Triumphalism, Prayer, and the Will of God, Part One

Why does it seem that not all of our prayers are answered? Why are some people healed and others not? Why do sin, suffering and death still characterise the life of the Christian, even though all these issues have been dealt with at Calvary? These are important questions, and deserve close attention.

A good way of dealing with all this is to realise that Christians today “live between the ages”. That is, while God’s Kingdom burst on the scene at Calvary, it will not be fully consummated until he comes again. Thus we are living in two kingdoms at the moment: the old age (with all its sin, sickness, suffering and death) and the new age (with its victory over these hallmarks of our fallen condition).

Already, the Kingdom has come, but it is not yet fully realised in this life. Not until Christ comes again will all sin, sickness and death be fully and finally overcome. Yes, the cross made all this possible, but it is not until his Second Coming that we will see all things fully put under his feet.

Understanding this New Testament framework is essential as we seek to live the Christian life. It should help us guard against undue pessimism and defeatism on the one hand, and undue triumphalism and over-confidence on the other. The latter is something Paul spoke often to, especially in places like 2 Corinthians, where he ridiculed the “super apostles” as he called them.

That is, to so emphasise the present blessings while ignoring the future promises is to do injustice to the biblical data. The “faith” movement for example wants healing now, prosperity now, success now. But by ignoring the biblical balance between the already and the not yet, the movement is sure to disappoint many. It stresses our heavenly status but overlooks our earthly sojourn. It emphasises the crown but forgets the cross.

Gordon Fee puts it this way: “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.”

Indeed, if we have one clear example of an early Health and Wealth Gospel, it is to be found at Corinth. The problems of the HWG are the problems of the Corinthians. D. A. Carson is worth citing here: “In short, the Corinthians were quick to seize every emphasis in Christianity that spoke (or seemed to speak) of spiritual power, of exaltation with Christ, of freedom, of triumph, of victorious Christian living, of leadership, of religious success; but they neglected or suppressed those accents in Christianity that stressed meekness, servanthood, obedience, humility, and the need to follow Christ in his sufferings if one is to follow him in his crown.”

Thus we need to get the biblical balance right here. We need to understand the tension of living between the ages. We need to understand that the Kingdom has been inaugurated, but it is not yet fully realized. N.T. Wright makes this observation:

“The early church held on firmly to both sides of the apparent paradox: the end had happened; the end was yet to come. Paul writes from prison about his present suffering at the hands of persecutors and also about the triumphant victory that Jesus won on the cross over the principalities and powers. This is utterly characteristic. Both sides must be given the same stress.”

Another way of expressing this is to say that Christ did indeed come to undo the works of the enemy, and to roll back the results of the curse. In this the word of faith teachers are quite right. Yet we know that the enemy still has power, and that the effects of the curse are still in force. Christ began the counter-offensive at Calvary, but the final mopping-up operation awaits the parousia. This fact is often overlooked by the success gospel. Yet it is a balance, a tension, that must be maintained.

D.A. Carson says this balance is needed “to inform our perspectives on many areas of life still swamped by the curse. Disease, accidents, oppression, opposition to the gospel; none of these is a good thing, and all of them can be traced in one way or another to Satan himself. None of these will find any place in the consummated kingdom. Yet at the same time, none of these ugly things escapes the outermost bounds of God’s sovereignty.”

By way of summary, John Stott offers these helpful remarks: “Many Christians choose one or other of these positions, or oscillate unsteadily between them. Some are triumphalists, who see only the decisive victory of Jesus Christ and overlook the apostolic warnings against the powers of darkness. Others are defeatists, who see only the fearsome malice of the devil and overlook the victory over him which Christ has already won. The tension is part of the Christian dilemma between the ‘already’ and the ‘not yet’….

“An overemphasis on the ‘already’ leads to triumphalism, the claim of perfection – either moral (sinlessness) or physical (complete health) – which belongs only to the consummated kingdom, the ‘not yet’. An overemphasis on the ‘not yet’ leads to defeatism, an acquiescence in continuing evil which is incompatible with the ‘already’ of Christ’s victory.”

Thus it is quite important that we have a solid handle on how the NT writers approach some of these broad themes. Sure, there will be some room to move here, and disagreements along the way will occur. But increasingly this framework of living between the ages is becoming the accepted position of most scholars.

Indeed, NT scholarship has engaged in healthy debate concerning how one approaches the NT treatment of eschatology in general and the kingdom of God in particular. It has carefully addressed the question of how are we to understand the various strands of NT evidence regarding these concepts, some of which seems to stress this-worldly aspects, and some the future or end-of-the-age aspects.

In the past some scholars have emphasised the present aspects; others have emphasised the future aspects; while others have argued for both. This ‘already and not yet’ analysis of the issue is now becoming quite widely accepted among scholars, and does indeed seem to best account for the biblical data. Many citations could be marshaled here. Just a few will suffice.

George Ladd for example said that there “is a growing consensus in New Testament scholarship that the kingdom of God is in some sense both present and future”.  Scot McKnight says, “The vast majority of scholars today recognizes that Jesus spoke of both the presence and the future of the kingdom. Though they may disagree on particulars, most scholars agree in general that Jesus thought he was inaugurating the kingdom through his words and deeds but believed that a consummation of the kingdom was yet future”.

