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Category Archives: Charles Caldwell Ryrie

Dr. Charles C. Ryrie has written 30 books, including bestselling titles The Ryrie Study Bible, Balancing the Christian Life, and Basic Theology. He is professor emeritus at Dallas Theological Seminary and has served as adjunct professor at Philadelphia Biblical University, Bibelschule Brake, and The Criswell College.

What Is Dispensationalism and What Does It Have to Do with Lordship Salvation?

The Gospel According to the Apostles MacArthur

By John MacArthur

One of the most confusing elements of the entire lordship controversy involves dispensationalism. Some have supposed that my attack on no-lordship theology is an all-out assault against dispensationalism. That is not the case. It may surprise some readers to know that the issue of dispensationalism is one area where Charles Ryrie, Zane Hodges, and I share some common ground. We are all dispensationalists.

Many people are understandably confused by the term dispensationalism. I’ve met seminary graduates and many in Christian leadership who haven’t the slightest idea how to define dispensationalism. How does it differ from covenant theology? What does it have to do with lordship salvation? Perhaps we can answer those questions simply and without a lot of theological jargon.

Dispensationalism is a system of biblical interpretation that sees a distinction between God’s program for Israel and His dealings with the church. It’s really as simple as that.

A dispensation is the plan of God by which He administers His rule within a given era in His eternal program. Dispensations are not periods of time, but different administrations in the eternal outworking of God’s purpose. It is especially crucial to note that the way of salvation—by grace through faith—is the same in every dispensation. God’s redemptive plan remains unchanged, but the way He administers it will vary from one dispensation to another. Dispensationalists note that Israel was the focus of God’s redemptive plan in one dispensation. The church, consisting of redeemed people including Jews and Gentiles, is the focus in another. All dispensationalists believe at least one dispensation is still future—during the thousand-year reign of Christ on earth, known as the millennium, in which Israel will once again play a pivotal role.

Dispensationalism teaches that all God’s remaining covenant promises to Israel will be literally fulfilled—including the promises of earthly blessings and an earthly messianic kingdom. God promised Israel, for example, that they would possess the promised land forever ( Gen. 13:14–17 ; Exod. 32:13 ). Scripture declares that Messiah will rule over the kingdoms of the earth from Jerusalem ( Zech. 14:9–11 ). Old Testament prophecy says that all Israel will one day be restored to the promised land ( Amos 9:14–15); the temple will be rebuilt ( Ezek. 37:26–28 ); and the people of Israel will be redeemed ( Jer. 23:6 ; Rom. 11:26–27). Dispensationalists believe all those promised blessings will come to pass as literally as did the promised curses.

Covenant theology, on the other hand, usually views such prophecies as already fulfilled allegorically or symbolically. Covenant theologians believe that the church, not literal Israel, is the recipient of the covenant promises. They believe the church has superseded Israel in God’s eternal program. God’s promises to Israel are therefore fulfilled in spiritual blessings realized by Christians. Since their system does not allow for literal fulfillment of promised blessings to the Jewish nation, covenant theologians allegorize or spiritualize those prophetic passages of God’s Word.

I am a dispensationalist because dispensationalism generally understands and applies Scripture—particularly prophetic Scripture—in a way that is more consistent with the normal, literal approach I believe is God’s design for interpreting Scripture. For example, dispensationalists can take at face value Zechariah 12–14 , Romans 11:25–29 , and Revelation 20:1–6. The covenant theologian, on the other hand, cannot.

So I am convinced that the dispensationalist distinction between the church and Israel is an accurate understanding of God’s eternal plan as revealed in Scripture. I have not abandoned dispensationalism, nor do I intend to.

Note, by the way, that Dr. Ryrie’s description of dispensationalism and his reasons for embracing the system are very similar to what I have written here. Some years ago he wrote, “The essence of dispensationalism, then, is the distinction between Israel and the church. This grows out of the dispensationalist’s consistent employment of normal or plain interpretation” (Charles Ryrie. Dispensationalism Today. Chicago: Moody Press, 1965, 47). On these matters, it seems, Dr. Ryrie and I are in fundamental agreement. It is in the practical outworking of our dispensationalism that we differ. Dr. Ryrie’s system turns out to be somewhat more complex than his own definition might suggest.

The lordship debate has had a devastating effect on dispensationalism. Because no-lordship theology is so closely associated with dispensationalism, many have imagined a cause-and-effect relationship between the two. In The Gospel According to Jesus, I made the point that some early dispensationalists had laid the foundation for no-lordship teaching. I disagreed with dispensational extremists who relegate whole sections of Scripture—including the Sermon on the Mount and the Lord’s Prayer—to a yet-future kingdom era. I was critical of the way some dispensationalists have handled the preaching and teaching of Jesus in a way that erases the evangelistic intent from some of His most important invitations. I decried the methodology of dispensationalists who want to isolate salvation from repentance, justification from sanctification, faith from works, and Christ’s lordship from His role as Savior, in a way that breaks asunder what God has joined together.

Several outspoken anti-dispensationalists hailed the book as a major blow to dispensationalism. They wanted to declare the system dead and hold a celebratory funeral.

Frankly, some mongrel species of dispensationalism ought to die, and I will be happy to join the cortege. But it is wrong to write off dispensationalism as altogether invalid. My purpose is not to attack the roots of dispensationalism, but rather to plead for a purer, more biblical application of the literal, historical, grammatical principle of interpretation. The hermeneutic method that underlies dispensationalism is fundamentally sound and must not be abandoned. That is not the point of the lordship debate.

Who are dispensationalists? Virtually all dispensationalists are theologically conservative evangelicals. Our view of Scripture is typically very high; our method of interpretation is consistently literal; and our zeal for spiritual things is inflamed by our conviction that we are living in the last days.

How does dispensationalism influence our overall theological perspective? Obviously, the central issue in any dispensationalist system is eschatology, or the study of prophecy. All dispensationalists are premillennialists. That is, they believe in a future earthly thousand-year reign of Christ. That’s what a literal approach to prophecy mandates (cf. Rev. 20:1–10 ). Dispensationalists may disagree on the timing of the rapture, the number of dispensations, or other details, but their position on the earthly millennial kingdom is settled by their mode of biblical interpretation.

Dispensationalism also carries implications for ecclesiology, or the doctrine of the church, because of the differentiation between the church and Israel. Many dispensationalists, myself included, agree that there is some continuity between the Old and New Testament people of God in that we share a common salvation purchased by Jesus Christ and appropriated by grace through faith. But dispensationalists do not accept covenant theology’s teaching that the church is spiritual Israel. Covenant theology sees continuity between Jewish ritual and the New Testament sacraments, for example. In their system, baptism and circumcision have similar significance. In fact, many covenant theologians use the analogy of circumcision to argue for infant baptism. Dispensationalists, on the other hand, tend to view baptism as a sacrament for believers only, distinct from the Jewish rite.

So dispensationalism shapes one’s eschatology and ecclesiology. That is the extent of it. Pure dispensationalism has no ramifications for the doctrines of God, man, sin, or sanctification. More significantly, true dispensationalism makes no relevant contribution to soteriology, or the doctrine of salvation. In other words, nothing in a legitimate dispensational approach to Scripture mandates that we define the gospel in any unique or different way. In fact, if the same zealous concern for literal hermeneutics that yields a distinction between Israel and the church were followed consistently in the salvation issue, there would be no such thing as no-lordship soteriology.

What Is the Connection Between Dispensationalism and No-lordship Doctrine?

Yet the fact remains that virtually all the champions of no-lordship doctrine are dispensationalists. No covenant theologian defends the no-lordship gospel. Why?

Understand, first of all, that dispensationalism has not always been well represented by its most enthusiastic advocates. As I have noted, the uniqueness of dispensationalism is that we see a distinction in Scripture between Israel and the church. That singular perspective, common to all dispensationalists, sets us apart from nondispensationalists. It is, by the way, the only element of traditional dispensationalist teaching that is yielded as a result of literal interpretation of biblical texts. It also is the only tenet virtually all dispensationalists hold in common. That is why I have singled it out as the characteristic that defines dispensationalism. When I speak of “pure” dispensationalism, I’m referring to this one common denominator—the Israel-church distinction.

Admittedly, however, most dispensationalists carry far more baggage in their systems than that one feature. Early dispensationalists often packaged their doctrine in complex and esoteric systems illustrated by intricate diagrams. They loaded their repertoire with extraneous ideas and novel teachings, some of which endure today in various strains of dispensationalism. Dispensationalism’s earliest influential spokesmen included J. N. Darby, founder of the Plymouth Brethren and considered by many the father of modern dispensationalism; Cyrus I. Scofield, author of the Scofield Reference Bible; Clarence Larkin, whose book of dispensational charts has been in print and selling briskly since 1918; and Ethelbert W. Bullinger, an Anglican clergyman who took dispensationalism to an unprecedented extreme usually called ultradispensationalism. Many of these men were self-taught in theology and were professionals in secular occupations. Darby and Scofield, for example, were attorneys, and Larkin was a mechanical draftsman. They were laymen whose teachings gained enormous popularity largely through grass-roots enthusiasm.

Unfortunately some of these early framers of dispensationalism were not as precise or discriminating as they might have been had they had the benefit of a more complete theological education. C. I. Scofield, for example, included a note in his reference Bible that contrasted “legal obedience as the condition of [Old Testament] salvation” with “acceptance … of Christ” as the condition of salvation in the current dispensation (The Scofield Reference Bible. New York, : Oxford, 1917, 11115). Nondispensationalist critics have often attacked dispensationalism for teaching that the conditions for salvation differ from dispensation to dispensation. Here, at least, Scofield left himself open to that criticism, though he seemed to acknowledge in other contexts that the law was never a means of salvation for Old Testament saints (In a note at Exodus 19:3, where Moses was being given the law, Scofield wrote, “The law is not proposed as a means of life, but as a means by which Israel might become ‘a peculiar treasure’ and a ‘kingdom of priests” (Ibid, 93).

