Category Archives: Church History

Church History is the discipline that investigates and describes the history of the Christian church in its original life and thought as an entity of God’s saving purposes in universal history.

Dr. Bruce Ware: Comparing Covenant and Dispensational Theology



These are both movements that really affect a large swath of the evangelical Church with Covenant Theology affecting so much of the Church in the Reformed tradition and Dispensationalism largely through the first study Bible that came out, The Scofield Reference Bible (that was the only one when I was growing up; my folks had the Scofield Reference Bible). It made a big impact on Dallas Seminary and all of its graduates when Dallas was putting out so many pastors for Bible churches and independent Baptist churches. The Bible school movement was largely Dispensational. Moody Bible Institute and most of the Bible schools around the country were Dispensational. Some other seminaries that were Dallas-influenced are Talbot Seminary, Biola University (it used to be Bible Institute of Los Angeles and that is where Biola comes from; J. Vernon McGee and a number of people connected with Biola were Dispensational), Western Seminary (where I went) used to be a Dallas clone and it was Dispensational. So many areas in evangelical life in North America were affected by it.

We need to take a brief look at these two views. One heartening thing I will tell you at the beginning is it is one of those wonderful areas where, though there was such disagreement forty years ago, to the point where there were strong accusations being made by both sides about the other, today there has been a coming together of these movements by sort of progressives of both sides. With Modified Covenantalists and Modified Dispensationalists, the differences between them now, among those Modified groups, is minor in significance. It is not that much to worry about, to be honest with you. It is one area where godly, humble biblical scholarship and theological reflection has resulted in both sides being willing to acknowledge the excesses of their traditions and make changes. The result of that has been to come together in a marvelous way. If you want to read something that talks about this well, Dr. Russ Moore wrote his dissertation on the changing theological positions of Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology as that affects socio-political action. But in order to get that “as it affects” part, he had to do quite a bit of theological ground work in describing what was going on in these two movements. A large portion of his dissertation relates to mega-changes, and the mega-shifts that have taken place in both of these movements. It is very well done.

A. Covenant Theology

1. General Description – Two Broad Covenants

Covenant theology holds, in terms of its basic understanding of Scripture, that we should understand the Bible as portraying fundamentally two covenants: a Covenant of Works and a Covenant of Grace.

In the Covenant of Works, God made a covenant with Adam in the Garden, according to Covenant Theology. Namely, if you obey me and follow me and resist eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; if you stay away from that, if you don’t eat of that tree and follow me in obedience, then you will ultimately receive life. Covenant theologians have seen this as something more than the life of Adam then. It is not just a continuation of his life in the garden temporally, but what we would speak of as eternal life. They propose that there must have been a probationary period in which this testing was undertaken. Had Adam passed the test (who knows how much longer it might have been; maybe two more days and the test would have been over; we just don’t know), then he would have received eternal life because of his works. But if Adam failed the test, if he were to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the garden, then we know from the text, in the day that you eat from it you will surely die (Gen 2:17). So death for disobedience; life, presumably a better life, a greater that the life he had now for obedience.

Covenant theologians acknowledge that the first part of this, the promise of life for obedience, is not stated explicitly in Scripture. But they think that it is implied by the negative statement, “If you eat of it you will die”. If you don’t eat of the tree, then you would receive the gift of eternal life. If that is the case, then it must be something different than what you have now, and if that is the case, there must be a probationary period. There must be a time period after which this would be given. All of that follows from what they know to be the case; namely, there is command given that if you eat of the tree you will die. The other part of it is spin off from that.

We all know that Adam failed the test and brought death upon himself and all of his progeny. Romans chapter 5 tells us that in Adam all sin and deserve his death. So we learn from Paul in Romans 5:12 and following that all die in Adam’s one sin.

In order to save sinners, God brings about another covenant. This is not a Covenant of Works because sinners could never work to make the payment necessary to satisfy a holy God on account of the offense that has been committed. The guilt is too great, and the offense is too serious. Another Covenant of Works (work it off now, pay your dues, pay off your debt) won’t work for human beings, for sinners. God inaugurates, instead, a Covenant of Grace, whereby his Son will pay the penalty for sinners, and those sinners in exchange will receive the righteousness of Christ. It is quite a deal for sinners. We give Christ our sins and he gives us his righteousness.

Double imputation is part of this understanding as well. Our sin is imputed to Christ, so he pays the penalty for our guilt and it is charged against him even though he doesn’t deserve to pay it. That’s what imputation means at that point; our sin is charged against Christ, and his righteousness is imputed to us; it is credited to our account by faith – justification.

How much of the Bible does the Covenant of Works cover, what does it span? The Covenant of Works covers Genesis 1, 2 and part of Genesis 3 where the sin takes place. What about the Covenant of Grace where sinners now cannot be saved by works? If they are going to be saved it has to be by grace? Genesis 3 to Revelation 22. The point of this is that it leads Covenant theologians, in the traditional understanding, to think in terms of the broad sense of the holistic nature of virtually all of the Bible, from Gen 3 on, which is most of the Bible. Basically, the whole Bible fits under this Covenant of Grace notion. This leads to, in Covenant Theology, a strong sense of uniformity throughout the Bible, that is a strong sense of continuity. There is one thing God is doing from the sin in the garden and on, that is he is providing for human sin and saving the people. The Covenant of Grace spans both Testaments; it spans Israel and Church. In that sense, it leads to a unified sense in all of Scripture: Old and New Testaments together.

2. Covenant Hermeneutic

Because of this sense of unity that takes place, the hermeneutic of Covenant Theology tends to see in Scripture a unified teaching in both Testaments. So there is less of a notion in Covenant Theology that new things come about in divine revelation at new periods of revelation, rather there is more of a notion of simply amplifying or explaining with grater clarity or precession what has been there from the beginning. So for example, in Covenant Theology there is much more a tendency to look back in the Old Testament and see the same kinds of things as you do in the New Treatment. I’ll give you an example of that; some of you know that I teach an elective on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. The older Covenant theologians (some of the more recent ones, Richard Gap and Sinclair Ferguson have not have gone this route) would tend to see everything that is true of the of the Holy Spirit’s work in the New Testament, his indwelling, his sealing, his empowering that is true for New Testament believers, is also true for Old Testament believers because of this uniformity idea. So if you ask the question what is new at Pentecost or new in the New Covenant? It is more a sense of extension of coverage than it is qualitative experience in the lives of true believers. God will extend this to the ends of the earth: Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria. To the ends of the earth means extending this beyond the boundaries of the restricted members of the people of God. It is going to go public, nationwide, worldwide. My view is that this is a mistake to think this way. Instead there is a radical new happening when the Holy Spirit comes at Pentecost that the Old Testament actually prophesied and predicted was going to happen that would make a tremendously different change to the people of God. So you really have to have, it was once this way but now is this way. There really is a change, a marked qualitative kind of change that takes place in the coming of the Spirit in the New Covenant than in the Old. This is a more Dispensational way of thinking. Take a text like Romans 8:3-4

“For what the Law could not do [under the law this didn’t happen, the Law couldn’t do this], weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending his Son in the likeness of sinful flesh [we are talking history now, at this point in history, when Christ comes], and as an offering for sin, Him condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might now be fulfilled in those who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” (Rom 8:3-4) So that looks to me like we ought to read it as under the Law things were one way, but now that the Spirit has come, Christ has come, things are different. But if you read the Old Covenant writers on the Holy Spirit, you will find a very strong urge to assume that New Testament teachings about the Holy Spirit must be true of Old Testament saints as well.

A similar thing might be said of Christology. There is a very strong sense of trying to see as much as possible of Christ in the Old Testament. Luke 24 makes it very clear that Christ taught concerning himself from the Law, the Prophets and the Writings (Luke 24:27).

It is a matter of which texts, what they are saying, and to what extent. There is a tendency in Covenant Theology to see more than what others might see from other traditions. The main point I am trying to stress here is that with this Covenant hermeneutic there is a tendency to see uniformity of content between the Testaments.

3. Israel and the Church

One of the places where this becomes both the clearest and most decisive in terms of separating covenant and Dispensational views is how Covenant Theology understands Israel and the Church. Here again, with the basic hermeneutic of uniformity, Covenant Theology would view true Israel as the people of God, that is, true Israel, saved Israel as the people of God and the Church as the people of God. There is really one people of God in both Testaments, both saved by faith, both serving the same God, both the special objects of God’s saving love. Israel really could be thought of and spoken of as the Old Testament Church. The Church in the New Testament can rightly be thought of as New Testament Israel. So we have Old Testament Church, that’s Israel, and we have New Testament Israel, that’s Church. So there really should not be seen significant differences as they are the people of God. Granted Israel is also ethnic and the Church is multiethnic. But apart from that difference, as it relates to nation and ethnicity, we ought to understand the people of God, as believers, constituting the same group of people.

What about promises made to Israel that seem to relate to a time in the future; for example, Israel coming back to her land, or her ultimate salvation by God. What about promises that look like they are eschatological in the Old Testament, and are not fulfilled at any particular point in history in the Old Testament or New Testament period? What do we say about those promises that relate to Israel? God makes the promise, I’ll take from your lands where you have been and I’ll bring you back to your land and you shall have one God, and I will reign over you, and I will destroy your enemies. All of these promises given to Israel, what should we do with those? In Covenant Theology, there is a very strong tendency to go in the direction of saying those promises made to Israel are fulfilled in the New Testament Israel – the Church. So the Church becomes the object of those promises.

In Covenant Theology there is a very strong tendency to see Old Testament promises as coming straight forward and being fulfilled in the Church. So the land promises (you will be back in your land) shouldn’t be understand as literal land; there is not going to be a day when the ethnic people of Israel occupy literal geography; that is not the point of those promises. It is rather that they will have their kingdom, and it is a spiritual kingdom.

So the promises to Israel are to be fulfilled in a spiritual manner in the Church. When it talks about the Jews being saved, we are all Jews. Remember Paul in Romans 2 says, we are circumcised in Abraham. We are, by faith, part of the seed of Abraham in Galatians (Galatians 3:16). We should understand that all of us are Jews spiritually because we are tied in through Christ, through the seed of Abraham. After all, the promise in Genesis 12 was that through Abraham all the nations in the world will be blessed. (Genesis 12:3). So we are tied in.

What about the reign of Christ over nations? This is not a political military reign; it is a spiritual reign as people from every tribe and nation are brought into subjection to Christ. So in Covenant Theology there is a very strong tendency to see, basically, Israel and the Church as equated spiritually.

One place that you see that Reformed Baptists differ is with pedobaptism. In Presbyterian, Anglican, and the majority of reformed theology, they hold to pedobaptism. Here the same thing is happening; Israel circumcised their people as a sign of the Covenant and we are the new Israel. The difference is that our sign of the Covenant is a sign that is Christological in nature because we have been brought together in Christ; everything in the Old Testament pointed to him. Christ has now come, so the sign of the Covenant changes to baptism as a mark of Christ’s death and resurrection. Just as Israel’s sign of the covenant was given to infants, so the Church’s sign of the Covenant should be given to infants. Honestly, the strongest argument for pedobaptism (in my judgment) is a theological argument; if you try to argue texts, you run out quickly. In a used bookstore in Springfield, Illinois (we were visiting there as a family to look at all of the Lincoln memorabilia that was there), I spotted a rather sizable book on the shelve; the spine was pretty fat. It said on it, All That The Bible Teaches About Infant Baptism. That was the title of it. Wow, I thought, this is a thick book; it is impressive. So I took it off of the shelf and opened it up and it was an empty book. It was just all blank pages. They were charging something like $18 for it, so I didn’t buy it, but I wish I had. I would like to have a copy of that book. The argument is really a theological one: Israel, Church, sense of unity, and hence a very strong case is made on theological grounds for pedobaptism.

One question is: How do they understand a more unified sense of the Holy Spirit’s work in the Old Testament when it looks as though in the Old Testament there are these special works with selective people? What they argue, in particular, are primarily theological arguments. These people had to be regenerated. How does regeneration take place? We know from John 3, it must come from the Holy Spirit. So you see how this works; these people exercised faith didn’t they? Where did faith come from? It must have come from the Holy Spirit. So it is a theological argument that utilizes what the New Testament says the Holy Spirit does. It sees those same actions or similar actions in the Old Testament and concluded that Holy Spirit must do these things as well. It is a very important question of how to account for Hebrews 11, the faith chapter. How do you account for a Daniel and a Joseph who exercised tremendous trust in God through very difficult experiences? It is a very good question, and I think that we just have to work very hard in the Old Testament to try to understand what is said there and what is happening there and take seriously the notion that something new takes place. Roman 8:3-4, says, “In order that the requirement of the Law might now be fulfilled in those who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. Those are remarkable words. Or in Galatians 3 (Galatians 3:24, to be precise) the Law is a tutor to lead us to Christ. It is a tough question; I’ll admit it. I think that are some things that can be said, but it’s why this theological reasoning is persuasive to a number of Reformed people. The problem is so many Old Testament texts indicate the selectivity of the Spirit at work in the Old Testament and then there are specific texts that promise a future day that matches New Testament reality. Ezekiel 36:27 says, “I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes, you will be careful to observe my ordinances.” You read that and realize the holiness that He requires of his people will come about when the Holy Spirit comes and works in them. Think of 2 Corinthians 3:3, the letter written on their hearts by the Spirit. This is New Covenant.

B. Dispensationalism

1. General Description – Progressive Revelation

Dispensationalism is an understanding of the Bible, of biblical history, that notices and points to distinguishable Dispensations or administrations of God’s purposes, will, and relationships with people in general and particularly his people.

The key idea in Dispensationalism is progressive revelation. This is the bottom rock notion in this understanding of reading the Bible. Progressive revelation means, essentially, that God provides revelation at a particular time and that revelation provides certain commandments, requirements, warnings and promises. Some of those commands, warnings, and promises may continue beyond when that revelation is given, beyond the next period when great revelation is given. Or some revelations may stop at that particular point. When new revelation comes with Noah, or then with Abraham, or with Moses (think of these periods where new great revelation is given), some things continue on, and some things continue all the way through. Obey the Lord your God; that is from the beginning right to the end. In the revelation given to Adam in the garden, the command, “You shall not to eat of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil for in the day you eat of it you will die,” (Gen 2:17) doesn’t apply to you and me anymore, specifically as a commandment. Where is that tree? How could you eat of it? You can’t. So it applies to Adam very much so. When revelation comes, there may be new things that start up that were not here before.

Noah is told that he can eat animals; that is part of the statement made to Noah after the flood. He can eat these animals (Genesis 9), but he cannot kill human beings (I take it that continues). I don’t find vegetarianism theological defensible. Both because of what God says to Noah about eating animals (which I assume continues), and certainly the prohibition of killing humans continues. Nor do you find it defensible in light of Israel, in what they are permitted to eat. And Jesus who pronounced all foods clean is obviously talking about unclean foods, which would include pork. So I guess you can have a bacon or a ham sandwich.

The point is that with progressive revelation, you see some things that are new which continue only for a time, and there are other things that might start, ones that weren’t here before, which continue all the way through, and some things which are just for that time period itself. This, then, amounts to different dispensations, different ways in which God administers his relationship with people. The most obvious example is the Mosaic Covenant and the New Covenant. We now have in this time period these laws that relate to the sacrificial system; and it is clear that they last until Christ comes who fulfills what they are pointing to: the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. When God’s Lamb comes, then you don’t have to keep taking your lamb to the priest to be slaughtered. When the High Priest reigns, you don’t need a priest any longer. So here we have in this time period laws that are very relevant, extremely relevant, in exact literal detail. Fulfilling those Laws is extremely important in this time period, then when Christ comes they end. You don’t take a lamb; you don’t go to the priest; the priest doesn’t have to prepare himself for the Day of Atonement. All of these things that were there before are done. This is the main idea of Dispensationalism. It is progressive revelation. When revelation comes you need to notice what things have quit what was revealed before, what things start that weren’t revealed before and what things endure. Whatever you come up with in that time period marks that particular dispensation as the revelation of God in that time period.

2. Dispensational Hermeneutic

This notion of progressive revelation has lead Dispensationalist to interpret the Bible, to look at biblical history and interpret where you are in the Bible, very differently than the way Covenant theologians look at the Bible. The tendency in Covenant Theology is to look for uniformity; there is one Covenant of Grace that spans virtually the entire Bible. So there is a tendency to see this uniformity; there is one people of God. In Dispensationalism the mindset is very different. It is instead to notice discontinuity, differences in how God relates to people depending on the revelation that is given at that particular time. It is much more attuned to the discontinuities between various dispensations and to respect those, to be careful not to interpret something in this dispensation as you are reading it from a different time period. So you are not being respectful of what it means here. Charles Ryrie no doubt overstated it in his book, Dispensationalism Today, but he gave this threefold sine qua non (a Latin phrase meaning without which there is none) of Dispensationalism or the essential markings of Dispensationalism. One of them is a literal hermeneutic. He didn’t mean you interpret poetry literally. John kicked the bucket means that John died; that is the way you are supposed to interpret it. He didn’t mean literal in the sense of ignoring metaphorical poetic meanings or terms. What he meant by that is, when reading the Bible, understand what an author intends to say within the historical context of when he is writing it, so that you don’t read back into it things from the future or read forward of things in the past. You take care to read it within its own dispensation. That is what he meant by literal hermeneutic; to understand what the author meant then and there as he spoke at that time.

3. Israel and the Church

A literal hermeneutic has led to, in particular, the way Israel and the Church are evaluated. It is clear in Dispensationalism that Dispensationalists insist upon seeing Israel as Israel and the Church as the Church. There is a strong discontinuity between the two. The Church starts as Christ built it. Remember Jesus said in Matthew 16:18, “I will build my Church.” Therefore, we shouldn’t talk about it in the Old Testament, even though the term ekklesia is used in the Septuagint (it is not being used in the technical sense, it just means a gathering of people together). We shouldn’t talk about Old Testament Israel as the Church. Jesus said, “I will build my Church, the gates of Hell will not prevail against it. Wait in Jerusalem until the Spirit comes” (Acts 1:4), “And when he comes he will anoint you with power” (Acts 1:8). So Pentecost is the beginning of the Church. We shouldn’t talk about Israel as the Old Testament Church nor should we talk about the Church as the New Testament Israel because Israel is an ethnic national group and we are multiethnic; we are multinational. It is confusing to talk of the Church as Israel.

