matthew 24:29–31 would also be “to judge the living and the dead (vv. 29–31).” Again, this phrase and this type of judgment appears nowhere in the text. Matthew 24 is not about the end of the world, it was about the coming destruction of Jerusalem and the gathering of the elect believers in Christ out of that idolatrous nation.
- Finally for now, Horton conspicuously ignores Jesus’ reference to “this generation” in verse 34. That verses says, “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” All of the things Horton listed in Matthew 24, all the way from verse one to at least verse 34 (and really beyond)—everything discussed above—Jesus says would take place for the generation to whom He was speaking. Everything. Horton does not comment on this verse, obviously, because it would force him to reinterpret everything he has said.
It would also have two very challenging effects on his theology. First, it would mean that the main verses to which he is trying to appeal for only preaching the gospel until Christ returns (vv. 13–14) were also fulfilled in the first century (and thus not the sole emphasis of an intermission period before Christ’s future return). Second, it would force him to see the distinction between “this age” and the “age to come” differently. These two are interrelated.
First, consider the main verse at which Horton is driving: “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matt. 24:14). The point Horton wishes to make here is that we must continue preaching the gospel until we get it to every corner of the earth; then, only then, will Jesus return. Since the gospel has not been preach to the whole world as we see it, the end is yet in our future. But the “end” referred to here is not the end of the world, it is the end of the old covenant age. And this particular task (given to the disciples) of taking the gospel to the “whole world” refers to getting the message out to the entire inhabited world of the time. Even this was fulfilled in the first century, and Paul explicitly says, many times, that it was (Rom. 1:8; 10:18; 16:26; Col. 1:5–6, 23; 1 Tim. 3:16). Paul refers to the preaching of the gospel to “all nations” as a past reality:
Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith . . . . (Rom. 16:25–6).
Again, Gary DeMar has already dealt with this issue in more detail.
Paul’s statement that the gospel had already reached “all nations,” “every creature,” “all the world” puts Matthew 24:14 in a first century context, not a future context for us. There is consistency between the passages. There is also consistency between their treatments of the words “this age” and “the age to come.” Writing from a perspective before the destruction of Jerusalem, and in the context of Jesus’ prediction of its destruction, the apostles inquiry about the “close of the age” (Matt. 24:3) clearly refers to that prediction; it was Jesus’ prediction, in fact, that spurred the question. The destruction of the Old Covenant temple would mark the close of the old covenant age. Matthew 24 is about the things that would lead up to that close.
I have written more extensively on this topic in a past article (soon to appear as part of a book). Suffice it to say that Jesus, Paul, and the writer of Hebrews all confirm that the division of ages occurs with the appearance of Christ and the disappearance of the old covenant temple. The only “intermission”—or more properly overlap—between these ages is during the generation from Jesus’ ascension to His return in judgment in AD 70. Here is part of what I wrote previously:
This understanding of two ages occurs in Paul’s teaching as well. For example, Jesus is the ascended reigning King, “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age (aion) but also in the one to come” (Eph. 1:21). He then applies these two ages to the rescuing of believers from the spirit of the age:
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course [aion, “age”] of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience. . . . But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:1–7).
Paul very clearly saw the same two ages Jesus did: one age that was currently operating when he wrote, and another age that would dominate the future. The question then is, when does the switch between these ages occur?
Paul very clearly indicates that a switch was occurring as he wrote, and indeed the old age (which we might call the Old Testament age) was coming to an end as he wrote. In Ephesians 3:8–11, he notes the cause of the change. He says he was given grace to preach the gospel unto the Gentiles,
to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Noting the cause of the change also dates it. God has kept the gospel revelation hidden for ages, the apostle says, but now (as he wrote) He has brought it to light. In other words, the coming of Christ and the work of Christ has effected the beginning of a change in the ages.
Paul repeats this same teaching in Colossians 1. He explains his ministry as delivering the Word of God, “the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints” (Col. 1:26). It is clear, then, that a vital change in God’s providence over the ages has taken place with the coming of Christ.
But was Paul’s and Jesus’ “this age” actually coming to an end when Paul wrote, or will it yet be in our future? Paul makes this clear as well, in 1 Corinthians 10. After recounting several stories from Exodus, Paul teaches: “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our [his and his audience’s] instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Cor. 10:11). It is clear from this that Paul saw himself at the end of an age—an age typified by judgment upon disobedient people.