The maturing of dispensationalism, then, has mainly been a process of refining, distilling, clarifying, paring down, and cutting away what is extraneous or erroneous. Later dispensationalists, including Donald Grey Barnhouse, Wilbur Smith, and H. A. Ironside, were increasingly wary of the fallacies that peppered much early dispensationalist teaching. Ironside’s written works show his determination to confront error within the movement. He attacked Bullinger’s ultradispensationalism (Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth. New York: Loizeaux, n.d.). He criticized teaching that relegated repentance to some other era (Except Ye Repent. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1937). He condemned the “carnal Christian” theology that helped pave the way for today’s radical no-lordship teaching (Eternal Security of Believers. New York: Loizeaux, 1934). Ironside’s writings are replete with warnings against antinomianism (See, for example, Full Assurance. Chicago: Moody, 1937, 64, 77-87; also Holiness: The False and the True. Neptune, N.J.: Loizeaux, 1912, 121-26).

Nondispensationalists have tended to caricature dispensationalism by emphasizing its excesses, and frankly the movement has produced more than its share of abominable teaching. Dispensationalists have often been forced to acknowledge that some of their critics’ points have been valid (Ryrie, for example, conceded in Dispensationalism Today that Scofield had made “unguarded statements” about dispensationalist soteriology and that dispensationalists often give a wrong impression about the role of grace during the Old Testament era (112,117). The biblical distinction between Israel and the church remains unassailed, however, as the essence of pure dispensationalism.

In recent years, dispensationalism has been hit with a blistering onslaught of criticism, mostly focusing on dispensationalism’s love affair with the no-lordship gospel. Evidence of this may be seen in John Gerstner’s Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth: A Critique of Dispensationalism (Brentwood, Tenn.: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1991. Cf. Richard L. Mayhue, “Who Is Wrong? A Review of John Gerstner’s Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth,” Master’s Seminary Journal 3:1, Spring 1992: 73-94).

Gerstner rightly attacks elements of antinomianism and no-lordship soteriology in some dispensationalists’ teaching. He wrongly assumes, however, that those things are inherent in all dispensationalism. He dismisses the movement altogether because of the shoddy theology he finds in the teaching of several prominent dispensationalists.

It is a gross misunderstanding to assume that antinomianism is at the heart of dispensationalist doctrine. Moreover, it is unfair to portray all dispensationalists as unsophisticated or careless theologians. Many skilled and discerning students of Scripture have embraced dispensationalism and managed to avoid antinomianism, extremism, and other errors. The men who taught me in seminary were all dispensationalists. Yet none of them would have defended no-lordship teaching (Moreover, everyone on The Master’s Seminary faculty is a dispensationalist. None of us holds any of the antinomian views Dr. Gerstner claims are common to all dispensationalists).

Nevertheless, no one can deny that dispensationalism and antinomianism have often been advocated by the same people. All the recent arguments that have been put forth in defense of no-lordship theology are rooted in ideas made popular by dispensationalists. The leading proponents of contemporary no-lordship theology are all dispensationalists. The lordship controversy is merely a bubbling to the surface of tensions that have always existed in and around the dispensationalist community. That point is essential to a clear understanding of the whole controversy.

Thus to appreciate some of the key tenets of the no-lordship gospel, we must comprehend their relationship to the dispensationalist tradition.

Tritely Dividing the Word?

For some dispensationalists, the Israel-church distinction is only a starting point. Their theology is laden with similar contrasts: church and kingdom, believers and disciples, old and new natures, faith and repentance. Obviously, there are many important and legitimate distinctions found in Scripture and sound theology: Old and New Covenants, law and grace, faith and works, justification and sanctification. But dispensationalists often tend to take even the legitimate contrasts too far. Most dispensationalists who have bought into no-lordship doctrine imagine, for example, that law and grace are mutually exclusive opposites, or that faith and works are somehow incompatible.

Some dispensationalists apply 2 Timothy 2:15 (“Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth ”— kjv , emphasis added) as if the key word were dividing rather than rightly. The dispensationalist tendency to divide and contrast has led to some rather inventive exegesis. Some dispensationalists teach, for example, that “the kingdom of heaven” and “the kingdom of God” speak of different domains (Scofield, The Scofield Reference Bible, 1003). The terms are clearly synonymous in Scripture, however, as a comparison of Matthew and Luke shows ( Matt. 5:3 // Luke 6:20 ; Matt. 10:7 // Luke 10:9 ; Matt. 11:11 // Luke 7:28 ; Matt. 11:12 // Luke 16:16 ; Matt. 13:11 // Luke 8:10 ; Matt. 13:31–33 // Luke 13:18–21 ; Matt. 18:4 // Luke 18:17 ; Matt. 19:23 // Luke 18:24 ). Matthew is the only book in the entire Bible that ever uses the expression “kingdom of heaven.” Matthew, writing to a mostly Jewish audience, understood their sensitivity to the use of God’s name. He simply employed the common euphemism heaven. Thus the kingdom of heaven is the kingdom of God.

This tendency to set parallel truths against each other is at the heart of no-lordship theology. Jesus’ lordship and His role as Savior are isolated from one another, making it possible to claim Him as Savior while refusing Him as Lord. Justification is severed from sanctification, legitimizing the notion of salvation without transformation. Mere believers are segregated from disciples, making two classes of Christians, carnal and spiritual. Faith is pitted against obedience, nullifying the moral aspect of believing. Grace becomes the antithesis of law, providing the basis for a system that is inherently antinomian.

The grace-law dichotomy is worth a closer look. Many early dispensationalist systems were unclear on the role of grace in the Mosaic economy and the place of law in the current dispensation. As I noted, Scofield left the unfortunate impression that Old Testament saints were saved by keeping the law. Scofield’s best-known student was Lewis Sperry Chafer, co-founder of Dallas Theological Seminary. Chafer, a prolific author, wrote dispensationalism’s first unabridged systematic theology. Chafer’s system became the standard for several generations of dispensationalists trained at Dallas. Yet Chafer repeated Scofield’s error. In his summary on justification, he wrote,

According to the Old Testament men were just because they were true and faithful in keeping the Mosaic Law. Micah defines such a life after this manner: “He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” ( 6:8 ). Men were therefore just because of their own works for God, whereas New Testament justification is God’s work for man in answer to faith ( Rom. 5:1 – See Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology, 8 vols., Dallas: Seminary Press, 1948, 7:219 [emphasis added] ).

Though Chafer elsewhere denied that he taught multiple ways of salvation, it is clear that he fixed a great gulf between grace and law. He believed the Old Testament law imposed “an obligation to gain merit” with God (Ibid, 7:179). On the other hand, Chafer believed grace delivers the child of God “from every aspect of the law—as a rule of life, as an obligation to make himself acceptable to God, and as a dependence on impotent flesh” (Lewis Sperry Chafer, Grace, Wheaton, Ill.: Van Kampen, 1922, 344). “Grace teachings are not laws; they are suggestions. They are not demands; they are beseechings, ” he wrote (Ibid).

In Chafer’s system, God seems to fluctuate between dispensations of law and dispensations of grace. Grace was the rule of life from Adam to Moses. “Pure law” took over when a new dispensation began at Sinai. In the current dispensation, “pure grace” is the rule. The millennial kingdom will be another dispensation of “pure law.” Chafer evidently believed grace and law could not coexist side by side, and so he seemed to eliminate one or the other from every dispensation. He wrote,

Both the age before the cross and the age following the return of Christ represent the exercise of pure law; while the period between the two ages represents the exercise of pure grace. It is imperative, therefore, that there shall be no careless co-mingling of these great age-characterizing elements, else the preservation of the most important distinctions in the various relationships between God and man are lost, and the recognition of the true force of the death of Christ and His coming again is obscured (Ibid, 124, emphasis added).

No one denies that Scripture clearly contrasts law and grace. John 1:17 says, “The Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ.” Romans 6:4 says, “You are not under law, but under grace.” So the distinction between law and grace is obvious in Scripture.

But grace and law operate in every dispensation. Grace is and always has been the only means of eternal salvation. The whole point of Romans 4 is that Abraham, David, and all other Old Testament saints were justified by grace through faith, not because they kept the law (Galatians 3 also makes clear that it was never God’s intent that rightoeusness should come through the law or that slavation could be earned through obedience [see especially vv. 7, 11]. The law acted as a tutor, to bring people to Christ (v. 24). Thus even in the Old Testament, people were saved because of faith, not because of obedience to the law [cf. Romans 3:19-20). Did the apostle Paul believe we can nullify the law in this age of pure grace? Paul’s reply to that question was unequivocal: “May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law” ( Rom. 3:31 ).

In fairness, it is important to note that when pressed on the issue, Chafer acknowledged that God’s grace and Christ’s blood were the only ground on which sinners in any age could be saved (Lewis Sperry Chafer, “Dispensational Distinctions Denounced,” Bibliotheca Sacra, July 1944: 259). It must be stressed, however, that Chafer, Scofield, and others who have followed their lead have made too much of the differences between Old and New Testament dispensations. Wanting to avoid what he thought was “careless co-mingling” of law and grace, Chafer ended up with an “age of law” that is legalistic and an “age of grace” that smacks of antinomianism.

Chafer himself was a godly man, committed to holiness and high standards of Christian living. In practice, he would never have condoned carnality. But his dispensationalist system—with the hard dichotomies it introduced; its “grace teachings” that were “suggestions,” not demands; and its concept of “pure” grace that stood in opposition to law of any kind—paved the way for a brand of Christianity that has legitimized careless and carnal behavior.

