In responding to dispensational scholar Dr. John Walvoord’s “premature criticisms” of postmillennialism, Dr. Greg Bahnsen made a profound statement that’s worth unpacking:
Walvoord has failed to grasp adequately the postmillennialist’s philosophy of history; it is not the case that the postmillennialist fails to distinguish providence from consummation, but rather that he sees providence as well orchestrated to subserve the ultimate ends of consummation.1
An analogy would help explain this. If you want to ship a package from central Texas to Winnipeg, Canada, it makes sense for it to travel north through Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas, before finally arriving in Winnipeg. Every waypoint along the route gets you closer to the ultimate goal. In postmillennialism, God guides history to move us qualitatively closer to the ultimate target.
But from Walvoord’s perspective, this means Winnipeg is being confused with North Dakota—to avoid this confusion, we need to send the package from Texas south through Mexico, Brazil, Chile, and finally to the South Pole, before the final leg of the journey north to Winnipeg.
For Walvoord, the world must be at its worst before the consummation occurs, not at its best. The more things go south, the better for Walvoord, because he thinks the contrast between history and the eternal state would otherwise be blurred (by closing the gap rather than widening it). Providence (God’s work in history) must fail so that the consummation can be magnified in comparison.
Everyone grants that there is an intrinsic discontinuity between history and the eternal state, but Walvoord doesn’t think that’s good enough. He wants the eternal state to upend history entirely, as opposed to revealing itself as history’s intended capstone. If the curse is slowly being reversed in history, then history is moving north to Winnipeg, so to speak—a possibility which motivates Walvoord to protect the eternal state from any excessive progress that the Great Commission and an omnipotent Holy Spirit might induce. The gateway to the eternal state for Walvoord is failure: the predicted failure that caps every one of the dispensations in his system. In contrast, we counsel using a shipping company that sends the payload northward, not down south, getting it as close as possible to its final destination.
The postmillennial philosophy of history embodies the emphasis of Zechariah 4:6: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, saith the Lord of Hosts.” Walvoord necessarily inverts this: “Not by the Spirit, but by might and power.” That’s why his package ends up at the South Pole. In contrast, Dr. Rushdoony, in his newly-published commentary on the Corinthian letters, gets our package easily as far as North Dakota:
The redeemed, the people of the resurrection, must first perform a great task: the conquest of all men, nations, and things for Jesus Christ, bringing them under His law and into His Kingdom. Christ’s victory is indeed also our victory, but His battle, His holy warfare against sin and death is also our battle. With our triumph in Christ, or, some time thereafter, comes the end of history in the endless and eternal reign of Jesus Christ.2
Rushdoony had readopted Warfield’s eschatology and embraced the exegetical evidence for a total victory for the Great Commission before history ends. The implications bear further examination.
What a Well-Orchestrated Providence Looks Like
Benjamin B. Warfield’s approach to eschatology represents the apex of postmillennial thinking, as he not only saw no scriptural limit to the future extension of salvation in history, but also found exegetical support for Christ’s victory in history extending even into sanctification as well as justification. A quick review of his two-part thesis would be useful here.
(1) In history, prior to the final judgment, consummation, and eternal state beginning, the entire living population of the world will be regenerate, all of them having been elected by God and covered by the atonement of Christ: it will be a fully-saved world without any exceptions.
(2) At some point in time between the total conversion of the world and the consummation of history, the prescriptive will of God shall be globally observed by everyone in the world. Whatever its duration, this is the precondition for the current heavens and earth to pass away, death to be destroyed, and God’s people to at last be fully united as one flock under one Shepherd.
Point (1) has become less controversial since the early 1980s as more Bible scholars have come to agree with Warfield’s “eschatological universalism” (which is not the heretical form of universalism since the total victory of the gospel doesn’t extend to the wicked dead who remain forever unrepentant). Point (2) is based on the literal sense of Matthew 5:18, which Warfield unpacks for us:
“I came not,” says Jesus, “to destroy but to fulfill, - for ...” And, then, with this “for,” He immediately grounds His assertion in the further one that the whole law in all its details, down to the smallest minutiae, remains permanently in force and shall be obeyed. “For, verily I say unto you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one jot or one tittle shall pass away from the law until all [of them] be accomplished.”
On the one hand, it is asserted with an emphasis which could not easily be made stronger, that the law in its smallest details remains in undiminished authority so long as the world lasts. Jesus has not come to abrogate the law—on the contrary the law will never be abrogated, not even in the slightest of its particulars—the dotting of an “i” or the crossing of a “t”—so long as the world endured.