The author of Hebrews uses a very similar expression in relation to the work of Christ: “But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Heb. 9:26). It is clear here that the end of that old time period arrived in conjunction with the crucifixion of Christ.
So, from the teaching of Jesus, Paul, and the author of Hebrews, we get a very clear picture of two primary ages: one that endured up until the time of Christ, and another than began around that same period. I believe these two periods, being hinged upon the coming and work of Christ, pertain obviously to the Old and New Covenant administrations. Indeed, this is what the author of Hebrews himself relates. He says the New Covenant makes the Old obsolete: “And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away” (Heb. 8:13). Notice, the New had in fact made the Old obsolete definitively. But as he wrote, in his time, the Old was becoming obsolete and was ready to vanish away. It had not yet been completely wiped out, but it was certainly in its dying moments.
Horton seriously needs to deal with the exegesis of all of these interrelated passages before he presents a controversial theory of missions and evangelism, let alone a systematic theology. As far as I have seen, he has never done any detailed exegesis of Scripture, but rather imposes a theory on top of Scripture, despite Scripture.
Are Christians Pilgrims in Exile?
Perhaps nothing disturbs me more than how Horton develops his non-exegesis into a theology of exile for Christians. He is particularly fond of quoting Jeremiah 29:4–7 as a model for the Church today:
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
After quoting this in his book, Horton adds that “this is precisely the situation of the new-covenant church in its exile” (64). This same motif appears in the close of his book, only this time he draws it from Hebrews:
Throughout the New Testament, Jesus locates his disciples in that precarious intersection between this present evil age and the age to come. That’s why the apostles address us as “strangers and exiles” (Heb. 11:13), like the Jews in Babylon rather than in the old-covenant theocracy. (300)
But there are several problems with this motif. First let us note that “exile” is a theological category of judgment. Exile is for people who have disobeyed God and who have been judged by God for it. Thus were Adam and Eve outside the garden, and the rebellious Israelites in Babylon. This is a position of punishment and separation from God having broken God’s law. So does Horton mean that the church today—the elect of God, washed in the blood of Jesus, presented as a spotless bride, for whom Jesus Himself ever lives to intercede—is living in punishment and judgment for rebellion? Horton says this is “precisely” the case. But this makes it clear that he has not really factored the blood of Christ into his theology, nor the vicarious sinlessness of the saints of God.
And this motif puts the Great Commission in quite a quandary. This means Jesus has “all power in heaven and on earth,” and yet has chosen to exercise that power in order to punish His elect. And worse, while punishing them, He has commanded them to teach the nations obedience. “Listen up ye kings of the earth: it is time to submit to King Jesus, so that ye may enter into a life of punishment.”
Horton’s theology of exile for Christians turns God’s promises on their head: the pagans inherit the earth and the Christians are punished for being elect.
Second, Horton applies Hebrews 11:13 for this purpose, but he is clearly mistaken. He cites this verse in order to argue that “the apostles address us as ‘strangers and exiles.’” But he is openly altering the text of Scripture again. The text itself does not even refer to “us”—either to the author and his audience, or to us Christians today—but rather explicitly refers to the Old Testament saints before Jesus came. After listing the exploits of faith by Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham and Sarah (in the famous “roll call of the faithful in Hebrews 11), the text says, “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth” (Heb 11:13). Indeed, it does not say “we” but specifically “they were strangers and exiles.” This pilgrim motif only applies to those saints in their wanderings before Jesus appeared.
When the argument of faith and pilgrimage in Hebrews 11 finally does turn to “us” it notes a complete change of status. While all of those Old Testament pilgrims died and “did not receive what was promised,” New Testament believers are different: “God had provided something better for us” (Heb. 11:40). So, we are categorically not like them. We are in a better position than they. The promised Kingdom has indeed come, it is given to us. We are not exiles waiting to receive the promise. Indeed, the author tells the first-century believing Jews in the very next chapter, as a continuation of the argument in Hebrews 11, “you have come to Mount Zion” (Heb. 12:22). They were no longer exiles; they had arrived!
This arrival verse is very important. Horton refers the Christians a pilgrims. He denies we have arrived, or downplays it in any meaningful sense. He constantly refers to Zion as a future destination: the “path to Zion,” “this journey to Zion,” “Marching to Zion.” But Hebrews makes it absolutely clear that New Testament believers “have come to Zion.” This is in the past tense. Horton says nothing about this verse, and yet it is the culmination of the argument the author began in Hebrews 11.