Chafer could rightly be called the father of twentieth-century no-lordship theology. He listed repentance and surrender as two of “the more common features of human responsibility which are too often erroneously added to the one requirement of faith or belief” (Chafer, Systematic Theology, 3:372). He wrote, “to impose a need to surrender the life to God as an added condition of salvation is most unreasonable. God’s call to the unsaved is never said to be unto the Lordship of Christ; it is unto His saving grace” (Ibid, 3:385). “Next to sound doctrine itself, no more important obligation rests on the preacher than that of preaching the Lordship of Christ to Christians exclusively, and the Saviorhood of Christ to those who are unsaved” (Ibid, 3:387).

It is important to note that when Chafer wrote those things, he was arguing against the Oxford Movement, a popular but dangerous heresy that was steering Protestants back into the legalism and works-righteousness of Roman Catholicism. Chafer wrote,

The error of imposing Christ’s Lordship upon the unsaved is disastrous.… A destructive heresy is abroad under the name The Oxford Movement, which specializes in this blasting error, except that the promoters of the Movement omit altogether the idea of believing on Christ for salvation and promote exclusively the obligation to surrender to God. They substitute consecration for conversion, faithfulness for faith, and beauty of daily life for believing unto eternal life. As is easily seen, the plan of this movement is to ignore the need of Christ’s death as the ground of regeneration and forgiveness, and to promote the wretched heresy that it matters nothing what one believes respecting the Saviorhood of Christ if only the daily life is dedicated to God’s service.… The tragedy is that out of such a delusion those who embrace it are likely never to be delivered by a true faith in Christ as Savior. No more complete example could be found today of “the blind leading the blind” than what this Movement presents (Ibid, 3:385-386).

But Chafer prescribed the wrong remedy for the false teachings of the Oxford Movement. To answer a movement that “omit[s] altogether the idea of believing on Christ for salvation and promote[s] exclusively the obligation to surrender to God,” he devised a notion of faith that strips believing of any suggestion of surrender. Although the movement he opposed was indeed an insidious error, Chafer unfortunately laid the foundation for the opposite error, with equally devastating results.

The notion of faith with no repentance and no surrender fit well with Chafer’s concept of an age of “pure grace,” so it was absorbed and expanded by those who developed their theology after his model. It endures today as the basis of all no-lordship teaching.

One other particularly unfortunate outgrowth of Chafer’s rigid partitioning of “the age of law” and “the age of grace” is its effect on Chafer’s view of Scripture. Chafer believed that “The teachings of the law, the teachings of grace, and the teachings of the kingdom are separate and complete systems of divine rule” (Ibid, 4:225). Accordingly, he consigned the Sermon on the Mount and the Lord’s Prayer to the yet-future kingdom age, and concluded that the only Scriptures directly applicable to this age of grace are “portions of the Gospels, portions of the Book of Acts, and the Epistles of the New Testament” (Ibid, 4:206) —the “grace teachings.” How does one know which portions of the Gospels and Acts are “grace teachings” meant for this age? Chafer was vague:

The grace teachings are not, for convenience, isolated in the Sacred Text. The three economies appear in the four Gospels. The grace teachings are rather to be identified by their intrinsic character wherever they are found. Large portions of the New Testament are wholly revelatory of the doctrine of grace. The student, like Timothy, is enjoined to study to be one approved of God in the matter of rightly dividing the Scriptures (Ibid, 4:185).

In other words, there is a lot of law and kingdom teaching mixed into the New Testament. It is not explicitly identified for us, but we can fall into error if we wrongly try to apply it to the present age. Scripture is therefore like a puzzle. We must discern and categorize which portions apply to this age and categorize them accordingly. We can do this only by “their intrinsic character.”

Chafer was certain about one thing: much if not most of Christ’s earthly teaching is not applicable to the Christian in this age:

There is a dangerous and entirely baseless sentiment abroad which assumes that every teaching of Christ must be binding during this age simply because Christ said it. The fact is forgotten that Christ, while living under, keeping, and applying the Law of Moses, also taught the principles of His future kingdom, and, at the end of His ministry and in relation to His cross, He also anticipated the teachings of grace. If this threefold division of the teachings of Christ is not recognized, there can be nothing but confusion of mind and consequent contradiction of truth (Ibid, 4:224).

Dispensationalists who follow Chafer at this point wrongly divide the Word of truth, assigning whole sections of the New Testament to some other dispensation, nullifying the force of major segments of the Gospels and our Lord’s teaching for today (Ultradispensationalists take Chafer’s methodology even a step further. Noting that the apostle Paul called the church a mystery “which in other generations was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed to His holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit” [Eph. 3:5], they concluded that the church age did not begin until this point in Paul’s ministry. Thus they abrogate all the New Testament except for Paul’s prison epistles).

Which Gospel Should We Preach Today?

Not long ago I received a paper that has been circulated widely by a well-known dispensationalist. He wrote, “Dr. MacArthur was quite correct in titling his book The Gospel According to Jesus. The Gospel that Jesus taught in His pre-Cross humiliation, as Israel’s Messiah and to covenant people under the law was, for all intents and purposes, Lordship salvation.” But, he added, “Lordship salvation is based upon the Gospel according to Jesus, John the Baptist, and the early disciples. This Gospel is directed to the covenant nation of Israel.… The Lord Jesus’ Kingdom Gospel had nothing whatsoever to do with Christians, or the Church.”

The paper quotes heavily from Dr. Chafer’s writings, attempting to demonstrate that Jesus’ gospel “was on the level of the law and the earthly kingdom” and has nothing to do with grace or the current dispensation. The paper’s author notes that I wrote, “On a disturbing number of fronts, the message being proclaimed today is not the gospel according to Jesus.” To that he replies, “How blessedly true! Today we are to minister Paul’s ‘by grace are ye saved through faith’ Gospel … not the Lord Jesus’ Gospel relating to the law-oriented theocratic kingdom.”

He continues, “The convert via the Gospel according to Jesus became a child of the kingdom [not a Christian]. And divine authority will ever be the driving force in his heart—the indwelling Spirit writing the law upon his heart to enable him to surrender to the theocratic kingdom law, under his King.… [But the Christian] is not under authority, he is not seeking to obey—unless he is under law as described in Romans Seven. For him to live is Christ, and that life is not under authority.… Paul was offering an altogether different salvation.”

There, as clearly as can be stated, are all the follies that have ever defiled dispensationalism, synthesized into a single system. Blatant antinomianism: “the Christian … is not under authority, he is not seeking to obey”; multiple ways of salvation: “Paul was offering an altogether different salvation”; a fragmented approach to Scripture: “the Lord Jesus’ Kingdom Gospel had nothing whatsoever to do with Christians, or the Church”; and the tendency to divide and disconnect related ideas: “Today we are to minister Paul’s [Gospel] … not the Lord Jesus’ Gospel.”

Note carefully: This man acknowledges that Jesus’ gospel demanded surrender to His lordship. His point is that Jesus’ message has no relevance to this present age. He believes Christians today ought to proclaim a different gospel than the one Jesus preached. He imagines that Jesus’ invitation to sinners was of a different nature than the message the church is called to proclaim. He believes we should be preaching a different gospel.

None of those ideas is new or unusual within the dispensationalist community. All of them can be traced to one or more of dispensationalism’s early spokesmen. But it is about time all of them were abandoned.

In fairness, we should note that the paper I have quoted expresses some rather extreme views. Most of the principal defenders of no-lordship evangelism would probably not agree with that man’s brand of dispensationalism. But the no-lordship doctrine they defend is the product of precisely that kind of teaching. It is not enough to abandon the rigid forms of extreme dispensationalism; we must abandon the antinomian tendencies as well.

The careful discipline that has marked so much of our post-Reformation theological tradition must be carefully guarded. Defenders of no-lordship salvation lean too heavily on the assumptions of a predetermined theological system. They often draw their support from presupposed dispensationalist distinctions (salvation/discipleship, carnal/spiritual believers, gospel of the kingdom/gospel of grace, faith/repentance). They become entangled in “what-ifs” and illustrations. They tend to fall back on rational, rather than biblical, analysis. When they deal with Scripture, they are too willing to allow their theological system to dictate their understanding of the text. As a result, they regularly adopt novel interpretations of Scripture in order to make it conform to their theology.

A reminder is in order: Our theology must be biblical before it can be systematic. We must start with a proper interpretation of Scripture and build our theology from there, not read into God’s Word unwarranted presuppositions. Scripture is the only appropriate gauge by which we may ultimately measure the correctness of our doctrine.

Dispensationalism is at a crossroads. The lordship controversy represents a signpost where the road forks. One arrow marks the road of biblical orthodoxy. The other arrow, labeled “no-lordship,” points the way to a sub-Christian antinomianism. Dispensationalists who are considering that path would do well to pause and check the map again.

The only reliable map is Scripture, not someone’s dispensational diagrams. Dispensationalism as a movement must arrive at a consensus based solely on God’s Word. We cannot go on preaching different gospels to an already-confused world.

SOURCE: John MacArthur. “Appenidix 2” in The Gospel According to the Apostles. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2005.

 

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WHAT’S PROGRESSIVE DISPENSATIONALISM?

Progressive Dispensationalism

PG BLAISING AND BOCK

Introduction
In recent years there has been a rise in what has become known as Progressive Dispensationalism (PD) (Other labels for PD include “revised,” “reconstructed,” or “new” dispensationalism.). Adherents to PD see themselves as being in the line of normative or traditional dispensationalism, but at the same time, have made several changes and/or modifications to the traditional dispensational system. Thus, PD adherents view themselves as furthering the continual development of dispensational theology. It is also true that progressive dispensationalists seek a mediating position between traditional dispensationalism and nondispensational systems.

The meaning of progressive

According to Charles Ryrie, the adjective ‘progressive’ refers to a central tenet that the Abrahamic, Davidic, and new covenants are being progressively fulfilled today (as well as having fulfillments in the millennial kingdom). According to Craig Blaising, The name progressive dispensationalism is linked to the progressive relationship of the successive dispensations to one another.