So as it pertains to these promises we talked about under Covenant Theology, what do you do with the Old Testament promises that particularly relate to Israel? How do understand these when God says through the prophet Ezekiel in Ezekiel 36:24, I will take you from the lands where you have been and bring you back to your land. And he goes on to say at the end of Ezekiel 37 that the Messiah will reign as your king; David will reign as your king. What do you do with these promises that relate to a future for Israel where the Messiah is reigning over his people in the land, the nations are subjected to the Messiah, and there is peace on earth; what do you do with these?

If these promises have to do with Israel, instead of seeing them fulfilled in the Church (because the Church is not Israel), you see them fulfilled at a future time when God will finish his promised work with Israel. There is a sense in which the premillennial view for Dispensationalism is supported because of Old Testament promises to Israel whether or not you have Revelation 20. Revelation 20 is a really nice extra to have because it gives you the exact time period, a thousand years. It makes it crystal clear that this comes after Christ has returned to earth and he reigns upon the earth for this thousand year period. That is nice to know all that, but we didn’t need Revelation 20 to know there had to be a time period in the future after Christ returned for God to finish his work with Israel. Why? Because these promises back here talk about land, Messiah, Jerusalem. According to a literal hermeneutic, what did Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Zachariah mean when they said “Jerusalem”? What did they mean when they said “in your land”? What were the authors intended meanings of these terms: land, Israel, Messiah, and other nations? They understood those things to be referring to physical realities. Have they happened yet? Has Messiah come? No. Is Israel in her land? Hence all the hoopla over 1948; this is when Dispensationalism just went nuts because here we have what appears to be (of course people said it much stronger than that back then) God’s movement to begin the fulfillment of bringing Israel back to her land to fulfill all of these promises. Then there were all kinds of speculation that came in terms of date setting and that kind of stuff.

In my judgment, Dispensationalism has far more merit as a Biblical Theology than its popularizers have allowed it to have in public perception. The popularizers went too far; they extended it into the unknowable. It was speculation but stated as fact. This has hurt the Dispensational movement, in my view.

So for dispensationalists, God is going to come back and wipe out the nations and save Israel, that will happen during the tribulation and he (The Messiah) is going to reign in Jerusalem over his people in the Millennial period fulfilling Old Testament promises.

C. Modifications of both Dispensational and Covenantal Understandings

What has happened, essentially, is that the notions that Israel equals the Church or Israel is totally separate from the Church have been challenged by both representatives in the Covenantal tradition and representatives in the Dispensation tradition. Both have come to see that a better model is one in which there is continuity and discontinuity together. Something like a screen between the two rather than a complete equation or a complete separation of the two. Some things can pass through (hence the screen), yet there are differences between them.

One the Covenant side there has been a recognition, for example, that we really should think of a future for Israel. There was a time when very few Covenant theologians would deal with Romans 11 (Roman 11:17, 23, 24, 26) where Paul talks about the olive tree and the natural branches were cut off and the unnatural branches were grafted on. But a time will come when he will graft the natural branches back on to the tree; that is Israel. That analogy is so helpful. How many trees are there in that analogy? One. How many kinds of branches? Two. Do you have one people of God or two? If you mean one people in Christ, then there is one. If you mean specifically designated Jewish people, for whom God has specifically promised salvation, verses the rest of God’s saved people, then it is two. How else do you understand the natural branches and the unnatural branches? Doesn’t Paul continue to think of the people of God as comprised of Jews and Gentiles? At the moment, most of those Jews are not saved; there is a hardening that has taken place. That is how he describes it in Romans 11. This hardening has taken place, so the Gospel has gone to Gentiles, but the day will come when he will graft the natural branches back on. Who are those people? They are Jews; they are going to be saved. So Paul says, all Israel will be saved. It was difficult for Covenant theologians and Covenant interpreters (a few did but not many) to see that as ethnic Israel. But increasingly in this more modified understanding, you are finding more and more Covenant theologians, people from the Covenant tradition acknowledging that, yes, this is what Paul means; he means that there will be some kind of future salvation of Jews – literal ethnic Jews. Whether this has to happen in the way Dispensationalist conceive it in a tribulation period where vast persecution takes place, tremendous destruction of people and material well-being in everything across the world, and at the same time massive conversions of Jews to Christ, or whether it happens in this age through some kind of evangelistic effort is really beside the point. That is a secondary question. Where there is much more agreement among Dispensationalists and Covenant theologians (in the Modified groups) is that it does look like there is future salvation of Israel.

Dispensationalists have changed. I think it might be fair to say that they have done more changing than the Covenant side. I think that is correct. In other words, Dispensationalists have recognized a bit more that has needed to be changed in their views and tradition than has necessarily been the case in with Covenant theologians.

I will give an example of this. In fact, I have written an article on this in the book that Darrell Bock and Craig Blaising edited entitled, Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church: The Search for Definition. I have a chapter in there on the New Covenant. Here is basically what I talk about in there. In the old view for Dispensationalism, Israel is one thing and the Church is another and you can’t mix the two. Here you are, reading your New Testament and you hear Jesus say, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (1 Cor 11:25). And Paul says, I am a minister of the New Covenant (2 Cor 3:6). And Hebrews speaks of the Old Covenant is taken away, and the New Covenant has come (Heb 8:13). The New Covenant is the Covenant for the Church, the Old Covenant is the Mosaic Covenant, the Covenant for Israel.

What do you do with how Jeremiah 31-34 relates to the New Covenant for the Church, the New Covenant that Paul talks about in 2 Corinthians 3, where he says he is a minister of the New Covenant? How do you relate Jeremiah 31 to that? There is a real problem with that because Jeremiah 31 (Jeremiah 32:31) says, “Behold, days are coming when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” In traditional Dispensationalism, Israel is one thing, the Church is another and here you have this statement about a new covenant with the house of Israel, so what relation does this Jeremiah 31 New Covenant have to do with the 2 Corinthians 3 New Covenant, of which Paul is a minister? Jesus says, “This cup is the New Covenant of my blood”(Luke 22:20), and Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:25 repeats that, so what is the relation between the two? The dispensational answer is that they are two separate Covenants. Traditional Dispensationalism had a two New Covenant view. Because Jeremiah 31 had to be for Israel, whatever Paul is talking about, whatever Jesus is talking about, and (here is where it get really messy) whatever Hebrews is talking about has got to be a different covenant.

Now why did I say that, here is where it gets really messy in reference to Hebrews? Because Hebrews 8 and 10 quote Jeremiah 31 twice (Hebrews 8:8,9; 10:16) in making the point that the Old Covenant, the Mosiac Covenant is done away and New Covenant, to quote Jeremiah 31, “has taken its place”. Even despite that, they maintain this difference. This is how strong the theological commitment was to two peoples, Israel and the Church; keep them separate and don’t confuse them. It was so strong that even with Hebrews starring at them quoting Jeremiah 31, they insisted on two different Covenants. The text won with Progressive Dispensationalists (That is what they are called). Craig Blaising, who taught here for years, is one of the main leaders of this movement. He and Darrell Bock at Dallas are the champions of Progressive Dispensationalism. They argue that we have got to say that the New Covenant of Jeremiah 31 is the Church’ New Covenant. What else would Jesus be referring to? The phrase, New Covenant, is only used one time in the Old Testament; it is in Jeremiah 31. Hebrews quotes it and says the old has passed and this has come in its place. So we have got to understand this is to be the Church’s New Covenant. In my article here is what I proposed: Are we to say then that everything that Jeremiah 31 talks about is fulfilled now in the Church? In other words, should we do this sort of an interpretation of Jeremiah 31; in which we have an Old Testament promise and we draw the arrow straight forward and say Jeremiah 31 is fulfilled in the Church period? I say no. Rather, I think that we draw an arrow forward and we draw an arrow to the future; we draw both. What allows for a “both and” answer? It is both in some sense fulfilled in the Church and in some sense fulfilled in the future. This is the theology of one of the strongest opponents of Dispensationalism: George Eldon Ladd.

Ladd is the one who really faced the evangelical church with this “already not yet” theology. We understand biblical eschatology as being fulfilled in a preliminary partial way, but are still awaiting the complete consummation, complete fulfillment.

This is a different topic; I’ll come back to New Covenant. How do answer the question has the Kingdom of Christ come, or is the Kingdom of Christ here? “Yes but,” or “Yes and no.” Don’t you have to say both? Is the Kingdom of Christ here? Yes, Colossians 1:13 says, We have been transferred from the dominion of Satan into the Kingdom of his beloved Son. In Matthew 12, Jesus casts out a demon, and the Pharisees said he casts out demons by Beelzebul (Matthew 12:24 ). But he says in response, “But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matthew 12:28). So has the kingdom come? Yes. But what does the New Testament call Satan at various points? The god of this world (2 Cor 4:4), the ruler of this world (John 12:13), and the prince of the power of the air (Eph 2:2). When you read Isaiah 9:6, 7, have you ever asked yourself the question, has this happened? “For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on his shoulders; And his name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. And of increase of his government there will be not end to establish it and to uphold it from this day forth and for ever more for the zeal of the LORD of hosts will accomplish this.” Has this happened? Did you read the paper this morning? Something tells me we are not there yet. This was exactly John the Baptist’s problem. This is huge to get this. John the Baptist in Matthew 11 sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the appointed one or shall we look for another?” (Matt 11:3). This is an incredible question, an unbelievable question. John the Baptist witnessed the dove descend on Jesus (John 1:32), and was told, “The One upon whom you see the dove descend, this is my son; follow him (John 1:33). John the Baptist baptized Jesus (Matthew 3:13-16). John the Baptist was the one who said, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30) and, “I am not worthy to untie the thong on his sandal” (John 1:27). He said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). This is John the Baptist who now in prison says, I’m not sure if this is the anointed one. What has happened?

John knows his Old Testament. This is the problem; he knows the promises that relate to the Messiah. When the Messiah comes, guess what the Messiah is going to do? Isaiah 9:6, 7 says he is going to reign over nations. Read the prophecies of the coming of the Messiah. Incredible devastation to unrighteousness; he is going to destroy those who stand against him; he is going to exalt Israel. Here is the forerunner of the Messiah in prison. What is wrong with this picture? That is what John is thinking. So he thinks, maybe this isn’t the Messiah after all. Consider the angst that he must have been going through in prison, the huge spiritual struggle he must have been facing for that question to come out of him, of all people.

Jesus’ response is brilliant. “Go tell John what you hear and see: the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, and poor have the Gospel preached to them” (Matthew 11:4, 5). Jesus is quoting Old Testament prophesies about the Messiah. So the point is, John, don’t miss it; the Messiah is fulfilling prophecy; I am the Messiah. But not all prophecy, not all now, it is “already and not yet.” Is the kingdom here? Already and not yet. Yes and no, you have to say. Yes, in some things; no, in others.

Back to the New Covenant, how do we see the New Covenant fulfilled? Already in the Church; in some aspects, in a preliminary partial way, we enter into this new covenant, but even a reading of Jeremiah 31 will show that not all of it is fulfilled yet. Because it says, “I will put my Law within you and you won’t have to teach each one his neighbor, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest of them (Jer 31:33, 34). That hasn’t happened yet. We have teachers in the Church appointed by God to tell people about God, teach them about the Lord. We have the gift of teaching in the Church for that very purpose. So it hasn’t happened yet.

Everyone acknowledges that there has to be an “already not yet.” It includes, in my view, an already in this age predominately gentiles (who were not even given the New Covenant, it was given to Israel) who get in through the seed of Abraham: Jesus. That is our avenue. They get in as Jews, well granted through faith in Christ, they will be brought to faith in Christ, but no other ethnic national group is promised, “I am going to save you.” God promises that to Israel though; they will be saved as a whole ethnic group. Not Babylonians, not Assyrians not anybody else, but Jews will be because God chose them. It is clear in Deuteronomy 7; God chose them, and he is going to save them. When that happens, the New Covenant God made with Israel and Judah is going to be fulfilled. You watch; God will keep his word

Blessings on You.

- See more at:


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

A Case for Believer’s Baptism: The Credo Baptist Position

John MacArthur’s Case for Credo Baptism


The following message is a presentation of Ligonier Ministries, home of the radio program, Renewing Your Mind with R.C. Sproul. Copyright © 1998. Used by permission of Ligonier Ministries ( The message below is a transcript of Part 1 of a debate between John MacArthur and R.C. Sproul (who makes a case for Infant Baptism):

PAUL SAILHAMER: If you have read the material in the program, you know that this Pre-Conference Seminar has stimulated a lot of interest because it’s on a topic that was dear to the heart of our Lord and of the Apostles and is such an important topic in the Scriptures and so today we have our Pre-Conference seminar, Born of the Water and the Spirit.

There is much disagreement in the church concerning baptism and it says in our program within the Reformed and Evangelical circles some espouse infant baptism while others oppose it. In this seminar, Dr. MacArthur and Dr. Sproul will each present one side of the issue and then this seminar will conclude with a question and answer time later this afternoon after our break. So you need to be writing down your questions now during the seminar and during both of the presentations and then turn those in at the registration desk and we will go through and try to deal with as many questions as we can with John and with R.C. a little bit later in the afternoon.

Let’s have a word of prayer together and we’ll get right under way.

Our Father, we thank You for the hospitality of the people of this church. We thank You for the beautiful day that we enjoy and the safety of those who have arrived to this seminar. And now we stop and we give You thanks and acknowledge Your presence with us and we say thanks for the opportunity together to talk about such an incredible subject and open our eyes, enlighten the eyes of our hearts that we may understand Your Word and Your will a little bit better because of being here today…we pray in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ we pray…and everybody said…Amen.

John MacArthur will be our first presenter. John is a graduate of Talbot Theological Seminary, pastor of Grace Community Church here in the Los Angeles area for the last 27 years, president of Master’s College and Master’s Seminary, author of numerous books, recently editor of the MacArthur Study Bible, on the radio every day, Grace To You for over the last two decades. I thought it was interesting, and I asked John, and he was baptized by his father who is a minister, when he was about the age of twelve. I think all of you are familiar with the ministry of John MacArthur and we are looking forward to hearing his presentation as we begin this-afternoon. Let’s welcome him for our first presentation on our Pre-Conference Seminar. (Applause)

JOHN MACARTHUR: Well, thank you, Paul. I had the joy when I came to Grace Community Church in 1969 of having as the only staff member there, Paul Sailhamer. And we served together for many years before he got promoted to the ministry of Chuck Swindoll and then drove Chuck out of his church (Laughter) and the rest is history. It’s a joy to be here, it’s always a tremendous privilege to fellowship with R.C. and other compatriots of the faith to sit and share a little meal today with Sinclair Ferguson, such a noble servant of the Lord and such a formidable advocate for the faith. Just a real joy to be able to minister to you and also especially I think this kind of discussion.

It seems to me today that the climate is such that you’re just not allowed to disagree with anybody without being considered as divisive and unloving and unkind and shattering the body of Christ and all of this. And that’s sad because that disallows us to call into question those things that are important and essential to the faith that need to be discussed. And I’m grateful for this opportunity.

I looked around at lunch today and I think I was the only person there who believed in believer’s baptism, so I know why I was selected to do this. But I do count the opportunity a privilege. I’m glad that a lot of the amenities are over because I do want to use the time most helpfully in this discussion and that means getting at the point, trying to say as much as I can in the time that I have.

Obviously many trees have died in this discussion. And it is just an immense chore even to try to read the literature that has abounded through the years on this discussion, trying to sum it up and condense it down is a challenge. And that’s what I’m going to try to do in this session.

Obviously related themes about covenants and sacraments could also be brought into the discussion but at some point you’ve got to get focused. And we don’t want to go beyond the purview of the immediate discussion with regard to baptism, even though those are certainly related themes.

I also want to start by assuming the evangelical view that baptism does not save by whatever mode or manner it is administered. And I think we will agree on that, all of us will agree on that. I’m not talking about any regenerating rite here. It’s important for us to understand that this is within the context of our evangelical conviction that salvation is by grace through faith alone, apart from works, even the work of baptism.

Now with those things aside to sort of launch the subject, a little bit of a personal testimony, to begin with. For years over radio, Grace To You has internationally aired believer’s baptisms with the most amazing responses coming from everywhere. To my knowledge, this has never been done, at least not in modern Christian radio. And we’ve had an amazing response to the regular airing of the testimonies of people standing in the waters of baptism.

Also, for nearly twenty years we’ve conducted Pastors Conferences at our church and through all of those years we have launched every Pastors Conference with a service of baptism in the opening evening. And that too with tremendous blessing as we hear the testimony of those who have come to faith in Jesus Christ being made public in the waters of baptism. Also in our church, every Sunday night of the year we have a baptismal service. The Lord is adding to His church daily such as are being saved and we have a full congregation every Sunday night in our church who have come to hear the testimonies of those who are proclaiming their faith in Jesus Christ which is usually followed by the preaching of a biblical exposition by myself.

So this is a very important part of my life and ministry, from top to bottom it serves as a component of ministry which is at the very heart of the declaration of the gospel which is so precious to me. The domination, I think, of the church in recent years by psychology and in more recent years by pragmatism has produced, I think, a significant disinterest in baptism. Media ministries which so powerfully define and control evangelical consumerism are void of those ordinances. And that’s one of the reasons why we’ve introduced baptism into our radio format because I don’t want to be a part of that kind of disinterest.

It is safe to say, also, that there is presently probably the largest unbaptized population of professing Christians in the history of the church. And for most of them it isn’t really something they’re too concerned about. This reality, failing to take baptism seriously, is also, I think, likely symptomatic of the independence and unfaithfulness of professing Christians who function autonomously like consumers, rather than under church theology and authority and at the same time, a few things could be more unmistakable than the fact that the command of Scripture is to baptize and to be baptized. On that we will agree. Jesus said, “Go into all the world and make disciples, baptizing them.” And on the day of Pentecost Peter said, “Repent and be baptized.” And we remember that Jesus engaged in the baptism personally, then the Apostles followed, involving themselves in baptism. And, of course, you know the rest throughout the book of Acts in the New Testament.

