Triumphalism and Christian Realism

The student of church history and theological history will know that much of the past two thousand years has been a series of pendulum swings between one doctrinal or behavioural excess and another. We readily go off centre and go to extremes.

We first must see when and where we have gone off the rails. But the trouble is, as we seek to regain the biblical balance, we can often go off into another extreme position. It is difficult, but vital, that we keep seeking to maintain the various balances found in Scripture. Take one example of this, sometimes referred to as Christian triumphalism.

This basically involves so over-emphasising the victory and the overcoming which we have in Christ that we overlook or ignore the reality of ongoing sin, and our own fallen and finite nature. Perfectionism is one form of this. So too are the various beliefs associated with the Word of Faith movement and the Health and Wealth Gospels.

These folks argue that the benefits we will enjoy in the next life can now be ours: fully, automatically, and without reservation. Thus we need never get sick, never be poor, and never suffer. We are King’s kids and should live like them, we are told.

This is sometimes referred to as an over-realised eschatology. It is an imbalance which results in believers seeking to claim all the benefits we will have when Christ returns with what we can now have as we live between the ages. It overlooks the fact that we are still in a fallen and sin-soaked world.

Theologians refer to the “already, and not yet” mindset of the New Testament. Already we have all the benefits and privileges of Christ, but they are not yet fully ours until Christ comes again. Thus we live in both the old age, and the age to come.

Gordon Fee explains: “The problem in Corinth, and that which the wealth and health gospel is repeating, was to emphasize the already in such a way that they almost denied the continuing presence of the world. They saw Christ only as exalted, but not as crucified. They believed that the only thing that glorified God was signs and wonders and power. Because God heals, He must heal everyone. There is no place for weakness or hunger or thirst for this kind of eschatological existence.”

Or as Thomas Schreiner says, “Overrealized eschatology diminishes the current reality of evil since it claims that we enjoy a heavenly life now and that the end time promises have already arrived. Such claims are contradicted by both suffering and the specter of death, since the former continues to beset us and the latter is still on the horizon for believers.”

I speak to this much more fully elsewhere, eg:
www.billmuehlenberg.com/2008/01/28/living-between-the-ages/
www.billmuehlenberg.com/2010/05/07/v-e-day-and-the-end-of-the-world/

The difficulty is, when folks react to this triumphalism, they can easily go too far in the other direction. We can end up in a kind of defeatism where we never experience any victory, any overcoming, any success in Christ. As Fee says, in this extreme there is “a strong tendency to leave God’s people to ‘slug it out in the trenches’ more or less on their own, with some lip service paid to the Spirit but with little of the Pauline experience of the Spirit as the empowering presence of God.

“On the other side lie some equally strong tendencies toward triumphalism, especially in a culture like late-twentieth America, where pain of any kind is rejected as a form of evil and where suffering is to be avoided at all costs. . . . The result on this side is something of an ‘over-realized’ eschatological perspective, with an unPauline view of the Spirit as present in power which negates weakness in the present as something dishonoring to God.”

The simple truth is, before glory there must be suffering. Before the crown there must be a cross. So we must affirm and maintain the biblical balance here. But sadly since so many believers have rightly been concerned about this unbiblical triumphalism, they have wrongly moved into an equally unbiblical defeatism.

So here let me conclude by giving the case for Christian triumph and victory, rightly understood. It does not for a moment negate or deny the cross, suffering, hardship and afflictions in this life. But it does remind us of what wonderful benefits and goods we have in being united with Christ.

I take it from a terrific chapter in Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ commentary on Romans 7:1-8:4, the sixth in his 14-volume expository commentary set on Romans. He is commenting on Romans 7:1-6, which speaks about how we are married to Christ and now belong to him. Let me simply quote parts of it, to remind us of what we have in Christ.

“Having looked at some of the consequences of our being united with the Lord Jesus Christ in marriage we turn now to the privileges of that union. The very nature of the union makes it one of the most exalted comparisons that even this great Apostle ever used, and there is nothing that is so strengthening to faith, nothing so comforting, and especially so stimulating to sanctification, as to realise this particular truth….

“The first privilege is that His name becomes our name. When a woman marries a man she gives up her own name and takes on the name of her husband…. Scripture says that that is the position of the Christian – Christ’s name becomes our name, His name is put upon us. We are called ‘Christ-ians’….

“We are told that his name is a name which is ‘above every other name’. There is no name in heaven or earth which is comparable to His. … Is there anything comparable to being a Christian? Shame on us people for being apologetic, for ever being afraid that people should know that we are Christians. …

“Many of our troubles emanate from the fact that we fail to realize our position and our privileges. There is a sense in which Christians should be the proudest people in the world. … Let us walk through this world, let us march through it, as realizing the dignity and the privilege and the magnificence and the glory of the name that is upon us….

“But here is another wonderful fact. Because of our relationship to Him we enjoy the privilege of access to His Father. We have this access because we are the bride of His Son. There is no greater privilege than to have a right of entry and of access into the presence of the Heavenly Father….

“We must realize also that a day is coming when we shall ‘reign with Him’. It is almost incredible. Here in this world, as Christians, if we are worthy of the name, we are generally despised and derided and ignored; the world passes us by as if we were nobodies. It talks about its great privileges, its dignities and its honours, its possessions and its pomp. But we are the people who know something about real and lasting privileges and dignities.

“In 1 Corinthians 6: verses 2 and 3, the Apostle says: ‘Do you not know that the saints shall judge the world?’ He goes further, ‘Know ye not that we shall judge angels?’ That refers to us! We are destined to enjoy this privilege because of our relationship to the Son of God. We are married to the Son, we shall reign with Him and judge the world, and judge even angels. We are lifted to a position high above even that occupied by the angels, because of our relationship to the Son.”

Sadly, these have become such common and familiar truths to us that they do not impact us very much anymore. But we need to let them once again rock our world and jar us into the realisation that what we have in Christ really is incomparable and utterly priceless.

To relish in and wonder at all these great benefits and privileges is not of course to engage in the sort of triumphalism Paul had to rebuke amongst the Corinthians. And Lloyd-Jones speaks equally much about our suffering and imperfect condition in this life as we live between the ages.

But when the biblical balance is preserved, then to hear afresh about our glorious privileges and blessings we have in Christ is well worth hearing, and hearing again.

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