But Jesus does not content Himself with this “canonization of the letter,” as H. J. Holtzmann calls it, certainly without exaggeration. The law, remaining in all its details in undiminished authority, is, on the other hand, to be perfectly observed. Jesus declares that while the world lasts no jot or tittle of the law shall pass away—until they all, all the law’s merest jots and tittles, shall be accomplished.
He means to say not merely that they should be accomplished, but that they shall be accomplished. The words are very emphatic. The “all,” standing in correlation with the “one” of the “one jot” and “one tittle,” declares that all the jots and all the tittles of the law shall be accomplished. Not one shall fail. The expression itself is equivalent to a declaration that a time shall come when in this detailed perfection, the law shall be observed.
This amounts to a promise that the day shall surely come for which we pray when, in accordance with Jesus’ instruction we ask, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done as in heaven so on earth.”3
As Warfield earlier explained, Christ came “to get the Law kept.” He agrees with Meyer’s grammatical objection to interpretations like Dr. Bahnsen’s that make Christ’s final words “a vague and lumbering addition.”4 Warfield appeals to the third petition of the Lord’s prayer from Matthew 6:10, and it turns out he is treading the same ground as John Calvin regarding this petition:
…God will be King in the world when all shall subject themselves to His will. We are not here treating of that secret will by which he governs all things… What we here speak of is another will of God—namely, that of which voluntary obedience is the counterpart; and, therefore, heaven is expressly contrasted with earth, because, as is said in The Psalms, the angels “do his commandments, hearkening unto the voice of His word” (Ps. 103:20). We are therefore enjoined to pray that as everything done in heaven is at the command of God, and the angels are calmly disposed to do all that is right, so the earth may be brought under His authority, all rebellion and depravity having been extinguished.5
Equally telling is Warfield’s treatment of John 1:29 concerning “the lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world.” We have room only for his conclusions here:
The world has always been very evil … Throughout all the ages, its sin has gone up reeking before God to heaven. But the great fact—the great fact, greater even than the fact of the world’s sin—is that Christ has redeemed this sinful world. In Him we behold the Lamb of God which takes away the sin of the world. Not, who strives to take it away and fails; not, who takes it away in some measure, but is unable to take it away entirely; not, who suspends its taking away upon a gigantic If—as though His taking it away were dependent on some aid given Him by the world itself— … No, but who actually, completely, finally, takes away its sin. … in the end, when the process is over, no unfruitful trees will be found growing in God’s garden, the world, no chaff be found cumbering God’s threshing-floor, the world.6
Warfield is no lone wolf, as the following expositions of Isaiah 11:9 are the tip of a large iceberg of corroborating expositions.
The Prophecy of Isaiah 11:9
Isaiah tells us that “they shall neither hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” There will be no hurt, no destruction, with nature at peace with itself and with man because sin has been taken away from the world on the Lamb’s back. Note J. Alec Motyer’s comment on the key words of the opening clause: “The verbs harm and destroy are used ‘absolutely,’ no object is stated. This results in the meaning ‘They shall neither act wrongly nor act corruptly’, i.e., neither do what is wrong nor mar what is good.”7
John Mackay also sees it as Motyer does: “‘Harm’ and ‘destroy’ are without any stated objects; the implication is that they are banished in every possible manifestation.”8
Edward J. Young argues similarly,9 and J. A. Alexander summarizes the passage succinctly: “The prophecy is therefore one of gradual fulfillment. So far as the cause operates, the effect follows, and when the cause shall operate without restraint, the effect will be complete and universal.”10 Note Hengstenberg’s translation of Isaiah 11:9—“They shall not do evil, and shall not sin in all my holy mountain, for the earth is full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters covering the sea.”11 He explains that “in the second clause, the ground and fountain of this sinlessness is stated. In Zion, in the Church of God, there will then be no more any sins; for the earth is then full of the knowledge of the Lord, by which the sins are done away with. The general outpouring of the Holy Ghost forms one of the characteristics of the Messianic time; and the consequence of this outpouring is, according to verse 2, the knowledge of the Lord…”12
E. Johnson, without ascribing the text to the eternal state, speaks of the concluding era of history in equally clear terms: “There will be no sin nor sinners in Zion, because the knowledge of the true God will be all-diffused and all-inexhaustible as the ocean.”13 R. Tuck adds, “In olden time men failed in faith that the perfect King would come, and now we fail in faith that the perfect kingdom will ever come, because we cannot quite explain the when, the how, and the why. It may be said—Have we any seemingly good reasons for our failing faith? And it may be urged that (1) the golden age has never yet been reached in part, anywhere; (2) there are no signs of its nearing approach; and (3) we cannot clearly mark even our own growing fitness for it. The perfect age has scarcely even a faint beginning in us. But who can discern victory through the smoke of battle? And yet the victory may, in effect, be won. With cleared eyesight we might see many hopeful signs; ... And if God could give the world the perfect King, he can also give the perfect age. The practical question is—What are we doing to hurry its on-coming?”14
Sin as the Paymaster
“Sin is the transgression of the law” (1 John 3:4). When we talk about the cessation (whether brief or extended) of sin in the preconsummation world, we are talking about an end of transgression of God’s Law. This thought leads to a potential explanation as to why the last generation on earth does not die. As Warfield argued, death is destroyed when it releases its hold on Christ’s children and the men then living cannot die. In the run-up to this future victory of our Lord, human lifespans will increase in duration (Isa. 65:20).
