Covenant Connections in Paul (10)

Part Nine

Is the Rapture in 2 Thessalonians 2:3?

             On a related note, some Dispensational writers have believed that the catching up of the saints is what is in view in 2 Thessalonians 2:3:

Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sinis revealed, the son of perdition.

          I shall revisit this text further on in my remarks about the future antichrist but will focus briefly on the term “falling away” (apostasia).  The word can occasionally refer to a physical separation.  However, this is definitely not its main meaning.  Hogg and Vine note that in the LXX the term has a negative connotation for rebellion or defection.[1]  But is it possible that Paul employs the word here in a positive sense to refer to the removal of the saints to “the air” as per 1 Thessalonians 4:17?  Personally, I think this is extremely doubtful.  In the first place, why would the apostle make use of the word apostasia when just a few months before he utilized the more precise term harpagesometha?  Reusing harpazo would be a clear reminder of what he had said in 1 Thessalonians 4 and would have been good pedagogy.  If one adds to this the fact that Paul had indicated that this “seizing” of the saints was a new teaching the switch from precision to ambiguity is even less comprehensible.  To me this ranks as a significant counterargument.

          More arguments against taking apostasia in 2 Thessalonians 2:3 as the ‘rapture’ are simply replies to the several indecisive reasons given in its favor.  For instance, although apostasies have been commonplace in Church History it could well be that a marked falling away from sound doctrine worldwide will precede the revealing of the Man of Sin (Antichrist).  That fits just as well into the context than a rapture hypothesis (if not better – cf. Lk. 14:34).  Again, if it is said that 2 Thessalonians 3:1 refers to “the coming [parousia] of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him,” it begs the question to claim that the “coming” is pretribulational in that context.[2]  It is a non sequitur

          The fact of the matter is that a fool-proof exegetical presentation of a pretribulational (or any other) ‘rapture’ is not possible.  Yes, exegetical reasons for the different viewpoints can be put forth[3], but in reality, the passages are not plain enough to arrive at dogmatic conclusions about.  The best that can be argued for is an inference to the best explanation.[4]   

The Man of Sin and the Tribulation

           Paul is primarily a church theologian.  He mentions the hopes of Israel out of understandable concern for his people and for God’s solemn word vouchsafed to them.  He believes in the Remnant and that when their blindness is removed (Rom.11:25) God will save Israel.  But the OT predicts a time of upheaval called variously “the time of Jacob’s trouble” (Jer. 30:7) or “time of trouble such as never was since there was a nation.” (Dan. 12:1), after which Israel will be delivered (Jer. 30:7c; Dan. 12:1b).  If we add into this the prospect of the “little horn” of Daniel 7:21-22 and the self-exalting king of Daniel 11:36f., we can see that the OT has given us a time of tribulation that resembles Daniel’s descriptions (cf. Matt. 24:21-30), and which comes before the second advent of Jesus.  Putting the pieces of this jigsaw together it looks as though after “the fullness of the Gentiles has come in” (Rom. 11:25) there will be a time of peril for Israel in which an evil protagonist who will “speak great words against the most High, and shall wear out the saints of the most High” (Dan. 7:25), will have his time.  After this, the people whom he persecuted shall inherit the kingdom (Dan. 7:27). 

          The question before us is, does the apostle Paul refer to any of this in his letters?  The answer is yes, and it is surprisingly detailed.  For Paul’s take on this we must turn again to the Thessalonian correspondence.  Let us turn first to what he has to say about the mysterious “man of sin” in 2 Thessalonians 2:

Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God…And now you know what is restraining, that he may be revealed in his own time.  For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only He who now restrains will do so until He is taken out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord will consume with the breath of His mouth and destroy with the brightness of His coming. – 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4, 6-8.

          Now the “Day” is “the day of Christ” in verse 2.  Before the day of Christ can happen, certain intervening events have to occur.  Something called “the falling away” (apostasia) must happen.  As we have seen, some pretribulationists believe that this apostasia is the rapture.  I personally do not.  I retain the view that this “falling away” is the defection of the visible church from Christ and His Truth.  They may maintain confessional items like the deity of Christ and justification by faith, but the “hard content” (e.g., sin, sanctification, dying to self, etc.) is not pressed and a self-centered entertainment-based form of teaching replaces it, thereby preaching a false Jesus and a different gospel (2 Cor. 11:4).

          The next intervening event is the appearance of “the man of sin,” who is given another name, “son of perdition.”  This individual matches the character of the “little horn” in Daniel 7 and brings to mind John’s depiction of “the beast” in Revelation 13.  The fact that Paul simply refers to this person as “the man of sin” suggests that he expects his audience to know who he is referring to.  This is the coming great foe of Israel who goes by many names in Scripture[5].  Daniel calls him the “little horn” (Dan. 7:24-27), the willful king (Dan. 11:36), while Zechariah speaks of him as “the worthless shepherd” in Zechariah 11:15-17.[6]  Paul’s designation, “the man of sin” is most appropriate therefore.[7]  But Paul adds another name, “the son of perdition (apoleia)”, which is the exact same name that Jesus called Judas Iscariot in His prayer to the Father in John 17:12! 

          Some interpreters have thought that the two names denote the two halves of the seven-year career of the Antichrist (of which more later).  But that is mere speculation.  The structure of 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4 does not encourage such a division.  The “man of sin (hamartia – Majority Text) or “lawlessness” (anomia – Nestle-Aland/Tyndale House Text) appears to be the same one who “exalts himself” and sits in God’s temple proclaiming himself a deity (2 Thess. 2:4).  The fact that he is given another name (hardly unusual in the Bible) should not carry any meaning beyond what is clearly stated.

          The phrase that links this man most clearly to the sinful ruler of Daniel is of course his over-inflated ego.  Daniel says that the coming persecutor will “speak pompous words against the Most High” (Dan. 9:25a), and (as the willful king) “shall exalt and magnify himself above every god, shall speak blasphemies against the God of gods” (Dan. 11:36).  According to Daniel 7:26-27 this person’s reign will be halted after “a time, times, and half a time” (i.e., three and a half years),[8] and the kingdom of peace is ushered in.  For Paul, the “man of sin/son of perdition” will oppose God and “sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God.” (2 Thess. 2:4). 

          What this surely means, if it means anything, is that at some time right before the Kingdom of God comes to earth a malevolent ruler will arise who will secure great power over at least the “Biblical World” and quite possible over the whole world.  He will be an intensely religious figure, but a very vocal blasphemer of Yahweh.  His hubris will be such that he will enter “the temple (naos) of God”, which for all the imaginative readings of our amillennialist friends cannot mean the church.[9]  The ecclesia as these writers very well know, is not a building one can sit in.  But the “man of sin” “sits” (intransitive verb) in the naos of God.  This denotes a temple structure, its holy place.  Is this a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem?  Very possibly.  From Jesus’ own warning in Matthew 24:15-16 we have seen that a temple is required for the “abomination of desolation” to be “set up” in.

          As startling as this is, we are confronted with a biblical truth that we should not shy away from.  A man of great wickedness will someday sit in a temple (probably in Jerusalem) and will proclaim himself to be God.  That naturally means that he will demand worship, for God can demand worship. 

          The passage goes on to refer to a “restrainer” who will be “taken out of the way” to allow this “man of sin” to be revealed “in his own (very particular) time.”  I believe this restrainer to be the Holy Spirit of God in His role within the church.  I cannot prove that, but I think it is the most natural understanding (who or what else could it be?).[10]  The restraining influence is what keeps in check “the mystery of lawlessness” which has been operating for nearly two millennia (2 Thess. 2:7).  Again, this fits the Spirit well.  The result of the restrainer’s “removal” is that this eschatological bogeyman can finally be revealed, and so, it seems, can the release of spectacular demonic powers (2 Thess. 2:9).  This is where the apostle has arrived in his warning: 

The coming of the lawless one is according to the working of Satan, with all power, signs, and lying wonders, and with all unrighteous deception among those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth, that they might be saved. And for this reason God will send them strong delusion, that they should believe the lie, that they all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness. – 2 Thessalonians 2:9-12.