Indeed, Paul makes it a point to assure Gentile believers that they have arrived at the New Temple, and are now, as believers in Christ, explicitly not strangers and exiles (Eph. 2:19; cf. 2:11–22). Horton has not factored this into his religion of exiles, perhaps because it would negate the whole thing.
Third, Horton does not remain consistent with his treatment of Old Testament texts. In general, he denies that Christians should try to apply Old Testament passages to today. He makes stark distinctions between them and decries the error of “Confusing Christ’s kingdom of grace with the Sinai theocracy” (72). Since we are pilgrims shuffling along the “path to Zion,” we should not engage in any kingdom building activity—only shuffling along, biding our time, for we don’t belong here. In this exile-intermission, there can be no reformation or revival in society; thus we should never “invoke the conquest narratives and the civil laws given at Sinai,” for they do not apply to this place and time. They were given, Horton says, “uniquely and exclusively to Israel as God’s holy nation” (71). For Christians to look to them would be to commit the alleged evils of medieval Christendom where misguided Christians “lifted these passages out of their context and applied them to their own regimes” (86). This error is committed today when “Protestants in the United States invoke promises like 2 Chronicles 7:14 every Fourth of July as if it applied to America” (86).
Yet, despite the conquest narratives and the Old Testament laws only being given to old Israel, Horton, as we saw, allows himself to apply Jeremiah 29 “precisely” to the Church today. So which is it? Either the old law applies today or it does not. After all, what were the prophets such as Jeremiah doing? They were directly applying God’s Old Testament legal sanctions to the situation of Israel at the time. So God’s Old Covenant promises as expressed through 2 Chronicles 7 do not apply to today, but the exact same set of laws expressed through Jeremiah do? Horton thus allows the application of Sinai when it speaks of exile, but not when it speaks of revival or earthly triumph for the Church. Horton has a devious double standard—one that suppresses the church beneath the boot of pagan culture as a divine punishment spoken of in the prophets, and yet refuses to let that church hold forth God’s law to society as the shining light of His glory.
In addition to these issues, there is another relevant place this “exiles” motif appears in the New Testament. Horton appeals to 1 Peter as a reminiscence of Jeremiah 29 (page 307):
Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God (1 Pet. 1:13–21).
Horton apparently thinks this reference to “the time of your exile” refers to all Christians everywhere, and thus supports his view of preaching a souls-only gospel while leading quiet lives amidst pagan domination. But he misses a few things:
First, to whom was Peter writing? The immediate context of the letter is not all Christians in all times and places, but “those who are elect exiles of the dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia” (1 Pet. 1:1). Peter was writing to first-century, Jewish believers literally scattered throughout the pagan nations. The audience was thus,
- Jewish. Remember, Peter was an apostle with a ministry “to the circumcision” (Gal. 2:8).
- Part of the “dispersion,” or “diaspora.” Peter specifically uses the Greek word diaspora which has a specific meaning. These were, historically, Jews who never returned to the homeland after the Babylonian captivity. There need not be any spiritual reference here, but rather Peter is writing to Jews who literally still lived in the Babylonian exile from Israel. This is one case where the Jeremiah passage was still highly relevant!
Second, note that Peter encourages these new Jewish converts to take action in light of their new beliefs to reject the way of life that got their forefathers exiled to begin with. He writes, “you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers” (1:18). In other words, they are not exiles in any spiritual or eschatological sense, only in relation to their status as a vestige of the old covenant judgment—but they had now been delivered from the curse of their forefathers.
Third, Peter’s instructions to them have a pointed pre-AD 70 context (as does the whole epistle). His reference to “the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:3, 13) and “the last times” (1:20) confirms that the “exiles” status applied to these Jewish believers only insofar as they still lived before the destruction of the temple. In the first phrase, Peter comforts these persecuted (1:5–9) Jewish converts by assuring them that they, as elect, “by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1:5). Thus, Peter advised, “set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:13). These promises are given directly to first-century Jews. Peter says “you,” not all Christians everywhere, and certainly not 2,000 years away. Thus the “last time” and the “revelation of Jesus Christ” spoken of here are not the end of the world, but rather Jesus’ return in judgment upon Jerusalem. This is consistent, further, with Peter’s statement that “the last times” were initiated when Christ “was made manifest” (1:20)—not the distant future.
Peter repeats the “exiles” address in 1 Peter 2:11–12:
Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.