In spite of this command, in spite of this mandate, in spite of New Testament clarity, there is still widespread non-compliance. And at the same time, a rather strange paradox in that you have a very large population of baptized unregenerate people. So if there’s anything that needs some clarity, I think it’s this.. I would venture to say that a person who claims to be a Christian and has a disregard for baptism, has not been baptized, would have to fall into one of several categories. Number one, they are ignorant, that is they have not been taught or they’ve been wrongly taught. Secondly, they are proud, that is not willing to be humbly obedient to what is clearly a biblical mandate. Thirdly, they are indifferent, not considering obedience a priority. Fourth, they are defiant, just unwilling to obey. Or fifth, they’re not converted at all and therefore they have no desire to publicly demonstrate the significance of baptism in behalf of the honor of Christ.

Surely, most of the mass evangelized TV, radio stadium converts have been left to themselves without the benefit of guidance and without the benefit of accountability for baptism, or a lot of other things under any church authority. But I think that is no excuse for not following what the New Testament says clearly and I think strikes to the conscience of every believer, whether or not they understand church authority. Baptism is therefore critical, important, must be understood and must be practiced. It is not a minor matter and thus it commands our attention today, I think, justifiably. It is a major matter. It has in the past been even a more major matter where on some occasions people actually engaged in blood-letting over this. I’m happy to be discussing this in a much nicer time, otherwise it could cost me dearly and cost R.C. dearly for even tolerating me.

I think the time has come, however, after all these years of history since the Reformation, and here I’ll show my colors, to strip off the tradition and return to the simple New Testament design. It is my own conviction that the Reformation is not yet complete. And that consideration should force the argument, I think, to be a scriptural argument. I’m really not interested in arguing on any other level than the biblical one, and that does present some interesting dilemmas, but we’re going to attack them, nonetheless. I don’t want to deal with the historical issue since I am convinced that while history certainly plays a role in understanding things, history turned against tradition at the Reformation, and we’re grateful for that. And history has to make such turns against what is a wrong tradition. In my judgment, history needs to reexamine tradition at this point again as well.

Now to sort of summarize and obviously there are a lot of ways that you can go, but to sort of summarize I want to give you five reasons why I reject infant baptism as biblical baptism, five reasons why I reject infant baptism as biblical baptism. And really, these are categories of introduction for you that want to dig in deeper and read the voluminous amount of literature that is available on the subject. But I would at least like to formulate the argument, or the debate, if I may, around these five statements.

Number one, infant baptism is not in Scripture. Against this fact, there is no clear evidence. Scripture nowhere advocates, commands or records a single infant baptism. It is therefore impossible to directly prove or support this rite from the Bible. Schlermaker(?) wrote, and I quote, “All traces of infant baptism which one has asserted to be found in the New Testament must first be inserted there,” end quote.

And a host, I think, of German and front-rank theologues and scholars, including those of the Church of England, have united basically to affirm not only the absence of infant baptism from the New Testament but from apostolic and post-apostolic times. It first arose and arguably, I suppose, in the second and third centuries, the conclusion, for example, reached by the Lutheran professor Kurt Allen(?) who has written on this after intensive study of infant baptism is that there is no definite proof of practice until after the third century. This he believes cannot be contested.

A Catholic professor of theology, Haggelbacher(?) writes, quote, “The controversy has shown that it is not possible to bring in absolute proof of infant baptism by basing one’s argument on the Bible without the help of tradition.” And even the notable B.B. Warfield affirmed the absence of infant baptism from the Scripture.

It would be my conviction here though not necessarily at all points that this is a good place to apply the Calvinistic regulative principle which says, “If Scripture doesn’t command it, it is forbidden.” Now that sort of tells you where I’m at.

Given the Sola Scriptura commitment of the Reformation, given the fact that the Reformation was predicated upon that and given the Bible as the singular and therefore supreme and only authority in the matters of faith, we might assume that the discussion was over, at this point. But in spite of all such testimony, infant baptism is still defended and practiced as if biblical. One expects Rome, I think, to engage in such practices were used to that, to defend as divine and essential rites and dogmas not in the Bible. They do that. They have a Mass, the Magisterium, a tradition, as we all know. They do so because they believe that the Church continues to be the unique recipient of post-biblical revelation which carries equal weight with Scripture.

In fact, the Roman Catholic Church not only asserts that it is the ongoing recipient of divine revelation, but that it is also the only and infallible interpreter of all revelation, biblical and traditional. Church history, in one sense then, could said to be Rome’s hermeneutic. But it is not the hermeneutic of Reformed theology. In fact, history is no hermeneutic. The Bible is not interpreted by history. God is not interpreting the Bible by history. We would have to ask if that were true, which history? Whose history? Traditional rites, traditional ceremonies, traditional doctrines are true not because some Church said they were true, not because some Counsel said they were true, not because they have been traditionally affirmed as true, but because the Scriptures affirm their validity. And I believe only honest hermeneutics in exegesis can yield the meaning of Scripture. History again, I say, is no hermeneutic. Reading traditional history back into the Scripture is not a legitimate way to interpret it.

It is also true that Scripture nowhere forbids infant baptism. That is obviously true, since it doesn’t discuss it at all, it neither affirms it or forbids it. That fact obviously provides no basis for acceptance of or mandate for infant baptism as the ubiquitous ordinance that it has become. There are many who would argue that because the Bible doesn’t forbid it, God somehow condones it. But to justify that sprinkling of babies because it is not forbidden in Scripture is therefore the divine will, is to standardize and imprint with divine authority other ceremonies which are not in the Bible. And where does that end and open the way to any ritual, any ceremony or any dogma or any teaching also not forbidden specifically in the Scripture? Not just to the point where you would allow it or tolerate it, buy where you would standardize it and infuse it with grace and efficacy. That’s a large leap in my judgment.

Actually, it was such traditions concocted beyond the pages of Scripture and without scriptural support and warrant that Luther had in mind when he himself drew the line in the sand and said this, and I quote, familiar quote, “The church needs to rid itself of all false glories that torture Scripture by inserting personal conceits into the Scripture which lend it to their own sense. No…he said…Scripture, Scripture, Scripture for me constrain, press, compel me with God’s Word,” end quote.

Now at this point, some of you have some Scriptures running around in your minds and you’re saying, “Wait a minute, MacArthur, this is a biblical issue and there are biblical passages that bear upon this.” And I’m not saying they don’t, I am simply saying there is no mention of infant baptism in Scripture. Those who advocate infant baptism want to advocate it from the Word of God and so they use Scriptures in which infant baptism is not mentioned to support it because that’s all they have. And that is not a criticism, that’s a fact. If it’s not there, you have to use what’s not there to make the point.

In Matthew chapter 18 we read in verse 3, “Truly I say to you, unless you’re converted and become like children, you shall not enter the Kingdom of heaven. Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven. Whoever receives one such child on the ground of My name receives Me.” And you know the text. And some have said, “Well, what you have here is evidence that children are in the Kingdom.” I beg to differ with that. I think what you have here, if you put the synoptics together and see the scene, Peter is in Capernaum, he may well be in his own house there and he has in his lap an infant. He picks up a little child because the disciples are debating who’s the greatest in the Kingdom and the debate has reached a fever pitch.

We know how serious this debate was because John had even…and James had enlisted their mother to go plead for them to be at the right and the left hand in the Kingdom and they were all seeking the ascendency and the prominence. And in the middle of that debate as he anticipates, of course, what the reality is to be in the future, they all gather around Him, He puts a little baby in His lap and says, “Look, while you’re arguing about who’s the greatest, let’s get to the real issue. You’re all little children.” Verse 2 says, “He called a child, set him in the midst and said, ‘You better become like this if you want to enter the Kingdom.’” And then He proceeds to preach a great sermon, one of the great discourses in Matthew on the childlikeness of the believer. And in this chapter He is not talking about babies, He’s talking about childlike believers. And that is pretty clear, I think, all the way through because He refers in verse 6 particularly “these little ones who believe in Me.” He’s talking about how we treat each other as believers.

So this is not a Scripture that deals with anything that deals with actual children and their role in the Kingdom, but rather using a child as an illustration of the necessity of entering His Kingdom as a child would. What does that mean? With no achievement and no accomplishment, having done nothing, learned nothing, gained nothing, accumulated nothing, bringing nothing to bear upon that entrance. He is simply saying you come the way a child comes, and a child has nothing to offer, having achieved nothing, to come bare and naked with no accomplishment and no achievement and you come totally dependent. I think that’s the issue that He’s talking about, offering nothing to commend yourself to God, realizing your utter bankruptcy, it’s really a Beatitude Attitude.

Then you have another passage which is often used in the next chapter of Matthew, verse 14, “Let the children alone, do not hinder them from coming to Me, for the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these.” Some make a strange connection between the word “hinder” here and the word “hinder” in the book of Acts chapter 8 where the Eunuch is baptized and says, “What does hinder me?” You know, here’s water and they find in this some baptisimal formula which is a serious stretch, as far as I can tell. But the text here says, “Let the children alone, don’t hinder them from coming to Me.” As you know, that’s in Mark 10 and Luke 18 as well.

Is Jesus saying something here about infant salvation? Well the answer is no. What He is saying, I believe, is this, God cares for children. God has a special care for children. You never see Jesus gather a bunch of unregenerate adults and bless them. That doesn’t happen. But He does gather these little ones. He has a special care for children…and not just children of believing parents. There’s nothing to indicate that these children were children of believing parents or unbelieving parents. There’s nothing to indicate whether in fact there might have been a few Gentile children of Roman soldiers splattered in there who hadn’t even been circumcised. There’s nothing to indicate whether or not they were children of true Israelites who had had their heart circumcised or whether they were those of just the nominal Pharisaic legalists who seem to dominate the society. Jesus neither baptized them, nor caused them to be baptized.

This is a dry verse, and so is Matthew 18 dry. What He did show, there’s no baptism in either place. He did show clearly that children are precious, and they’re dear to God and that God has special care and concern for them.

Another passage that, of course, is used would be the list of passages with regard to household baptisms in the book of Acts and also noted in 1 Corinthians. There are five households that are mentioned to have been baptized. Some would say that babies were baptized with those households as an act of family solidarity. However, none of those Scriptures mentions any babies being baptized, none of them at all. I read one interesting writer who said that he had as much right to say in the case of the Philippian jailer that there was nobody in the family under sixteen as somebody had a right to say there was somebody in the family who was a baby. In other words, there’s purely no basis for a concluding that there was any infant baptism going on there because it doesn’t say there was. The idea that a father served as a surrogate for the faith of the children might be something you believe but you can’t find any such children for whom surrogate faith may have been exercised in those household baptism since none are mentioned.

And if you look at them collectively, as I have, this is sort of a summation of them rather than going in to all the detail. In Cornelius’ home it says, “All heard the Word, the Spirit fell on all and all were baptized.” And I simply note that the “all” is defined as those who heard the Word and upon whom the Spirit fell which demands cognition and faith before baptism. In the jailer’s case it says, “All heard the gospel and all were baptized,” again the “all” is defined as those who heard. In the case of the house of Chrispus, all believed and all were baptized, Acts 18. In the accounts of Lydia and Stephanas where you have less information given, we must understand the same thing as in the more explicit text. All hear the gospel, all believe, all receive the Holy Spirit, all were baptized.

The household then are thereby collectively defined as those capable of hearing, understanding, receiving the Holy Spirit and believing. No infants can do such, nor are any mentioned. In the case of Stephanas’ household, all who were baptized, it says, were then devoted to the ministry of the saints, 1 Corinthians 15:16, and were helping in the spiritual work of the church, the next verse, verse 16, which is impossible for infants and children. In the case of Lydia, I think it’s quite amazing in the case of Lydia that she’s the hostess, she invites men into her home, she is a traveling woman who went as far as three hundred miles away would be a real stretch to believe that she was married to start with, or it would seem like her husband would be the host in the home and would do the inviting if men were to be invited in. Strange to imagine a woman traveling in the course of business if she had nursing children in the home. It most likely appears that this is a single woman and it’s again, I think, arbitrary to assume there were any children there in that environment.

The text of John 4 verse 53 says, “And he himself believed and his whole household.” And in that case where you have household used in John 4, speaking, of course, of the nobleman whose son Jesus healed, again he himself believed and his whole household, clearly the household there must refer to the believing. There’s no mention of baptism there. There the household believes to the believing. And I think that is a normative expression for the representation of the household. Certainly couldn’t refer to babies at that point because they couldn’t have believed. Household is defined as those who believe.

Another text that is used is in Acts 2:38 and 39, just so we remember these, where Peter says, “Repent and let each of you be baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins, you receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” And then verse 39, “The promises for you and your children and for all who are afar off.” Some would see here “your children” as representative of babies in the family. I would take it as “your children” here simply means that the condition by which you have received the Holy Spirit, that is repentance and faith, the condition by which you have received the Holy Spirit, will be the same condition by which your offspring will receive the Holy Spirit, repentance and faith.

In other words, it’s for your generation and every other generation. And he’s speaking to Jews, of course, at that point, and then He adds, “As well as the Gentiles,” who are defined as those who are afar off. So what you have here is just a very generic statement about the fact that there’s going to be one basic means by which you come into a relationship with God, that is by the hearing of the gospel, responding to the gospel in repentance and faith, and upon that act of repentance and faith, being granted the Holy Spirit and it will be the same for all the generations that come out of your loins. That’s not going to change. And for all peoples, both Jew and Gentile. They will be called to the same salvation which will be with the same salvation blessings.

And then one other text, 1 Corinthians 7 is often used because it does make an interesting statement. In the context here, you must understand, I think, first of all the context of 1 Corinthians 7 is about marriage, we all understand that, right? And the underlying problem was in the Corinthian church people were coming to Christ and they were having problems trying to sort out what to do if they were still married to an unregenerate person. I mean, this was before there was real explicit teaching on this obviously, and now you’ve got a believer married to an unbeliever. Is this aligning with Satan? Is this unequally yoked? Am I in a terrible compromise? Would God speak to me in the same way that He did, you remember, in Ezra’s time and said, “Divorce your idolatrous partner and get out of that relationship.” What should be my attitude in that environment? That’s what’s behind this.

This is not a passage about children. In fact, they’re only offhandedly mentioned in that one place. This is an issue about, “Should I leave my unconverted spouse?” And in verse 12 he says, “If any brother has a wife that is an unbeliever and she consents to live with him, let him not send her away.” It’s an expression for the word divorce. Don’t divorce your unconverted partner. Simple.

Verse 13, “A woman who has an unbelieving husband, he consents to live with her, don’t divorce him.” Stay together if there’s consent. Why? Why would I do that? “For the unbelieving husband is sanctified.” Now in what way could a believer be sanctified? In a limited way, would you agree with that ? In a limited….we’re not talking about salvation sanctification. We’re not talking about the sanctification that we understand as that process by which we are increasingly conformed to the image of Jesus Christ by the work of the Spirit of God. We’re not talking about that. We’re talking about some kind of setting apart, that’s what that word means. They’re set apart in some limited way. And, then verse 14 says, “The unbelieving wife is set apart through her believing husband.”

In other words, set apart from the full force of ungodly environs. They’re set apart. We are fully set apart as being sanctified in Christ. They’re sort of minimally spared the full blast of ungodliness because they’re in an environment where God’s grace is being poured out on their most intimate companion. And therefore, the spill over of that marvelous grace accrues to the comfort and the betterment of life temporally for that unbeliever. And, of course, there is always that possibility of their coming to faith through that influence. First Peter, you remember, where the unbelieving wife is told to win her husband by her godly conduct. The spill over of blessing on godly conduct can influence that individual not only for the betterment of temporal life, but toward faith as well.

Then also adding just as a passing comment, the end of verse 14, “Otherwise your children are unclean but now they are sanctified.” Same term, they are set apart. So what happens is, in that home where you have one believing spouse, you have God pouring out the means of grace, God blessing the virtue of that individual, God being good to His own child and consequently mitigating the full blast and the full force of worldly, Godless, Christless, influences and therein lies the manner of that setting apart and nothing more than that. The meaning is don’t divorce your unbelieving partner because both that partner and children in the home will feel the goodness of the grace of God upon you. If in fact this is a mandate for infant baptism, and there is no baptism, this is another dry verse again, if this is a mandate for infant baptism, it must be also a mandate for the baptism of that unbelieving partner as an adult cause you can’t have one and not the other. And nothing is said at all about anybody being baptized. The issue here is a passing comment with regard to the influence of godliness and that’s why you want to stay together.

So the full counsel of God is either expressly set forth in Scripture, or, and I stand on Reformation soil when I say this, the full counsel of God is either expressly set forth in Scripture or can be necessarily compellingly and validly deduced by good and logical consequence but it has to be necessary, compelling, and inescapable, such as the doctrine of the Trinity. I don’t see necessary, compelling, inescapable information on the text of the New Testament to include infant baptism.

Second, infant baptism is not New Testament baptism. Infant baptism is not New Testament baptism. Here is a second incontestable fact really. While the Bible is absolutely silent on the matter of infant baptism, it speaks clearly and repeatedly and precisely on the matter of adult believer’s baptism. Nobody can miss this, its meaning is crystal-clear in the New Testament. Baptism was a ceremony in which a believer was placed into water and taken up out of that water as an outward sign of their salvation. Two verbs express this reality, bapto and baptizo which mean to immerse, to dip into and they are the word, by the way, for drown. The noun baptismos is used in Acts always to refer to a believer being immersed into water. The Latin equivalent is immersio(?) and submersio.