          The reason for the great display of evil supernatural power is, naturally enough, deception.  This deception is worldwide and therefore very believable; unless a person has the light of Scripture to interpret it by.  And the Scripture only gives its light to those who love its truth, which the masses never have.  There is an indication that the truth is being put out there: “because they did not receive the love of the truth, that they might be saved.” (2 Thess. 2:10).  But the truth is rejected because of the lying signs and because they “had pleasure in unrighteousness.” (2 Thess.2:10).  As with so many cases where discernment is wanting, the problem is not that the truth is not attainable, but that it contradicts what everybody else believes.  What Paul calls “the lie” in verse 11 is not easy to divine right now, but it seems to me that a man proclaiming himself to be God and pointing to great demonstrations of power as proof would fit the bill nicely.   


[1] C. F. Hogg and W. E. Vine, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Thessalonians, second edition, London: Pickering & Inglis, n.d., 246.  Likewise, Robert L. Thomas, “2 Thessalonians,” EBC, Vol. 11, 321. 

[2] A post-tribulationist could claim this verse as an important text for his view against the other views.  See Robert H. Gundry, The Church and the Tribulation: A Biblical Examination of Posttribulationism, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1973, 113-114.

[3] See, e.g., Paul Feinberg’s arguments for tereso ek in Revelation 3:10 indicating a pretrib rapture in The Rapture: Pre-, Mid-, or Post-Tribulational, by Richard Reiter, General editor, Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1984, 47-86. 

[4] See the articles on “Trying to Get the Rapture Right.”

[5] I shall give attention to this individual (the “Antichrist”) when we study Revelation 13. 

[6] Some writers believe that the “one who comes in his own name” in John 5:43 is a veiled reference to Antichrist.  For example, G. H. Pember, The Antichrist, Babylon, and the Coming of the Kingdom, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1888, 6.

[7] Reformed scholar Kim Riddlebarger believes that the label fits many individuals down through church history, but that it culminates in an end time villain.  He fits this into an amillennial framework.  See his The Man of Sin: Uncovering the Truth About the Antichrist, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006, 13-14.

[8] See The Words of the Covenant: Old Testament Expectation, 311-312.  I shall come back to this expression later. 

[9] See, e.g., G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology, 200-203.

[10] Again, the wording seems to take for granted we know what he means.  Since the Spirit’s coming at Pentecost involved convicting the world “of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment” (Jn. 16:8), His removal from that particular role will have a negative effect upon the world.  It goes without saying that the Spirit of God can no more be absent the creation than the providence of God which He empowers.  

The Men Who Trained Me (Pt. 1)

I’m busy and lacking inspiration right now. Here is a piece I wrote some time ago about my training. Hope you enjoy it.

I thought I’d do something different for a change.  I seldom write anything about myself on this blog, but I had the idea of putting down a few words about the men who trained me and to whom, to one degree or another, I owe a debt.  None of them is responsible for how I turned out.  The monster was self-made. But I want to introduce you to these men:

The first man is David N. Myers M.Min., a knowledgeable Bible teacher who helped me principally by giving me good books to read.  He showed me the value of commentaries and introduced me to the six volumes of Explore the Book by J. Sidlow Baxter.  He also kindled my interest in manuscript evidence after an encounter with a Jehovah’s Witness demoralized me (when each time I tried to prove the deity of Christ from my NIV (1984), the JW just referred me to the footnotes which through the reading into question).  I borrowed from him Caspar Gregory’s Canon and Text of the New Testament, Dean Burgon’s The Revision Revised, F. W. Kenyon’s Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts, F. F. Bruce’s The Books and the Parchments, and other works to help me understand what was going on.  Burgon in particular impressed me. He was very erudite, but could write clear prose.  His arguments for what he called “the Traditional Text” were more searchant (so it seemed to me) than the other scholars, who often parroted one another.  Anyway, Dave Myers was a great help in this and other areas.  Later I would read F. H. A. Scrivener’s massive Plain Introduction to the Criticism of the NT (2 vols), and the intriguing study by Harry Sturz called The Byzantine Text-type and NT Textual Criticism.  These served as balances to Bruce Metzger (whose hard to procure Chapters in the History of NT Textual Criticism is terrific), and Kurt Aland.

Unfortunately, I was also introduced to the work of controversial American Fundamentalist Peter Ruckman.  I say unfortunately, not because of his personal issues, but because for a while his sarcasm rubbed off on me.  While I still think Ruckman made some points which needed to be made, and he did make me laugh at a time I really needed to laugh, I’m afraid I came away from his books and tapes more negatively affected than edified.  Some years later I read Westcott’s Commentary on Hebrews and discovered what I had been missing.  When attending London Theological Seminary in the mid-1990’s I came across the Life of Westcott, which gave the lie to the nonsense then propagated by Gail Riplinger. She literally composed quotes from different parts of the book and cut and pasted them together to make new quotes!  Anyway, it was Dave Myers who drilled home to me the question, “what does it say?”  And in a circle of friends who looked upon non-dispensationalists with suspicion, it was he who, when I pointed to Matthew Henry’s Commentary, told me that he was a very godly man.  Funny what things stick with you.

Bernard Lambert was a former missionary to S. America and was a Baptist preacher who would fill pulpits in many Baptist churches in East Anglia, England.  For some reason Bernard, who was retired when I knew him, took a shine to me and we became friends.  Bernard was a dark-suited 5 point Calvinist bookworm with whom I spent many hours talking about books and churches.  Like me, he was a bit of a maverick who disliked the politics and brown-nosing rife within evangelicalism.  I remember him getting emotional about the ostentation he saw at a certain Reformed conference.  He thought monies gifted to an organization should not be spent that way.  Bernard is now with the Lord. I owe him much.  It was he who confronted me with the choice I had to make between remaining as a ladder-climbing Purchaser and going to Seminary.  Since I had felt the call of God to the ministry for years, I knew the road I should take.  This was confirmed when, despite all appearances, I was accepted at London Theological Seminary (who only accepted a handful of students per year).  One of my most cherished possessions is the set of The Works of John Murray (4 vols) which Bernard gave me when I was at a rather low ebb in my life.  The great thing I remember about Bernard was his belief that the people of God needed encouragement.  Through him God encouraged me.

Graham Harrison taught Systematic Theology at London Theological Seminary (LTS) when I was there in the mid 90’s.  He was a solid and rather two-dimensional Calvinist, and, having myself my own thoughts on that subject, he seemed a bit suspicious of me.  I recall him scrupulously avoiding answering my questions about New Evangelicalism; something I think is a rather important thing for a theologian to have opinions about.  Still, his erudition impressed me.

Philip Eveson was the Resident Tutor and taught Hebrew and exegesis at LTS.  He was a pious man, always cheerful and amusing. He had a pastor’s heart, and my chief impression of him was of his concern for the students.  He noticed me staying up till the early hours reading Joseph Hall’s works and old copies of the Westminster Theological Journal and asked if I would be student librarian of the D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones library.  I naturally said yes!  I kept finding Kit-Kat wrappers in the Doctor’s books.  Eveson informed me that it was sometimes hard to get the Doctor to eat anything, but that he would always eat a Kit-Kat. When I visited Mr Eveson a few years afterwards he told me that he thought I never quite understood the Five Points.  I rattled off to him a list of authors (e.g. Pink, Palmer, Gill, Warfield, Coles, Steele & Thomas, Berkhof, Owen, Boettner) and politely told him that he was mistaken, but that I believed (and still believe) that the formulation of TULIP was more deductive than inductive and that the doctrines needed reformulating. He wasn’t impressed.  But I remain convinced that the way these “doctrines of grace” are formulated is far too deductive.  So while I have Calvinistic leanings I feel little compulsion to be a card-carrying “Reformed” man.