Origin of PD

The public debut of PD was made on November 20, 1986, in the Dispensational Study Group in connection with the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in Atlanta, Georgia. . . . Actually, the label ‘progressive dispensationalism’ was introduced at the 1991 meeting, since ‘significant revisions’ in dispensationalism had taken place by that time. Some view Kenneth Barker’s presidential address at the 33rd annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society on December 29, 1981 as the precursor to some of the views of PD. His address was called, False Dichotomies Between the Testaments.

PD Proponents

Craig Blaising, Darrell Bock, Robert Saucy, Kenneth Barker, David Turner, John Martin. NOTE: It should not be thought that all who have associated themselves with PD in some way are agreed on all issues. Blaising and Bock have been the most prolific in promoting PD so it is their views that will mostly be examined.

Beliefs of PD

Jesus’ is currently reigning from David’s throne in heaven

According to traditional dispensationalism, Jesus is currently exalted at the right hand of the Father, but He is not sitting on David’s throne nor has His messianic kingdom reign begun yet. Progressive dispensationalism, however, teaches that the Lord Jesus is now reigning as David’s king in heaven at the right hand of the Father in an ‘already’ fulfillment aspect of the Davidic kingdom and that He will also reign on earth in the Millennium in the ‘not yet’ aspect. Thus, according to PD, the Davidic throne and the heavenly throne of Jesus at the right hand of the Father are one and the same. The use of Psalm 110 and 132 in Acts 2 are used to support this claim that Jesus is currently reigning as Davidic King.

HOWEVER, This view is suspect for a number of reasons:

  • Distinction in thrones. In Revelation 3:21, Jesus makes a distinction between His throne (the Davidic throne) and the Father’s throne (of which He is on now in heaven). Thus, the throne Jesus is currently on (the throne of deity) is different than the one He will assume when the millennium starts (Davidic throne). The writer of Hebrews also indicates that Jesus “sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” not the throne of David (12:2).

  • Matthew 25:31 places Christ’s seating on David’s throne at the time of the second coming: “But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne.”

  • Acts 2 shows identity not function. In Acts 2, Peter argues that Jesus’ resurrection is proof that Jesus is the King. He does not state that Jesus is currently reigning as King. Acts 2, then, shows Jesus’ identity as King not a present function of His reigning as king. (It should be noted that David was anointed king before His actual reign began.) In fact, nowhere in the NT is Jesus said to be currently reigning as messianic king. His reign is associated with His second coming and Kingdom (see Matt. 25:31; Rev. 11:15; 20:6).

  • NOTE: PD proponents Blaising and Bock differ somewhat from Saucy on this issue. Blaising and Bock equate the “right hand of God” with “David’s throne” and see a current reign of Jesus as Davidic King. Saucy also equates the right hand of God with the throne of David but does not see Christ ruling from this throne. According to Saucy, being at the right hand of God, i.e. David’s throne affirms the present exaltation of Jesus but not a present function of ruling

  • Evaluation: There is not enough biblical evidence to show that David’s throne is the same as the right hand of God in heaven. It is best to understand David’s throne as an earthly throne that Christ will assume at His second coming.

The “already” aspect of the Kingdom arrived (and stayed) with the first coming of Christ

Thus, when Jesus said the kingdom of heaven is near this meant the kingdom had actually arrived. HOWEVER:

  • The kingdom was near in proximity not arrival Saucy, again disagreeing with Blaising and Bock, shows the improbability of this view: “Jesus said this kingdom was ‘at hand.’ Though some scholars have said the term eingiken[near] means that the kingdom had actually arrived, most see it as indicating only that the kingdom had drawn near or was imminent. Kummel says the term denotes ‘an event which is near, but has not yet taken place.’ According to Hill, ‘to declare that the kingdom is at hand means that the decisive establishment or manifestation of the divine sovereignty has drawn so near to men that they are now confronted with the possibility and ineluctable necessity of repentance and conversion.’ Thus in Jesus’ preaching the kingdom had drawn near, but its actual arrival had not yet occurred. The disciples could still be taught to pray for its coming (Matt. 6:10)”.

  • Kingdom is future. If the kingdom arrived with Jesus’ first coming why did the apostles see the kingdom as future in Acts 1:3-7?

  • The “already/not yet” unproven: PD sees the kingdom as already here but also awaiting a future fulfillment as well. This already/not yet construct, popularized by C.H. Dodd in 1926, though, is highly suspect. This is evident by the confusion shown by those who accept it. Amillennialists, Covenant premillennialists and PD’s all accept the idea but disagree on the outworking of what is already and what is not yet.

The church is not a distinct anthropological group:

As Blaising states, “One of the most striking differences between progressive and earlier dispensationalists, is that progressives do not view the church as an anthropological category in the same class as terms like Israel, Gentile Nations, Jews, and Gentile people. . . .The church is precisely redeemed humanity itself (both Jews and Gentiles) as it exists in this dispensation prior to the coming of Christ”

HOWEVER: It is hard to discern what Blaising means by this but this view seems to blur the distinctions between Israel and the church. One PD advocate, John Turner, for example, refers to the church as the “new Israel”. ALSO: Paul does treat the church as an anthropological entity distinct from Israel and the Gentiles when he writes, “Give no offense either to Jews, or to Greeks or to the church of God” (1 Cor. 10:32). If the church is kept distinct from Israel (even believing Israel) how can the church not be a distinct anthropological group?

NOTE: This appears to be another area where Saucy disagrees with Blaising and Bock. Saucy argues strongly for a clear distinction between Israel and the church. As he states, “The biblical teaching about the roles of Israel and the church in history reveals that although they have much in common, they remain distinctively different”. Saucy, however, does use confusing “one people of God” terminology. By this he means that Israel and the church are saved in the same way, which is correct. But if Israel and the church are “distinctively different,” why refer to them as “one people of God”? The one people of God concept can easily be interpreted in the covenant theology sense of no essential distinction between Israel and the church.

The mysteries of the NT have been revealed in some manner in the OT

Saucy writes, “Contrary to the former [traditional dispensationalists], the contents of both mysteries-i.e., the equal participation of Jew and Gentile in the body of Christ (Eph 3) and his indwelling in his people (Col 1)-are best understood as fulfillments of Old Testament prophecies”. While traditional dispensationalists have taken the NT mysteries to be truths now being revealed that were absolutely not found in the OT, PD’s take the mysteries of Eph. 3 and Col. 1 to be truths that were partially hidden in the OT that are now being fully revealed in the NT. The big difference is that PD’s see the NT mysteries as being found in some manner in the OT.

HOWEVER: though it is true that the ideas of Gentile salvation and Gentile participation in the covenants were found in the OT, the body concept including Jew and Gentiles and the “Christ in you” concept were not found in the OT.

The biblical covenants have been inaugurated and today we are experiencing a “partial” fulfillment of their promises

PD’s see a partial fulfillment of the spiritual promises of the covenants (Abrahamic, Davidic and New) but see a future fulfillment of the physical promises in the millennium.

ON THE OTHER HAND: Traditional dispensationalists do not see the Davidic covenant as being partially fulfilled in any sense in this age. They are also reluctant to say that the New covenant is fulfilled in any way in this age, though they do believe that some spiritual benefits of the New covenant are being applied to the church. As Homer Kent states, “There is one new covenant to be fulfilled eschatologically with Israel, but participated in soteriologically by the church today. This view recognizes that Christ’s death provided the basis for instituting the new covenant, and also accepts the unconditional character of Jeremiah’s prophecy which leaves no room for Israel’s forfeiture. At the same time it also notes that the New Testament passages definitely relate New Testament Christians to this covenant”.

Dispensations as successive arrangements

Progressive dispensationalists understand the dispensations not simply as different arrangements between God and humankind, but as successive arrangements in the progressive revelation and accomplishment of redemption. These dispensations “point to a future culmination in which God will both politically administer Israel and Gentile nations and indwell all of them equally (without ethnic distinctions) by the Holy Spirit”.

Holistic redemption in progressive revelation

God’s divine plan is holistic encompassing all peoples and every area of life: personal, cultural, societal and political.

Pre-tribulation rapture

PD’s, for the most part, accept the pre-tribulational view of the Rapture though most of their writings ignore the issue altogether.

Hermeneutics of PD

The foundational difference between PD and traditional dispensationalism is hermeneutical. With PD’s desire for cordial relations has come a hermeneutical shift away from literal interpretation, also called the grammatical-historical method, which has been one of the ongoing hallmarks of dispensationalism.

ELEMENTS OF PD HERMENEUTICS

Meaning of texts can change

Blaising and Bock believe the meaning of biblical texts can change. “Meaning of events in texts has a dynamic, not a static, quality.” “Once a text is produced, commentary on it can follow in subsequent texts. Connection to the original passage exists, but not in a way that is limited to the understanding of the original human author.” “Does the expansion of meaning entail a change of meaning? . . .The answer is both yes and no. On the one hand, to add to the revelation of a promise is to introduce ‘change’ to it through addition.”

Preunderstanding as part of the interpretive process

The PD emphasis on “preunderstanding” as part of the interpretive process is confusing. If all they mean by it is that the interpreter should be aware of one’s predetermined ideas so that he can suppress them and come up with the intended meaning of the text, it is a good thing. They do not say this, though. The implication of their writings is that we all have presuppositions and preunderstandings that influence our understanding of Scripture but they say nothing on how to deal with these. What are they getting at? Does this mean all our interpretations are the product of our preunderstandings? Is it not possible with the help of the Holy Spirit to lay aside our biases and come up with the intended meaning of the text? This is one area where PD advocates are too vague. What they say, in and of itself is not wrong, but it could lead to faulty conclusions.

The Complementary Hermeneutic:

According to this approach, the New Testament does introduce change and advance; it does not merely repeat Old Testament revelation. In making complementary additions, however, it does not jettison old promises. The enhancement is not at the expense of the original promise. For example, with PD, the Davidic throne is both earthly (as revealed in the OT) and heavenly (as supposedly revealed in the NT).