Ben Witherington says this, “It is widely agreed among scholars that Jesus likely spoke of a future basileia [kingdom] and of the basileia being at work in the present. . . . Yet if indeed Jesus spoke about both the presence and the future of the basileia, then the tension between this sort of an ‘already and not-yet’ eschatology must also to some extent be unique”.

He goes on to quote Gerd Theissen: “Jesus is unique in religious history. He combines two conceptual worlds which had never been combined in this way before, the apocalyptic expectation of universal salvation in the future and the episodic realisation of salvation in the present through miracles.”

I have spoken about all this in more detail elsewhere, and urge readers to visit these links for further background material:
billmuehlenberg.com/2008/01/28/living-between-the-ages/
billmuehlenberg.com/2010/05/07/v-e-day-and-the-end-of-the-world/

But I wish to look more specifically now at how the Christian should think about such things as prayer, healing, and so on, in the light of these general biblical considerations. That shall be taken up in Part Two of this article: billmuehlenberg.com/2012/05/08/triumphalism-prayer-and-the-will-of-god-part-two/ 

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5 Replies to “Triumphalism, Prayer, and the Will of God, Part One”

  1. Quite a revelation and help to me when a devotional reading revealed that those who walk intimately with our Lord are in His will wherever they are. With that understanding, they are awakened to God’s presence in the “presence” of their lives. Our confidence is in Him with us always!

    Many unanswered prayers for harvest or fruit have not been preceded with proper seeding. For examples, good physical health is preceded with good diet and exercise; and a good and lasting marriage is preceded with forgiveness, attitude of gratitude, sense of humour, selflessness, generosity, fortitude, faithfulness and other virtues.

    However, there are times when harvest or fruits are not forthcoming when good seeding has been carried out. Your article provides an understanding of why this has to be for now.

    The abundance of testimonies of miracle, of God’s intervention in His sovereignty should encourage us to never, never cease praying.

    One thing I am always amazed and have experienced, witnessed and heard is that, a good ending or story is always about one who has overcome or endure hardship – disappointments, hatred, brokenness, disloyalty and pain, etc!

    Richard Chieng

  2. Hi Bill,
    Are you aware of an excellent book authored by Adrio Konig (umlaud on o) Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of South Africa, Pretoria (with whom I studied thelogy). The book is “The Eclipse of Christ in Eschatology – Toward a Christ-Centered Approach”, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publ. Co. 1989.
    In case you are unaware of this book, here a very brief summary:
    Konig presents a somewhat different approach than the “already/not yet” approach, but not that much different. Very, very briefly: Jesus Christ is the Eschaton. His first coming introduced The “Last Days”. The Kingdom of God comes fully in 3 modes. Mode 1 – The K of G comes in Christ wholly and perfectly but without us in the first coming of Christ. Mode 2 – The K of G comes within us through our response by the H.Sp. to mode 1, but imperfectly through human weakness. Mode 3 – The K of G. comes wholly and perfectly with us in the return of Christ.
    This approach seemed to me to give a somewhat more comprehensive account of scriptural ambivalences. I found the book very much worth reading.

    Thank you Bill for your marvelous work.
    Joost Gemeren

  3. Hi Joost. I know the book by Adrio Konig well, and IMO it is about the best book on eschatology that I could, and have recommended to others. Konig puts Christ right at the centre of the NT’s revelation about every aspect of the ‘last things’.
    Also, because of his perceptive approach to the centrality of Christ, and at one stroke, he adequately dispenses with a whole host of ‘millennial’ theories, and especially refreshing is his view of Rev. 20:1-3 as not being a description of time, but rather that of power….
    Thus: “Against chiliasm (and to a certain extent against anti-chiliasm too) we insist that there is no difference of time or essence between the kingdom of God which came in Jesus, and the so called thousand year reign.
    The latter is a figure employed by John to convey the truth that Jesus has overcome Satan and ever increases his Kingdom in triumph despite the repeated assaults of a Satan who goes about as a roaring lion..against whom the church is so safe that the gates of hell will not prevail against it”
    At (almost!) a stroke too he demolishes any number of weird and strange “end days” fantasies which appear to believe that the whole of the book of Revelation was written for the 20/21st century students of “prophecy”!
    Excellent man to whom the Lord has given most valuable insights on eschatological issues.
    Unfortunately his book is out of print but a few still remain 2nd hand at a reasonable price. (I have two spare!)
    Graham Wood

  4. In this discussion, I believe one must not underestimate the will of man, not because I want to make that out to be of greater importance than it is, but because of the importance that God puts on it. I am amazed at how much of scripture is concerned with both the will of God and the response of man. That of course doesn’t change that God’s will will stand in the end, it has to, or He is neither sovereign nor would eternal goodness be possible for which we all long. But we must know the importance of our will and thereby determine with greater diligence to submit our will to His, knowing that nothing good can come of ours, but if both are combined under His goodness, nothing can stop His good character to manifest itself in our lives and in our world.

    Many blessings
    Ursula Bennett

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