Hywel Jones.  Dr Jones seemed to like me because I didn’t walk in lock step with most of the other students.  I read the guys I was supposed to read (like Machen, Owen, John Murray), but I would read Dispensationalists like Pentecost and Ryrie, and Arminians like Lenski, and he didn’t seem to mind.  Jones taught Homiletics and Exegesis of the Books of Matthew and Hebrews.  In the staid Calvinist institution that was LTS, where students became molded into little models of what a Reformed preacher was supposed to be (I think the august, always serious, append a mini-sermon to every prayer stereotype was overdone a bit), Dr Jones had more breadth to him.  When I received an unexpected call to a church in the United States, it was Dr Jones who told me, “You’ll have to have a very good reason to say no.”  I didn’t, so I came.

Robert Oliver, the methodical and quiet spoken pastor-scholar, taught Church History at LTS, and was my favorite lecturer; though not perhaps my favorite prof.  His lectures were always precise and well-prepared; often read out from a manuscript with occasional remarks about an incident or preacher.  He was an excellent teacher, though to me he seemed rather snobbish as a person.  He certainly appeared to have his favorites, but maybe that was just my self-conscious perspective?  That said, I don’t think I could have had a better guide to the history of the early Church than Dr Oliver.

I want to give a hat tip to Dr David Green, who was a student at LTS at the same time that I was there.  It was David who taught me about postmodernism, particularly from the perspective of Art.  He gave a superb presentation to the students on the topic, which, perhaps because of my studies in Art History I really related to.  I recall our times chatting in his room (which was next to mine) about theology, postmodernism, art, the Puritans, and life.  He was a very genial man with real depth to him.  I have a memory of him reading Oliver Heywood’s Heart’s Treasure and telling me how it was impacting him. Perhaps his memory of me will not be as sunny.  I may have mystified him, as I mystified myself.  But his example of simple piety and warm affection for souls left its mark.

Lastly I should recognize Iris, the cook at LTS.  Not only did she fatten me up, she told me all sorts of stories about Dr. Lloyd-Jones, whom she had known well.  She once described the Doctor arriving at their flat with two cases; the big one was heavy with books and the smaller one had his clothes.  She told me how he would always wear his raincoat, and could hardly be prevailed upon to part with it.  MLJ disliked the pretension of signing his own books, but he did sign Iris’s copy of The Sermon on the Mount, which I was shown.  Iris was a straight-talker, and she had to put me right more than once.

Covenant Connections in Paul (9)

Part Eight

The Transformation of Our Bodies

The mention of the transformation of our bodies calls to mind the mystery of 1 Corinthians 15:50-52:

Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does corruption inherit incorruption.  Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed—in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.

The language of transformation is linked to the kingdom of God in this text.  Paul says that “flesh and blood” cannot inherit this kingdom – a kingdom that is in the future.  What does he mean by this?  This is to say that our present earthly frame is not prepared for the glories in heaven.  As Schreiner puts it, “The bodily flesh of this age is subject to weakness and death…our corruptible earthly body cannot enter the future kingdom.”[1] 

            The apostle tells us that we shall all be changed, that is, we shall become incorruptible and glorious.  And this transformation will happen in an instant.  It will occur “at the last trumpet” (1 Cor. 15:52).  I wish he had elaborated a little more on the trumpet!  Which “trump” is he referring to?  The book of Revelation refers to seven trumpets which are blown by angels, with the seventh recorded cryptically in Revelation 10:5-7 and finally blown in Revelation 11:15.  There is a sense of finality that comes with this blowing, but is this what Paul had in mind when he wrote about “the last trump” some forty years earlier?  I think this is doubtful.  Trumpets were used to get people’s attention and to summon them (e.g., Exod. 19:13, 16, 19; Lev. 25:9; Neh. 4:20).  Sometimes the trumpet raised the alarm (Joel 2:1; Amos 3:6; Zeph. 3:16).  Jesus Himself taught that a trumpet would be blown when the angels were sent to gather up the saints at his second coming (Matt. 24:30-31), which may be synonymous with the seventh trumpet of Revelation, although to me that appears doubtful.[2] 

            It seems better to think of “the last trumpet” as the final blast in a succession of trumpet calls which precede the transformation of our bodies, although there is no way of nailing it down more than that.  For Paul then the coming of Christ is the time of our appropriation of the glory of the resurrection that Christ has procured for us.  The next question that arises is whether 1 Corinthians 15:50-52 is connected with the “snatching up” (harpazo) described in 1 Thessalonians 4:12-18.  Here is the part of the passage which describes the “rapture:”

For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep.  For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first.  Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. – 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17.

            I am approaching the text as neutrally as I can, which means that I am not as concerned with when it will occur but what will occur and its connection, if any, with the change described by Paul at the end of 1 Corinthians 15. 

            The first thing that I have to point out is the rather obvious fact that this passage nowhere pinpoints the timing of the harpazo.  This is not the reason Paul wrote the words.  Some writers have referred to inscriptions on the tombs of famous men of the past where harpazo is used as a euphemism for death; thus, they were “snatched up” by death.[3]  That cannot be the meaning here because the living are contrasted with those who have “fallen asleep” and both will be caught up together (1 Thess. 4:15-17).  The link between this passage and 1 Corinthians 15:50-52 is the trumpet that is blown (1 Thess. 4:16).  At the blast of this trumpet things happen to the saints; they are transformed and glorified.  And this change is one reason why I believe the snatching up of the saints cannot be post-tribulational, for then who would go into the millennial kingdom, have children and grow old as per Isaiah 11, 65, and Zechariah 8?  Glorified people will not procreate nor age.  It therefore looks like the “rapture” of 1 Thessalonians 4:17 and the corresponding transformation of 1 Corinthians 15:51-52 must occur before the second advent.  This brings the rapture back to either pre- or mid-tribulational or “prewrath.”  I will investigate the timing of this event later, but I do want to address one “pretrib” text which is occasionally used.                              


[1] Thomas R. Schreiner, Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ: A Pauline Theology, Downers Grove, IVP, 2001, 142.  “The resurrection will involve somatic existence, although not fleshly existence. ‘Flesh and blood,’ that is, our present fleshly bodies, cannot inherit the Kingdom of God (1 Cor. 15:50).” – George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983, 465.

[2] See the exposition of Revelation 11 later in this volume. 

[3] E.g., Constantine R. Campbell, Paul and the Hope of Glory, 112-113.

Review of ’40 Questions About Arminianism’ by J. Matthew Pinson.

A Review of 40 Questions About Arminianism by J. Matthew Pinson, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2022, 395 pages, paperback.

Kregel’s “40 Questions About…” series has produced a number of notable books. I myself have reviewed 40 Questions About Biblical Theology and 40 Questions About Heaven and Hell. This book on Arminianism, or more accurately, Classical Arminianism, is written by the President of Welch College, a Freewill Baptist college in Tennessee. J. Matthew Pinson has degrees from Yale and Vanderbilt and is thoroughly evangelical. His book is a very welcome addition to the set and has been well reviewed.

The present reviewer is not Arminian. Neither is he a thorough Calvinist (much to the chagrin of writers like Roger Olsen who believe one must be either/or). If I may take a moment to explain; my studies of hermeneutics and theological method have left me dissatisfied with Calvinist formulations and defenses. They are simply too deductive for my taste. On the other hand, I do believe that some process of selection, conviction, and saving grace is supplied to meet the needs of some sinners and not others, yet never is the sinner’s responsibility undercut by the philosophical casuistry that is compatibilism, nor are passages like John 3:16-17, 36; 1 Timothy 2:4, 6; 4:10; 2 Peter 2:1; 3:9; and 1 John 2:2 to be given unnatural readings to make them say what they plainly do not say. I see no reason to pick sides on the issue since I believe neither of them fully represents the data satisfactorily.

That said, I have known for many years that classic Arminianism is often terribly misrepresented by Calvinists, many of whom it is clear have never read it. Moreover, certain Arminian depictions of Calvinism are very unnuanced. To the one I recommend actually reading Arminius’s Declaration of Sentiments or his Reply to Perkins. Both will persuade the reader of his strong positions on original sin and the impossibility of any sinner choosing Christ without Divine aid. To the latter I might recommend bypassing the doctrinaire work of A. W. Pink (or even John Piper) and instead reading someone like Elijah Coles or Charles Hodge. When all is said and done, Pinson is correct to say that the real issue between Calvinism and Arminianism is how one defines the sovereignty of God (175-177). One’s conception of “freewill” and the rest will have to fall in-line with that formal definition of sovereignty.