The same issue of audience applies here. But note also the added dimension of a very pointed eschatological theme: “the day of visitation.” Elsewhere in the New Testament this pertains directly to the destruction of Jerusalem (Luke 19:41–4). I have written about this at length elsewhere as well, here and here. Since Peter offers no qualification or explanation of the phrase, we should assume that “the day of visitation” was part of their common vocabulary, and thus most likely refers to an event which they all expected to happen soon. It is clear, then, that this is the same “visitation” Jesus had mentioned earlier—the coming destruction of Jerusalem.
But why would diaspora Jewish believers be anxious, or need instruction, regarding their status as exiles in light of the coming destruction of Jerusalem? Because once it became public knowledge that Jews had engaged in insurrection in Jerusalem, and that Rome had responded with Imperial force, Jews could very likely become a hated class—a highly ridiculed and persecuted class—throughout the Roman Empire. James was instructing these Jewish Christians how to separate themselves as Christians from mere Jews: they should live lives so publicly blameless that no unbeliever could find cause to accuse them of anything but goodness. Indeed, despite whatever other Jews could be accused of, pagans were to see a visible difference in those who had become Christians—so much so that not only could the pagans bring no accusation against them, they would in fact “glorify God” because of the good deeds.
The threat of persecution would be especially true in public settings, where locals would wish to emphasize “we’re not them” or “we don’t tolerate rotten Jews” in settings where such behavior would distinguish them as loyal to the Empire. Thus, Peter immediately instructs his audience to make themselves also conspicuous in their obedience to law (not at the expense of others, of course): “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1 Pet. 2:13–14). This rule would, as always, not apply to laws that demanded the believer to reject Christ or sin (Acts 5:29). The emphasis, here, is on the public and legal nature of the instructions Peter is giving. The point was to have a blameless public reputation.
Thus, while Old Covenant Judaism was being destroyed, Jewish believers were instructed to win the hearts of their pagan neighbors through good works. Thus—ironically, in comparison to Horton’s views—the Christian’s fulfillment of the Great Commandment (“good deeds”) would in turn fulfill the Great Commission in making the Gentiles glorify God. And the Jewish believers had nothing to fear because, as God’s elect, they would be guarded when the day of Christ’s revelation took place.
In brief, Horton’s view is militantly amillennial. It says that we should not expect cultural (in any way) progress in history as the gospel advances, and that it is contrary to the gospel to work for it.
Good and evil will remain pretty much even throughout this period. But there is always a negative twist with amillennialism which rarely gets put out in the open: in the alleged balance of good-versus-evil, the evil always rules in the public “secular” sphere. While Christians may take part in the processes, theories, votes, and even offices, the laws and systems themselves can never be made Christian in any way. They will always be opposed (not just neutral) to the gospel because they are external.
The people who hold this view love to speak of the “already” and the “not yet” of the kingdom. There are some things about the kingdom of God that are already a present reality; but others have not yet come to pass. The problem is, postmillennialists believe in this too, however. The difference is in what, exactly, each side believes to belong in each category, and, more importantly, the nature of the advance from one to the other.
Amils of Horton’s stripe believe that only the redemption in Christ Himself is already realized, and this only in one aspect of justification, and a limited aspect of sanctification. The fullness of His kingdom is not yet, and there is no progress or growing towards it. It is in static limbo, culturally and socially speaking, awaiting the return of Christ. In the meantime, the elements of preaching the “gospel” of individual salvation and the sacraments are already here, too, comprising the work of the church. This is all the church should be doing, because the “not yet” parts of the kingdom will not arrive until the last day when Christ returns. The advance of the kingdom in the meantime pertains only to the saving of souls. While there is, of course, more to the story here, the pint I wish to emphasize it the enforced inaction in most areas of life: we should not do too much in the way of trying to advance the kingdom before Christ returns.
(A corollary to this view is that Christ apparently has to be physically present in order for culture to be transformed. While He can save souls at will, He is either unable or unwilling to redeem society from a distant throne for some reason.)