If “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23), why does the last generation on earth not die? Does God arbitrarily suspend this rule and not have sin pay that generation their earned wages? Why is this last generation to be blessed with not experiencing death, but not to be blessed with ceasing to break His commandments (for however brief a season)? What if the whole world at that future point in time had ceased to sin and no wage was thus due to be paid to the final generation?
Concerning these wages, John Murray quotes Godet to the effect that “The word opsoonion strictly denotes payment in kind, then the payment in money which a general gives his soldiers. And so it is obvious that the complement tes harmartias, of sin, is not here the genitive of the object: the wages paid for sin, but the genitive of the subject: the wages paid by sin.”15
Lightfoot’s note is to the point: “Sin is regarded as a sovereign (verse 12) who demands the military service of subjects (verse 12), levies their quota of arms (ver. 13) and gives them their soldier’s pay of death (verse 23).”16
The correct sense is that sin pays a man with death. But what if this paymaster—sin—isn’t there anymore? What if the paymaster’s office is shuttered just before the end of history?
Shedd’s analysis of Romans 6:23 precedes Murray’s: “Sin personified pays wages for military service.”17 Schreiner agrees: “Thus the idea is that sin as a ruler pays out certain wages to its soldiers (Cranfield 1975: 329; D. Moo 1991: 425; Fitzmyer 1993c: 452).”18
If Warfield is correct, Matt. 5:18 isn’t disclosing the prerequisite for the Law to pass away, but the prerequisite for the heaven and earth to pass away. And that precondition would be the universal observation of God’s Law (which requires the prior total success of the Great Commission in time and history). Christ’s victories would expand from justification (a saved world) to sanctification (a world purged of active transgression of His Law) as “He leads justice to victory” (Matt. 12:20). Christ destroys death by destroying the paymaster administering death—He purges the world of all unrighteousness, until “Holiness Unto the Lord” is engraved on the bells of the horses (Zech. 14:20-21).
The Power of God’s Purging Fire
As a symbol, fire signifies God’s wrath, and it signifies the means by which God purges and cleanses the world to make it holy. In Warfield’s view of Revelation 20, the verses that apply to the earth aren’t verses 1 through 6, but verses 7 through 9: God’s enemies are being destroyed by the fire out of heaven because the “little season” has been ongoing for twenty centuries. This has been argued in Arise & Build before, but we now comment on a new objection to Warfield’s view: that it is weak!
2 Chron. 34:21b reads “Great is the wrath of the Lord that is poured out upon us, because our fathers have not kept the word of the Lord, to do according to all that is written in this book.” The literal Hebrew is “Great is the glowing fire of the Lord that is poured out upon us…” How does Scripture characterize the glowing fire being poured out? That it is great. The text does not read, “Weak is the glowing fire of the Lord that is poured out on us.” That the purging of evil by God’s fire merits the label weak is hard to imagine.
Warfield taught that Jesus converts the entire world even though Satan is not bound, whereas the majority of postmillennialists today hold that Christ cannot convert the entire world even though Satan is chained and sidelined. Yet Warfield is labeled weak.