The Greek language has a different word, it’s the word rhantizo for sprinkle. And the mode does come in because of the imagery involved. Every New Testament use of the bapto family requires or permits immersion. Even John Calvin said, and I quote, “The word baptize means to immerse. It is certain that immersion was the practice of the early church.” And if you mess with that word and you make it something less than immersion in water baptism passages, then you’re going to make it something less than immersion in Romans 6 when it means to be immersed into Christ. And now you will confound the meaning of what is the heart and soul of the Christian gospel and that is the sinner by way of justification coming into union with Christ. We cannot mess with the word, we can’t…it’s like the people who want to deny eternal hell, they just denied eternal heaven at the same time because if you’re going to redefine what eternal means in terms of perdition, you’ve just redefined it in terms of glory also. This ordinance was designed by God and conveyed by the correct inspired words to fit the symbolism that God intended. Water immersion commanded of every believer is a picture and an object lesson and a symbol and a visual analogy of a spiritual truth. It is the way God has designed to teach the truth of personal salvation.

Now what does it symbolize? Well you all know, unmistakably throughout the New Testament, Christian baptism is presented as a picture of the central spiritual truth of salvation. Do you understand that? The central spiritual truth of salvation is this, that one who was a sinner is now IN Christ. “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I but Christ lives in me.” I don’t even know where I end and He begins we are so immersed. I have been united in His death and resurrection. Romans 6 is unmistakably saying this. And Romans 6 is not talking about any water rite. Romans 6 is talking about a spiritual reality in which God places us spiritually into Christ that we die in Him and we rise to walk in newness of life, Galatians 3, Colossians 2, you know the passages. To be placed into union with Christ, that is the baptism that saves, 1 Peter 3:21. To be spiritually immersed into Christ, this is the washing of regeneration, Titus 3:5. This is the washing away of sin,Acts 22:16.

So immersion into water was and is the inseparable outward sign of that spiritual union. It’s the only outward sign that depicts the death, burial and resurrection so clearly defined in Romans chapter 6. And it becomes synonymous with salvation in so far as Jesus used it instead of the word for salvation when He said, “Go into all the world and make disciples.” That was the substantive verb and the following verbs are participles that define that. How do I do that? “Baptizing and teaching.” Some people would say, “Those words should be converting and teaching,” but baptism had become so synonymous that not only could Jesus use it as if it referred to salvation because it did, Paul could use it in Ephesians 4 so explicitly as to say one Lord,….what?…one faith, one baptism.

And so baptism and the Lord’s table become the two solemn acts which the Lord appoints for His church. Both give to the believer opportunity to proclaim the death of the Lord who has died for us and with whom we have died so as to walk with Him in a new life. Both of them depict that. The church has had the sacred duty to preserve and administer those precious institutions and legacies of the Lord with conscientious faithfulness and according to the meaning of their founder. But the church has not done that. She has introduced arbitrary changes into the communion, and I think arbitrary changes into baptism. And in the course of time has surrendered the privileges of the saints to the whole world and even forced them upon people. The sacred documents of primitive Christianity, the writings of the New Testament, I think, are pretty clear on that. New Testament baptism today must have the same significance it had then and it is clear what its significance was at that time.

A third point, infant baptism is not a replacement sign for the Abrahamic sign of circumcision. Now we’re getting in to the nitty-gritty here. Infant baptism is not a replacement sign for the Abrahamic sign of circumcision. Simply Scripture never makes such a connection. You cannot find such a connection in Scripture. Nowhere does the New Testament ever say infant baptism replaces circumcision. No such connection is ever made. Pedobaptists(?), nonetheless without any specific statements of Scripture claim some inferential evidence connected to circumcision also without any specific statement of Scripture. And the argument simplified sort of goes like this, “Circumcision was the Old Covenant sign of faith while baptism is the New Covenant sign of faith.” Since the Old Covenant sign of faith was applicable not only to adults, but and primarily and eventually exclusively to children, the same should be true of the New Covenant sign.

Now I understand that reasoning but I think it’s simplistic. I think it way understates the issue. The fact that the Abrahamic Covenant serves as a foundation of faith in which all who are in Christ participate, I will not dispute. I am a spiritual son of Abraham by faith, though I am not an Israelite. I’m not a Jew. But I am a son of Abraham in the sense that I follow his faith. But that circumcision was a sign of personal faith, I reject. I do not see circumcision in the Old Testament as a sign of personal faith. I believe it was something else. I believe it was a symbol of the need for cleansing. There were people who were circumcised as adults who had faith and there were people who were circumcised as adult proselytes, probably Gentiles, who came into Israel who never really had faith in God. They were joining the nation of Israel for whatever reasons. We don’t know the genuineness or not of their heart. But circumcision is certainly not to be defined in itself as a sign of faith. I believe that if you look at circumcision honestly, it is more a sign of the desperate depravity of man and the need for God’s salvation.

What do you mean by that? Well, if you wanted to identify the depravity of man, how would you do that? If you wanted to say, “Well here’s ample evidence of man’s depravity, here’s the endemic issue of iniquity and here’s how I know how deep it runs, what would you point to?” You say, “Well maybe what he says, maybe his speech would betray him.” Well some people are dumb and can’t talk at all, are they depraved? How do you know they’re a manifestation of depravity? And some people guard their speech pretty well. The Pharisees did. Somebody else might say, “Well by what they do.” Some people guard what they do fairly well, Mormons do.

No, if you want to know how deep and endemic and systemic and profound depravity is, you don’t look at what people say, you don’t look at what they do, you look at what they produce. You might not see my depravity. I’m pretty good at covering it up. My life is controlled by preaching and teaching the Word of God and you might not see my depravity, but I’ll tell you where it’s unmistakable. I have four children and they are all depraved. Not only that, they couldn’t kill it either. I have eight reprobate grandchildren. You want to know how depraved you are, you look at the progeny, right?

And I believe by the circumcision of the reproductive organ, God was saying you need a profound cleansing. This one has some health benefit throughout history. It’s interesting to read that Jewish women have had the lowest rate of cervical cancer because of the benefit of circumcision physiologically because disease is less readily passed on, but the real issue I believe there is that this was a sign for the need of cleansing at a deep, deep level and that God by His mercy and grace would provide that. I don’t think it offered or brought that cleansing, I just think it demonstrated the desperate need for that cleansing.

And furthermore, not only did circumcision not apply as an act of faith or as any kind of cleansing in itself, it wasn’t applied to girls at all. They were completely outside it. So I don’t see it as some kind of sweeping rite of faith which is normative for everybody, certainly just the elimination of all the women in Israel would be enough to convince me that it was not a normative thing somehow tied to faith.

All the adult members of households had to be circumcised, also. Do you remember reading when Abraham was circumcised? When Abraham was circumcised, so were all the adults in his family. Now if this is going to be the normative pattern, if Abraham’s adult circumcision is his normative pattern, then the whole household of new converts would have to be forced to be baptized immediately, which I find an impossible thing. And again, there is no such connection made between circumcision and baptism in the Scripture.

Circumcision was a sign of ethnic identity. This is very important to understand. It was a sign that one was a Jew and was participating, and this is the key, in physical temporal features of the Abrahamic Covenant, not necessarily spiritual ones. Not all Israel is Israel, circumcise your hearts, the prophet said. The spiritual promises and realities of the Abrahamic Covenant were only efficacious to those who later believed, right? There can be no efficacy at the initial point of circumcision, that is purely entry into the ethnic, social, earthly participation in temporal features by which God blessed or in some cases cursed Israel. And if you were in the nation, you got them both. In fact, you got more curses than blessings.

In terms of circumcision, Paul in Philippians 3, called it excrement, just to use the word. Ethnic identity and participation in an earthly covenant did not provide him the righteousness of God which you receive by faith in Jesus Christ. And when he saw that, he said that’s manure, that’s dung. A person born in Israel of Abrahamic covenant seed then was physically related to temporal and external blessings and nothing more.

The New Testament, however, changes that dramatically since in the New Covenant, listen, there is no such thing as a physical participant in temporal and earthly features attached to the land and the race. The New Covenant knows nothing of physical temporal limitations. The Scriptures, for example, nowhere refer to a remnant of the faithful within the New Covenant. There’s no such thing as a doctrine of the remnant in the New Testament. You don’t have a whole group of covenant people in which there’s a little believing remnant in the New Testament. And if you ever do question that, then you need to deal with the text of Jeremiah 31:31 to 34 which is the watershed issue, I believe, on this whole discussion.

In Jeremiah 31:31 to 34 he promises the New Covenant. And here’s what Jeremiah says. “There’s a covenant coming, it’s not like the covenant you know, it is a New Covenant.” And he says this, “Here’s how it’s different.” And of all the options that Jeremiah picked, of all the things that Jeremiah could have said, of all the choices that he could have made to distinguish the New Covenant from the Old, this is what he said, verse 34, “They shall all know Me from the least of them to the greatest of them.” The essence of the New Covenant is everybody in it knows God savingly. That is the, I think, the significant distinction between belonging to the Abrahamic Covenant ethnically, and belonging to the New Covenant savingly. And so a sign that suited an ethnic covenant is not parallel to a sign that suits a saving covenant. And therein baptism is to be made distinct from circumcision.

And again I remind you, the Scripture does make no such connection. If there were to be a connection made, I would think the better connection, just a suggestion for you Reformed folks who hold to infant baptism, if you want to make a better connection, you should connect New Testament baptism with the baptism of John the Baptist. If anything serves as transitional, that does. And you find in the baptism of John very clearly a pattern of baptism the likes of which you also see in sort of intertestimental proselyte baptism, but I think John’s is even unique from that. What you see in John’s baptism is repentance, first of all, conscious repentance and a preparation for the Messiah. And in fact, he blistered with a malediction hardly without equal until Matthew 23those leaders of Israel who came out there and he called them snakes and asked them what in the world are you unrepentant people doing here? Trying to get in on this baptism.

So if you want a parallel New Testament baptism with anything, you’re on much safer ground with the baptism of John because it’s a baptism of repentance and because it is a baptism of immersion which can prefigure and demonstrate the death and resurrection of Christ and it is a baptism in which Jesus Himself participated, I think, not only to fulfill all righteousness, but also to fill it with the meaning that Christian baptism would eventually have. It is clear in my mind that John the Baptist did not regard membership in the Messianic community as a matter of birth right, did he? He refused to baptize Jews who were not repentant. I think that’s a better partner for New Testament baptism.

Fourthly, and this will just be a brief point, I think I have about seven or eight minutes left. Infant baptism is not consistent with the nature of the church…infant baptism is not consistent with the nature of the church. What happens with infant baptism is you now have confusion as to the identity of the church. Confusion stems from the failure to distinguish between the visible local church, including unbelievers, and the invisible universal church which is only believers. In fact, it is true that pedobaptism(?) strikes a serious blow against the doctrine of a regenerate church. Further confusion lies in the failure to differentiate clearly between what it means to be a little member of the Covenant, as a baby, and what it means to be a true child of God. It is my conviction that the Scripture teaches the true church is made up of only believers. That’s unlike Israel. You can’t make a parallel. It’s unlike Israel.

The rest of people apart from believers whether baptized or not baptized, whether confirmed or not confirmed, do not belong to the redeemed church. And they are at best tares to be burned. They are at best branches fruitless to be cut off and burned. And I really believe that infant baptism confounds the clear identity of a redeemed church because you have a world full of Catholics and Protestants who have been baptized as babies, ranging all the way from hypocritically religious, apostate religious through indifferent to outright godless, Christ-rejecting and blasphemous. And the question is…are they in the church or are they not in the church? If they’re out of it, when did they get out of it? Infant baptism, I believe, is a holdover from the absolutist state church system and an evidence of an incomplete Reformation which incomplete Reformation I believe sentenced that new redeemed community in Europe to the terrible, terrible death that it died, the death of which we can see even today.

I am convinced that unless you have a regenerate church, you have chaos. But with the absolute church system in the national sovereign church, which, of course, the Catholic Church had all that power and the Reformers wanted some power to counter Rome, and so while Luther started out with a good intention of freedom of the conscience and all of that, eventually they started imposing everything on people and they…I think they forced back in the infant baptism thing to create the state church control that could allow them to have a power base to fight against not only each other, the Lutheran fought the Reformed, but the Roman states also. State Christendom in every form, Catholic, Protestant, Lutheran and Reformed, I think, misunderstands New Testament church doctrine. And it’s sad to think that Luther abandoned his original lofty idealism where he contended a Christianity of freedom and renouncing force and living by the Word and the Spirit and backed up into a state church perspective.

But Luther said this, and I think this is maybe the truest expression of his heart. “I say that God wants no compulsory service. I say it a hundred thousand times, God wants no compulsory service. No one can or ought to be compelled to believe for the soul of man is an eternal thing above all that is temporal. Therefore only by an eternal Word must it be governed and grasped for it is simply insulting to govern in God’s presence with human law and long custom. Neither the Pope, nor a Bishop, nor any other man has the right to decree a single syllable concerning a Christian man apart from his consent. All that comes to pass otherwise comes to pass in the spirit of tyranny,” end quote.

Sadly he allowed, I think, what he hated to take place. There’s no…there’s no tragedy greater, I don’t think, coming out of the Reformation than the fact that the true church got executed, got stamped out under the massive weight of the state church system. There is no doctrine of the remnant in the New Testament, no such teaching. And I believe with sad darkening of Reformation light was the secularizing of the church, they brought back the very thing that Constantine had brought in it, they tried to get rid of. Sadly, modern Protestant Europe is as dark as old Catholic Europe. A state church and biblical Christianity are and always will be completely opposed to each other. The true church is not of this world, does not incorporate the unconverted. Infant baptism served the state church well, but horribly confuses the true church. And then you have to bring up the question…how do you do church discipline? How do we do church discipline on these people?

Well, a final point, number five. Infant baptism is not consistent with Reformational soteriology. Now that ought to rancor a few folks, but I’m just doing my part here on my side now. Infant baptism is not consistent with Reformational soteriology.

I have through the years, I’m being a little personal, I have through the years tried to help fundamental evangelical Bible believing Christians understand the gospel. Isn’t that a sad thing? But that’s what I’ve tried to do. I have…if there’s any one single subject I have worked more diligently on than any other it’s the clarity of the gospel. And when you spend years and years and years of your life coming to a crystal-clear understanding of justification by grace through faith alone, and what it means to affirm the Lordship of Christ and all that is bound up in salvation, that becomes a very precious reality to you. And I don’t want to be anecdotal and I don’t want to make a point personally, but I can only tell you from my understanding of the broad picture of salvation, I cannot for the life of me find anything that infant baptism contributes to that but confusion.

Because there is no faith in the child, there is no comprehension of the gospel, there is no repentance in the child, what then is this and what do you have? And they talk about, “Well you have sort of a peremptory election act, or you have a peremptory salvation act in the child.” You can read the strangest kind of statements that are made. I wrote down about 25 different statements from books I read on what the baptism of an infant meant, and they were all varying shades of all kinds of things, but all agreeing that it didn’t save but it put them in some place where they were more fortunate and likely to be more blessed by God. And I say that’s no different place than any child would have, baptized or unbaptized living in a godly environment.

And that’s the point of 1 Corinthians 7. It is a needless thing to do because it ministers no saving grace to the child, it guarantees no future salvation to the child. And on the other hand, it perpetuates a misconception in the mind of parents that against all evidence, this child is somehow saved because of some event that occurred at their baptism. Luther had to go so far as to finally say they have unconscious faith because he knew salvation was by faith. Children are children, they do not understand. I cannot for the life of me understand why you’d want the convolute, the purity and the clarity of the doctrine of justification by grace through faith alone to the one who comes and repents of sin and embraces Jesus Christ with this act which admittedly has no saving efficacy, delivers no redeeming grace, infers no faith, is not symbolic of any union with Christ. The only point of it is to confound the person about what this meant and to confound the church with an unregenerate membership. Why not defer the sign until the reality of saving faith? Nothing is lost. Certainly doesn’t change election. And I think it helps…it helps to wait until a calling and election are sure. It doesn’t change anything for the child, but rather could hamper a child’s true understanding of their spiritual condition.

The confusion in Christendom would be greatly lessened. The church would be instantly purged. Christ would be honored if there weren’t millions of people outside salvation running around with a false security and bearing an untrue symbol of an unreal condition. I really feel that we Reformed folks need to finish the Reformation here and I see this as a way to do that.

Two ways are before us. I really believe one embodies ritualism, institutional church mixed with the saved and lost. Christianized pagans, as one writer said, is a relic of potpourri. The other leads to faith alone, the glory of the cross and resurrection and the true identity of the redeemed church. Baptism is at the crossroads. The cry of the Reformation was not tradition, tradition, tradition…the fathers, the fathers, the fathers…but Scripture, Scripture, Scripture. Thank you. (Applause)


Tags: , , , , ,

How Old Is The Practice of Infant Baptism?


By Dr. John Piper

The earliest explicit mention of infant “baptism” in the history of the church is from the African church father, Tertullian, who lived from about A.D. 160 to about 220. He was born in Carthage, studied in Rome for a legal career and was converted to Christianity in about 195. He was the first Christian theologian to write in Latin and exerted significant influence through his apologetic works.

The work, de baptismo (Concerning Baptism) was written, evidently between 200 and 206. In it Tertullian questions the wisdom of giving baptism to infants. He says,

According to everyone’s condition and disposition, and also his age, the delaying of baptism is more profitable, especially in the case of little children. For why is it necessary—if [baptism itself] is not necessary—that the sponsors should be thrust into danger? For they may either fail of their promise by death, or they may be mistaken by a child’s proving of wicked disposition…. They that understand the weight of baptism will rather dread the receiving of it, than the delaying of it. An entire faith is secure of salvation! (de baptismo, ch. xviii)

What we see here is that the first explicit witness to infant baptism does not assume that it is a given. In other words, at the turn of the third century it is not taken for granted, as it is 200 years later when St. Augustine addresses the matter. Tertullian speaks the way one would if the practice were in dispute, possibly as a more recent development.

When we look at the New Testament, the closest thing to infant baptism that we find is the reference to three “households” being baptized. In 1 Corinthians 1:16, Paul says, “Now I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized any other.” In Acts 16:15, Luke reports concerning the new convert, Lydia, “When she and her household had been baptized, she urged us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come into my house and stay.’” And in Acts 16:33, Luke tells us that after the earthquake in the jail of Philippi, the jailer “took [Paul and Silas] that very hour of the night and washed their wounds, and immediately he was baptized, he and all his [household].”