So what about this book? Is it worth the money? The answer is a resounding yes! Pinson has provided us with a theologically astute, irenic, and engaging work. As I have said, the book is about “Classical” Arminianism – a view that broadly encompasses both Arminius himself, but also John Wesley, Thomas Helwys, Thomas Oden, Roger Olsen, and Leroy Forlines, among many others. It is a view that feels at ease with the early Reformed Confessions like the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession (13, 77-79), but becomes uncomfortable once the net is tightened in the Canons of Dordt and the Westminster Confession of Faith. Hence, Arminianism in Pinson’s presentation has much overlap with the theology of many Calvinists.

When it comes to the atonement Pinson admits that many Arminians have preferred the “governmental theory” of Grotius and John Goodwin, wherein God acts as a Governor who accepts Christ’s sacrifice and pardons the sinner sovereignly without the need for a satisfaction to be made (90-92). Pinson, as Arminius, Wesley and I. Howard Marshall, rejected this view in favor of substitutionary atonement. This shows that the substitutionary view is not foreign to many Arminians as is sometimes thought.

When it comes to the question of whether Christ died for everyone (Q. 12 & 13) the author brings up the distinction between God’s antecedent will and His consequent will; a position first set out by John of Damascus in the 7th Century (111, 179). God’s antecedent will is that which comes from God’s character, whereas His consequent will is what God allows that flows from us. All Arminians agree that God sent Christ to die for the sins of everyone, and that He wants all sinners to be saved.

Having answered that Pinson turns to Calvinism and asks whether Calvinists are inconsistent by offering the Gospel to everyone even though they (five-pointers at least) hold that Christ did not die for everyone. His answer is in the affirmative. Arminians believe that the consistent Calvinists position with its necessary doctrine of two wills in God is unscriptural (129-136). I say “consistent Calvinism” because the author agrees with five-point Calvinists that four-pointers are inconsistent Calvinists because in that view God provides satisfaction for the sins of all but He is sparing on the dispensation of his grace (120-121).

Then we finally arrive at the question of freewill (Part 3). For most people this is where the rubber hits the road. Has God made man with a will to decide for something other than his “strongest impulse,” or is our will fixed by our strongest desire? In the first their is a power of contrary choice (libertarian freewill), while in the second there can be no contrary choice (compatibilist freedom). It is not too difficult to show that until the later Augustine every church father held to a form of libertarian freewill (see my review of Ken Wilson’s The Foundation of Augustinian-Calvinism). This does not necessarily make it biblical, but it needs to be on the record. A libertarianism which takes seriously man’s concupiscence is set out and defended.

But isn’t Arminianism synergistic? Arminius himself, and many who follow him, Pinson included, would answer “No.” Since Classical Arminians have a robust doctrine of human depravity (Q. 15) they are insistent that it is impossible for a sinner to come to Christ without divine grace. The author cites Leroy Forlines: “regeneration is solely the work of God.” (146). He also commends Richard Cross’s “ambulatory model” wherein “the sinner is like an unconscious person who is rescued by EMT’s and wakes up in an ambulance and does not resist the EMT’s medical actions to save his life.” (147). This is a form of monergism, as even Calvinists like Oliver Crisp admit, although it differs from the Calvinist position wherein the sinner is like a corpse that must first be regenerated.

Question 16 (151-158) is a careful elaboration of the Arminian view of freewill. It is followed by a well-written critique of compatibilism (Q. 17, 155-166). Among the problems Arminians see in Calvinistic determinism are its redefining of “freewill,” that it is unfalsifiable, and that it is self-contradictory. Pinson believes that libertarian freedom does not detract from the glory of God, so long as one does not include evil in ones idea of divine glory (168-169). If evil is included in the definition and compatibilism is held on to then it becomes impossible to conclude anything other than that God is the ultimate cause of evil (170-173).

There are other matters which are well addressed in the book, such as passages like Ephesians 1:4-11; Romans 8:28-30, and 9:6-23. Pinson also has a section on perseverance and apostasy that includes some very impressive chapters. But before closing I want to visit the matter of “prevenient grace” which is addressed in Questions 21 to 26. I think there is a lot of misunderstanding of this doctrine from all sides, so I wondered how the author defined it. The term itself is not a problem. Pinson is correct to assert that all orthodox Christians hold to a form of it. It is simply the grace that God gives to draw sinner’s to Himself (191). However, Arminians believe that grace is universal and resistible (192, Q. 24), not particular and irresistible. I confess that I especially struggle with the universal aspect of prevenient grace, and I don’t think Pinson allayed my concerns here.

At the end of the day, although I did not agree with everything in the book, I did find it an edifying and educational read. Before reading this work I would have recommended Olsen’s Arminian Theology: Myths & Realities, but now 40 Questions About Arminiansm will be the one I point people to first. It is essential reading for any serious student of Systematic Theology.

Covenant Connections in Paul (8)

Part Seven

The Return of Christ in Paul

            The earliest letters of Paul are the Epistle to the Galatians and the two Epistles to the Thessalonians (c. A.D. 48-50).  Every attentive reader knows that the theme of the second coming is found in every chapter but one of 1 and 2 Thessalonians.  The teaching also features strongly in 1 Corinthians 3 and 15; Philippians 3:20; the letter to Titus, and 1 and 2 Timothy.  Different verbs are used for the event, but the same idea is in view.  To this we may add Romans 8:19.  These passages do not serve only as anticipations of a great event; they speak of the culmination of something.  (After this there is the Bema Seat – 2 Cor. 5:10). 

            If we take the Thessalonian Epistles as our starting point, we can see the different uses the apostle puts the doctrine of Christ’s second advent to.  First there is the aspect of patient waiting (1 Thess. 1:9-10).  The coming of Christ “delivers us from the wrath to come.” (1 Thess. 1:10).  What this wrath (orge) is we are not told.  It may be the wrath of the second coming or the “revealing” (apokalypsis) itself as per 2 Thessalonians 1:5-9, or it may more generally be “the Day of the Lord” (1 Thess. 5:1-3, 9).  It may also denote the Tribulation if one allows that Paul might have had that in mind.

            Paul also relates the coming (parousia)[1] of Christ to our sanctification (1 Thess. 3:13; 5:23).  In 1 Thessalonians 2:19 he writes,

For what is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing? Is it not even you in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at His coming (parousia)?

            As I understand the passage Paul is saying that the saint’s fellowship in the presence of the Lord will be ample reward for their endeavors, when they all participate in Christ’s “kingdom and glory” (1 Thess. 2:12; 2 Thess. 2:14). 

            I Thessalonians 4:13-18 is a little unusual amid the other references.  For one thing there seems to be a difference between 1 Thessalonians 4:13 and 5:1-2.  In the latter text the saints are well aware of the doctrine Paul is referring to, but in chapter 4 they seem to be being told something new (“I do not want you to be ignorant…”).  It seems best to look at this text separately therefore.

            Paul wrote about the return of Jesus as the great hope of the saint (Tit. 2:13).  But he also saw it as the great hope of the earth.  These two things are brought together in Romans 8 where he envisages a transformation of the saints that triggers environmental changes, thus bringing the believer’s hope into the realm of the larger Creation Project:

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.  For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. – Romans 8:18-19.

            Here the apostle is contrasting the troubles of life with “the glory which shall be revealed in us.”  He personifies the created order as straining in expectation for something he calls “the revealing of the sons of God.” (Rom. 8:19).  So, Paul says that the humanity which in Adam originally came from the earth (Gen. 2:7), becomes the hope of the earth’s chances of regeneration. Creation’s regeneration hinges on the glorification of saved humanity.[2] 

For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.  For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now.  Not only that, but we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body.  – Romans 8:20-23.