We see purging as paralleling the burning of fire in Isaiah 4:4 when the Lord “shall have purged the blood of Jerusalem from the midst thereof by the spirit of judgment, and by the spirit of burning.” Malachi says that the Messiah “is like a refiner's fire, and like fullers’ soap: And He shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver” (Mal. 3:2b–3a). The Messiah continues to sit and purify the world of all its dross. Fire as a parallel to shaking appears in Isaiah 33, as F. F. Bruce notes.19 George Adam Smith elaborates:
The justice of God, preached so long by Isaiah, had always seemed something abstract. Now they saw how concrete it was. It was not only a doctrine: it was a fact. It was a fact that was a fire. Isaiah had often called it a fire; they thought this was rhetoric. But now they saw the actual burning—"the peoples as the burning of lime, as thorns cut down that are burned in the fire.” And when they felt the fire so near, each sinner of them awoke to the fact that he had something burnable in himself, something which could as little stand the fire as the Assyrians could. There was no difference in this fire outside and inside the walls.20
What we need, then, is to see our world like Isaiah saw it—as it really is:
Isaiah … likens the holiness of God to a universal and constant fire. To Isaiah life was so penetrated by the active justice of God that he described it as bathed in fire, as blown through with fire. Righteousness was no mere doctrine to this prophet: it was the most real thing in history; it was the presence which pervaded and explained all phenomena.
Isaiah alone faced life with open vision, which filled up for him the interstices of experience and gave terrible explanation to fate. It was a vision that nearly scorched the eyes out of him. Life as he saw it was steeped in flame—the glowing righteousness of God. Jerusalem was full “of the spirit of justice, the spirit of burning. The light of Israel is for a fire, and his Holy One for a flame.” [Isa. 4:4 and 10:17]21
This understanding certainly changes how we ought to view John the Baptist’s declaration that Christ will baptize the world with fire and the Holy Spirit, and will thoroughly purge His threshing floor (Matt. 3:11-12).
The Journey North
Earlier in Arise & Build we explained how Rev. 8:1 occurs at the conclusion of history to signify the victory of Christ: “There was silence in heaven for the space of half an hour.” The thunderings in heaven against sin no longer exist at that point in time because the world has become wholly sanctified: God’s will is being done in earth “as it is in heaven.” This is as close to Winnipeg as history can get, as Christ initiates the final transformation to deliver the Kingdom to His Father in what Warfield calls the great pageant of the conquest of death.
Warfield saw that 1 John 2:8 contains a prophecy, “for the darkness is passing away and the true light is shining already.” Despite looking out on masses of heathen darkness, John insists that the darkness is in actual process of passing away. Many yet teach that the darkness is worsening and will be darkest at history’s end. We must choose between John and today’s prophecy experts.
Acts 3:21 informs us that “the heavens must receive Him until the times of the restitution of all things.” History doesn’t end until there is no more need for restitution in the world, which strongly implies that God’s Law will indeed be universally observed. If there were further transgressions after that point, we really can’t claim that the restitution of all things has occurred on earth, since new violations would still be unrestituted.
Consider the conversion sequence of Romans 11 (Gentiles first, Israel second, importing nothing less than a worldwide conversion in the same order as Isaiah 19:18-25).
“For I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery, lest ye should be wise in your own conceits; that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in. And so all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness (asebeias) from Jacob: For this is my covenant unto them, when I shall take away their sins.” (Rom. 11:25-27)
Concerning Israel, Paul had earlier taught something quite extraordinary:
For if the casting away of them be the reconciling of the world, what shall the receiving of them be, but life from the dead? (Rom. 11:15)
Lange defends the “literal view [and] the oldest ecclesiastical explanation” of Paul’s phrase life from the dead: it is the general resurrection from the dead at the end of history.22 Warfield regarded this approach as plausible,23 and exegete Meyer insisted it is the only valid interpretation, adding that “the proper sense has been held by Origen, Chrysostom, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret, Anselm, Erasmus, … and others.”24
This means that after all the Gentiles are converted (due to Israel’s casting away), and all Israel is saved (by being received again) that death will then be defeated (life from the dead = the general resurrection). We progress from South Dakota, to North Dakota, and then God takes us across to Winnipeg. The events prior to the consummation also pave the way by being on the path toward that consummation.
And toward the end of that path, God cleanses His people from the commission of transgression, purifying their new hearts:
“And I will turn my hand upon thee, and purely purge away thy dross, and take away all thy tin.” (Isa. 1:25)
God acts to “take away all thy tin,” leaving none behind. The dross is spiritual, but also literal: the sin of verse 22 (their silver becoming dross) disappears completely. The extension of the domain of holiness will suffer no limitations (Zech. 14:20-21).
Of course, amillennialists have openly attacked conventional postmillennialism. Dr. Engelsma spares no words in his critique (which does not apply to Warfield’s expositions).