It is significant that in regard to the family of the Philippian jailer Luke reports in Acts 16:32, just before mentioning the baptism of the jailer’s household, “[Paul and Silas] spoke the word of the Lord to him together with all who were in his house.” This seems to be Luke’s way of saying that hearing and believing the word is a prerequisite to baptism. The whole household heard the word and the whole household was baptized. In any case, there is no mention of infants in any of these three instances of household baptisms, and it is an argument from silence to say that there must have been small children. It would be like saying here at Bethlehem that a reference to Ross Anderson’s household or Don Brown’s or Dennis Smith’s or David Michael’s or David Livingston’s or dozens of others must include infants, which they don’t.

Yet from these texts, Joachim Jeremias, who wrote one of the most influential books in defense of infant baptism, concluded, “It is characteristic that Luke could report the matter thus. For by so doing he gives expression to the fact that ‘the solidarity of the family in baptism and not the individual decision of the single member’ was the decisive consideration” (Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries, 1960, p. 23, quoting Oscar Cullman, Baptism in the New Testament, 1950, p. 45). I would rather say that the entire drift of the New Testament, and many particular sayings, is in the opposite direction: it is precisely the individual in his relation to Christ that is decisive in the New Testament, rather than solidarity in the flesh. “It is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants” (Romans 9:8).

Source: – Letter from John Piper to Bethlehem Baptist Church on May 6, 1997


Tags: , , , , , ,

Book Review on R.C. Sproul’s: Everyone’s A Theologian


Everyone's a Theologian Sproul

Book Review by David P. Craig 

This book is almost a word for word account of R.C. Sproul’s DVD teaching series entitled “Foundations: An Overview of Systematic Theology.” Having watched this video series in the past I immediately recognized the content. I’m glad this series has now been made available in book form.

R.C. is a master teacher and in this book he covers the subject of Theology in its broadest sense. Theology not only refers to the study of God, but to everything that God has revealed to us in the Bible. In sixty short, but jam-packed chapters R.C. unveils with depth and clarity a summary of what the Bible has to say about its most important themes: Theology Proper – The study of God; Anthropology and Creation – The study of man; Christology – The study of Jesus; Pneumatology – The study of the Holy Spirit; Soteriology- The study of salvation; Ecclesiology – The study of the Church; and lastly (no pun intended) – Eschatology – The study of last things.

This book is an excellent introduction to all of these subjects and the sub topics they address. As R.C. Sproul says, “Everyone, is a theologian, but either a good or bad one.” You will come away from reading this book having learned a ton of important truths that will help you become a better theologian. With profound depth, clarity, historical, and practical wisdom Sproul will delight and intrigue you in helping you grow in your journey and intimacy with God – using your head, heart, and hands for His glory and your good.


Tags: , , ,

Fortress for Truth: Martin Luther

By Steven J. Lawson

Martin Luther was a giant of history. Some believe he was the most significant European figure of the second millennium. He was the pioneer Reformer, the one God first used to spark a transformation of Christianity and the Western world. He was the undisputed leader of the German Reformation. In a day of ecclesiastical corruptions and apostasies, he was a valiant champion of the truth; his powerful preaching and pen helped to restore the pure gospel. More books have been written about him than any other man of history except Jesus Christ and possibly Augustine.

Luther came from hard-working stock. He was born in the little town of Eisleben, Germany, on November 10, 1483. His father, Hans, was a copper miner who eventually gained some wealth from a shared interest in mines, smelters, and other business ventures. His mother was pious but religiously superstitious. Luther was raised under the strict disciplines of the Roman Catholic Church and was groomed by his industrious father to be a successful lawyer. To this end, he pursued an education at Eisenach (1498–1501) and then at the University of Erfurt in philosophy. At the latter, he received a bachelor of arts degree in 1502 and a master of arts degree in 1505.

Luther’s life took an unexpected turn in July 1505, when he was twenty-one. He was caught in a severe thunderstorm and knocked to the ground by a nearby lightning strike. Terrified, he cried out to the Catholic patroness of miners, “Help me, St. Anna, and I will become a monk.” Luther survived the storm and made good on his dramatic vow. Two weeks later, he entered the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt. His father was furious over Luther’s apparent wasted education, but Luther was determined to follow through on his vow.

Lost in Self-Righteousness

In the monastery, Luther was driven to find acceptance with God through works. He wrote: “I tortured myself with prayer, fasting, vigils and freezing; the frost alone might have killed me… . What else did I seek by doing this but God, who was supposed to note my strict observance of the monastic order and my austere life? I constantly walked in a dream and lived in real idolatry, for I did not believe in Christ: I regarded Him only as a severe and terrible Judge portrayed as seated on a rainbow” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 24, eds. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann [St. Louis: Concordia, 2002], 62). Elsewhere he recalled: “When I was a monk, I wearied myself greatly for almost fifteen years with the daily sacrifice, tortured myself with fastings, vigils, prayers, and other very rigorous works. I earnestly thought to acquire righteousness by my works” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 12, 273).

In 1507, Luther was ordained to the priesthood. When he celebrated his first Mass, as he held the bread and cup for the first time, he was so awestruck at the thought of transubstantiation that he almost fainted. “I was utterly stupefied and terror-stricken,” he confessed. “I thought to myself, ‘Who am I that I should lift up mine eyes or raise my hands to the divine majesty? For I am dust and ashes and full of sin, and I am speaking to the living, eternal and true God’” (Luther, cited in Bruce Shelley, Church History in Plain Language [Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995], 238). Fear only compounded his personal struggle for acceptance with God.

In 1510, Luther was sent to Rome, where he witnessed the corruption of the Roman church. He climbed the Scala Sancta (“The Holy Stairs”), supposedly the same stairs Jesus ascended when He appeared before Pilate. According to fables, the steps had been moved from Jerusalem to Rome, and the priests claimed that God forgave sins for those who climbed the stairs on their knees. Luther did so, repeating the Lord’s Prayer, kissing each step, and seeking peace with God. But when he reached the top step, he looked back and thought, “Who knows whether this is true?” (Luther, cited in Barbara A. Somervill, Martin Luther: Father of the Reformation [Minneapolis: Compass Point Books, 2006], 36). He felt no closer to God.

Luther received his doctor of theology degree from the University of Wittenberg in 1512 and was named professor of Bible there. Remarkably, Luther kept this teaching position for the next thirty-four years, until his death in 1546. One question consumed him: How is a sinful man made right before a holy God?

In 1517, a Dominican itinerant named John Tetzel began to sell indulgences near Wittenberg with the offer of the forgiveness of sins. This crass practice had been inaugurated during the Crusades to raise money for the church. Commoners could purchase from the church a letter that allegedly freed a dead loved one from purgatory. Rome profited enormously from this sham. In this case, the proceeds were intended to help Pope Leo X pay for a new St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

This horrible abuse enraged Luther. He determined that there must be a public debate on the matter. On October 31, 1517, he nailed a list of Ninety-five Theses regarding indulgences to the front door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. Nailing such theses to the church door was a common practice in the scholarly debates of the time. Luther hoped to provoke calm discussion among the faculty, not a popular revolution. But a copy fell into the hands of a printer, who saw that the Ninety-five Theses were printed and spread throughout Germany and Europe in a few weeks. Luther became an overnight hero. With that, the Reformation essentially was born.

The Tower Experience

It is possible Luther was still not yet converted. In the midst of his spiritual struggles, Luther had become obsessed with Romans 1:17: “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.” Luther had understood the righteousness of God to mean His active righteousness, His avenging justice by which He punishes sin. On those terms, he admitted that he hated the righteousness of God. But while sitting in the tower of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Luther meditated on this text and wrestled with its meaning. He writes:

Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God, and said, “As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the Decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteousness and wrath!” Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience. Nevertheless, I beat importunately upon Paul at that place, most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul wanted.

At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’” There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. There a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me. Thereupon I ran through the Scriptures from memory. I also found in other terms an analogy, as, the work of God, that is, what God does in us, the power of God, with which he makes us strong, the wisdom of God, with which he makes us wise, the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God. (Luther’s Works, Vol. 34, 337)

The time of Luther’s conversion is debated. Some think it took place as early as 1508, but Luther himself wrote that it happened in 1519, two years after he posted his Ninety-five Theses. More important is the reality of his conversion. Luther came to realize that salvation was a gift for the guilty, not a reward for the righteous. Man is not saved by his good works but by trusting the finished work of Christ. Thus, justification by faith alone became the central tenet of the Reformation.

Attacking Papal Authority

Justification by faith alone clashed with Rome’s teaching of justification by faith and works. Thus, the pope denounced Luther for preaching “dangerous doctrines” and summoned him to Rome. When Luther refused, he was called to Leipzig in 1519 for a public debate with John Eck, a leading Catholic theologian. In this dispute, Luther affirmed that a church council could err, a point that had been made by John Wycliffe and John Hus.

Luther went on to say that the authority of the pope was a recent contrivance. Such religious superstition, he exclaimed, opposed the Council of Nicaea and church history. Worse, it contradicted Scripture. By taking this stand, Luther irritated the major nerve of Rome—papal authority.

In the summer of 1520, the pope issued a bull, an edict sealed with a bulla, or red seal. The document began by saying: “Arise, O Lord, and judge Your cause. A wild boar has invaded Your vineyard” (Pope Leo, Exsurge Domine, as cited in R.C.Sproul, The Holiness of God [Wheaton: Tyndale, 1998], 81).  With these words, the pope was referring to Luther as an unrestrained animal causing havoc. Forty-one of Luther’s teachings were deemed to be heretical, scandalous, or false.

With that, Luther had sixty days to repent or suffer excommunication. He responded by publicly burning the papal bull. This was nothing short of open defiance. Thomas Lindsay writes, “It is scarcely possible for us in the twentieth century to imagine the thrill that went through Germany, and indeed through all Europe, when the news spread that a poor monk had burnt the Pope’s Bull” (Thomas Lindsay, Martin Luther: The Man Who Started the Reformation [Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2004], 91). But though he was hailed by many, Luther was a marked man in the eyes of the church.

The Diet of Worms: Luther’s Stand

In 1521, the young Holy Roman emperor, Charles V, summoned Luther to appear at the Diet of Worms in Worms, Germany, in order to officially recant. The renegade monk was shown his books on a table in full view. Then Luther was asked whether he would retract the teachings in the books. The next day, Luther replied with his now-famous words: “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and

contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me, Amen” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 32, 113). These defiant words became a Reformation battle cry.

Charles V condemned Luther as a heretic and placed a hefty price on his head. When Luther left Worms, he had twenty-one days for safe passage to Wittenberg before the sentence fell. While he was en route, some of his supporters, fearing for his life, kidnapped him and took him to the Wartburg Castle. There, he was hidden from public sight for eight months. During this time of confinement, Luther began his translation of the Bible into German, the language of the commoners. Through this work, Reformation flames would spread even swifter.

On March 10, 1522, Luther explained the mounting success of the Reformation in a sermon. With strong confidence in God’s Word, he declared: “I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept … the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 51, 77). Luther saw that God had used him as a mouthpiece for truth. The Reformation was founded not on him and his teachings, but on the unshakeable footing of Scripture alone.

In 1525, Luther married Katherine von Bora. This amazing woman was an escaped nun committed to the Reformation cause. The two repudiated their monastic vows in order to marry. Luther was forty-two and Katie was twenty-six. Their union produced six children. Luther had an extremely happy family life, which eased the demands of his ministry.

Till the end of his life, Luther maintained a heavy workload of lecturing, preaching, teaching, writing, and debating. This work for reform came at a high physical and emotional price. Each battle extracted something from him and left him weaker. He soon became subject to illnesses. In 1537, he became so ill that his friends feared he would die. In 1541, he again became seriously ill, and this time he himself thought he would pass from this world. He recovered yet again, but he was plagued by various ailments throughout his final fourteen years. Among other illnesses, he suffered from gallstones and even lost sight in one eye.

Faithful to the End

In early 1546, Luther traveled to Eisleben, his hometown. He preached there and then traveled on to Mansfeld. Two brothers, the counts of Mansfeld, had asked him to arbitrate a family difference. Luther had the great satisfaction of seeing the two reconciled.

That evening, Luther fell ill. As the night passed, Luther’s three sons—Jonas, Martin, and Paul—and some friends watched by his side. They pressed him: “Reverend father, do you stand by Christ and the doctrine you have preached?” The Reformer gave a distinct “yes” in reply. He died in the early hours of February 18, 1546, within sight of the font where he was baptized as an infant.

Luther’s body was carried to Wittenberg as thousands of mourners lined the route and church bells tolled. Luther was buried in front of the pulpit in the Castle Church of Wittenberg, the very church where, twenty-nine years earlier, he had nailed his famous Ninety-five Theses to the door.

Upon his death, his wife, Katherine, wrote concerning his lasting influence and monumental impact upon Christendom: “For who would not be sad and afflicted at the loss of such a precious man as my dear lord was. He did great things not just for a city or a single land, but for the whole world” (Katherine Luther, cited in Martin E. Marty, Martin Luther: A Life [New York: Penguin, 2008], 188). She was right. Luther’s voice sounded throughout the European continent in his own day and has echoed around the world through the centuries since.

Source: Excerpted with edits from Pillars of Grace, © 2011 by Steven J. Lawson. Published by Reformation Trust Publishing, a division of Ligonier Ministries. 17, 2011.


Tags: , , , , , ,




Book Review by David P. Craig

R.C. Sproul examines what the Church isn’t, and what it is. In breaking down four key words from the Council of Nicea about what the Church is, Sproul articulates what it means that the church is (1) one, (2) holy, (3) catholic [i.e., universal], and (4) apostolic. Some of the issues addressed in this helpful book are: Why are there so many denominations? What are the essential truths that unite all Christians? What is Liberalism? Why do doctrines divide and unite? What’s an Evangelical? What does it mean for the church to be holy? What is the foundation of the church? What does it mean to be “in Christ”? What is the Gospel? What are the Sacraments? and Why should the church practice discipline?

Sproul covers a lot of ground in this short book. It is full of historical and theological insights, wisdom, and biblically based. I would recommend this book especially for new Christians and as a cogent argument for so-called “Christians” who are not a part of a visible local church. It will help you appreciate what unites Christians throughout history, today, and forever.


Tags: , , , , , , , ,



Luther M nailing Theses at Wittenburg

Words and Music by Martin Luther, 1483–1546

English Translation by Frederick H. Hedge, 1805–1890

God is our refuge and strength, an ever present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea. (Psalm 46:1, 2)

October 31, 1517, is perhaps the most important day in Protestant history. This was the day when Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk and a professor of theology, posted on the doors of the Cathedral of Wittenberg, Germany, his 95 theses (complaints) against the teachings and practices of the medieval Roman Church. With this event, the 16th century Protestant Reformation was formally born.

The Protestant Reformation movement was built on three main tenets:

• The re-establishment of the Scriptures.

• Clarifying the means of salvation.

• The restoration of congregational singing.

“A Mighty Fortress” was written and composed by Martin Luther. The date of the hymn cannot be fixed with any exact certainty. It is generally believed, however, to have been written for the Diet of Spires in 1529 when the term “protestant” was first used. The hymn became the great rallying cry of the Reformation.

A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing; our helper He amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing. For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe—His craft and pow’r are great, and, armed with cruel hate, on earth is not his equal.

Did we in our own strength confide our striving would be losing, were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing. Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He—Lord Sabaoth His name, from age to age the same—and He must win the battle.

And tho this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, we will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph thru us. The prince of darkness grim—we tremble not for Him; His rage we can endure; for lo! his doom is sure—One little word shall fell him.

That word above all earthly pow’rs—no thanks to them—abideth; the Spirit and the gifts are ours thru Him who with us sideth. Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; the body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still—His kingdom is forever.

For Today: Deuteronomy 33:27; 2 Samuel 22:2; Psalm 46; Isaiah 26:4

Breathe a prayer of thanks to God for reformers such as Martin Luther, who laid the foundations for our evangelical faith. Praise Him on this Reformation Day for this truth.

*Source: Ken Osbeck. “A Mighty Fortress,” Amazing Grace–366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions, October 31 entry, Kregel, 2011.

Leave a comment

Posted by on October 31, 2013 in Church History


Tags: , , ,

Dr. John Hannah on The Place of Theology in the Postmodern World

Is the Study of Theology and History an Antiquated Discipline?

OL Hannah

The opening lines of Charles Dickens’ 1837 novel, A Tale of Two Cities, a description of turbulent revolutionary times in France and England, seems an appropriate starting point for a description of our times. There is warrant for wondering if the era of the birth of the noble experiment in enlightened thought differs significantly from the era of its unraveling and denigration. “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom; it was the age of darkness. It was the epoch of belief; it was the epoch of incredulity. It was the season of light; it was the season of darkness. It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair,” wrote the literary craftsman and social critic.

Many in the social sciences alert us that we are living in times of upheaval, a time of transition from one system of values and assumptions to another. Some suggest that the unease will subside as we make our peace with the changes; others that we are entering a dark, glacial age and the destruction of civilization.

Comfortable or not, at least two things can be argued from all of this.

First, this is a time of rapid and often disconcerting cultural and social change; the contrasts between the world of our grandparents and ours is akin to Gulliver’s transport to the land of the Lilliputians in its newness and culture shock.

Second, no amount of wishful thinking will make the negative features of the postmodern world, or even the “modern world,” vanish as a bad dream in the night. The church will live and flourish in this era as it has in every other because its origins and power are not of this world, but from heaven; religious doomsayers will all prove as wrong as the naturalistic optimists. The former is true because we are prone to forget, in the flurry of religious activities, that behind the scene of events is the Lord of all history who “works all things according to the counsels of his good pleasure.” The latter is true because human engineering and political agendas, enhanced by vast access to new information now accumulating at a truly staggering rate, have never overcome the destructive potential of human greed from within, nor can they. It is into this world, resolving to trust in the God of the heavens, that we face with joy and delight, seriousness and pain, the challenges of the new century.