            Paul’s reasoning here is “that the creation was subjected to futility” as a consequence of the Fall.  When one looks at Genesis 1 it becomes clear that the first five days of creation and the first half of the sixth day were all preparation for the creation of man in Genesis 1:26-27.  What God does next brings home to us the connection that Paul refers to in Romans 8 between human glorification and the world’s regeneration. God explicitly puts the responsibility for creation into the hands of man as His image in Genesis 1:28-30.  Therefore, the fact that the fortunes of man and those of his natural environment are still intertwined at the second coming is important to notice.  But someone might ask, “where is the second coming in Romans 8:20-23?”  It is found in the doctrine of “the redemption of the body” (Rom. 8:23).  To see this more clearly consider two texts from 1 Corinthians 15:

But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming. – 1 Corinthians 15:23.

The first man was of the earth, made of dust; the second Man is the Lord from heaven.  As was the man of dust, so also are those who are made of dust; and as is the heavenly Man, so also are those who are heavenly.  And as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man. – 1 Corinthians 15:47-49.  

            The context concerns the resurrection body.  In 1 Corinthians 15:23 we are told that we shall receive a body similar to Christ’s resurrection body “at His [second] coming.”  Hence, “the glory which shall be revealed in us” and  “the revealing of the sons of God” which Romans 8:18-19 speaks about occurs when Jesus returns.  Many read 1 Corinthians 15:47 as a reference to the first coming, but eschatological note is unmistakable.  We “shall…bear the image” of the resurrected Jesus.

Again Philippians 3:20-21 says,

For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself.

            The Christian has been born into “this present evil world” (Gal.1:4), but they no longer belong to it.  They possess the right to enter heaven; a right bought for them by Jesus Christ.  And according to Philippians 3:21 it is Christ who will “transform our lowly body” by glorifying it.  The apostle John will echo this truth later in the first century (1 Jn. 3:2).

            We do well to take stock of the importance that Paul places on Christ’s second coming.  He pins all of our hopes upon it.  Therefore, it is simply untrue to assert that for Paul “the linchpin of Paul’s eschatology is the proclamation of Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah,”[3]  if this identification does not place great emphasis on His return. This is borne out by the preceding passages and the weight of hope they bear. 

           


[1] From Paul’s usage of the two verbs here I believe the “revealing” and the “coming” of Christ are the same event. 

[2] This earthly regeneration is guaranteed by its connection with the glorification of believers, which is locked-in by the decree of God.  See Romans 8:30.   

[3] L. J. Kreitzer, “Eschatology,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne and Ralph P. Martin, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1993, 256.

My Interview with the Do Theology Podcast

I did an enjoyable interview with Jeremy Howard of the Do Theology podcast about my understanding of interpretation and the role of God’s covenants. The audio didn’t turn out that well, but you may like the content:

Understanding God’s Communication: https://www.dotheology.com/e/understanding-god-s-words-with-paul-henebury-aka-dr-reluctant-part-one/

Understanding God’s Covenants: https://www.dotheology.com/e/understanding-god-s-covenants-with-paul-henebury-aka-dr-reluctant-part-two/

Covenant Connections in Paul (7)

Part Six

When Christ Delivers Up the Kingdom to the Father  

            There is a strategic passage in 1 Corinthians which bears upon both the eschatology and teleology of the Bible.  That text is found in 1 Corinthians 15:20-28 and requires a little time to think through, although I will confess at the outset that the passage may act as an exemplar of the influence of theological predispositions in hermeneutics.[1]  Because the thought is condensed it is easy to jump to conclusions about what each verse means.  It starts with a theological preamble:

But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.  For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead.  For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. – 1 Corinthians 15:20-22.

            Paul tells us that the resurrected Christ is only the first to rise among a host of others who have met death, euphemistically termed “fallen asleep.”  The OT idea of “firstfruits” was the first and best of the crop which was given to God the Provider.  It signaled the quality and abundance of what was to come.  Death is linked to Adam while resurrection life is linked to Jesus.  All that are in Adam will die and remain in death.  All who are counted in Christ will be “made alive.”  A saint may be connected physically to Adam and the curse, but because they are counted righteous in Christ death cannot keep them.  It is crucial to the Christian Gospel as well as to the whole Creation Project that the resurrection of the dead, procured as it is by the sufferings on Calvary’s cross, be accomplished by a man.  Jesus was and is the Christ, but the Christ is a man for men.  Despite His eternal provenance and His spectacular accomplishments, which go far beyond anything done by Abraham or Moses or David or Elijah, this Man died cruelly, detested by the powerful, misunderstood or else feared or even ignored by the majority, yet by Him (and Him only) comes the resurrection of the dead.  I shall look more deeply into the cosmic implications of the resurrection further on, but I want to note here how death through a man (Adam) is reversed and augmented (by glorification) through a Man.

But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming. – 1 Corinthians 15:23.

            Paul speaks about a resurrection order (tagma).[2]  Jesus Christ is first and His resurrection, although it happened many centuries ago, prefigures ours.  The OT concept of the “firstfruits” of the crop is used by the apostle here.  The firstfruits is, “the first sheaf of the harvest which guarantees that there will be more to come.”[3]  Thus, the health of the firstfruits signals the health of the whole crop to come.  As Paul will go on to elaborate at the end of the chapter, the glory that comes to the saints upon their resurrection reflects directly upon the glory that was Christ’s when He was raised.[4]  This translates into the sort of status befitting sons of God (however unworthy).  Paul declares; “we shall…bear (phoreo) the image of the heavenly Man.” (1 Cor. 15:49).  This “bearing” refers to a new way of existence; the eschatological real us!  The complete saint!   

            Then we get a mention of the “end” which is qualified by the way of instrumentation:

Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power.  For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. – 1 Corinthians 15:24-25.  

            Christ’s giving up the kingdom to His Father occurs after He has reigned and “put all enemies under His feet.”  I take this to include not only Death, but the great archenemy of God, Satan.

Now the real question is about the kingdom.  Is Paul saying that Jesus is ruling now?  That is the interpretation of most exegetes.  In fact, Fee dogmatically claims the passage proves that Christ is reigning now.[5]  But is such confidence justified?  Verse 25 says “He must reign till.”  There is an imperative here.  It is essential for Christ to reign.  The reason Paul gives here is that He must bring all His enemies (here actual persons or beings) into submission.  The allusion is to Psalm 110:1-2:

The LORD said to my Lord, sit at My right hand, till I make Your enemies Your footstool.  The LORD shall send the rod of Your strength out of Zion.  Rule in the midst of Your enemies!

Notice how the Psalm locates the place of Christ’s rule: “Zion” or Jerusalem.  This ought to cause us to pause and ask some questions:

  1. Can “Zion” mean the right hand of God in Heaven?
  2. Does the OT indicate that Christ will rule in the midst of His enemies and does Paul negate it?
  3. What kind of reign is Christ involved in now if the world is just as evil and messed up as ever, with none of His enemies being defeated for two millennia?

The majority of commentators teach that Christ is indeed reigning in heaven right now and has done since His ascension.[6]  As so often in amillennial and postmillennial interpretation the little details are brushed aside.  “Zion” on earth cannot be the place of His rule even though numerous prophecies tell us quite the opposite (e.g., Psa. 2:6; 48:1-14; 50:2; 102:13-21; Isa. 2:3; 12:6; Joel 3:16-21; Mic. 4:1-7).  “Zion” does not appear to be a synonym for Heaven.  Furthermore, the “reign” of Christ in Heaven as envisaged by those who believe He is ruling now is of a rather unusual variety.  It is very unlike the reign predicted in the Hebrew Scriptures, or indeed asked about by the disciples in Acts 1:6.  In fact, it seems to differ imperceptibly from God’s ongoing providential care of creation.  Certainly, there has been a marked absence of anything that might resemble what normally would count for a kingly reign: the crushing of the weak under the heel of the ungodly mighty; the elevation of pride and vanity, the suffering of God’s people, and the fact that Satan is still styled “the god of this world” in 2 Corinthians 4:4, who “walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.” (1 Pet. 5:8)!  Let us be frank, if Jesus is reigning over the world, and has been for nigh on two thousand years, it has been a singularly ineffective “hands-off” approach!