Most postmils today, however, see a progressive element in the growth of the kingdom. That which is “not yet” gradually comes to pass as the kingdom advances and the nations of this world are not only made disciples, but taught to obey Christ’s teachings. This has a positive effect in society that reflects God’s revival of his elect and glorifies Him. It is also consistent with Scripture: pagan societies are smashed by the stone cut out without hands (Dan. 2:34–5), and the stone grows to become a mountain that fills the whole earth. Jesus receives a kingdom that is everlasting, and His saints shall take the kingdom and possess it forever (Dan. 7:9–16). Christ sits enthroned as King now (Acts 2:33–6; Heb. 1:3, 13; Eph. 1:20–22), and He shall rule until all His enemies are made His footstool (1 Cor. 15:24–25). In the meantime, He rules expecting His enemies to be made His footstool (Heb. 10:13). His servants are not passing through as pilgrims in exile, they are priest and kings sharing in His possession of the kingdom and His rule of it. Indeed, they are seated with Him on His heavenly throne (Eph. 2:6–7). This all indicates progressive growth of the kingdom, on earth, until Christ returns, and that He will not return before His enemies are defeated.
(A corollary to this view is that Christ is just as able to effect earthly social change from His heavenly throne as He is to save souls or be present with us in communion from that position. He is not limited. “Lo, I am with you always. . . . “ Yet He would be ascending into heaven for this period.)
There is no progressive element of growth for Horton, except in the saving of souls. And he does not believe that all Christ’s enemies will be defeated before He returns, as Scripture says. To assume so is to be a zealot or a theocrat (86). To apply biblical law to society, business, ethics, etc., is to confuse law and gospel, grace with theocracy, faith and works, and thus to engage in futility and sin. It is better, then, to avoid all attempts at reforming culture, changing corrupt legislation, etc. The Great Commission is reduced to the announcement of forgiveness, period. “The kingdom of God in its present phase simply is the announcement of the forgiveness of sins and, on this basis, entrance into the new creation” (72).
Don’t work for change; don’t pronounce that swords should be beaten into plows and pruning hooks; don’t demand the kings of the earth “kiss the son”; don’t stop the slaughter of innocents; don’t demand the Church once again take care of its poor and elderly which it has abdicated to State taxation and coercion; don’t demand justice for rapists and murderers in society; don’t take responsibility for your child’s curriculum and learning; don’t demand an end to the State’s god-like claim to confiscate and redistribute your property and wealth; don’t demand just weights and measures; don’t demand strict liability; don’t set up private courts run by Christians. Don’t do it. These things have nothing to do with the Kingdom of God or teaching the nations to observe all of Christ’s teachings. Nothing.
Rather, the kingdom of God is church on Sunday, and keeping your mouth shut about God’s Law as exiles among pagan benefactors.
As I have often said, the “two-kingdoms, two laws” theology is a doctrine made up by lazy theologians for lazy Christians. In regard to Christian social theory, Horton’s “pilgrims in exile” motif is the deluxe La-Z-Boy with built-in massage and cup holder. It is just the thing to help you forget you’re actually an exile living under pagan domination. It then kicks up its feet and forfeits culture for Christ. It says, “I can have no effect for Christ in society, law, economics, business, or banking, so I might as well not even try. In fact, it is a sin to try, so I will avoid Christian reform of society as if in the public sector the name of Christ is a curse. I will not confess Him before men in the public sphere. I decline and recline from social theory.” For Horton, this reclining provides considerable personal relief:
It is actually a great relief to learn that we are not called to redeem the world or to transform it. We are freed up to proclaim the gospel when we know that we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken. And we are actually liberated to love and serve our neighbors when we know that God will transform the kingdoms of this age when Christ returns to the earth. (244)
This is not the Great Commission. It is the Great Omission. It omits the part where Christ said to teach the nations to obey Him. Horton wants us to love our neighbor, but he never tells us what love is. Love is self-sacrifice as defined by the discipline of God’s Law. There is an intimate connection between love and the law. In most cases in modern society, in order to love our neighbors according to God’s law, we would need to remove the impediments of coercion and corruption entrenched in the welfare and warfare state. Contrary to Horton, the gospel demands loudly that the strictures of society and culture must be transformed. It is impossible to for neighborly love to thrive in a modern state otherwise.
Horton’s theology would condemn such freedom. It demands inaction in public affairs, at least in the name of Christ. His Gospel Commission is a theology of sanctified inaction—of Christian sloth. It does nothing but keep tyrants and two-kingdoms theologians employed.
And this he calls “an all-encompassing pledge from God for the total renewal of creation.”
Some day. Just wait. See you Sunday, though, right?
- Michael Horton, The Gospel Commission: Recovering God’s Strategy for Making Disciples (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011), 32. [↩]