Evaluation of PD Hermeneutics

Part of the confusion over PD is that its adherents claim to hold to the grammatical-historical method of interpretation but by it they mean something different. Historically, the grammatical-historical method meant that biblical texts had only one meaning that could not change. This meaning was what the biblical author intended. This meaning could be found as the believer put aside his biases, with the help of the Holy Spirit, and sought the author’s meaning by looking at the grammar of the text and taking into account the historical situation facing the biblical author. PD advocates, though, say the meaning of texts can change and we cannot be sure of our findings because of our “preunderstandings.” This approach places PD outside the realm of dispensationalism.

THE FUTURE OF PD

Drift toward Covenant Theology

The hermeneutical doors that PD has opened make very possible the eventual shift to covenant theology. As a covenant theologian, Vern Poythress is appreciative of the moves PD’s have been making. But he also says, “However, their position is inherently unstable. I do not think that they will find it possible in the long run to create a safe haven theologically between classical dispensationalism and covenantal premillennialism. The forces that their own observations have set in motion will most likely lead to covenantal premillennialism after the pattern of George Ladd.” Walter A. Elwell: “the newer dispensationalism looks so much like nondispensationalist premillennialism that one struggles to see any real difference” Commenting on the one people of God concept of PD, Bruce Waltke states, “That position is closer to covenant theology than to dispensationalism”.

Further revisions and changes

“One expects that there will be further revisions and changes in progressive dispensationalism as time passes. Where it will all lead and whether or not it will be understood and received by those who have embraced normative dispensationalism, no one knows. But already progressive dispensationalism certainly appears to be more than a development with normative dispensational teaching. Some so-called developments are too radical not to be called changes” (Ryrie).

– Michael Vlach

Bibliography

C Ryrie, Dispensationalism; C Blaising and D Bock, Progressive Dispensationalism (1993); R L Saucy, The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism (1993); Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church (1992) edited by C Blaising and D Bock; R L Saucy, The Presence of the Kingdom in the Life of the Church; V Poythress, Understanding Dispensationalists; H Kent, The Epistle to the Hebrews; W A Elwell, “Dispensationalists of the Third Kind,” Christianity Today, 9/12, 1994, p. 28; R L Thomas, “A Critique of Progressive Dispensational Hermeneutics,” When the Trumpet Sounds, p. 415; E. Johnson, “Prophetic Fulfillment: The Already and Not Yet,” Issues in Dispensationalism; C Ryrie, “Update on Dispensationalism,” Issues in Dispensationalism; D Bock, “The Reign of the Lord Christ,” DIC, pp. 37-67; B Waltke, DIC, p. 348.

 

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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:

Ryrie

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.

 

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Dr. Charles C. Ryrie on What is God Like?

ASOBD Ryrie

In the midst of the knowledge explosion of the past half century, it is astounding how many have forgotten that the greatest knowledge they could possess is the knowledge of God. Suppose inhabitants of other planets were discovered; this would not be as great as knowing about the one who inhabits heaven. The fact that we have sent men to the moon is not so amazing as sending men to heaven. The knowledge of God is certainly top priority.

 Does God Exist?

Traditionally there have been two lines of argument used to demonstrate the existence of God.

NATURALISTIC ARGUMENTS

The traditional line of proof is philosophical and may or may not satisfy an unbeliever. But the arguments go like this: The first is an argument from cause and effect and simply reminds people that everywhere they look in the world around them they are faced with an effect. In other words, the natural world is a result or an effect, and this forces them to account for that which caused such an effect. Actually there are two possible answers. Either (1) nothing caused this world (but the uncaused emergence of something has never been observed), or (2) something caused this world. This something may be an “eternal cosmic process,” or it may be chance, or one might conclude that God was the cause. While we have to admit that this cause-and-effect argument does not in itself “prove” that the God of the Bible exists, it is fair to insist that the theistic answer is less complex to believe than any other. It takes more faith to believe that evolution or blind intelligence (whatever such a contradictory phrase might mean) could have accounted for the intricate and complex world in which we live than it does to believe that God could.

The second philosophical argument concerns the purpose we see in the world. In other words, we are not only faced with a world (the first argument) but that world seems to have purpose in it. How do you account for this? The nontheist answers that this happens by chance and/or through the processes of natural selection (which are by chance too). The question remains, however: Can random “by chance” actions result in the highly integrated organization which is evident in the world about us? To say it can is possible, but it requires a great deal of faith to believe. The Christian answer may also involve faith, but it is not less believable.

The third argument concerns the nature of man. Man’s conscience, moral nature, intelligence, and mental capacities have to be accounted for in some way. Again the nontheist answers that all of this evolved, and he has proposed very elaborate explanations of how this has happened. A tendency today seems to be to consider man as a biological or organic and cultural or superorganic creature and to account for the evolving of both these aspects totally by chance. But does this explain conscience or that reaching out for a belief in a higher being which seems to be universal (though terribly defective as far as understanding what that being is like)? Or does the very existence of man point to the existence of a personal God? Paul put the question this way to the philosophers of Athens: “Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold or silver, or stone, graven by art and man’s device” (Ac 17:29).

In connection with this anthropological argument, the moral argument is sometimes delineated. It poses the question, How did the idea of good and bad, right and wrong ever come into human culture? Man seems to have a sense of what is desirable as opposed to what is not. Where does this sense come from, and on what basis does man decide what ought to be desired or what ought not to be? Some argue that man’s recognition of good and his quest for a moral ideal point to the existence of a God who gives reality to that ideal. Others have emphasized that the ethical systems advanced by philosophers always contain contradiction and paradox if Christian theism is left out, which argues for the necessity of theism to explain satisfactorily man’s idea of good and evil. For instance, the humanist declares that he does not accept any absolute standard, yet in the next breath he exhorts you to do better.

A fourth line of reasoning seems much more sophisticated and much less easy to comprehend. It is called the ontological argument (from the present participle form of the Greek verb “to be”). The idea is that God has to be since man commonly has the idea of a most perfect Being and that idea must include the existence of such a Being. The reason is simply that a being, otherwise perfect, who did not exist would not be so perfect as a being who was perfect and who did exist. Therefore, since this concept does exist in the minds of men, such a most perfect Being must exist. Or to put it another way, since God is the greatest Being who can be thought of, He cannot be conceived as not existing; for if He could, then it would be possible to conceive of a being greater than God who does exist; therefore, God must exist. Many (including Immanuel Kant) do not feel this argument has any value. It originated with Anselm in the twelfth century.

One has to face the fact that these philosophical arguments do not of themselves prove the existence of the true God. But we do not minimize them. They may be used to establish a presumption in favor of the existence of the God of the Bible, and they produce sufficient evidence to place the unregenerated man under a responsibility to accept further knowledge from God or to reject intelligently this knowledge and thus to relieve God of further obligation on his behalf. You may find that using these lines of reasoning may trigger the thinking or open the way to present the gospel more clearly to a fellow student or friend.

The entire theistic world view has come under massive attack because of the rise of mechanistic science and its questioning of the possibility of miracles and because of the popular acceptance of evolution. Evolution is discussed in chapter 7, but a word about miracles is in order here.

If a miracle is defined (as Hume did) as a violation of the laws of nature, then, of course, the possibility of a miracle happening is slim if not nil. But if a miracle is contrary to what we know as the laws of nature, then the possibility of introducing a new factor into the known laws of nature is not eliminated. This new miraculous factor does not contradict nature because nature is not a self-contained whole; it is only a partial system within total reality, and a miracle is consistent within that greater system which includes the supernatural. It is true, however, that a miracle is something which nature, if left to its own resources, could not produce. If one admits the postulate of God, miracles are possible. If one adds the postulates of sin and salvation and sign-evidence, then they seem necessary.

The Christian does not view miracles as an easy way out of difficulties, but as an important part of the real plot of the story of the world. Most historians will not admit the occurrence of a miracle until they have tried every other possible and less probable explanation. But the admitted improbability of a miracle happening at a given time and place does not make the story of its happening untrue or unbelievable. It is improbable that you should be the millioneth customer to enter a store and thus receive a prize, but if you are, your friends should not refuse to believe that you were simply because it was unlikely that you would be.

The dimension of the supernatural is essential to Christianity and is often seen in history. Beware when considering specific miracles that you do not slip into naturalistic explanations for them. Remember, too, that to deny miracles is to deny also the resurrection of Christ, which would mean that our faith is empty.

BIBLICAL ARGUMENTS

The other line of proof is what the Bible presents, and this may be summarized very quickly. Often it is said that the Bible does not argue for the existence of God; it simply assumes it throughout. It is true that the opening words of the Bible assume His being, and this assumption underlies and pervades every book. But it is not the whole story to say that the Bible assumes but does not argue God’s existence. Look at Psalm 19 and notice that David says clearly that God has revealed His existence in the world around us. Isaiah told backslidden people who were making and worshiping idols to consider the world around them and then think whether or not idols that they made with their hands could fashion such a world. The answer is obviously negative. Then he said, “Lift up your eyes on high, and behold who hath created these things” (Is 40:26). The apostle Paul argued before a non-Christian audience that the rain and change of seasons witness to the existence of God (Ac 14:17). So the Bible does argue for as well as assume the existence of God.

How Has God Revealed Himself?

Liberalism teaches that man knows God through his own efforts. In contrast to this, one of the “good” things that Barth did when he thundered on the world his new theology was to remind men that there can be no revelation of God unless God Himself takes the initiative to make Himself known. In other words, the question is the one which Zophar asked a few thousand years before, “Canst thou by searching find out God?” (Job 11:7). The liberal says yes; the conservative says no (this is not intended to imply that Barth was a conservative, because he also said no; his view of the Bible demonstrates that he was not one).

If God has taken the initiative to reveal Himself, in what ways has He done this? We may think immediately of Christ and the Bible as answers to this question. But there are other answers too, like nature and history. These latter two ways are obviously different from the former in that they do not tell us as much about God. In other words, there seem to be general ways and special ways in which God has revealed Himself; the revelation of God through nature and history is called general revelation, while other means are labeled special revelation.

