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“Protestant Purgatory”? Confusion Regarding Regeneration and the Holy Spirit

March 28, 2013 14 comments

(Yes, it’s just a nickname, ‘Protestant Purgatory’… not actual purgatory, though something with the similar feature of a third “holding place” pre-Calvary.  Moving along to the main issue of this post: people who think Regeneration equals Permanent Indwelling of the Holy Spirit.)

A recent online discussion brought out something quite strange: Christians who actually believe the “Protestant Purgatory for Old Testament Saints” myth, the idea that the Old Testament saints were not regenerated (since they did not have the Holy Spirit indwelling) and did not go to heaven but to “Abraham’s Bosom,” a type of purgatory holding place until Calvary, at which time Christ moved them to heaven.  It turned out that this idea (at least the second part, about the OT saints not going to heaven) comes from a particular teacher of Internet and Youtube popularity; his teaching (link provided by the person in this discussion who believes this) can be found here.

The reasoning for this idea, as presented in the discussion, included emphasis on Luke 16, the parable/story of Lazarus and the Rich Man, along with other questionable ideas such as that the Old Testament never used the term “born again,” and thinking (without scriptural reasoning) that the disciples themselves were not saved and no different from unbelievers before Christ’s Resurrection/Pentecost.

As a friend later observed, “I think the problem is a faulty understanding of the ministry of the Holy Spirit throughout the Bible and the history of redemption. It is not correct to say that only those who have the dwelling of the Spirit can be regenerated, because we are not saved by the dwelling of the Spirit; but we have the dwelling because we have been saved (or regenerated).”

Surely such confusion and error is a symptom of today’s “Youtube generation” and an evangelical community not grounded in the scriptures. Scanning through S. Lewis Johnson sermons on the topic of regeneration and the post-Pentecost indwelling of the Holy Spirit, for instance, I find that he stated, casually in passing reference: Now the Old Testament says that believers were regenerated, and so we have to answer, “Yes the Old Testament says believers were regenerated.” “Were the Old Testament believers indwelt by the Holy Spirit permanently?” Now personally I have to reply, “No.”  But he didn’t go through the OT scriptures to prove it, just assuming that everyone understood this.  John MacArthur likewise makes passing reference to this as a fact, as in his two part lesson about the salvation of infants that die: there are only two places a soul can go when it dies, either into the presence of the Lord (heaven) or away from God’s presence (hell).

So much could be said in response to this error/myth, but for a summary of the obvious hermeneutical and doctrinal problems here:

1) Does anyone else (among the scholars and Bible teachers) teach this idea?  The “checking principle” of hermeneutics demands humility on the part of anyone teaching a unique interpretation, that perhaps his interpretation is wrong.  Actually, it turns out that this idea (OT saints went to some holding area) is a “fictitious and fabulous” error of the papists, denounced later by Protestants such as (18th century) John Gill (Spurgeon’s predecessor, covenantal premillennialist and high Calvinist) (reference his commentary here).  Which makes one wonder why any 21st century Protestant Calvinist would teach an error from the Catholics of old.

2) Excessive focus on a parable and drawing strong doctrinal support from such a text.  Also this approach to God’s word ignores the whole body of teaching concerning the history of redemption and the nature of salvation and regeneration as taught throughout the Bible in both the Old and New Testaments.

3) Teaches the idea of purgatory, a non-biblical idea, and a non-biblical different “truth” for Old Testament times: a third place for the soul/spirit to go, rather than the two places of biblical Christianity (into the presence of God or away from God), this third place of limbo, a holding area or purgatory for all people who died before Calvary.

Expanding on point two above, the body of teaching concerning redemption, salvation and regeneration, S. Lewis Johnson in this message explains the logical necessity of regeneration:

regeneration is needed for three reasons. First, because of the condition of humanity, we are naturally dead. We are alienated and enemies. We are blind. We are hardened. We are slaves of sin. We are ignorant. The Bible says that if we have not been born again, that we are really of the devil, and so that the condition of humanity is sufficient to make very plain to us, the necessity of regeneration if we expect to enjoy the presence of God some day.

Regeneration is also needed because of the character of holiness; that sin separates us from a holy God, and because God is a holy God, he cannot have fellowship with sin, and we are dead in sin. And so the holiness of God separates us from him, and we need regeneration, a new birth. We need to become a new creation. And finally, regeneration is needed because of the character of heaven itself. In the Bible, we are told in the Book of Revelation that “there shall not enter into heaven anything that defileth.” Heaven is not like earth, and consequently, if we are to enter into heaven, we must be pure. Therefore, we need a new birth. We cannot enter into heaven, dead in sin. We cannot enter into heaven the slaves of sin. We cannot enter into heaven in any way touched by sin. What we need is a perfect righteousness and a perfect holiness, and that can only come to us through a new birth, and a consequent justification of life.

That believers before the Cross were regenerated and not the same as natural man is obvious.  Jesus’ words to Nicodemus make clear that to be born-again was a present reality, and something that Nicodemus, as a teacher, was expected to have known. If no one was regenerated with a new heart before the Cross/Pentecost, Nicodemus would have had a very good excuse for not knowing this.  That Nicodemus should have known this also makes clear that the Old Testament taught the same as the New, that believers of all times were given a new heart and that they went to be with the Lord at their death, same as with us in the Church age.  God’s word is also quite clear on where Enoch and Elijah went, that they were raptured and taken into the presence of God (heaven); to say they went instead to some other “holding place” until Christ’s death is unscriptural and ridiculous.

Matthew 16:17 tells us that flesh and blood had not revealed to Peter his understanding (that Jesus was the Christ), “but my Father who is in heaven. Throughout the Old Testament God chose and elected His leaders and prophets.  Daniel was one beloved by the Lord (Daniel 10:19).  Numbers 11:29 and Deuteronomy 29:4 point out that God did put His spirit on some individuals. The Deuteronomy text points out to the unbelieving people that “the Lord has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear,” which in context is a clear contrast between the great numbers of unbelievers and the relative few including Moses, Joshua and Caleb, who had been given a heart to understand.