            Added to all this is the way Psalm 110 is employed in other places in the NT.  Michael Vlach notes that,

“In reference to Psalm 110:1, the author of Hebrews says Jesus is “waiting” at the right hand of the Father (see Heb. 10:12-13).  When the heavenly session is over, God installs His Messiah on the earth to reign over it.  From our current historical perspective, Jesus is currently at the right hand of God the Father, but this will be followed by a reign upon the earth.  Thus, Jesus “must” reign from earth because Psalm 110 says this must happen.  In Acts 3:21, Peter also uses “must” in regard to Jesus and His heavenly session before He returns to earth to restore everything.”[7]  

            And he adds,

“Jesus the Son and Messiah must have a sustained reign in the realm where the first Adam failed (see Gen. 1:26, 28; 1 Cor. 15:45).”[8]                           

            The last enemy that will be destroyed is death. – 1 Corinthians 15:26.

            Satan is not the last enemy, Death is.  We know that the future reign of Christ will have death in it, for Isaiah 65:20b says,

For the child shall die one hundred years old, but the sinner being one hundred years old shall be accursed.

If it aloud to stand without being manipulated via typology or spiritualization, then Zechariah 14:16-19 speaks of Yahweh meeting out punishments against nations who refuse to honor Him in Jerusalem.  And Zechariah 8:3-5 should be recalled because it refers to old and young in the streets of Zion at a time when “Jerusalem shall be called the City of Truth.” (Zech. 8:3).

These facts, uncomfortable as they are for amillennialists and postmillennialists alike, demand either that we morph these OT texts to fit the way we think they ought to be, or we leave space in our systems for the insertion of a future kingdom where Jesus Christ will reign, but where sin and death are still present, and where He must rule with a rod of iron (Psa. 2:6-9; Rev. 2:27; 12:5; 19:15). 

So, 1 Corinthians 15:24-25 fit with the view that the new heavens and earth, where Christ delivers up the kingdom to His Father, and wherein there shall be no more curse (Rev. 22:3), will be preceded by a “millennial kingdom” where Christ must reign until He has dealt with every enemy, Death being the last one.

For “He has put all things under His feet.” But when He says “all things are put under Him,” it is evident that He who put all things under Him is excepted. – 1 Corinthians 15:27.

            It must not be forgotten that Jesus in both his first and second advents, not to mention His coming rule, is the Servant of Yahweh.[9]  The whole Creation Project is predicated on His willingness to humble Himself and come into His own creation to suffer and die in it and to bring it under His dominion.  Here the apostle quotes from Psalm 8 and lends it a Christological interpretation; one that it does not appear to support in its original setting.  But the interpretive move is justified on account of the Incarnation.  The man Christ Jesus (1 Tim. 2:5) is the key to the Creation Project, and I have tried to show that He accomplishes it covenantally.      

Now when all things are made subject to Him, then the Son Himself will also be subject to Him who put all things under Him, that God may be all in all. – 1 Corinthians 15:28.

            If I understand this right, Paul teaches here that Jesus cannot assume the role of absolute Sovereign of creation until He has delivered everything up to the Father.  But is Paul saying that the Son, will forever be subject to the Father?  I think we must tread carefully here.  This cannot be an ontological submission of the Son to the Father since that would mean there is an eternal ontic superiority within the Trinity.  The only way an eternal hierarchical order within the Godhead is possible is in the loving relationship between the three Persons; something that cannot be exactly duplicated in human relationships, but which the best Father-Son relationships represent.

            How might I summarize my understanding of 1 Corinthians 15:20-28?  If I have caught the gist of the great apostle’s mind here, the verses express the marvelous truth that the resurrection of Jesus on behalf of His saints is the first installment in the full reconciliation of all things to God (cf. Col. 1:19-20).  This process is drawn out over several thousand years.  Christ rose and ascended two thousand years ago and His return will begin (not continue) His reign on this earth; an earth that has relentlessly gone its own way in defiance of God.  Christ’s initial rule (which I believe will last a thousand years – Rev. 20), is for the purpose of bringing His creatures to heel and to order and beautify the world so that it is fit to be presented back to His Father as fallen yet redeemed.  It will also justify God’s righteous dealing with fallen man because, as we shall see, given the most perfect political situation in a serene environment, and with Satan under lock and key, humanity will still chafe under the beneficent rule of King Jesus, and will finally rejoin the briefly emancipated Satan to seek His overthrow.  If I may supplement this portrait with more NT data, the rationale for the dissolution of the present heaven and earth and the bringing into being the New Heavens and Earth is that only in the new Creation will there be no more sin (Rev. 22:3), and hence no more Death. 


[1] Exegesis is not an exact science.  This statement may easily be tested against any number of passages as they are interpreted by an equal number of scholars.  In this case, I am using Gordon Fee and N.T. Wright as “counter exegetes” to my position.  In doing this I am well aware that where I differ from them (and them from me) I am encouraged in my line of thinking by my adoption of a certain premillennial eschatology.  The best I can do therefore, is to provide exegetical reasons for my interpretation of the passage.  I cannot be too dogmatic.  That will settle nothing.    

[2] For a good premillennial exposition of the passage, I recommend Michael J. Vlach, He Will Reign Forever, 436-444.  I do not believe there is an iron clad argument for a three-stage interpretation of 1 Cor. 15:20-28 that wins the day for premillennialists, but it does mean that the passage fits into the larger premillennial outlook very well.  There exists a strong reciprocal relationship between our interpretation of this text and many other passages in the Old and New Testaments. 

[3] N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 333.

[4] It is understood that this glory differs among the saints, doubtless depending on their service, but all glory is glory indeed, and if it is connected with the glory of the risen Jesus it will far excel our expectations.

[5] Gordon D. Fee, Pauline Christology: An Exegetical – Theological Study, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2007, 109-112.

[6] On this subject see below

7] Michael J. Vlach, He Will Reign Forever, 441.

[8] Ibid, 442.

[9] As a side note, although it is common nowadays to think of Jesus as a Servant-Leader, it would be more accurate to think of Him as a Servant-Ruler.  He is our undisputed Lord and Master. 

Covenant Connections in Paul (6)

Part Five

Paul Before the Areopagus

I want to shift gears a bit and take a look at the “twins” which comprise the Creation Project and that drive it through the instrumentality of the covenants.  Those twins being Eschatology and Teleology which I spoke about in the first volume.  A good place to start is Paul’s defense at Mars Hill in Acts 17.  He is addressing pagan Greeks who have no familiarity with the Scriptures.  There would have been fruitless to attempt to introduce these scholars to the concept of a Jewish Messiah, or to impress them with a recital of OT prophetic expectation.  What these Greeks needed was a direct challenge to their worldview.  Paul begins his address by checking their metaphysics.  That is to say, he notices that there is an openness to religious/superstitious phenomena.  He is not speaking to a group of atheist materialists.[1]  Whether Epicureans or Stoics or something else, if Paul was going to refer to gods and such he would not be despised on that account.  These people worshiped (Acts 17:23).  Since they acknowledged there may be an unknown god to whom worship is due, they are covering themselves with an altar to “the Unknown God” (Acts 17:23).  This positions him to introduce the one true God to the Athenians (Acts 17:24f.). 

When I say “introduce” what I mean is closer to “remind” because as Paul says in Romans 1:18-23 God Himself is an inescapable fact, but sin and pride obscure the truth.  F. F. Bruce has said that “parallels to Paul’s argument can be adduced from Greek literature and philosophy.”[2]  Anyhow, Yahweh God is brought into the conversation front and center as the creator of both heaven and earth and everything in it (Acts 17:24).  That kicks the whole pantheon to the curb in a single verse!  The real God does not depend on His creatures for anything (Acts 17:25), which distinguishes Him from the general run of gods the Greeks would have been familiar with.  Moreover, God is the Lord of all living things and of all men throughout history (Acts 17:25-26).  Paul also slipped into his description the fact, insulting to Greco-Roman ears, that all men are of one race (Acts 17:26). 