What are the characteristics of general revelation? Look at Psalm 19:1–6. Verse 1 states the content of that revelation as being the glory and handiwork of God. Verse 2 affirms the continuousness of it—day and night (since the sky is always there for man to behold). Verse 3 states the character of that revelation in nature as being a silent revelation (the word “where” is not in the original text). Verses 4–6 tell that the coverage of that revelation is worldwide (v. 4) and to every man (note v. 6 which intimates that even a blind man can feel the heat of the sun). Romans 1:18–20, which is the other central passage on this doctrine, adds the fact that the revelation of God in nature contains a revelation of His “eternal power and Godhead.” God’s revelation of Himself through history comes in various ways. He gives all people rain and productive seasons (Ac 14:17); He especially revealed a variety of aspects of His being and power to the nation Israel (Ps 78—His miraculous power, v. 13; His anger, v. 21; His control of nature, v. 26; His love, v. 38). In many ways the revelation of God through history is more explicit than that through nature.

Through Jesus Christ, God revealed Himself (“exegeted” is the word in Jn 1:18) in clarity and detail. The miracles of Christ showed things like the glory of God (Jn 2:11); His words told of the Father’s care (Jn 14:2); His person showed the Father (Jn 14:9). The way to know God is to know His Son; and apart from the revelation through the Son, little is known of God.

The other avenue of special revelation is the Bible. Today some are saying that the Bible is a lesser revelation than the Son, and to make too much of it is to worship the Bible (bibliolatry). But if we do not make much of the Bible, then we cannot know much of the Son, for our only source of information about the Son (and hence about the Father) is through the Bible. Furthermore, if the Bible is not to be trusted, then again we cannot know truth about the Son. Or if only certain parts of the Bible are trustworthy, we will end up with as many pictures of Christ as there are people picking the parts of the biography which they think are reliable. In other words, if the Bible is not completely true, we end up with either misinformation or subjective evaluation. Jesus Himself asserted that the Bible revealed Him (Lk 24:27, 44–45; Jn 5:39). And, of course, the Bible reveals many other things about God. Think, for instance, of the many aspects of His plan which are known only through the Bible and which tell us about Him. You might say that the Bible is an inexhaustible source of information about God.

What Is God Like?

With all these channels of revelation we ought to be able to learn something about what God is like. Traditionally, the characteristics of God stated formally and systematically are called the attributes of God; and traditionally, they have been divided into two categories. There are some ways in which God is like us (for instance, God is just, and man can be just too); and there are some ways in which God is unique (for instance, He is infinite, which finds no correspondence in us). However, these categories are not hard and fast, and some of the choices as to which attributes to place within which category are debatable. The important thing to study is the attribute itself to learn not only what it reveals about God but also what implications that it has for one’s personal outlook and life.

1. God is omniscient. Omniscience means that God knows everything, and this includes the knowledge not only of things that actually happen but also of things which might happen. This kind of knowledge God had by nature and without the effort of learning. Jesus claimed omniscience when He said, “If the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes” (Mt 11:21). Here is a display of the knowledge of things that might have happened. God “telleth the number of the stars; he calleth them all by their names” (Ps 147:4), and “known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world” (Ac 15:18).

The practical ramifications of the omniscience of God are many. Think, for instance, what this means in relation to the eternal security of the believer. If God knows all, then obviously nothing can come to light subsequent to our salvation which He did not know when He saved us. There were no skeletons in the closet which He did not know about when He offered to give us eternal salvation. Think again what omniscience means when something tragic occurs in our lives. God knows and has known all about it from the beginning and is working all things out for His glory and our ultimate good. Consider what omniscience ought to mean in relation to living the Christian life. Here is Someone who knows all the pitfalls as well as the ways to be happy and who has offered to give us this wisdom. If we would heed what He says then we could avoid a lot of trouble and experience a lot of happiness.

2. God is holy. The word holiness is very difficult to define. The dictionary does not help much since it just defines holiness as absence of evil, and it is usually measured against a relative standard. In God, holiness is certainly absence of evil, but it must also include a positive righteousness and all of this measured against Himself as an absolute standard. Holiness is one of the most important, if not the most important, attributes of God, and certainly nothing that God does can be done apart from being in complete harmony with His holy nature. Peter declares that “he which hath called you is holy” (1 Pe 1:15), and then he goes on to state what effect that should have in our lives, namely, “so be ye holy in all manner of conversation [life].”

An analogy may help in understanding this concept of holiness. What does it mean to be healthy? It means more than not being sick. Likewise, holiness is more than absence of sin; it is a positive, healthy state of being right. This is what John meant when he said that God is light (1 Jn 1:5).

The ramification of this is obvious: “Walk in the light,” A proper concept of holiness as a requirement for Christian living would end a lot of discussion about what is permitted to the Christian and what is not. It seems as though many are trying to discover how close they can come to sin without being cut off from their particular Christian group or clique instead of determining the propriety of things on the simple basis of “Is it holy?” Don’t be tempted to be a leader in or follower of the “let’s skate on as thin ice as possible” group; instead, be a leader in holiness. This will please God because it imitates Him.

3. God is just (or righteousness). While holiness principally concerns the character of God, justice or righteousness has more to do with the character expressed in His dealings with men. It means that God is equitable, or, as the Bible puts it, He is no respecter of persons. David said, “The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether” (Ps 19:9; see also Ps 116:5; 145:17; Jer 12:1).

The most obvious application of the justice of God is in connection with judgment. When men stand before God to be judged they will receive full justice. This is both a comfort (for those who have been wronged in life) and a warning (for those who think they have been getting away with evil). Before an unsaved audience Paul emphatically warned of the coming righteous judgment: “He hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead” (Ac 17:31).

If you think a little further you might ask if God can save sinners and still be just. This is a good question and is answered by Paul in Romans 3:21–26 in the affirmative, but only because (as he explains) Jesus died to pay the penalty for sin which a just God required. But the price having been paid, God can be just (not compromising His holiness) and at the same time justify the one who believes in Jesus.

4. God is love (1 Jn 4:8). What is love? This is one of the most often used and most infrequently defined words in our vocabulary today. Here is one way of arriving at a proper concept of what love is. When young people think of love they think first and quite naturally of a pleasant emotional experience. And this is love, but it is not the whole concept. When those same young people grow up, marry, and have children, they soon learn that they have to discipline those children. The couple that first cuddles a baby and then soon after corrects that baby who, for instance, reaches out to touch a hot stove, is expressing two aspects of love. So any definition of love must be broad enough to include both the cuddling and correcting aspects of love. Therefore, we might tentatively propose the definition that love is that which seeks good for the object loved. But anyone who rears children knows that there are as many experts on child-rearing as there are grandmothers and aunts. What is good in the opinion of one is not good in the judgment of another. For the Christian this problem of what is good is easily solved. Good is the will of God. So, putting that in our tentative definition, we may say that love is that which seeks the will of God in the object loved. Will such a definition work? Let’s test it. God is love, meaning that He seeks His own will or glory, and we know that this is true. God loves the world, meaning that He seeks to have His will followed by the world. God loves sinners, meaning He wants them to know His will, and it is His desire that they believe on His Son. We are to love one another, meaning that we are to endeavor to see that the will of God is done in each other. So the definition seems to work.

The love of God seems to be of such a nature as to interest itself in the welfare of creatures in a measure beyond any normal human conception (1 Jn 3:16; Jn 3:16). It is almost beyond human comprehension to think of God allowing Himself to become emotionally involved with human beings. Of course the great manifestation of this was in the sacrifice of His Son for the salvation of men (1 Jn 4:9–10). The Bible also teaches that the love of God is shed abroad in the hearts of the children of God (Ro 5:8).

There is a very popular teaching today that says that because God is love and always acts in a loving manner toward His creatures, eventually all men will be saved. This teaching is called universalism. The trouble with the doctrine is not only that it contradicts direct statements of the Bible which say that men will be cast into hell forever (Mk 9:45–48), but it misunderstands the concept of love and its relation to the other attributes of God. Love may have to punish, and the attribute of love does not operate in God apart from His other attributes, particularly the attributes of holiness and justice.

5. God is true. Truth is another concept which is difficult to define. The dictionary says that it is agreement which is represented; if applied to God, it means that God is consistent with Himself and thus everything He does is true also. The Bible asserts that God is true (Ro 3:4) and Jesus claimed to be the truth (Jn 14:6), thus making Himself equal with God. The ramifications of the truthfulness of God lie chiefly in the area of His promises. He cannot be false to any one of the promises He has made. This includes broad and inclusive promises as, for instance, to the nation Israel and it affects with equal certainty the promises made to believers for daily living. The truth of God also affects His revelation, for He who is true cannot and has not revealed anything false to us.

6. God is free. Freedom in God means that He is independent of all His creatures, but it obviously could not mean that He is independent of Himself. Often we hear it said that the only restrictions on God are those inherent in His own person (e.g., God cannot sin because His holiness restricts Him from doing that). Perhaps it would be better to consider the matter in this fashion: the only restrictions on God’s freedom are the restrictions of perfection, and since perfection is no restriction, in reality, then, God is not restricted in any way. When Isaiah asked the people, Who has directed the Lord or who has taught Him anything or who has instructed Him? (Is 40:13–14), He expected the answer “no one,” because God is free (independent of His creatures). If this be true, then anything God has done for His creatures is not out of a sense of obligation to them, for He has none. What He has done for us is out of His love and compassion for us.