There will be hordes of ungodly in this postmillennial kingdom, on the admission of even the most optimistic postmillennialists themselves … in their hearts they will hate God. They will be rebels inwardly against the Christ. At the end of the millennium they will rise against the Lord (Rev. 20:7-9)… This will grieve the Reformed amillennialist. If there were but one enemy of Christ in the kingdom, this would grieve him. For there would be in the Messianic kingdom a despising of God’s commandments, at the very least in the hearts and minds of the ungodly. And, as the Psalter puts it, “because Thy statutes are despised, with overwhelming grief I weep.” … That earthly reign by means of the church, filled with sin, death, and unregenerate reprobates who hate and curse Christ morning, noon, and night, is the climax of Christ’s kingdom. Behold … a dismal flop! If that is the Messianic kingdom at its very highest and greatest, Christ is destined to be displayed publicly as a royal failure.25
Because there’s a prevailing unwillingness to rethink Revelation 20 using the internal cross-references inside the Apocalypse, Dr. Engelsma’s critique is justified. He holds up a mirror to all forms of postmillennialism that have misplaced their capstone (but Warfield’s model is exempt from this critique).
Dr. Engelsma is mistaken, because providence is well orchestrated to subserve the ultimate ends of consummation. History moves towards, not away from, its appointed goal, and God Himself will push it over the finish line to release the final grip of the curse from Christ’s world (Romans 8:19-23).
1. Greg Bahnsen, “The Prima Facie Acceptability of Postmillennialism” in The Journal of Christian Reconstruction (Vallecito, CA: Chalcedon) Vol. 3, No. 2, Winter 1976-1977, p. 58.
2. R. J. Rushdoony, Sermons in First and Second Corinthians (Vallecito, CA: Chalcedon/Ross House Books, 2023), p. 184. This is in the chapter “Total Victory” concerning 1 Cor. 15:20-26.
3. Benjamin Breckenridge Warfield, Biblical Doctrines (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1929), pp. 297-298, from “Jesus’ Mission, According to His Own Testimony,” Reprinted from The Princeton Theological Review v. xiii, 1915, pp. 513-586.
4. Heinrich August Wilhelm Meyer, Commentary on the New Testament (Winona Lake, IN: Alpha Publications, 1979) vol. 1, p. 129. Ten volumes originally published by T. & T. Clark in 1883.
5. Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1981), 2:190.
6. Warfield, Benjamin Breckenridge, The Saviour of the World (New York, NY: Hodder and Stoughton, 1913), pp. 93-96.
7. J. Alec Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1993), p. 125.
8. John L. Mackay, Study Commentary on Isaiah (Darlington, England: Evangelical Press, 2008), vol. 1, p. 298.
9. Edward J. Young, The Book of Isaiah (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1965), vol. 1, p. 392.
10. Joseph Addison Alexander, The Prophecies of Isaiah (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, [1846-1847] 1978), vol. 1, p. 255.
11. Ernst Wilhelm Hengstenberg, A Christology of the Old Testament (Mac Dill AFB, Florida: MacDonald Publishing Company, n.d.), vol. 1, p. 475.
13. E. Johnson in The Pulpit Commentary, eds. Spence & Exell (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, n.d.), vol. 10, p. 208.
14. R. Tuck in ibid., p. 216.
15. John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1959, 1965, 1968, 1977), p. 238 n28, p. 228 n17.
17. W. G. T. Shedd, Commentary on Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, [1879 Charles Scribner’s Sons] 1980), p. 172.
18. Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic,  2018), p. 339.
19. Bruce, F. F., The Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans,  1990), p. 365, quotes a small section from George Adam Smith’s exposition.
20. George Adam Smith in The Expositor’s Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books House,  1982), vol. 3, p. 700. This material appeared in the May 2020 issue of Arise & Build.
22. John Philip Lange, Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, n.d.), p. 366.
23. Warfield, Benjamin Breckenridge, Biblical and Theological Studies (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1968), pp. 486, 487, 487n8.
24. Meyer, vol. 5, p. 438.
25. Engelsma, David J. “A Defense of (Reformed) Amillennialism—10. A Spiritual Fulfillment of Isaiah 65:17ff.” Standard Bearer, Oct. 1, 1996, pp. 7-8. Dr. Engelsma later addressed my arguments, recognizing that Warfield’s position is a danger to his own.
- Martin G. Selbrede
Martin is the senior researcher for Chalcedon’s ongoing work of Christian scholarship, along with being the senior editor for Chalcedon’s publications, Arise & Build and The Chalcedon Report. He is considered a foremost expert in the thinking of R.J. Rushdoony. A sought-after speaker, Martin travels extensively and lectures on behalf of Christian Reconstruction and the Chalcedon Foundation. He is also an accomplished musician and composer.