Paul’s next pronouncement is interesting for a number of reasons.  He avers that God’s placement of humans; His “determination” (horizo) and “preappointment” (protasso) of them, had to do with the hope of their searching for Him.  As he puts it, “so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us…” (Acts 17:27).  This is a hard verse to comprehend.  If God wanted people to find Him, why did He make them “grope after” (pselaphao) Him?  I believe the answer must be joined to Paul’s proclamation of salvation in Jesus and should not be extended throughout time.  The Athenians were “groping” after the Divine and now they can find Him. 

What comes next is a surprise.  Paul the apostle quotes well known Greek writers to further his argument.  Not because he agreed with their philosophy, but because the truth about the world creeps in even when the reality of the Creator is suppressed.  Cornelius Van Til explored this area perhaps more than anyone else[3], and to my mind it is foundational to the articulation of Theology.  Sin has caused blindness in the unsaved to the program of God.  Scripture lights the way ahead (Psa. 119:105).  The Spirit of God opens the spiritual eyes.  Through what is often called ”common grace” but is better referred to general revelation those estranged from God can yet perceive snatches of reality.  Hence, the Apostle to the Gentiles finds vestiges of God’s truth in pagan writers and uses them to build a bridge to the pagan audience.  He has started by claiming that there is one God and that He is supremely in control of everything, and that everything is His creation (we might, for sake of ease, think of Plato’s forms, although the apostle’s doctrine brings them into this world).  He has then quoted two of their scholars (the philosopher Epimenides of Crete[4] and Aratus, a poet) to show that his teaching is partially known via general revelation.[5] 

Paul concludes the first part of his argument by showing that his God cannot be represented by human innovation and artifice (Acts 17:29).  Then in two verses he comes to the point:

Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead.” – Acts 17:30-31.

            Paul had been requested to defend his teaching about “Jesus and the resurrection” (Acts 17:18-21) before the Areopagus.  He bears down now on the great event that has brought him to Athens.  In light of this event a change of outlook (metanoia) is demanded.  A day of reckoning has been appointed, and one Man (Jesus) has been chosen to judge the world.  That Jesus is the Appointed One has been proven by His being raised from the dead. 

            Now Paul may have wanted to say more but this seems to be as far as he got.  It may be noted here that by referring to Jesus as “ordained” (horizo) Paul has included the concept of Him being God’s anointed.  Paul has moved from creation to judgment in a few verses.  Since God is controlling history, this means that the world is on a teleological (purposeful) and eschatological trajectory. 


[1] This is not to say that what the apostle declares is without real value for speaking to atheists. 

[2] F. F. Bruce, The Book of the Acts, 357.

[3] See especially Cornelius Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology, Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1980.  This work really needs to be republished. 

[4] Paul also quotes from Epimenides in Titus 1:12.  In fact he cites the same quatrain!

[5] See also Acts 14:15-17.

Covenant Connections in Paul (5)

Part Four

Paul, the Law, and the New Covenant

            It all comes down to this: the saint who is under the New covenant in Christ is not under the old covenant.  The reason is twofold.  Firstly, Paul, in agreement with Jesus’ earlier statement in Matthew 5:17-20, declares that faith in Christ does not void the law but rather establishes it in the act of keeping it for us (Rom. 3:31).[1]  My second reason comes as a logical consequence of my insistence that Christ embodies the New covenant, and that is that right relationship to Christ by faith necessarily includes entrance into New covenant status for the saint.  And one cannot be a party to two conflicting covenants, one dealing with ‘works’, the other dealing with pure grace.

            For those who hold that the New covenant is restricted to future Israel, or even for those who believe that the Church somehow has some sort of tangential relationship to the New covenant, they cannot point to covenant transference as a major reason for the saint not being under the Law, but they can point to the fact that Christ has rendered moot the requirements of the Law in terms of righteousness.  The NT is clear on this issue.  Christ came “to redeem those who were under the Law” (Gal. 4:5).  Henceforth, a person who is redeemed from being under the Law must now perforce no longer be under the Law.  The Law as an external standard has absolutely no authority over the Christian (e.g., Gal. 2:16, 19; 3:1-3, 11-12).      

            But then we must ask about the relationship of the saint to the Law, for it is plain to see that one exists for Paul still appeals to it on occasion (e.g., with women keeping silent in the assembly – 1 Cor. 14:34).  If the Law is not operative in some sense now how can Paul say that “every mouth will be stopped, and all the world will be guilty before God” – the standard being God’s Law (Rom. 3:19)?  And what is Paul doing in Romans 13:9?

For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not bear false witness,” “You shall not covet, “and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  

             Romans 13:8-10 can you see how Paul enjoins Christian love by referring to the Law!  This is because the Ten Commandments (well, nine of them[2]) are divine disclosures of ethical norms based on the attributes of God.  If it is alright foe an apostle to base moral teaching on the Law, then it must be okay to include the Law as a standard for Christian conduct.[3]  But I must immediately qualify the statement.  First, these commandments reflect God’s own character (e.g., He is truthful, just, faithful, etc.), and as such they possess normative moral authority over a Christian.  Thus, if one is to be “conformed to the image of Christ” he will be conformed more and more to the Decalogue.  This is important to notice since the Law cannot regulate behavior as a “rule of faith.” 

            If we examine Romans 6, we come across a most important question: “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?”  If we return Paul’s strong negative answer, then the question for the Christian ethicist is, “Well then, what ought we to do?”  How do we explicate a passage like Romans 6:11-19 for the people of God?  This involves us in the setting forth of a positive ethics.  We know Who the standard is (Rom. 8:29; Phil. 3:14), and we know that the Commandments, correctly understood, point to His moral perfection.  Therefore, we may use the law lawfully (1 Tim. 1:8), as Paul does, to “adjust” our conduct accordingly.  This is just to say that the normativity of the Ten Commandments (minus the 4th) derives from their universal application.[4] 

            Think of another example: The Bible tells us not to bear false witness (Exod. 20:16; Rom. 11:9).  This is a NT use of the Eighth Commandment which some say they are not obliged to obey in any sense – since the law is not a norm for Christians.  But if one does not hold themselves to be accountable to this commandment – even though it is in a NT epistle written to Jews and Gentiles – they need not trouble themselves on this point.  However, this leaves them on the horns of a dilemma.  If a person believes they are not commanded to tell the truth; that is, if they believe “you shall not lie or bear false witness” is not an authoritative command to them because, 1. they are a Gentile, and 2. they are sanctified by faith alone; then clearly, they can lie with impunity.  If the rejoinder comes back that Christians are under the law of Christ (Gal. 6:2), I reply that that law is Love (e.g., Rom. 13:8, 10). 

            Let us compare two Pauline passages to further elucidate my point:

Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing but keeping the commandments of God is what matters. – 1 Corinthians 7:19.

            For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. – Romans 10:4. 

            In the 1 Corinthians verse “the commandments of God” surely refer to the Law in some way, and that way is set in opposition to the cultic requirements of the Law as seen in circumcision.  This means that Paul is offsetting one aspect of the Law with another.  The first aspect involves the universal ethics entailed in the Ten Commandments (minus the 4th), while the second aspect is the cultic-ethnic aspect tied to the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants.  This does not mean that it is okay to divide the Law up into moral, cultic, and ceremonial pieces.  For example, the Fourth Commandment is ethnocentric and concerns Israel just like circumcision.  But it is nevertheless true to say that while the rule of male circumcision is for Jews, and is therefore not universal, the rule concerning idolatry is for all God’s worshipers.  Hence, in 1 Corinthians 7:19 “the commandments of God” have to do with the universal and unchangeable realities which reflect God’s majesty and character and ergo are fully in force for Christians, even if they are not in themselves a means of justification.  The commandments reflect the character of God and are normative for the saint on that basis!  In Romans 10:4 where justification of the sinner is at issue (Rom. 10:3, 5) Christ is the telos; the goal of the Law is achieved in Him.