7. God is omnipotent. Fifty-six times the Bible declares that God is the almighty one (and this word is used of no one but God, cf. Rev 19:6). When students talk about the omnipotence of God they often joke about it along the line of asking if God could make two plus two equal six. The trouble with such a question is simply that it is not in the realm which omnipotence is concerned with. You might as well ask if dynamite could make two plus two equal six. The truths of mathematics are not in the area of omnipotence. But the security of the believer certainly is, and we are kept secure in our salvation by an omnipotent God (1 Pe 1:5). In fact, our salvation comes because the gospel is the power of God unto salvation (Ro 1:16). So rather than meditating on the ridiculous, let’s be thankful for the basics of our redemption which are effected by the power of God. Furthermore, God’s omnipotence is seen in His power to create (Gen 1:1), in His preservation of all things (Heb 1:3), and in His providential care for us.

8. God is infinite and eternal. Since there is nothing in our human natures which corresponds to infinity (only the opposite, finitude), it is difficult, if not impossible, for us to comprehend the term. Indeed, most dictionaries resort to defining it by negatives—without termination or without finitude. Eternity is usually defined as infinity related to time. Whatever is involved in these concepts, we can see that they must mean God is not bound by the limitations of finitude and He is not bound by the succession of events, which is a necessary part of time. Also His eternality extends backward from our viewpoint of time as well as forward forever. Nevertheless, this concept does not mean that time is unreal to God. Although He sees the past and future as clearly as the present, He sees them as including a succession of events, without being Himself bound by that succession. “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God” (Ps 90:2; cf. Gen 21:33; Ac 17:24).

9. God is immutable. Immutability means that God is unchanging and unchangeable. God never differs from Himself, and thus in our concept of God there can be no idea of a growing or developing being. He is the one in whom is no variableness (Ja 1:17; cf. Mal 3:6; Is 46:9–10).

There is a problem in connection with the immutability of God, and it concerns verses which say that God repented (Gen 6:6; Jon 3:10). If these verses are understood to mean that there actually was a change in God’s plans, then He is either not immutable or not sovereign. But if such verses refer only to the revelation or unfolding of God’s plans to men, then it can be said that although His plan does not change, as man views its unfolding it seems to involve change. In other words, God’s “repentance” is only from our viewpoint; therefore, it is only apparent repentance as His eternal and unchanging plan is worked out in history.

10. God is omnipresent. Omnipresence means simply that God is everywhere present. That concept is not difficult, but some aspects related to it are. For instance, what is the difference between omnipresence and pantheism? Essentially, it is this: Omnipresence says God is everywhere present (though separate from the world and the things in it), while pantheism says that God is in everything. Omnipresence says that God is present in the room where you are reading this, while pantheism affirms that God is in the chair and in the window, etc. Another important distinction is this: Even though God is everywhere (though not in everything), this does not contradict the fact that there are varying degrees of the manifestation of His presence. God’s presence in the Shekinah glory was an immediate and localized manifestation of His presence, while His presence in relation to unredeemed men is scarcely realized by them. Furthermore, the presence of God is not usually in visible or bodily form. Occasionally He has appeared so that His glory was seen, but omnipresence is a spiritual manifestation of God. Psalm 139 teaches His omnipresence in a most vivid way, and of course this doctrine means that no one can escape God. If people try throughout their entire lifetime, they still cannot escape Him at death. On the other hand, it also means that a believer may experience the presence of God at all times and know the blessing of walking with Him in every trial and circumstance of life.

11. God is sovereign. The word sovereign means chief, highest, or supreme. When we say that God is sovereign we are saying that He is the number one Ruler in the universe. Actually, the word itself does not tell anything about how that Ruler may rule, although this is described in the Bible. The word itself means only that He is the supreme Being in the universe. Of course, the position brings with it a certain amount of authority, and in God’s case that authority is total and absolute. This does not mean, however, that He rules His universe as a dictator, for God is not only sovereign, He is also love and holiness. He can do nothing apart from the exercise of all His attributes acting harmoniously together. The concept of sovereignty involves the entire plan of God in all of its intricate details of design and outworking. Although He often allows things to take their natural course according to laws which He designed, it is the sovereign God who is working all things according to His wise plan.

That the Bible teaches the sovereignty of God there can be no doubt. Just read Ephesians 1 and Romans 9 (and don’t worry about all the ramifications). For the Christian the idea of sovereignty is an encouraging one, for it assures him that nothing is out of God’s control, and that His plans do triumph.

These are the principal attributes or characteristics of God, and this is the only God that exists. The God of the Bible is not a god of man’s own making or thinking or choosing, but He is the God of His own revelation.

What Does God Call Himself?

A person’s names always tell something about him or about the relationship he has to those who use the names. Often names grow out of experiences people have. So it is with God. He has revealed aspects of His nature by the names He uses with men, and some of them have grown out of specific experiences men have had with God.

PRIMARY OLD TESTAMENT NAMES

1. Elohim. The most general (and least specific in significance) name for God in the Old Testament is Elohim, Although its etymology is not clear, it apparently means “Strong One,” and it is used not only of the true God but also of heathen gods (Gen 31:30; Ex 12:12). The im ending indicates that the word is plural, and this has given rise to considerable speculation as to the significance of the plural. Some have suggested that it is an indication of polytheism, which would be difficult to sustain since the singular (Eloah) is rarely used and since Deuteronomy 6:4 clearly says that God is one. Others have attempted to prove the concept of the Trinity from this plural word. While the doctrine of the Trinity is of course a biblical one, it is very doubtful that it can be proved on the basis of this name for God. Nevertheless, this is not to say that the plural Elohim in no way indicates some distinctions within the Godhead. Though the plural does allow for the subsequent clear revelation of the Trinity in the New Testament, it most likely is best understood as indicating fullness of power. Elohim, the strong one, is the powerful Governor of the universe and of all the affairs of mankind. This name for God occurs over 2,500 times in the Old Testament. Take time to read verses like Genesis 1:1 and remember that this one is your God in all the circumstances of life.

2. Jehovah. This is the most specific name for God in the Old Testament, though Jehovah is not a real word! It is actually an artificial English word put together from the four Hebrew consonants YHWH and the vowels from another name for God, Adonai. Thus Jehovah was concocted this way: YaHoWaH, or Jehovah. The Jews had a superstitious dread of pronouncing the name YHWH, so whenever they came to it they said Adonai. We probably ought to pronounce it Yahweh.

The meaning of the word is also a matter of much discussion. There seems to be agreement that it is connected somehow with the Hebrew verb, to be, or some variant or earlier form of it, so that it does have the idea of God’s eternal self-existence (Ex 3:14). In its use in Exodus 6:6, however, there seems to be an added idea that connects this name in a special way with God’s power to redeem Israel out of Egyptian bondage. We have already seen that a name usually tells something about a person and some relationship that person has. In the name Yahweh these two features of a name are evident: Yahweh is eternal, and Yahweh bore a special relationship to Israel as her Redeemer.

The name occurs nearly 7,000 times in the Old Testament and is especially associated with Yahweh’s holiness (Lev 11:44–45), with His hatred of sin (Gen 6:3–7) and with His gracious provision of redemption (Is 53:1, 5, 6, 10).

3. Adonai. This is the name of God which the Jews substituted for the Tetragrammaton (the four letters YHWH, Yahweh) when they read the Scriptures. Yet it, too, is a basic designation for God and means Lord (master). It is used, as one might expect, of the relationship between men (like master and slave, as in Ex 21:1–6); thus when it refers to God’s relationship with men it conveys the idea of His absolute authority. Notice its occurrences in Joshua 5:14 (where Joshua recognized the authority of the captain of the Lord’s hosts) and Isaiah 6:8–11 (where Isaiah was commissioned by his Master).

There are two sides to a master-servant relationship. On the one hand, the servant must give absolute obedience to his master. On the other hand the master obligates himself to take care of the servant. If the believer truthfully calls God by His name, Lord, then he can expect God to take care of him, and God in turn can expect the believer to obey Him in everything.

COMPOUND OLD TESTAMENT NAMES

Frequently the Old Testament reveals something about the character or activity of God by using some designation in compound with Yahweh or El (which is the singular of Elohim). Here are some examples:

1. El Elyon—“The most high” (Gen 14:22). Notice its use in connection with Lucifer’s desire to be like the Most High (Is 14:14).

2. El Olam—“The everlasting God” (Gen 21:33). Notice this use in connection with God’s inexhaustible strength (Is 40:28).

3. El Shaddai—“The Almighty God” (Gen 17:1). This probably derives from a related word which means “mountain” and pictures God as the overpowering almighty one standing on a mountain. The name is often used in connection with the chastening of God’s people, as in Ruth 1:20–21 and the thirty-one times it is used in the book of Job.

4. Yahweh Jireh—The Lord provides (Gen 22:14). This is the only occurrence. After the angel of the Lord pointed to a ram as a substitute for Isaac, Abraham named the place, “the Lord provides.”

5. Yahweh Nissi—The Lord is my Banner (Ex 17:15). Similarly, after the defeat of the Amalekites, Moses erected an altar and called it Yahweh Nissi. Actually this and the other compounds are not really names of God, but designations that grew out of commemorative events.

6. Yahweh Shalom—The Lord is peace (Judg 6:24).

7. Yahweh Sabbaoth—“The Lord of hosts” (1 Sa 1:3). The hosts are the angels of heaven which are ready to obey the Lord’s commands. This title was often used by the prophets (Isaiah and Jeremiah) during times of national distress to remind the people that Yahweh was still their Protector.

8. Yahweh Maccaddeshcem—The Lord thy Sanctifier (Ex 31:13).

9. Yahweh Roi—“The Lord … my shepherd” (Ps 23:1).

10. Yahweh Tsidkenu—The Lord our Righteousness (Jer 23:6). This title was a direct thrust against King Zedekiah (which means Yahweh is righteousness) who was a completely unrighteous king (2 Ch 36:12–13).

