Sermon Supplemental: Coming King
It’s been a while since I posted one of these blogs, but the topic of this Sunday’s message is too broad and deep to adequately address in the time we’ve allotted for a sermon. And I also realize that the minutiae of some of the theological background may not be of interest to everyone. Some of you are more interested in how to respond to Jesus than why we understand doctrine this way. And so, I’ve chopped about 2000 words out of the sermon for Sunday (you’re welcome!) and reworked them into this blog to give you some background on how we ended up where we are as a denomination. I hope you find what follows to be helpful and edifying.
When I was finishing high school, the Christian world was experiencing yet another bout of end-times fever. In the modern era, it seems to be a cycle that happens every quarter century or so, where evangelical Christians get really interested in the details of Christ's return and start to map out what it is going to look like. A quarter-century earlier, for those of you who are a bit older than I am, you may remember the fervour around a film called "A Thief in the Night" which was borne out of the same sort of evangelical fascination with all things end-times.
Now looking back 15-20 years at the phenomenon with hindsight, I can confidently say today that the Left Behind books were little more than bad fiction, and even worse theology, but to my influential young mind, they were exciting and frightening, and exhilarating. I devoured the first seven books of the series in no time at all, and then was painfully aware of how long it took to publish subsequent installments all the way up to the 12th and climactic novel – by which time I had grown past the very contrived narrative and was just reading the series out of my own obsessive completionist tendencies. As I grew in my relationship with Jesus and as I grew in the knowledge of the scriptures, I found the books harder and harder to reconcile with the faith that I had received, and my experience of God in the world. There were so many tacky things wrong with this characterization of the end of days – from its American exceptionalism to the warrior culture of the team of protagonists to the ham-fisted misappropriation of biblical prophecy. But probably the worst thing about the books was the fact that the story very much wasn’t about Jesus.
It was about many other things, the rapture, the lives of the main characters, the political machinations of the antichrist, a polemic for the importance of the modern state of Israel, and violence.
So. Much. Violence.
But Jesus was not all that central to the story. Sure, it ends with him coming back. But one could go long stretches of the narrative and forget that he was important to what was going to happen. The message of the book was that the return of Christ was more about our ability to persevere against the forces of evil and fight victoriously for the side of Good until Jesus came back. And the problem was that so many people like me grew up accepting that as the reality of what the doctrine of Christ's return was all about. Whether we grew up reading Left Behind or watching a Thief in the Night, or a Distant Thunder, many of us have been taught to long for a kingdom, when we should be longing for a king.
A.B. Simpson, in his development of the Fourfold Gospel, was caught right in the middle of one of those end-times-obsessed periods of history as well. In his day, the thought of the return of Christ was at the core of almost everything he sought. While he may be more famous for his teachings of Jesus as Saviour, Sanctifier, and Healer—these doctrines were not, for Simpson, the chief benefits of the union between Christ and believer. That place of pre-eminence was reserved for the fourth and climactic plank in his doctrine: Jesus Christ as Coming King.
Simpson believed that all the benefits of union with Christ were wasted if he could not, in the end, have Jesus himself.“ This is eternal life, not that you go to heaven someday when you die, but that you should know Christ. Eternal life is Jesus himself.” As such, Simpson placed a priority on the doctrines of Eschatology and the details of Christ’s return, which for him “fulfilled and shaped all of the other themes of the “Fourfold Gospel” and theology in general.” When introducing his commentary on the books of 1 and 2 Thessalonians, Simpson boldly claims priority for this doctrine, stating that, “[t]he fact that [these] were Paul’s earliest epistles, and that this subject occupies so prominent a place in them, makes it very plain that the doctrine of the Lord’s coming…is one of the primary doctrines of the Gospel.”
Now it must be noted, that to understand Simpson on this matter you must also understand that the particular flavour of Simpson’s eschatology was not just a general hope in the return of Christ, but a distinctively premillennial return which Simpson believed was the believer’s hope. Premillennial,for those of you who haven’t heard that term before, means that Simpson held a belief in a two-stage end of days, whereby Christ would come back and rescue his church by establishing a thousand-year kingdom, before returning one final time to conquer sin and death and the devil once and for all. This type of theology is generally associated with a belief in the rapture– a notion borne out of a particular reading of 1 Thessalonians that contends that all real Christians will be taken away ahead of Christ’s return. This type of theology was the foundation of the most popular cultural imaginings of the end times, like the Left Behind books and movies.