             These admonitions from Paul (and others such as in Eph. 1-5:21 and 1 Thess. 4:1-7) can all be subsumed within the Ten Commandments as expounded by writers like Jochen Douma and John Frame (again, minus the Sabbath command).[5]  A person who will not be ethically accountable to the Ten Commandments cannot, without serious contradiction, consider themselves obligated to obey Paul’s injunctions either.  They are of one fabric.

            In summary, the law is not a rule of life for the Christian.  The Christian is not “under the law” in that sense.  Moreover, because of the Christian’s involvement in the New covenant in Christ he cannot be “under the law” as a rule of life; Christ having lived that life.  But the Christian should realize that it is always wrong to have other gods, or to dishonor God’s name, or to commit adultery or steal.  These are universal ethical norms because they reflect the character of God Himself, and so stamp a moral imperative upon human beings at all times and in all places.  This is how the Apostle can refer believers to them while teaching us that “we are not under law but under grace.” (Rom. 6:14). 


[1] See e.g., Ronald E. Diprose, “A Theology of the New Covenant: The Foundations of New Testament Theology,” EMJ 017:1 (Summer 2008), 60.    

[2] The Fourth Commandment is never repeated in the NT.  In fact, it is directly contradicted in Romans 14:5-6. 

[3] Look, for instance, at Ephesians 6:1-3.  See how the Apostle uses the Sixth Commandment to the normative force of his injunction for children to obey their parents. 

[4] In normal circumstances.  I shall not enter into the debate about whether for instance lying to protect an innocent life is affected. In such circumstances I believe one is faced with a situation where it is impossible to treat the subjects as ends in themselves (i.e., as the Golden Rule commands) and one must choose the most righteous “means to an end.” For more on this see Robert Kane, Through the Moral Maze. Armonk, NY: North Castle Books, 1996. 

[5] Jochen Douma, The Ten Commandments: Manual for the Christian Life, Philipsburg, PA: P&R, 1996.  This is the best treatment of the Decalogue in my opinion.  See also John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life, Philipsburg, PA: P&R, 2008.     

Covenant Connections in Paul (4)

Part Three

Assessing the Argument for Restricting the New Covenant to Israel  

            J. Dwight Pentecost is a respected Dispensational scholar who wrote a fine book entitled Thy Kingdom Come.[1]  In this work he covers the New covenant in on pages 164 to 177.  The main passages Pentecost cites as referring to the New covenant are Isa. 61:8; Jer. 31:31-34; 32:37-42; Ezek. 16:60-62; 36:24-32; and 37:26.  He believes that the New covenant was made with Israel alone.[2]  He gives several reasons for his position.  The first is that the New covenant was said to be made with “the house of Israel and the house of Judah” (Jer. 31:31; Heb. 8:8).[3]  The second reason for restricting the New covenant to Israel is that “it must of necessity be made with the same people with whom the original Mosaic Covenant had been made.”[4]  Thirdly, Israel will not receive the benefits of the New covenant until the second coming.[5]  I have the utmost respect for Dr. Pentecost and have personally much to thank him for, but I do not think any of these reasons are decisive.

            It is true that Jeremiah (and the author of Hebrews) limits his New covenant prophecy to Israel and Judah, and that is because in that OT setting Yahweh was referring to them.  But that fact does not mean that other passages do not include the Gentiles.  Pentecost’s selective choice of New covenant passages look cherry-picked, for many interpreters, Dispensationalists among them, identify as New covenant texts those that include Gentiles within them.[6]  There are many other passages which, although they do not name the covenant as the New covenant, are rightly considered to be important OT New covenant passages.  These include e.g., Deut. 30:1-6; Isa. 32:9-20; 42:1-7; 49:1-13; 52:10-53:12; 55:3; 59:15b-21; 61:8; Jer. 32:36:44; Ezek. 16:53-63; 36:22-38; 37:21-28; Hos. 2:18-20; Joel 2:28–3:8; Mic. 7:18-20; Zech. 9:10; and 12:6-14.  These passages contain many of the same elements which within Pentecost’s group of texts mentioned above, but some of them bring the Gentiles into the picture. 

            The next reason for restricting the New covenant to Israel is that it must be coextensive with the “old” Mosaic covenant.  But this does not follow, for if Yahweh were to reach out to the nations in the OT, He would have had to do it through the Law.  There would be no other conceivable way to do it.  But that would fail.  Ergo, if the Gentiles are to be saved it must be through a New covenant.  Since the New covenant is in Christ’s blood, and it is that blood that gives all sinners access to the grace of God (Acts 20:28; Rom. 3:24-25; Eph. 1:7; 2:13), there appears to be a major disconnect with those who wish to deny the Gentiles entry into the New covenant.  And this only gets intensified once 1 Corinthians 11:25 and 2 Corinthians 3:6 are recalled. 

            As for the third reason, that Israel will not benefit from the New covenant until the second coming, it is readily granted.  But what difference does that make?  If salvation going out to the Gentiles is one way “to provoke [Israel] to jealousy” (Rom. 11:11), then the Gentiles entering into the benefits of the New covenant before the nation of Israel would be a good way to do just that.         

A major problem here to my mind is that Pentecost has not perceived that the New covenant is the salvation covenant – there is no other!  Further, he has not sufficiently understood the affinity of the New covenant with the person of Jesus Christ.  Finally, although he cites them, he does not engage with either 2 Corinthians 3:6 or 1 Corinthians 11:25.  His arguments look artificial in light of these considerations.    

            To repeat; the question that arises is whether those passages alone refer to the New covenant or whether there are other very similar texts that have been omitted solely because they make reference to the Gentiles.  I have already been at pains to assert that the New covenant is the salvation covenant.  None of the other covenants deal with soteriological matters.  In Volume One of this work I wrote,

            I believe that if we allow redemption passages like Isaiah 49:6; 54:5; 66:19; Micah 4:2; Zechariah 8:7-8, 20-23; Malachi 3:12 to be New covenant passages, just as those we have listed above (e.g. Deut. 30:1-8) then we simply cannot restrict the New covenant to Israel. Surely the smiting and expanding stone of Daniel 2:35 and 44, and the “Son of Man” character of Daniel 7:13-14 presuppose salvation among the nations? As I have tried to demonstrate in my comments on Isaiah 42 and 49,19 the Servant who is made a covenant is Christ, and He is made a covenant of salvation. In Isaiah 49:6-8 the One who saves Israel and the nations and who is made a covenant cannot be a covenant of salvation only to Israel, while the nations are saved in a different way.[7]

            Another less delicate way of saying this is that I believe Dispensationalists especially, since they so adamantly advocate for a literal hermeneutic, need to reevaluate the New covenant passages in both Testaments.  Jeremiah 31:31-34 has been allowed to blinker many fine Dispensational interpreters into assigning the New covenant to Israel alone.  My plea is that they would come to realize that the main ingredient in the New covenant is salvation, or more broadly, reconciliation in the form of redemption and restoration.  Everything else that is purported to be found in the New covenant is in actuality the several aspects of the other unilateral covenants of God; the promises which have been revived because of the transforming power of Christ, which will come to fruition in a literal way by passing through the New covenant in Him. 


[1] J. Dwight Pentecost, Thy Kingdom Come: Tracing God’s Kingdom Program and Covenant Promises Throughout History, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1995.  A more recent book with several contributors who deny any relation of the New covenant to the church is An Introduction to the New Covenant, edited by Christopher Cone, Hurst, TX: Tyndale Seminary Press, 2013.  The book is a sterling effort by good men, but it fails to convince.     

[2] Ibid, 173.

[3] Ibid, 171.

[4] Ibid, 172.

[5] Ibid, 172-173.

[6] See Appendix…”The Terms of the New Covenant and Its Parties.”  By “terms” I mean those things that God promised in New covenant texts; specifically, those promises that were not already covered by the oaths of the other unconditional covenants. 

[7] Paul Martin Henebury, The Words of the Covenant: Old Testament Expectation, 273.