The Denigration Of Theology In The Postmodern World

In this strange new world, how much of the past is still relevant and useful? Even more strange in our times is the suggestion that history and theology are beneficial for the health of the church today; but that is exactly what the church needs.

In our day, theology is regarded as an irrelevant, even destructive topic for the health of the church. Parishioners are more attuned to quick, easy solutions to their questions—the gratification of felt-needs and slick and easily grasped answers—instead of the pain of reflection and mental exertion. Pastors, not desiring to bore the flock of God or unnecessarily divide them, seem to view theology as a subject to be broached with extreme caution, even embarrassment, while waxing eloquent on topics that are hardly the central focus of God’s revelation to us. Though perhaps a cruel judgment, it can be argued that contemporary sermonic fare deals far more frequently with self-help and psychological issues than with the knowledge of the character of God, leading to behavior that is the fruit of sound theology.

Thomas Erskine was quite correct when he argued that “religion is about grace, ethics about gratitude.” Worship is more often a celebration of personal security and temporal happiness than the frightening, yet wonderful experience of coming before a holy God whose demands are only met in his Son. “I Am So Glad I’m a Part of the Family of God” is not a song for Sunday morning; far more fitting is “Holy, Holy, Holy.” Theology is wrapped in a veil of silence, like some haunting past hurtful experience. Or we are told that theology is actually harmful for postmoderns. I reject such talk as wickedly flawed and destructive for our Lord’s church. Yet it bears asking, “What, then, is the value of theology in today’s world?” Why has so much that has been written by so many over the centuries now lying unread? Is the study of theology and history of marginal value in the Christian community today?

While there are some notable exceptions, articles on the contemporary relevance of theology seen through the lens of history have been written generally by academicians for the scholarly community. Such defenses are rarely aimed at our pastors and an inquiring laity. Largely this is the case, I suspect, because the intellectual content of the Christian faith has been diluted. Theology is not merely about the occupation of scholars; the intended audience is that of pastors, Christian workers, and the Lord’s people in general. A truly biblical theology seeks to avoid the perils of lofty but irrelevant intellectualism and mere speculation on the one hand and the often superficiality of popular literature on the other. It arises from the belief that the quest for the knowledge of God is not an idle pastime, that spiritual vitality in any era is found in people who know their God, and that the greatest danger for the church is ignorance of God. Fears and adversaries come and go, but only those who know God can change the course of human events, bring permanence from impermanence, and speak a word of peace in a world that knows only self-advancement, self-hope, and self-fulfillment. In short, theology is a call to the church to return to God and make him the center of its priorities and life.

Let’s think a moment. Has the decline of doctrinal preaching in our churches prevented the intellectual anemia and cultural irrelevancy that has marginalized the church as an advice-giver among Americans? Has the de-emphasis on God brought to the church more willing hearers and maturity to the people who are already there? No! I believe that the decline of theological content in preaching is the cause of the weaknesses of the church today. When the message of the church merely affirms the morals of the culture or makes us more culturally identifiable, the church has ceased to be the church. The essence of Christianity is not morals; morals are the fruit of a vibrant profession of it. If we aim to promote the fruit of Christian faith without its foundation in the knowledge of God in Christ, how are we any different from the moral Jehovah’s Witness, Mormon, or secularist? A person can certainly have a solid home, raise good children, and contribute to the betterment of society without Christ. Those wonderful things are not what distinguishes a Christian from others.

I am asserting in this article that theology does matter in the life of the church today. Both history and theology are indispensable to the vitality of the church. Scholars have lamented the denigration of historical studies; departments of history have steadily fallen prey to budgetary restraints while investments for science and technology have mushroomed. If financial expenditure is an evidence of priorities, theology and history have hit upon hard times to say the least! Such decline of interest among our scholars and teachers has an interesting parallel to the disinterest in theology in the churches. It seems to be far easier to worship God with our emotions and affections today than it is with our intellectual energies. Did not the Lord instruct us that the foremost of the commandments is that we should “love the Lord our God with all your hearts, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30)? A fragmented society has led to a fragmented church. A culture that marginalizes rational reflection has infiltrated the church of the Savior; we live in a world that generally appreciates knowledge for its pragmatic and utilitarian ends rather than as substantive essence. The Bible asserts that the fear of God is the beginning of knowledge. The pulpit fare in our churches, at times, appears to be sending the message that what is most important is to get in contact with the innermost recesses of the self. Failure, impotency, and disappointment come from ignorance of the appropriate recovery group or the latest “secret” of walking with God.

In short, the church seems to be in a rather awkward situation. Having struggled for several centuries to deflect the intellectual attacks posed by Enlightenment rationalism, which denigrated the biblical notions of God, sin, and grace, the church shows signs of imbibing those very characteristics: the penchant for micro-management (the emphasis on procedures, “steps,” and “rules” for everything from church growth to personal happiness); pluralism; tolerance; and privitization (i.e., truth is only personal and private, not public or universal). Theology, once the “queen” of all the sciences, is rapidly becoming “an embarrassing encumbrance.” (See David F. Wells, No Place for Truth: Or, Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1993, 300).

Thomas C. Oden suggests that the state of the church is that of “an ecclesiastical swamp.” This has been produced, in his judgment, by three intellectual sources: first, the emergence of “an intellectual immune deficiency syndrome, a marked decline of Christian content in the churches with a corresponding emphasis on the emotions”; second, “an acceptance of many of the premises of modernity”; and, third, “an ignorance of the roots of the church in classic orthodoxy.” (See Thomas C. Oden, “On Whoring After the Spirit of the Age,” in No God but God: Breaking with the Idols of Our Age. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1963, 196).

If this is true, then the church is truly in a precarious time. The church, and I mean the evangelical portion of it, is in a strange situation. We are increasingly defined by and identified by the very movement we invested enormous energies to denounce as unbiblical and ungodly. It may be argued that modern evangelicalism stands under the same judgment as turn-of-the-century liberalism that also berated doctrine while stressing morals and culture. I write from the conviction that the church must be aroused to reinvest heart and mind in historic, Christian orthodoxy. A Christianity separated from historical credibility is not a biblical faith; a Christianity without theology is morality and not the “faith once for all delivered to the saints of God” (Jude 3).

The Place Of Theology In The Life Of The Church

While theology is not to be confused with the Bible, there is an inseparable linkage between the two. As the Spirit of God and the Word of God are never severed (that is, God speaks most assuredly through his Word to our consciences, both private and corporate), so the Word and theology are inseparable. The source of our knowledge of God, which is the meaning of the term “theology,” is fundamentally Word and Spirit related. Theology is the fruit of the study of the Word that is the voice of God.

The Role of Theology in the Church is at least Four-fold:

(1) First, the task of the skilled theologian or pastor is to gather together the knowledge of God available to us with a view to the church’s worship and service. Older theologians, particularly of the English Puritan tradition, did not seem to define theology in cognitive terms (i.e., the science of the knowledge of God) though their endeavor to understand the Scriptures was remarkable as a scientific endeavor. They often referred to it as “the art of living unto God” or “the art of living blessedly forever.” Theology was neither a mere intellectual discipline nor the attainment of a body of knowledge; it was a means to an end, a godly life. Theology, then, may be defined as the distilled knowledge of God that is the foundation of a walk with God. No one can walk with a person they do not know, neither can we say we walk with God if we do not have an accurate knowledge of him. It is not about the admiration of gathered insights, however wonderful. It is about responding appropriately and regularly to the God revealed to us. This is the task of the pastor for his people. The pastor is to lead his people to a deepening knowledge of God. His tool is a knowledge of God derived from the Bible.

(2) A second function of theology, and here I have in mind historical theology, is to preserve the church from fads and novelty Knowledge of the past keeps the church from confusing the merely contemporary with the enduringly relevant; it distinguishes the transient from the permanent. In so doing, it spares the church of harmful diversions, which at the moment may appear promising. Knowledge of the past bequeaths a stability and confidence in a world where flamboyant voices lend credibility to spurious ideas promising success. In essence, theology presents to the church a valuable accumulation of enduring insights, often acquired at an enormous price, without expense to us along with many relevant lessons and warnings. It abounds in lessons and examples, both positive and negative, for the contemporary church. It thus functions with a view to the growth and maturity of the church by increasing the church’s understanding of its teaching. The relationship between the study of systematic theology and the study of historical theology is integral. Theology is both a science and an art concerning itself with the meaning of the Bible. Historical theology is a discipline that seeks to understand what the church has taught that the Bible teaches. The two disciplines function together. Knowledge of the past provides a wealth of insight about the meaning of texts. History is not opposed to creativity, though it is opposed to novelty.

History is not opposed to creativity,

though it is opposed to novelty.

(3) Third, theology in its historic context and development will preserve the church from error; it provides both apologetic and polemic weapons against deception. The accumulated wisdom of the church can provide an arsenal of arguments as we struggle to preserve the church today from its opponents within and without. For example, the church has been ravaged both by an over-intellectualization of the gospel, as well as by a de-emphasis on the cognitive aspects of the faith; it has alternated between an arid faith full of knowledge but with little vitality and an experienced-centered faith with little intellectual content. An over-emphasis in either direction has proven destructive to Christian experience. Though a contemporary issue, this is not the first time that the church has been forced to articulate the relationship between “the faith as known” and “the faith as experienced.” The collective insights of the past are instructive in gaining a perspective.

Another issue that has recurred in the church is (the question of) the cause of something and its proper effect. Are morals in some sense the cause of salvation or are they the necessary and proper effect? The struggle of the church in the past with this issue provides helpful insights as we attempt to handle the same controversies in a contemporary setting.

(4) Fourth, knowledge of history and theology provide a bulwark against pride and arrogance borne of the thought that any one church or ecclesiastical tradition stands in the exclusive heritage of first century orthodoxy. While all ecclesiastical expressions of the church today mirror a continuity with the one, holy, and apostolic church, there are also significant discontinuities as well. Various ecclesiastical traditions, whether Episcopalian, Presbyterian, or Congregational, claim biblical warrant for their structures yet each have evolved forms. Some have more elaborate structures than others. But do they possess explicit biblical justification for all their forms? Church structure often has emerged out of a particular historic setting and answers needs of the time. While it may be argued that one form or another more faithfully reflects the Bible, each evidences modification from the embryonic structure of the New Testament.

Knowledge of continuity in the midst of discontinuity should have a multiple function. First, it should cause us to be careful in claiming a biblical precedent for all that any particular church does. Second, it should cause us to make continuity with the New Testament, not later additives, the ground of true fellowship. And, third, it should cause us to focus on those areas of truth that are truly timeless and enduring, recognizing we all cling to certain things that are more a part of our tradition and our own accustomed way of doing things than strictly biblical.

In the process of the proclamation and defense of the faith through the centuries, the church has become the heir of a rich treasure. In countless books and other forms of literary witness men and women have recorded their faith in action. With literary skill and biblical insight the people of God have defended the faith, explained its deepest complexities, and revealed its practical implications. It is not too much to assert, it seems, that much of the literature produced by the church today appears trite, superficial, and anemic when compared to the rich treasury of the centuries. The works of Athanasius, Augustine, Cyril of Jerusalem, Anselm, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and the English Puritans, to mention some now silent voices, have bequeathed such a wonderful heritage of insights that we are impoverished if we remain in ignorance of them.

Finally, knowledge of doctrine supports the Bible’s witness to the triumph of the church. Through times of duress and trial the people of God have been preserved and steadfastly have proclaimed the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. The devil has employed every strategy to destroy the church, armies have marched against it, faithless scholarship has relentlessly assaulted it, internal bickering has rent it, and martyrdom has depleted its ranks from time to time. Yet the church marches forward in triumphal anticipation of the great consummation when the kingdoms of this world will be put under Christ’s feet, and the bride, without spot or blemish, will be given to the king. Theology witnesses to the truth of the Scriptures that the world will not end with some deluded false messiah pulling off the ultimate threat to destroy the globe through a nuclear holocaust, holding the world hostage, but in the glorious reign of the King of Kings.

Can We Have A Knowledge Of God Without The Study Of Theology?

(1) Certain basic assumptions support the endeavor of studying theology. Our fundamental assumption is that there is truth available to us; it is found both in the Bible and in the church’s study of the Bible. The Bible is the Word of God written; Christ is the Word of God revealed in it; and the Spirit is the voice of God in it revealing Christ. The Bible is the work and witness of the triune God. Faith is Word-invoked by the Spirit who reveals Christ, our redeemer, enlightening our eyes, redeeming the soul, and infusing the very life of God into us. With child-like embrace, the church has clung to the Bible, searching its pages for direction in life and work. The central focus of the Bible is Christ.

(2) A second assumption is that the Bible has been and can be accurately understood by the church. The Spirit promised through the apostle John that he would lead us into all truth (1 John 2:27). While this has been the subject of considerable discussion, it cannot possibly mean that all the details of orthodoxy are universally known in the church or that unanimity of teaching would prevail. There is simply too much division of opinion in the churches. “All truth” seems to be a reference not to all truth without distinction, but to all truth without exception; it embraces what Christians essentially believe and have commonly embraced across all traditions and denominations. It is a reference to Christ, his person and his work, which the Spirit reveals universally to all believers. While Christians have not been able or are able to agree on a wide range of topics (e.g., the sacraments, spiritual gifts, form of church government, eschatology), there is common consent in the redeemed community about the Lord Jesus Christ.

(3) A third assumption is more difficult to explain. It is the idea that our understanding of what the Bible teaches or says (i.e., theology, doctrine, and dogma) has evolved both negatively and positively. History tells us that theology often has deviated from the path of biblical permissibility while simultaneously it has maintained a remarkable congruity to it. It is one of the duties of the historical theologian and pastor to demonstrate how the church has stood in continuity and discontinuity with the apostolic age.

While the evangelical Christian church has correctly understood the essentials of the gospel, this does not suggest that in every particular the various churches stand in continuity with the apostles’ teachings; this is a logical impossibility. Either one particular community is in conformity with the first century revelation of God or none of them is in every detail. It is my understanding that no single assembly of saints or denomination, however orthodox, evangelical, or primitive, strictly follows the Bible. While the church has sought to be always faithful, the meaning of texts is often subject to more than one interpretation. Theology is often the art of establishing central, classic texts, and every system of doctrine may fail to give proper regard to certain other proof texts. Circumstances also can furnish profound insight into the meaning of texts or current prejudices. No single individual, church, or denomination has escaped human frailty, though there is continuity and uniformity in the essentials of Christ, his person and work.

(4) A fourth assumption is that theology has been forged in church history; the content of our faith was given by the apostles and understood clearly through the centuries in the believing church. However, the explanation of the revelation of God, not the fact of it, has emerged in history. It is amid attack from the enemies of the church or the serious intellectual inquiries of those inside the church that has occasioned the development of theology.

The Bible neither came to us completely intact as today nor with a topical index! It came to us a volume at a time; it was the verbal expression of the oral message of the church. For example, some have argued that the doctrine of the absolute co-equality of Christ with God implied that Christianity was not a monotheistic faith, an early Gnostic charge. Today some claim that the idea of the deity of Christ is not a first-century truth, but one that was invented in the fourth century by the bishops of the church at the first ecumenical council, Nicea (325). The Gnostics understood that the early churchmen made this claim; others deny that they ever made the claim. The answer is that the church has always made the claim, but it took serious reflection upon the Scriptures, as well as other circumstances, to explain, not invent, it. Theology is made in history; it is the result of the study of the revelation of God. It is a human endeavor by fallible people who engage all their intellectual strength and Spirit-inspired ability to understand an infallible book with the sure promise that he will lead us into “all truth.” Theology is a historical question and answer exercise. Presented with questions, apparent difficulties with the coherency of our faith, the church has given them serious thought. The church, in thinking about the inquiries, has reflected deeply on the Bible as the fountain for the substance of an adequate reply. Those answers, when delivered in written form, are doctrine. This formulated reply derived from the Holy Scriptures, the church has used to answer her critics.

Can We Have A Knowledge Of God Without The Study Of Theology And History?

While scholars throughout the disciplines of historical studies follow the same basic method of research, generally the rudiments set forth by Francis Bacon years ago, there are significant differences in their philosophical assumptions in approaching the task. The overarching assumption for the Christian pastor is a belief in the sovereignty of God in all human affairs and the decreed outworking of his purposes. His pastoral work is a blending of the data derived from the Bible including history and prophecy as well as the study of the events and various circumstances outside the Bible. A rather insightful attempt at writing a history of mankind employing this method was devised by the American Puritan Jonathan Edwards in his A History of Redemption (1739) to which I am indebted for many of my own views in the matter. In this particular book, Edwards suggests that the divine purpose in creating and sustaining mankind through the centuries is that God is gathering a bride for his Son, the Lord Jesus.

The Bible describes human history from beginning to end; it is selective of material and there are enormous gaps in the story, particularly of the events between the two testaments and the two advents or comings of Christ as well as the creation itself. The Bible begins with a description of a created, unspoiled garden and concludes in the same fashion, one in time and the other in eternity. The function of the book is also two-fold. It is a revelation of comfort and condescension.

It is about the comfort of God for his people through his condescension to them through prophets, judges, and kings though most perfectly and completely in the Lord Jesus Christ, and it is about his triumph in and through history. History is really a redemptive drama! If the subject of the Bible is Christ, the central event in the revelation of God is the cross.

The Bible is composed of two testaments or covenants, an old one and a new one. The Old Testament is a book of shadows; the ceremonies and symbols the ancient people of God anticipated the coming of a promised deliverer. Beginning with the promise to Adam after the Edenic catastrophe (Genesis 3:15), God progressively revealed the One who would crush evil. The Old Testament describes his person and his work. Gradually the former is unveiled as details about him are progressively disclosed (e.g., he is to be a male; a Semite; a son of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob; a son of Judah; a son of David). His work is gradually unveiled through ceremonies such as the Passover and the Day of Atonement. The summit of the shadowed unveiling is the revelation of Isaiah the prophet (chapter 53). In essence the Old Testament era is one of anticipation of the coming of the vaguely explained deliverer, shadows that gradually take on substance.