11. Yahweh Shammah—“The Lord is there” (Eze 48:35).

12. Yahweh Elohim Israel—“The Lord God of Israel” (Judg 5:3). This is a designation frequently used by the prophets (Is 17:6), similar to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

13. Qadosh Israel—“The Holy One of Israel” (Is 1:4).

This list might go on and on because these compounds are not really distinct names but are more designations or titles. Yet they need to be included in our study since they do reveal some things about God. Remember, in the East a name is more than an identification; it is descriptive of its bearer, often revealing some characteristic or activity of that person. “O Lord, our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth!” (Ps 8:1, 9).

To review: The knowledge of the true God is the highest knowledge any person can have. There are certain logical arguments which can at least tip the balance in favor of theism (though they do not tell us who God is or what He is like). The world around us tells us of the power of God, but it is from the Bible that we learn the full facts about God. Specifically we learn about Him through what the Bible says about His character (attributes) and His names.

What Is the Trinity?

The word trinity is not found in the Bible; indeed, many think it is a poor word to use to try to describe this particular teaching of the Bible. Actually, it describes only half the teaching; the reason will become clear shortly.

When you study a book like this, it may appear to you that the writer, or the church, or somebody else is saying to you, “Here are the doctrines—believe them!” If that’s the case it is only because you are looking at the results of someone’s study, not the process of it. We are not saying, “Here are some doctrines to be believed whether you like it or not,” but rather, “Here are some facts to be faced. How would you harmonize and organize them?”

The teaching on the Trinity is a good illustration of this point. You have probably heard lessons on the Trinity in which you were taught only the results: that the one God exists in three Persons. Then you asked for illustrations and got none that were satisfying. So you concluded that there was a doctrine you were expected to believe—regardless! Actually, the way we ought to go about it is this: as we read the Bible, certain astounding facts confront us and demand our attention. Specifically, the Bible seems to say clearly that there is only one true God. But it also seems to say with equal clarity that there was a man Jesus Christ who claimed equality with God and there is Someone called the Holy Spirit who is also equal with God. Now how do you put those facts together? The way conservatives have put them together results in the doctrine of the Trinity. Others have put these facts together and have come up with a different idea of the Trinity (the Persons being modes of expression of God and not distinct persons), and still others, rejecting the claims of Christ and the Spirit to be God, become Unitarians. But the claims are still there in the Bible, and the need for packaging them is what we study in this section.

Any concept of the Trinity must be carefully balanced, for it must maintain on the one side the unity of God, and on the other, the distinctness and equality of the Persons. That is why the word trinity only tells half of the doctrine—the “threeness” part and not the unity. Perhaps the word tri-unity is better since it contains both ideas—the “tri” (the threeness) and the “unity” (the oneness).

EVIDENCE FOR ONENESS

Deuteronomy 6:4 may be translated various ways (e.g., Yahweh our God is one Yahweh,” or “Yahweh is our God, Yahweh alone”), but in any case it is a strong declaration of monotheism. So are Deuteronomy 4:35 and 32:39 as well as Isaiah 45:14 and 46:9. The first of the so-called Ten Commandments shows that Israel was expected to understand that there is only one true God (Ex 20:3; Deu 5:7). The New Testament is equally clear in passages like 1 Corinthians 8:4–6, Ephesians 4:3–6 and James 2:19, all of which state emphatically that there is only one true God. Therefore, the doctrine of the Trinity must not imply in any way that there might be three Gods. God is single and unique, demanding the exclusion of all pretended rivals and removing any hint of tritheism.

EVIDENCE FOR THREENESS

Nowhere does the New Testament explicitly state the doctrine of triunity (since 1 Jn 5:7 is apparently not a part of the genuine text of Scripture), yet the evidence is overwhelming.

1. The Father is recognized as God. Notice, among many Scripture verses, John 6:27 and 1 Peter 1:2. This point is seldom debated.

2. Jesus Christ is recognized as God. Doubting Thomas recognized Him as such (Jn 20:28). He Himself claimed some of the attributes which only God has, like omniscience (Mt 9:4), omnipotence (Mt 28:18) and omnipresence (Mt 28:20). Further, He did things which only God can do (and the people recognized this) (Mk 2:1–12—healing the paralytic was done to prove that Christ had the power to forgive sins, which was acknowledged as something only God can do).

3. The Holy Spirit is recognized as God. He is spoken of as God (Ac 5:3–4—lying to the Spirit is the same as lying to God). He possesses the same attributes as God and those which belong exclusively to God (omniscience, 1 Co 2:10; omnipresence, Ps 139:7). It is the Spirit who regenerates man (Jn 3:5–6, 8).

This New Testament evidence is quite clear and explicit. Is there any similar evidence in the Old Testament? The answer is no, because what the Old Testament reveals concerning the Trinity is not clear and explicit but intimating and implicit. It is probably best to say that the Old Testament, although it does not reveal the triunity of God, does allow for the later New Testament revelation of it. Passages which use the plural word for God, Elohim, and plural pronouns of God allow for this subsequent revelation (Gen 1:1, 26). The Angel of Yahweh is recognized as God and yet is distinct from God (Gen 22:15–16), indicating two equal Persons. The Messiah is called the mighty God (Is 9:6 and note eternality ascribed to Him in Mic 5:2) again indicating two equal yet distinct Persons. Probably Isaiah 48:16 is the clearest intimation of the Trinity in the Old Testament because “I”—the Lord—is associated with God and the Spirit in an apparently equal relationship. But still these are only intimations and are not so explicit as the New Testament evidences.

THE EVIDENCE FOR TRIUNITY

Probably the verse that best states the doctrine of the triunity of God balancing both aspects of the concept, the unity and the Trinity, is Matthew 28:19, “baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” There is no question about the “threeness” aspect, for the Father, Son, and Spirit are mentioned—and only three. The unity is strongly indicated in the singular “name” rather than “names.” There are other verses similar to this one where the three are associated in equality and yet distinguished (like the benediction in 2 Co 13:14 and the presence of the Trinity at the baptism of Christ, Mt 3:16–17), but they do not also contain the strong emphasis on unity as indicated in the singular “name” in Matthew 28:19.

Having looked at the evidence and having concluded that there is one God and yet three Persons in the Godhead, is it possible to formalize this concept in a definition? Warfield’s is one of the best: “The doctrine that there is one only and true God, but in the unity of the Godhead there are three eternal and co-equal Persons, the same in substance but distinct in subsistence.” Subsistence means being or existence. The word person is really not so good, because it seems to indicate separate individuals in the Godhead; but, though we all recognize deficiency in the word, what better one is there?

Can the Trinity be illustrated? Not perfectly, nor probably very well, because most illustrations cannot include the idea that the three fully possess all the qualities of the one equally and without separation. One illustration from psychology notes that the innermost being of man—his soul—can carry on dialogue with itself, noting both sides of the debate and making judgments. Another uses the sun (like the Father) and notes that we only see the light of the sun, not the sun itself, which yet possesses all the properties of the sun (like the Son who came to earth), and observing further that the chemical power of the sun (which also possesses all the qualities of the sun and yet is distinct) is what makes plants grow. The sun, its light, and its power may give some help in illustrating the Trinity.

It is no wonder that a difficult doctrine like this has been the focal point of many errors throughout church history. One error that crops up again and again sees the Spirit as a mere influence and not a living person who is God. Sometimes Christ, too, is regarded as inferior to the Father, even as is some created being (dynamic Monarchianism, Arianism, present-day Unitarianism). Another error regards the concept of the Trinity as merely modes or manifestations of God (Sabellianism, after Sabellius, c. a.d. 250, or modalism). Karl Barth was for all intents and purposes a modalist, though he often rejected the label.

Is the teaching important? How else could one conceive of our atonement being accomplished apart from a triune God? God becoming man, living, dying, raised from the dead is pretty hard to conceive of if you are a Unitarian. Does not this doctrine illuminate the concept of fellowship? The fact that God is Father, Son, and Spirit emphasizes the fact that He is a God of love and fellowship within His own being. And this is the one with whom we as believers can enjoy fellowship as well.

The Father

Since the Son and the Holy Spirit are considered in detail later, we need to add a word here concerning the particular relationships and works of the Father.

THE PARTICULAR RELATIONSHIPS OF THE FATHER

1. All people are called the offspring of God (Ac 17:29); therefore, there is a sense in which God is the Father of all men as their Creator. This is simply a creature-Creator relationship and is in no sense a spiritual one.

2. God is the Father of the nation Israel (Ex 4:22). Not all in Israel were redeemed, so this relationship was both spiritual (with believers) and governmental (with all in Israel, whether believers or not).

3. God is the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ (Mt 3:17).

4. In a very special way God is the Father of all who believe in Christ (Gal 3:26).

THE PARTICULAR WORKS OF THE FATHER

Almost everything God does involves in some way or other all the Members of the Trinity. So when we speak of the particular works of the Father we are not excluding the other Persons, but simply delineating those things which seem to be the prerogative of the Father in a special way.

1. It is the Father who was the Author of the decree or plan of God (Ps 2:7–9).

2. The Father was related to the act of election as its Author (Eph 1:3–6).

3. The Father sent the Son to this world (Jn 5:37).

4. The Father is the disciplinarian of His children (Heb 12:9).

Important Ramifications of the Doctrine of God

Two final thoughts:

1. There is no other God but the one we have been trying to describe. Gods of our making, whether radically different from the God of the Bible or akin to Him, are false. Even good Christians can fall into the trap of trying to mold God according to their own thinking or wishes or pleasure. The result may be a god not dissimilar to the God of the Bible, but it will not be the true God. We know God not because we can initiate or generate such knowledge, but because He has revealed Himself. Therefore, what we know does not come from our minds but from His revelation. Beware of creating a god!

2. If the true God is as He is revealed to be, then it shouldn’t be hard for us to believe that He could perform miracles, give us an inspired Bible, become incarnate, or take over the kingdoms of this world. In other words, if we accept the facts about the true God which have been revealed, then it shouldn’t be difficult to believe He could and can do what is claimed of Him. That is why the knowledge of God takes first priority in the study of doctrine.

About the Author:

Ryrie

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.

 

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