The Slow-Yet-Certain ‘March to Berlin’

Like many other Christians I have spoken to, I often find myself frustrated with what feels like the “snail’s pace” of the inbreaking of God’s Kingdom into our present reality. Yes, I fully believe that God Himself broke into space and time through His Son, Jesus Christ, and that Christ Himself inaugurated the final end to all sin, sorrow and death with His bodily resurrection…but here it is some 2,000 years later and the world outside – and inside my own heart – is still littered with the ungodly, the filthy, the profane and the tragic.

Christ Himself announced on the cross, “It is finished!” So why the long delay?

Why should so many people continue to be born, live, struggle and then die in this sin-scarred world? Would it not be better for Christ to wrap up all of human history and usher in His eternal reign as soon as possible? These sorts of questions can very often torment the believer’s soul, perhaps even cause one to sink into various forms of unbelief. In his Desiring God podcast series, “Ask Pastor John,” I well remember that someone had the audacity to write in and ask John Piper what single issue most often threatened to draw his heart away from God. His answer was exceedingly helpful for me as it directly addressed this issue of the “slowness” (2 Peter 3:9) of God’s Kingdom. Basically, Piper echoed my own heart when he confessed that there are times when he sees the tragic condition of his own heart and can begin to entertain doubts as to whether or not God truly is at work in his life.

But we Christians hear about this all the time, right? “The already, but not yet” nature of God’s eternal plan for our salvation? That we live in The Between Times? Already, Christ has dealt the decisive death blow to Satan, sin and death itself. The outcome of the contest is no longer in question, and yet…we only have to pick up a newspaper or listen attentively to the words that spew out of our own mouths to be confronted with the apparent ongoing reign of sin, folly and rebellion in this present age. How is it that the battle is over, and yet the battle continues? The words of Scripture should be our final authority on this matter, and we are called to believe them even when (or perhaps especially when) we cannot clearly see how it’s all playing out in the here and now-ness of our lives.

Jesus often used word pictures during his earthly ministry as a means of conveying larger truths, employing simple illustrations that were ordinary, readily accessible to all hearers and faithful to the thrust of the Truth that Jesus was trying to impart. In the 15 years since my conversion, I have often had cause to question my own salvation, particularly as I would continue to “unwillingly” sin against God and others with my thoughts, words and deeds. “How can Christ Himself really be at work in such a filthy man as myself?” Well, in addition to spending a lot of time in Romans 6 and 7, one of the more helpful word pictures I use to remind myself of what progressive sanctification actually looks like in the life of an individual believer is to consider the amount of time that elapsed between the Allied invasion of Normandy in World War II (June 6, 1944) and the final liberation of Europe from the Third Reich (May 8, 1945). Last week, as I was personally struggling with heavy losses to sin and death, I “coincidentally” came across this helpful analogy yet again while reading Sinclair Ferguson‘s book, The Holy Spirit:

Even half a century and more after the event itself, Oscar Cullmann‘s illustration from the events of the Second World War remains helpful for illuminating the present character of life in the Spirit. In that war, D-Day (the decisive intervention of the Allied Forces’ invasion of Europe in 1944) took place a year before the coming of VE-Day (the end of the war in Europe in 1945). In the interim, the battles remained fierce and bloody, even although the decisive act had taken place. 

So it is in redemptive history. The D-Day of redemption has taken place in Christ’s death, resurrection, ascension and giving of the Spirit. He has acted decisively against the powers of sin, Satan and death which tyrannized his people. Yet the skirmishes with sin (as well as with Satan and death) continue to be severe. They are real and painful. But they take place within a different context from any struggle against sin that marked the old life in Adam from which the Spirit was absent. Now the Christian engages in conflict with sin from the standpoint of deliverance from the prisoner-of-war camp; the decisive victory over the dominion of sin is a present reality in the Spirit; the final victory is assured. But there is still blood-letting, and the whole armour of God must be worn. The Christian is, as Abraham Kuyper underlined, still “under the treatment of the Spirit.” V-Day is yet to come.

“V-Day is yet to come.” How little I need to be reminded that the reign of Christ has not yet been fully realized!

And yet, how important to keep that fact firmly in mind when interacting with other Christian believers in various forms of distress, doubt or existential anxiety. Knowing that the “D-Day” of Christ’s death on the cross has already occurred does not make the fighting along the road to “Berlin” any less fierce. In fact, in my experience, the battles tend to become more bloody and more costly as we march steadfastly toward a lifelong obedience in Christ. The enemy of our souls does not waste his resources on the citizens of Berlin who are still loyal to the regime; he instead trains his remaining firepower on those who would dare to participate in the Kingdom-building enterprise of the “Enemy,” the One Who has declared an end to Satan’s tyranny. It makes little sense to fight for those souls that already belong to him.

For whatever this is worth, there are times when I fall victim to a certain form of mythical thinking that Paul Tripp helpfully refers to as “Location Amnesia” (see Sept. 12, 2012). I tend to forget that I live smack-dab in the middle of the fierce battles that accompany the cause of Christ in this world. Instead, I often drift into complacency, spending so much time celebrating D-Day that I have forgotten to keep on the full armour of God. I suspect that an American soldier on the ground in Europe between June 6, 1944, and May 8, 1945, would never once have entertained the idea of going out for a stroll by himself, leaving his helmet, rifle and radio back in his tent, and yet I think that particular word picture can paint a fairly-accurate portrait of the Christian who is consistently lax in their study of the Bible or who attends church on Sundays only when “there is nothing better to do.” Our location amnesia is such that we need constant reminders that peace has not yet become our reality; we must not leave ourselves unarmed as we continue our march toward full and final victory.

Certainly, we do not need constant reminders that the battle still wages. Lots of bad things continue to happen inside the disputed territory of a war zone. Soldiers fall on the battlefield. Ordinary citizens die as what is euphemistically called “collateral damage.” People change sides unexpectedly. Family, friends and neighbors betray one another. The true loyalty of an individual’s heart is involuntarily exposed. All manner of desperation-fueled warfare ensues as the liberating army encircles the city. Children are issued rifles and grenades with which to destroy other human beings. To put it bluntly, all hell breaks loose as more and more ground gives way to the approach of the great Liberator.

Given our perilous place in redemptive history, it is one of God’s greater mercies that He offers us numerous “times of refreshing” (Acts 3:19-20) as we live and breathe in the disputed territory of the great battle. That we are afforded any respite at all in this greatest of all possible struggles is just one of many evidences we can give that our confidence in the end of sin’s tyranny is justified. We may mourn the loss of several more loved ones between here and the “Berlin” of Christ’s final victory, but we can be comforted along the path by the certainty that our mourning will be changed, fully and finally, into a never-ending season of rejoicing. Hasten the day, Lord, and strengthen us such that we not abandon You along the difficult road.

Ephesians 6:10-18
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints. 

Revelation 21:1-7
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son.” 

Psalm 30:11
You have turned for me my mourning into dancing; you have loosed my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness.

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