No longer revealed in shadow as in the Old Testament (Hebrews 1:1), Christ stands in his wonderful clarity in the New Testament revelation, where the person and work of the promised deliverer is unmistakably unveiled. The central event of the Bible is Calvary where God’s promised deliverer became mankind’s redeemer. There he rendered a sacrifice, a payment in his own life’s blood, to divine justice in behalf of sinners, where atonement was made for sin, so that God could justly and freely forgive sin without a violation of his holiness.

(1) The first of two monumental events in the Bible, one of two central foci of the book, is the cross of Christ. The long-anticipated Christ became our sin-bearer enduring the wrath of God due the sinner (2 Corinthians 5:21). There the debt of sin was paid so that God could be both just in his character remaining always holy and yet justifying, declaring sinners righteous in his sight. Beyond the gospels and in the epistles God revealed something of the early history of the church. Then through prophecy we are told about his second coming, not as a savior but as the Lord and king of history.

(2) The second grand focus of the Bible is his return as king to rule over his redeemed in a renovated garden. If the great period before the advent of Christ can be called one of anticipation, the period before his coming again may be called one of both anticipation and reflection. Christians the world over have a double view as they gather for worship week after week; we express expectancy of the Lord’s return and we reflect in the study of the Scriptures on his first coming, either from shadowed, Old Testament texts or the clearer New Testament revelation. At the end of time, when Christ comes to reign as king over the earth, the third era will commence, the era of fulfillment. All the promises of God, from both testaments, will come to fruition just as the Bible indicates; righteousness will prevail, not chaos. The era between the two advents of the Savior comprise the period of the history of the church, the era of the development of the apostle’s doctrine.

A Plea For The Importance Of Theology In The Postmodern World: The Study Of Theology Is At The Heart Of Our Task

Having written on the history of Christian thought and the importance of theology for the church today, I am compelled to ask the question that haunts every writer. Are my thoughts a service to the Lord’s church or has all this work simply added to the proliferation of small, useless ideas that have littered the publishing landscape? Does anyone really care about theology anymore?

These concerns are particularly intense because we are now living in the world of post-modernity. We exist within a culture that has repudiated many of the assumptions of modernity, such as the importance of the rational, the propriety of the orderly, and the possibility of objective truth. We live in a world where personality has more street value than character, psychological wholeness than spiritual authenticity. We find ourselves in a world where pleasures are embraced without moral norms and social responsibility. Christian truth is attacked not so much for its particular assertions, but for its fundamental claim that there is such a thing as binding, objective truth. The quest for truth has been replaced with the preoccupation for pleasure and entertainment. Thus, we live in a world of the therapeutic and the psychological, an endless quest for self-fulfillment and entitlement. Sin has become little more than the infringement of personal rights and privileges; there is little thought of defining it by the standard of the holiness of God. It is in this kind of a world that the question of the relevance of theology is raised. With so much interest in the management of life, what is the benefit of such a seemingly esoteric thing as timeless, transcendent, historic truth?

The question is complicated by the fact that modern evangelicalism is in a state of crisis. The very community that historically has been deeply interested in transcendent, timeless truth seems more earnestly intent upon focusing on the merely private, personal, and temporal. If I could be so blunt, the church has lost its soul. The quest for contemporary relevance has led it down the path of increasing irrelevancy and marginalization. The evangelical church is on the brink of becoming another of the many social, do-good agencies whose mission purpose has to do with helping people more fully to enjoy this life while neglecting the implications of eternity. While our culture has shown a marked inclination to secularism, the church seems to have followed suit. One of our recent Christian social critics has summarized the problem quite succinctly, “The stream of historic orthodoxy that once watered the evangelical soul is now damned by a worldliness that many fail to recognize as worldliness because of the cultural innocence with which it presents itself” (No Place for Truth, 11).

This is characterized by a decline of Christian content in teaching and preaching, with an accompanying interest in self-help programs that merely promise a better management of everyday crises. There is also an appalling ignorance in the churches of their rich Christian heritage (“On Whoring After the Spirit of the Age,” 196). Mark Noll speaks of “the scandal of the evangelical mind,” the denigration of the intellectual content of the faith and the elevation of the subjective and personal (Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1994, 35–36). Barna complains that the average Christian is uninterested in life-changing religious convictions, having little more than the most superficial awareness of sin, grace, and redemption (George Barna, The Barna Report. Ventura, California: Regal, 1994, 44, 58).

This moral and intellectual crisis comes to the evangelical church when Christianity is without a serious secular opponent; there are no potent rivals in our culture making claims to having objective, final truth. Such truth claims have been abandoned in the postmodern experience.

David Wells has found a general parallel to the situation in the churches today to the era just prior to the Reformation in the sixteenth century.

(1) First, the two churches, he suggests, are similar in that they each manifest a lack of confidence in the Word of God. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the denigration of the Scriptures was manifested in the church’s appeal to papal pronouncements; today, it is to business know-how and psychological counseling.

(2) Second, both churches reflect a flawed understanding of the seriousness of sin. One of our philosophers, having reflected on the decline of the discussion of sin within his own religious heritage simply has stated: “The new language of Zion fudges: ‘Let us confess our problem with human relational adjustment dynamics, and especially our feebleness in networking’… ‘Peanut Butter Binge’ and ‘Chocolate Decadence’ are sinful; lying is not. The measure of sin is caloric.” (Cornelius Plantinga, “Natural Born Sinners: Why We Flee from Guilt and the Notion of Sin,” Christianity Today 38. November 14, 1995, 26).

(3) Third, in both instances the church, having lost its grasp on sin, has minimized the glory and efficacy of the death of Christ (David F. Wells, Losing our Virtue. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1998, 28–29). Sin and grace are intrinsically linked. The former is the problem; the latter the solution. Weak, unbiblical views of mankind’s plight lead to a weak solution to it. Without the biblical doctrine of human depravity, Calvary is little more than a moral object lesson of how to behave when misunderstood and tragically treated. Christ is reduced to a pathetically misunderstood fellow who neither died for sin or rose from the dead to verify his victory over it.

These very circumstances are the reason for the plea. It is a call for the church—pastors, teachers, and laity—to reverse the recent trends that pose a threat to the historic gospel of Christ by humanizing sin and, therefore, speaking lightly of the work of the Savior. It is time for us to listen to the Scriptures for our message, not the beckoning cry of a pleasure inebriated culture. The need of the hour is not for revival; it is for something even more fundamental. It is time for a reformation in the church. Revival has to do with the extension of the gospel; the greatest need in the contemporary church is to rediscover the gospel, its glory and its power. It is time to return to the fundamentals of the faith and be refreshed in its truths, to gain anew a love and respect for the Holy Scriptures. Revival without reformation is religious fervor at best; revival out of reformation is the only hope of the church.

The Centrality Of The Gospel In Christian Proclamation

My plea is a rather simple one. It is one that has been stated with regularity, but practiced infrequently. Theoretically, I suppose, it is easy to talk about gradation of convictions.

(1) First, there are those beliefs that each of us holds that are simply essential. These are the core doctrines of Christianity without which there can be no Christianity, the beliefs that one would hold as so central that there should be a willingness to die for them. Among these, for example, may be the existence of God, the deity of Christ, the atonement, and salvation by grace without any human merit.

(2) Second, there is that cluster of beliefs that are reckoned to be very important and are held with the same conviction from the Scriptures as those most essential truths, but with the recognition that there is legitimate debate among Christians on their interpretation. Often these are what you might call “denominational distinctives,” if held by a particular religious group, or simply personal convictions. Examples of these types of convictions might be a particular view of baptism or the Eucharist, church polity, or the chronology of Last Things. While they may be fervently held, they are nonetheless teachings that are subject to a variance of opinion and are not issues that should divide the fellowship of the saints in the broadest sense.

(3) Third, there is another realm of beliefs that are distinctly personal. They are neither core doctrines of Christianity nor those embraced in a creed by any particular Christian group. They are simply private, personal views that arise from the study of the Bible and the experience of life. Traditionally these have been defined as “adiaphoria,” in matters of difference. They might have to do with certain moral issues that are neither prohibited nor propounded by the Scriptures. Experientially, however, these concentric circles of beliefs are often blended together; sometimes, mere personal beliefs are treated as core truths. My plea is that these distinctions be recognized and that our Christian pastors, teachers, missionaries, and laity make sure that the central truths be foremost in our proclamation of Christianity.

The cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith concern the person and work of Jesus Christ, the gospel. The most important person in all of history is Jesus Christ; he alone must always be the passionate message of the church. Without Christ, there can be no gospel that is really good news. He is the essence of the Bible. While there are teachings that are important, greatly adding to the maturity of the church, Christ is the keystone of it all. The very center of the Scriptures is Christ. The cross of Christ is the great moment of redemptive history. That should always be, along with all the teachings of Christ that fill out its deepest meaning, the essential proclamation of the Christian community.

What Happens When The Non-Essential Becomes A Preoccupation?

There is a hazard for the church of Jesus Christ when the peripheral becomes a preoccupation, when the core doctrines of the faith are superseded by other, perhaps even, solid and wonderful teaching. I see at least two negative consequences.

(1) First, when the non-essential teachings consistently are taught, the impression is conveyed that they are the very heart and core of the faith. To be biblical means, at least in part, that one not only derives the content of teaching from the

Bible, but that one also submits to the priorities and centralities of the Bible. The pages of history are replete with examples of people who have majored on the minors instead of minoring on them. Such a tendency distorts the gospel of Jesus Christ when the time-honored central teachings of the church are substituted with the particular insights of a teacher or a group, teachings not shared by the entire Christian community. My plea is that we become “catholic” in our profession of Christianity. We must stand together on the historic Christian doctrines, majoring on them in our proclamation of Christ, and not allow ourselves to be drawn away by the attractions of novelty or complexity.

Novelty will always get a crowd

and build a following, but it does

not last beyond the gifted and winsome

teacher or teachers who proclaim it.

(2) Second, there is also a danger in majoring on minors for those who preach and proclaim them. Novelty will always get a crowd and build a following, but it does not last beyond the gifted and winsome teacher or teachers who proclaim it. There is a rather wonderful dynamic in all this. Christ has so ordered things, it appears, that the enduring truths of Scripture last from generation to generation, but novelty is short-lived. Those who teach other than the core truths of the gospel as gospel-truth can be compared to a person who walks along a beach in the soft, moist sand when the tide is out. In this analogy, they leave their footprints or teachings, as it were, in the sand, but the tide eventually comes and washes them away. In past centuries, many have taught unique or novel insights, but most of them have passed with the “tide” of time. In refusing to major on the great and timeless truths of the gospel, precious time is poorly managed, the gospel distorted, and the Lord’s people confused.

Where To Go From Here?

The history of Christian thought suggests that there is a timeless core of Christian truth. It is what we call theology. It has survived the battering of those unsympathetic with it and the minimizing of it by its advocates. Because Christ and his gospel came to us from heaven, it has and will survive the ravages of friend and foe. Will it, however, in the American churches? Or will our churches drift like the churches of the great European Reformation in the sixteenth century, the churches once vibrant with the teachings of Luther and Calvin, that are now emptied of all but the old? Do our churches have the potential of becoming tomorrow’s museums? Our pastors and teachers must make theology and history their task, the pulpit and lectern their forum. In this era of theological drivel, we must be people of courage in the proclamation of timeless truth. The issue is not that much in our contemporary churches is not stimulating and exciting; it is that it is not eternal! “Help us, O Lord, not to be ashamed of the simplicity and wonder of the gospel of Jesus Christ. To preach nothing other than Christ and him crucified calling men and women, boys and girls to this One who has loved us and loosed us from our sins in his precious blood. Amen!”

*This article is a summary of John Hannah’s excellent book on Doctrinal history, Our Legacy (Colorado Springs, Colorado: NavPress, 2001). RAR 11:1 (Winter 2002), pp. 12-32.

About Dr. John Hannah

John Hannah

Department Chair and Research Professor of Theological Studies, Distinguished Professor of Historical Theology

B.S., Philadelphia College of Bible, 1967; Th.M., Dallas Theological Seminary, 1971; Th.D., 1974; M.A., Southern Methodist University, 1980; Ph.D., University of Texas at Dallas, 1988; postdoctoral fellowship, Yale University, 1994.

Dr. Hannah has enjoyed a distinguished career for more than 35 years at Dallas Seminary. He is a frequent and popular church and conference speaker both at home and abroad. His teaching interests include the general history of the Christian church, with particular interest in the works of John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, and John Owen. His publications include books, journals, chapters in books, audio materials, and computerized works. He currently is researching and writing a history of Dallas Seminary, with a general history of the Christian church after that. He remains active in church ministries and serves on the boards of several organizations.


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Charles C. Ryrie on The Significance of Pentecost

Pentecost image

By anyone’s standards Pentecost was a significant day. It is the purpose of this article to treat the significant aspects of the day in relation to certain major areas of theological studies.

Significance in Relation to Typology

Typology has suffered a great deal at the hands of both its friends and its enemies, since for many the study of types is still an uncertain science. Some, it is true, have found types in everything, while others in their reaction against this give little or no place for typological studies. My own definition of a type is that it is a divinely purposed illustration which prefigures its corresponding reality. This definition not only covers types which are expressly designated so by the New Testament (e.g., 1 Cor 10) but also allows for types not so designated (e.g., Joseph as a type of Christ). Yet in the definition the phrase “divinely purposed” should guard against an allegorical or pseudo-spiritual interpretation of types which sees chiefly the resemblances between Old Testament events and New Testament truths to the neglect of the historical, geographical, and local parts of those events. While all things are in a sense divinely purposed, not all details in all stories were divinely purposed illustrations of subsequently revealed truth. Pentecost is a good example of this, for although there is a clear type-antitype relationship, not all the details of the Old Testament feast find a corresponding reality in the events recorded in Acts 2.

As the antitype of one of the annual feasts of the Jews Pentecost has significance. This feast (Lev 23:15–21) was characterized by an offering of two loaves marking the close of harvest. The corresponding reality of this ceremony was the joining on the day of Pentecost by the Holy Spirit Jew and Gentile as one loaf in the one body of Christ (1 Cor 12:13). Pentecost is sometimes called the feast of weeks because it fell seven (a week of) weeks after Firstfruits. No date could be set for the observance of Firstfruits, for that depended on the ripening of the grain for harvest. However, when the time did arrive a small amount of grain was gathered, threshed, ground into flour, and presented to the Lord as a token of the harvest yet to be gathered. The corresponding reality is, of course, “Christ the firstfruits” (1 Cor 15:23). The fifty days interval between the two feasts was divinely purposed in the Old Testament type and finds exact correspondence in the New Testament antitype.

Significance in Relation to Theology

The theological significance of Pentecost concerns chiefly the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. The third person of the Trinity, not Peter, played the leading role in the drama of that day; He is the power of Pentecost; and in a very special sense the era which followed is His age. Obviously the Spirit of God has always been present in this world, but He has not always been a resident as one who permanently indwells the church. This was a new relationship which did not obtain even during the days of our Lord’s earthly ministry, for He said to His disciples concerning the Spirit, “He dwelleth with you, and shall be in you” (John 14:17).

The Evidences of His Coming (Acts 2:1-4)

Wind. A sound as of a rushing mighty wind was the first evidence of the Spirit’s coming. It came suddenly so that it could not be attributed to any natural cause, and it came from heaven, which probably refers both to the impression given of its origin and also to its actual supernatural origin. It was not actually wind but rather a roar or reverberation, for verse two  should be literally translated “an echoing sound as of a mighty wind borne violently.” It filled all the house which means that all of the 120 would have experienced the sensation since so many people would of necessity have been scattered throughout the house. This was a fitting evidence of the Spirit’s coming, for the Lord had used this very symbol when He spoke of the things of the Spirit to Nicodemus (John 3:8).

Fire. The audible sign, wind, was followed by a visible one, fire. Actually the tongues which, looked like fire divided themselves over the company, a tongue settling upon the head of each one. This, too, was an appropriate sign for the presence of the Holy Spirit, for fire had long been to the Jews a symbol of the divine presence (Exod 3:2; Deut 5:4). The form of the original text makes one doubt the presence of material fire though the appearance of the tongues was clearly as if they had been composed of fire.

Languages. Finally, each began to speak in a real language which was new to the speaker but which was understood by those from the various lands who were familiar with them. This was the third piece of evidence, and although some have assumed that this miracle was wrought on the ears of the hearers, this certainly forces the plain and natural sense of the narrative. These tongues were evidently real languages (vv. 6–8) which were spoken, and the imperfect tense, “was giving” (v. 4), indicates that they were spoken in turn, one after another.

The Effects of His Coming (Acts 2:5-13)

Baptism. The most important effect of the Spirit’s coming at Pentecost was the placing of men and women into the body of Christ by His baptism. Our Lord spoke of this baptizing work of the Holy Spirit just before His ascension (Acts 1:5), and it is clear from His words that this was a ministry of the Spirit thus far unknown even to those to whom He had said, “Receive ye the Holy Ghost” (John 20:22). If the baptism of the Holy Spirit was not something new to men until the day of Pentecost, then the Lord’s words in Acts 1:5—and especially the future tense of the verb “ye shall be baptized”—mean nothing. Although it is not specifically recorded in Acts 2 that the baptism of the Spirit occurred on the day of Pentecost, it is recorded in Acts 11:15–16 that this happened then, and Peter states there that what happened at Pentecost was the fulfillment of the promise of Acts 1:5. However, it is Paul who explains what this baptism (not to be confused with what is meant in Acts 2:38) accomplishes when he writes, “For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been made to drink into one Spirit” (1 Cor 12:13). In other words, on the day of Pentecost men were first placed into the body of Christ and that by the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Since the church is the body of Christ (Col 1:18), the church could not have begun until Pentecost. Furthermore, since no reference to the baptism of the Spirit is found in the Old Testament, since all references in the gospels are prophetic, and since in all prophecies of the future kingdom age there is no reference to the Spirit’s baptism, we may conclude that this work of His is peculiar to this dispensation and peculiar to the church (which, it follows, must also be limited to this dispensation) in forming it and uniting the members to the body of Christ forever.