Furthermore, Simpson, as a semi-dispensationalist, believed in human instrumentality with regard to the return of Christ. In this way, he seems to present an idea that Christ is as contingent on people as they are on him. While this notion at first seems strange since Christ, being fully God, needs for nothing, Simpson repeatedly speaks of union with Christ as though it were more symbiotic than many others would assume. This union between Christ and the believer and more broadly, Christ and the Church, is both the problem facing the world and the solution for the world. On the one hand, Simpson had a dim view of the way the body of Christ has been crippled by sin, and as a consequence has in some real way limited Christ. He said for instance that: “Christ has been hindered by the paralyzed, disjointed, diseased condition of many members of His body, and the work accomplished by the church has been limited by the fact that the body has been diseased and enfeebled in many of its parts;” while on the other hand Simpson was deeply convicted that it was the church’s sole responsibility to bring about the conditions for Christ to return.
Specifically, there were three conditions that Simpson's premillennial eschatology demanded to be fulfilled before the King would return. 1) The church must be ready through a deepening of their relationship with Christ and their experience of sanctification, 2) the gospel message must be preached in all the world, and 3) the Jews must be restored to their ancestral homeland in Palestine. Only when these three conditions were met would the "imminent" return of Jesus become reality. The return of the Jews to Palestine was a geopolitical issue that the church could watch and pray for, but ultimately had little agency to accomplish. But the other two conditions were the expressed domain of the two organizations that Simpson founded; the Christian Alliance, a group devoted to promoting the deeper life in Christ, and the Evangelical Missionary Alliance, a group devoted to preaching the gospel to the whole world. Ten years after their founding, the two organizations would merge to become the Christian and Missionary Alliance—a denomination committed to doing the very things that Simpson believed were required to hasten Christ's return.
Simpson’s understanding of the centrality of the return of Christ is the reason why this denomination that we are a part of exists at all!
Now that may feel like a very heavy dump of history and theology, but I want to help you understand where Simpson was coming from before we draw out of his theology an application for us on Sunday. Because when the Alliance talks about Jesus Christ as Coming King today – we don’t necessarily mean the same thing that Simpson meant 125 years ago. While it’s true that some people in the Alliance still hold to the same sort of semi-dispensational premillennial theology that Simpson held to, that position is no longer the official view of the denomination, and I would venture out on a limb to surmise that it is actually the minority view in the Alliance today.
You may think from the way we have talked about Simpson over the past month that he was a man who walked on water with Jesus and could do no wrong. But that is far from the case. As much as Simpson was a great man who taught (and continues to teach through his writings) us much about Jesus and the centrality of our Lord to everything in life, he was still very much a product of his time. And this central doctrine of Christ’s return is one place where that shows.
Many theologians and pastors in our movement have long found the particular shape of Simpson’s eschatology to be fraught with exegetical problems. So much so that in the year 2000, after several assembly cycles of debating the issue, the Alliance in Canada formally amended our statement of faith to remove the word “premillennial” from our doctrine and instead to double-down on what is really the centre of Simpson’s eschatology (which Simpson himself concedes), which is Jesus Christ Himself.
The position that we have taken in the Alliance in Canada is that we’re not really that interested if you consider yourself a pre-trib, pre-mill, dispensationalist, or a post-mill triumphalist, or an amillennial figurativist, or if you even know what those terms might mean! What we’re interested in is the fact that Jesus Christ, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords is returning. And that the Church that bears his name is living in such a manner befitting that profound truth.
So, now that we’ve gotten all that history and heavy theology out of the way, on Sunday morning we’re going to transition into talking about what living in light of Jesus Christ our Coming King actually looks like. I hope you’ll join us for the conclusion of our series and that you come prepared to answer the difficult question: “Who is really my king?”
See you on Sunday.
Simpson, Christ Life, 10.
Simpson, The Names of Jesus, chap. 9.