Bewilderment. Certain visible effects of the Spirit’s coming were evident in the crowd which gathered as a result of the phenomena connected with His coming. At first the people (including Eastern or Babylonian Jews, Syrian Jews, Egyptian Jews, Roman Jews, Cretes and Arabians) were amazed. Literally the text says that they stood out of themselves with wide-open astonishment (v. 7). This is a mental reaction showing that their minds were arrested by what they observed. Next they were perplexed (v. 12). This is a strong compound word from an adjective which means impassable and hence the word comes to mean to be wholly and utterly at a loss. This was mental defeat. “The amazement meant that they did not know. The perplexity meant that they knew they did not know.”  Not knowing is always a blow to man’s pride; consequently this crowd, driven to find an answer to what they had seen and heard, replaced their ignorance with criticism (v. 13). These are merely normal reactions of Satanically-blinded minds to which the things of God are foolishness (2 Cor 4:4; 1 Cor 2:14) and should not surprise us if they occur today. The offense of the cross has not ceased.

Its Signficance in Relation to Homiletics

The Sermon (Acts 2:14-36)

Introduction—Explanation. Peter, spokesman for the eleven, seized the opportunity for a witness by answering the charge of drunkenness which had been levelled at the apostles. He thus wisely introduced his sermon by using the local situation, and taking that which was uppermost in his hearers’ thoughts. He formulated his introduction as an explanation of that which they had just seen and heard (v. 15). Strangely enough he did not introduce his message with a story or joke. Nothing in the situation seemed to remind Peter of a certain story, etc. Peter’s mind was full of Scripture, not stories; Peter’s concern was for the people, not pleasantries. The disciples could not be drunk, he told them, for it was only nine o’clock in the morning. Pentecost was a feast day, and the Jews who were engaged in the services of the synagogues of Jerusalem would have abstained from eating and drinking until at least 10 a.m. and more likely noon.

From this categorical denial of the charge of drunkenness Peter passed easily and naturally to the explanation of what the phenomenon was. It was not wine but the Holy Spirit who was causing these things, and to prove this Peter quoted Joel 2:28–32. This is a very definite prophecy of the Holy Spirit’s being poured out when Israel is again established in her own land. The problem here is not one of interpretation but of usage only. Clearly Joel’s prophecy was not fulfilled at Pentecost, for (1) Peter does not use the usual Scriptural formula for fulfilled prophecy as he does in Acts 1:16 (cf. Matt 1:22; 2:17; 4:14 ); (2) the original prophecy of Joel will clearly not be fulfilled until Israel is restored to her land, converted, and enjoying the presence of the Lord in her midst (Joel 2:26–28); (3) the events prophesied by Joel simply did not come to pass. If language means anything Pentecost did not fulfill this prophecy nor did Peter think that it did. The usage need not raise theological questions at all, for the matter is primarily homiletical and any problems should be solved in that light. Peter’s point was that the Holy Spirit and not wine was responsible for what these Jews had seen. He quotes Joel to point out that as Jews who knew the Old Testament Scriptures they should have recognized this as the Spirit’s work. In other words, their own Scriptures should have reminded them that the Spirit was able to do what they had just seen. Why then, someone may ask, did Peter include the words from Joel recorded in Acts 2:19–20? Why did he not stop with verse 18? The answer is simple. Peter not only wanted to show his audience that they should have known from the Scriptures that the Spirit could do what they had seen, but he also wanted to invite them to accept Jesus as their Messiah by using Joel’s invitation “whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (v. 21). Thus what is recorded in Acts 2:19–20 is simply a connecting link between the two key points in his argument. “The remainder of the quotation from Joel, verses 19, 20, has no bearing on Peter’s argument, but was probably made in order to complete the connection of that which his argument demanded.” (J. W. McGarvey, New Commentary on Acts of Apostles, p. 28).

Theme—Jesus is Messiah. To us today it does not mean much to say that Jesus is Christ or Messiah. To a Jew of that day this was an assertion which required convincing proof, and it was the theme of Peter’s sermon. Peter’s proof is built along very simple lines. First he paints a picture of the Messiah from the Old Testament Scriptures. Then from contemporary facts he presents a picture of Jesus of Nazareth. Finally, he superimposes these two pictures on each other to prove conclusively that Jesus is Messiah. The center of each picture is the resurrection. In verses 22–24  there is a proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Then there follows (vv. 25–31) the prediction of resurrection from Psalm 16:8–11 which Peter applies to the Messiah. Finally, the Messiah is identified as Jesus whom they crucified and of whose resurrection they were witnesses. It is important to notice that the truth of Jesus’ resurrection was not challenged but was well attested by the conviction of these thousands of people who were in the very city where it had occurred less than two months before.

Conclusion—Application. Peter now puts it up to his hearers to decide about Jesus, and yet there is really no

choice, so conclusive has been his argument. How gracious of God to appeal once again to the very people who had crucified His Son. The application was personal. Peter did not say “someone” but “ye.”

The Results (Acts 2:37-41)

Conviction. Peter’s sermon brought conviction of heart. The word translated “prick” is a rare one which means to pierce, stun or smite. Outside the Scriptures it is used of horses dinting the earth with their hoofs. In like manner the hearts of his hearers were smitten by Peter’s message as the Spirit of God applied it.

Conversion. To the group of 120 (which included men and women, Acts 1:14) were added 3000 souls (Acts 2:41). They repented or changed their minds, for that is the meaning of repentance. It is not mere sorrow which is related to the emotions, for one can be sorry for sin without being repentant. Neither is it mere mental assent to certain facts, for genuine repentance involves the heart as well.  For the Jews gathered at Pentecost it involved a change of relationship toward Him whom they had considered as merely the carpenter’s son of Nazareth and an imposter by receiving Jesus as Lord and Messiah.

The Spirit of God must always do the work of enlightening and converting, but men are still His method of heralding the message. May our sermons be like Peter’s—doctrinally sound, homiletically excellent, filled with and explanatory of the Word of God, and aimed at those to whom we speak.

Its Significance in Relation to Practical Theology 

In the realm of practical theology two things command attention from among the many events of Pentecost and the days which immediately followed.

The Ordinance of Baptism

To the question “What shall we do?” Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized.” That this refers to the new converts’ being baptized by the Spirit is untenable for several reasons.

(1) It is doubtful that Peter himself and much less probable that his hearers understood yet the truth concerning the baptism of the Spirit even though it did first occur at Pentecost. (2) If this were referring to that automatic ministry of the Spirit then there would be no need for the report of verse 41: “Then they that gladly received his word was baptized.” (3) What would this audience have understood by Peter’s answer? His words meant that they were to submit to a rite performed with water which would be a sign of their identification with this new group. They would have thought immediately of Jewish, proselyte baptism which signified entrance of the proselyte into Judaism (Cf. Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, II, 745–47, for a concise discussion of the baptism of proselytes).

They would have thought of John’s baptism, submission to which meant identification with John’s message in a very definite way; for John was the first person to baptize other people (all proselyte baptisms were self-imposed), which was a striking way to ask people to identify themselves with all that he stood for. They would have realized that they were being asked to identify and associate themselves with this new group who believed Jesus was the Messiah, and Christian baptism at the hands of these disciples signified this association as nothing else could.

(NOTE: The language of verse 41  implies that the 3000 converts were all baptized on the same day. There were numerous pools and reservoirs in Jerusalem which would have provided the facilities for this even by immersion. If all the 120 disciples assisted in administering the ordinance it could easily have been done in a very short time. The magazine Life in its August 14, 1950, issue reported a modern instance where 34 men immersed 3381 converts in 4 hours).

Even today for a Jew it is not his profession of Christianity nor his attendance at Christian services nor his belief in the New Testament but his partaking of water baptism that definitely and finally excludes him from Judaism and sets him off as a Christian. And there is no reason why it should not be the same line of demarcation for all converts to Christianity, signifying the separation from the old life and association with the new.

(NOTE: A. T. Robertson explains well the meaning of the words “unto the remission of your sins” (v. 38), and his words are here quoted lest any misinterpret the words of Peter to teach baptismal regeneration. “In themselves the words can express aim or purpose for that use of eis does exist as in 1 Cor 2:7…. But then another usage exists which is just as good Greek as the use of eis for aim or purpose. It is seen in Matt 10:41…where it cannot be purpose or aim, but rather the basis or ground, on the basis of the name of prophet, righteous man, disciple, because one is, etc. It is seen again in Matt 12:41 about the preaching of Jonah…. They repented because of (or at) the preaching of Jonah. The illustrations of both usages are numerous in the N.T. and the Koine generally…. I understand Peter to be urging baptism on each of them who had already turned (repented) and for it to be done in the name of Jesus Christ on the basis of the forgiveness of sins which they had already received.” [Word Pictures in the New Testament, III, 35–36]).

The Organization of Believers

Its commencement. We have already noted how the church as an organism, the body of Christ, began on the day of Pentecost. But the church as an organization also began that day as the Lord added 3000 souls.

Its continuance. The power of the early church, humanly speaking, was due largely to the facts recorded in Acts 2:42. There was no rapid falling away from the newly-embraced faith. Indeed, just the opposite was true, for membership in the early church involved persevering adherance. They continued in the apostles’ doctrine. “The church is apostolic because it cleaves to the apostles….”  Teaching had always had a prominent place among the Jews, and it is not strange to find the Christian group appearing as a school. The apostles were the first teachers, and the bulk of their teaching we now have in the gospels. It consisted of the facts of the Lord’s life as well as His doctrine and teaching. The church today could well afford to emulate the early church in this. Instead of capitalizing on new converts and exploiting them, we should teach them even if that means keeping them in the background for a while.

Furthermore they continued steadfastly in fellowship, and this is evidently to be understood in the broadest sense of the word, for the text says “the fellowship.” This means partnership with God, partnership with others in the common salvation and in the sharing of material goods. They also continued in the breaking of bread which refers to the Lord’s Supper though not isolated but as the climax of the agapé or love feast. At the very first this was evidently observed daily (v. 46) though afterward it seemed to form the great act of worship on the Lord’s Day (20:7). At least we must say that the early church remembered her Lord with great frequency and with great freedom, for it was observed in homes without distinction between ordained clergy and laity (no service of ordination having yet occurred in the church).

Finally the record says that they continued in prayers. Again the definite article is used with this word and probably indicates definite times for prayer. Further, this is a word that is used exclusively for prayer to God and indicates the offering up of the wishes and desires to God in the frame of mind of devotion.

Its characterization. The early organization was characterized by fear (v. 43), favor (v. 47), and fellowship (vv. 44–46). Fear kept coming on this new group as signs and wonders kept on being done through the apostles (both verbs are in the imperfect tense). This fear was not alarm or dread of injury but a prevailing sense of awe in the manifest presence of the power of God. Favor was also their portion with the people at this time although times changed very quickly. Finally, fellowship in spiritual things demonstrated itself in fellowship of goods and worship. No doubt many of the pilgrims to the feast of Pentecost lingered in Jerusalem after their conversion to learn more of their new faith, and this created a pressing economic need. Providing for them through the sale and distribution of goods was God’s way of meeting this emergency. The necessity for this was probably shortlived though we know that the saints in Jerusalem remained a poor group.

This is the significance of Pentecost—the type fulfilled, the Holy Spirit baptizing men for the first time into the body of Christ, the sermon built on the resurrection and bringing conviction and conversion, and the young church marked off and established in the word and ways of the Lord.

Article adapted from BSac 112:448 (October 1955) pp. 331-340.

About the Author:


Charles Caldwell Ryrie (born 1925) is a Christian writer and theologian. He graduated from Haverford College (B.A.), Dallas Theological Seminary (Th.M., Th.D.) and the University of Edinburgh, Scotland (Ph.D.). For many years he served as professor of systematic theology and dean of doctoral studies at Dallas Theological Seminary and as president and professor at Philadelphia College of Bible, now Philadelphia Biblical University. He is a premillennial dispensationalist, though irenic in his approach. He is also the editor of the popular Ryrie Study Bible.


Tags: ,


The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. JOHN 1:14

CT Packer

Trinity and Incarnation belong together. The doctrine of the Trinity declares that the man Jesus is truly divine; that of the Incarnation declares that the divine Jesus is truly human. Together they proclaim the full reality of the Savior whom the New Testament sets forth, the Son who came from the Father’s side at the Father’s will to become the sinner’s substitute on the cross (Matt. 20:28; 26:36-46; John 1:29; 3:13-17; Rom. 5:8; 8:32; 2 Cor. 5:19-21; 8:9; Phil. 2:5-8).

The moment of truth regarding the doctrine of the Trinity came at the Council of Nicaea (A.D.325), when the church countered the Arian idea that Jesus was God’s first and noblest creature by affirming that he was of the same “substance” or “essence” (i.e., the same existing entity) as the Father. Thus there is one God, not two; the distinction between Father and Son is within the divine unity, and the Son is God in the same sense as the Father is. In saying that Son and Father are “of one substance,” and that the Son is “begotten” (echoing “only-begotten,” John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18, and NIV text notes) but “not made,” the Nicene Creed unequivocally recognized the deity of the man from Galilee.

A crucial event for the church’s confession of the doctrine of the Incarnation came at the Council of Chalcedon (A.D.451), when the church countered both the Nestorian idea that Jesus was two personalities—the Son of God and a man—under one skin, and the Eutychian idea that Jesus’ divinity had swallowed up his humanity. Rejecting both, the council affirmed that Jesus is one divine-human person in two natures (i.e., with two sets of capacities for experience, expression, reaction, and action); and that the two natures are united in his personal being without mixture, confusion, separation, or division; and that each nature retained its own attributes. In other words, all the qualities and powers that are in us, as well as all the qualities and powers that are in God, were, are, and ever will be really and distinguishably present in the one person of the man from Galilee. Thus the Chalcedonian formula affirms the full humanity of the Lord from heaven in categorical terms.

The Incarnation, this mysterious miracle at the heart of historic Christianity, is central in the New Testament witness. That Jews should ever have come to such a belief is amazing. Eight of the nine New Testament writers, like Jesus’ original disciples, were Jews, drilled in the Jewish axiom that there is only one God and that no human is divine. They all teach, however, that Jesus is God’s Messiah, the Spirit-anointed son of David promised in the Old Testament (e.g., Isa. 11:1-5; Christos, “Christ,” is Greek for Messiah). They all present him in a threefold role as teacher, sin-bearer, and ruler—prophet, priest, and king. And in other words, they all insist that Jesus the Messiah should be personally worshiped and trusted—which is to say that he is God no less than he is man. Observe how the four most masterful New Testament theologians (John, Paul, the writer of Hebrews, and Peter) speak to this.

John’s Gospel frames its eyewitness narratives (John 1:14; 19:35; 21:24) with the declarations of its prologue (1:1-18): that Jesus is the eternal divine Logos (Word), agent of Creation and source of all life and light (vv. 1-5, 9), who through becoming “flesh” was revealed as Son of God and source of grace and truth, indeed as “God the only begotten” (vv. 14, 18; NIV text notes). The Gospel is punctuated with “I am” statements that have special significance because I am (Greek: ego eimi) was used to render God’s name in the Greek translation of Exodus 3:14; whenever John reports Jesus as saying ego eimi, a claim to deity is implicit. Examples of this are John 8:28, 58, and the seven declarations of his grace as (a) the Bread of Life, giving spiritual food (6:35, 48, 51); (b) the Light of the World, banishing darkness (8:12; 9:5); (c) the gate for the sheep, giving access to God (10:7, 9); (d) the Good Shepherd, protecting from peril (10:11, 14); (e) the Resurrection and Life, overcoming our death (11:25); (f) the Way, Truth, and Life, guiding to fellowship with the Father (14:6); (g) the true Vine, nurturing for fruitfulness (15:1, 5). Climactically, Thomas worships Jesus as “my Lord and my God” (20:28). Jesus then pronounces a blessing on all who share Thomas’s faith and John urges his readers to join their number (20:29-31).

Paul quotes from what seems to be a hymn that declares Jesus’ personal deity (Phil. 2:6); states that “in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Col. 2:9; cf. 1:19); hails Jesus the Son as the Father’s image and as his agent in creating and upholding everything (Col. 1:15-17); declares him to be “Lord” (a title of kingship, with divine overtones), to whom one must pray for salvation according to the injunction to call on Yahweh in Joel 2:32 (Rom. 10:9-13); calls him “God over all” (Rom. 9:5) and “God and Savior” (Titus 2:13); and prays to him personally (2 Cor. 12:8-9), looking to him as a source of divine grace (2 Cor. 13:14). The testimony is explicit: faith in Jesus’ deity is basic to Paul’s theology and religion.

The writer to the Hebrews, purporting to expound the perfection of Christ’s high priesthood, starts by declaring the full deity and consequent unique dignity of the Son of God (Heb. 1:3, 6, 8-12), whose full humanity he then celebrates in chapter 2. The perfection, and indeed the very possibility, of the high priesthood that he describes Christ as fulfilling depends on the conjunction of an endless, unfailing divine life with a full human experience of temptation, pressure, and pain (Heb. 2:14-17; 4:14-5:2; 7:13-28; 12:2-3).

Not less significant is Peter’s use of Isaiah 8:12-13 (1 Pet. 3:14). He cites the Greek (Septuagint) version, urging the churches not to fear what others fear but to set apart the Lord as holy. But where the Septuagint text of Isaiah says, “Set apart the Lord himself,” Peter writes, “Set apart Christ as Lord” (1 Pet. 3:15). Peter would give the adoring fear due to the Almighty to Jesus of Nazareth, his Master and Lord.

The New Testament forbids worship of angels (Col. 2:18; Rev. 22:8-9) but commands worship of Jesus and focuses consistently on the divine-human Savior and Lord as the proper object of faith, hope, and love here and now. Religion that lacks these emphases is not Christianity. Let there be no mistake about that!

From: Concise Theology: A Guide To Historic Christian Beliefs


Tags: , , , ,


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,141 other followers

%d bloggers like this: