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The New Face of the One People of God: What Happened At Pentecost

January 2, 2014 Leave a comment

From S. Lewis Johnson’s Divine Purpose in History and Prophecy” series, the following lesson concerning continuity and discontinuity in the One People of God, before and after Acts 2 Pentecost.  We observe first the two extremes, and that the truth lies somewhere in the middle:  some people believe the church is another term for all who ever believed and thus the church began with Adam.  Others say that the church began on the day of Pentecost and that there is really no relationship between what happened on Pentecost and what had preceded.

First, what already existed, the “old”:  Though the church was created on the day of Pentecost it was not absolutely new in every respect. 

  •  The redemptive foundation: What Christ did on the cross, the ground of the salvation of Israel, and the ground of the Gentiles who lived before Abraham – the ground of Adam’s salvation.  That’s the ground of the Gentiles who existed before Abraham came into existence, that’s the ground of Adam’s salvation.  It’s the ground of every member of the true church of Jesus Christ.  It’s the ground of their salvation. So the ground of our salvation what Christ did on the cross is the ground of the salvation of all believers in Christ. 
  • The union of Old Testament and New Testament believers that has taken place as a result of the common faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

New:  Paul does say a new man has been created

  • The Holy Spirit permanently indwells all believers now.  He did not permanently indwell all believers before the day of Pentecost
  • Freedom from the law as a code.
  • Adoption of the Gentiles.  Romans 11:11-24
  • Equality of Jew and Gentile in the body; the “mystery”.  Gentiles do not have to convert to Judaism.
  • Universal priesthood of the believers
  • Universality of the gifts under the oversight of elders

Ecclesiology: Going Beyond Popular Ideas to the Biblical Model

September 8, 2011 Leave a comment

In popular terminology among evangelicals, ecclesiology conveys general ideas about how the church is independent of state government, and the general activities of the local church and its outreach.  John MacArthur, in this recent interview with Christianity.com, contrasted these common characteristics — including a serious attitude in one’s dress and overall worship service, plus shepherding, caring for people, and specific activities such as hospital visits and praying with a grieving widow — with what he termed “an event” where the gospel is preached along with rock and roll music and trying to be more like the entertainment-focused world.

But true biblical ecclesiology goes far beyond what MacArthur described in that interview, of the conventional model for modern-day evangelical churches that care for and truly shepherding their people.  Biblical ecclesiology closely adheres in both belief and practice to what scripture says concerning the structure and practice of the church (the New Testament era church).  This may indeed be a dying concept, increasingly rare in a world gone to the even further extremes of 21st century Christian “contextualization.”  Yet it is still practiced in a few churches, such as Believers Chapel in Dallas (where the late S. Lewis Johnson taught for many years).

Two articles written by William MacRae at Believers Chapel (1974) outline the points of true New Testament ecclesiology.  The second one lists nine distinctives for Believers Chapel’s practice in accordance with this model.
The Meeting of the Church      and  The Principles of the New Testament Church

Consider this excerpt, which addresses something I see as missing the mark when it comes to the overall leadership and “Senior Pastor” emphasis on John MacArthur and his leadership ministry:

I am often appalled by Christians who are meticulous about their Christology (the doctrine of Christ), and very careful about their pneumatology (the doctrine of the Holy Spirit), and are able to cross their “t’s” and dot their “i’s” in their eschatology (the doctrine of future things); but when it comes to ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church), they are very careless. This, to me, is an amazing inconsistency. Perhaps it indicates the value or lack of value we place upon the church.

True New Testament ecclesiology, as pointed out in these nine distinctives, does not include members classes or offical church membership.  It does not include any liturgy, or any set format with time limitation.  It is not something led by one “Senior Pastor” overseeing a group of pastors and/or elders, but is led by a plurality of elders.  The NT church does not have a recognized office of pastor/teacher; rather, such are considered “gifted men” but not the church leaders.  The church meeting, which was held on Sunday evening, does allow for any men among those in the congregation to participate and share something with everyone else, as opposed to the modern-day structured church format in which only certain individuals contribute to the meeting.

Here are a few excerpts concerning distinctives #3 and 4.  Distinctive #3 concerns church offices.  See also this recent blog, Is the Position of Senior Pastor Biblical?

It may surprise some of you who have been coming to Believers Chapel for just a short period of time to discover that I am not the pastor of Believers Chapel. I have never been ordained. I do not have any official title. I am not the head of Believers Chapel.

We do not have any individual who occupies such an office in the New Testament. Pastoring is a gift (Eph. 4:11) and a work (I Pet. 5:2). But it is no more an office than “showing mercy” or “giving” or “exhorting.” Thus we do not have anyone in Believers Chapel who occupies the office of Pastor. The organizational structure of a New Testament local church has been diagrammed by Dr. S. L. Johnson, Jr. as follows:

The New Testament speaks of only four offices in the local church: The Head (Col. 1:18, Eph. 1:22). Elders (I Tim. 3). Deacons (I Tim. 3) and Priests (I Peter 5:9). Christ alone is Head. Several may be elders and deacons. All believers are priests.

The government of Believers Chapel is under the rule of a group of elders who function under Christ the Head. They are the decision-making body.

I am offended when you refer to this as Bill McRae’s church. You do a great disservice to Dr. Johnson to refer to it as Dr. Johnson’s church. It is a great affront to the Lord to refer to it as Dr. Blum’s Church. Why? In each case, you are putting a man in the position that Christ alone can and does assume in his church. He is the Head and we recognize only Him in His position of Headship.

Distinctive #4 puts into practice the idea of a NT church meeting:

Every Sunday evening, following the pattern of the New Testament church, we gather together for the meeting of the church in which we give the Holy Spirit freedom to superintend the meeting of the church. There is no officialism, no liturgy, no rituals, no stereotyped program, no man made rules, no time limitations.

The Holy Spirit is free to exercise one to stand and give a hymn, then another to read a passage of the Word of God, another to pray, or to give a word of exhortation, to give thanks for the bread, or to give thanks for the wine, or to pray for the president and for those in authority over us, or to pray for that unsaved neighbor down the street, or to share a particular prayer request or to praise God for something He has done in his life last week. It is a meeting with a three-fold purpose:

1. Edification of believers -I Cor. 14:26 This may be achieved through hymns (Eph. 5:19, I Cor. 14:26), ministry of the Word (I Cor. 14:26), and personal testimonies (Acts 14:27, 15:4, 12).
2. Worship of the Lord. This may be expressed in hymns, prayer, ministry of the Word, the observance of the Lord’s Supper (I Cor. 11:23-34), and the offering of our gifts to the Lord (I Cor. 16:1-2).
3. Evangelism of the Unsaved. Those unbelievers present may be evangelized by the proclamation of the Lord’s death in the observance of the Lord’s supper (I Cor. 11:26). For those unbelievers who are absent we are instructed to intercede for their salvation (I Tim. 2:1-8).

What the Reformers Did Not Reform

August 11, 2011 3 comments

It is so well-established, beyond excuse, that Luther and Calvin did not reform eschatology, or ecclesiology, but just imported those ideas from Catholicism. How ironic that now the “truly reformed” act just as arrogant, appealing to church history and tradition, as “the Establishment” of Roman Catholicism did to the reformers years ago.

This statement, from a recent online discussion and then posted on one person’s Facebook status, brought about some rather interesting, though predictable, responses from some of those “truly reformed” individuals who reject dispensationalism.  Their responses show only continued unbelief, which is beyond excuse, and ignorance of both history and theology.

One response:  the Reformers did reform eschatology.  They got rid of purgatory, and Wikipedia says that purgatory is part of eschatology.  Leaving aside the lack of credibility for their source (Wikipedia and similar sites), consider just what purgatory really involved:  not “the afterlife” or “last things” but a works-based salvation system, which is part of soteriology and not eschatology.  The whole purpose of purgatory is to provide a works-based way for the works-based sinner to gain (by works) salvation and go to heaven.

Another response:  the Reformers did reform ecclesiology.  They departed from the Catholic church system.  Again how ridiculous a claim.  Leaving one church-state system, and then setting up a new (Protestant) church with the same ecclesiastical model of a church-state (even continuing infant baptism and keeping the government and church firmly together), is not reforming ecclesiology.

The next response:  why can’t you just accept that the Reformers did study eschatology, and through their own study and exegesis they came to the amillennialist conclusions?
Answer:  because they didn’t.  Luther and Zwingli both considered the book of Revelation as non-canonical.  Zwingli preached at his local church through every New Testament book–except the book of Revelation.  John Calvin did not reject Revelation from the canon, yet he wrote commentaries on every New Testament book except Revelation.  Calvin further thought premillennialism meant that eternity only lasts for 1000 years and dismissed that as an absurdity.

For an overview look at actual church history, and the beginnings of replacement theology, amillennialism and Covenant Theology, refer to this previous blog.

Is God “Most Glorified” through His Church?

June 28, 2010 2 comments

A friend recently posted a link to the following quote from preacher Jeff Noblit:  “God is most glorified through His church. God is most glorified through His church when His church is biblically healthy. For our churches to become biblically healthy, we desperately need revival and reformation. This revival and reformation will require suffering on the part of God’s shepherd. But His glory is worth it!”

It’s a statement that sounds nice and uplifting, for the average Christian who likes to hear good things about the church — if you don’t think about the words and what it’s really saying. Yet the statement struck me as unbiblical, as an idea that comes from standard Reformed ecclesiology in which the Church is the end-all plan of God, also part and parcel of Church Replacement theology (also called Supersessionism).  I had not heard that particular wording before, though, and googled to see if anyone else had anything to say regarding what God is “most glorified” in.  I did learn that John Piper has written a type of creed statement, that “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.”  I also found this article that looks at the biblical question of “God is Most Glorified… When?”  We really can’t say that there is one thing which glorifies God the most — although of course the Bible tells us of several things that do glorify God.  I know that at my own moment of salvation, when suddenly God revealed basic understanding (as I was driving home listening to the Rich Mullins song “Awesome God”), I suddenly knew that everything came from God, even my very breath and every cell of my existence, and that my whole purpose for being was to glorify and praise God.

But back to the original quote from Jeff Noblit — what does the Bible actually say about the Church?  And what would cause someone to think such a thing as the statement above?

So here are just a few things said in God’s word concerning the first question:  The Church began at Pentecost, and departs at the rapture.  The Church is the body of Christ, built on the foundation of prophets and apostles.  The church structure, for the local church, includes recognized positions of elders and deacons.  The Bible recognizes the gift of pastor/teacher, but does not support the idea of “office of pastor” — a point emphasized by S. Lewis Johnson, at a church that holds to that point.

The Church has been given the role that Israel would have had, to spread the gospel in the world during this age, and as Paul tells us in Romans 11, the purpose of Gentiles coming into the Church is to make Israel jealous. But Romans 11 also tells us that this situation will end, after the fullness of the Gentiles.  Old Testament texts affirm that in the age to come (the Millennial Kingdom) Israel will be restored and will serve the purpose that God intended for her, with the special place of prominence among the nations again.  So, knowing the purpose and limits of the Church in God’s overall plan — an equal part of the full people of God, alongside Israel — how can it be said that God is “most glorified through His Church?” For such language claims that the Church is greater than anything else in God’s Divine Purpose.

The New Testament also tells us to expect difficulty and great apostasy as the end draws near.  Paul often warned the church (as in Acts 20) as well as its leaders Timothy and Titus, to guard and keep the faith, to watch out for false teachers who would soon enter the church.  Peter and Jude also spoke of such things. As Mark Hitchcock has pointed out, it is interesting that the book of Jude is listed in the canon just before the book of Revelation; God has ordained both the books of the canon as well as their sequence in our Bibles.  The parable in Matthew 13:33 uses leaven to describe this age; and despite the ideas of some, leaven is never used in a positive way in scripture, and that includes the truth taught here.  The parable of the wheat and tares also makes it clear that the church will always have true and false professors within it, and we cannot separate them out.  Believers are continually exhorted to holy living and to resist the devil (again making it clear that Satan is not currently bound), and Revelation 2-3 make it clear that even by the end of the first century the churches were having lots of problems.

From church history, we can read the words of Christian leaders from previous times, such as 19th century Britain’s J.C. Ryle, C.H. Spurgeon, and Horatius Bonar, to learn that even in past times (that we like to think of as having been morally upright and more “Christian”), the true Church was oppressed, local churches plagued with professing believers more caught up in the affairs of the world than in the study of God’s word.  Refer to my previous blog article that includes one such quote from Horatius Bonar, or one of many samplings from J.C. Ryle:

The devil is the prince of this world during the present dispensation (John 14:30). The vast majority of the inhabitants of the earth choose the things that please the devil far more than the things that please God. Little as they may think it, they are doing the devil’s will, behaving as the devil’s subjects, and serving the devil far more than Christ. This is the actual condition of Christendom as well as of heathen countries. After 1900 years of Bibles and Gospel preaching, there is not a nation, or a country, or a parish, or a long established congregation, where the devil has not more subjects than Christ. So fearfully true is it that the world is not yet the kingdom of Christ.

To say that we “desperately need” revival and that it requires suffering on the part of God’s shepherd (presumably by this he means local church leaders) to accomplish this, is to put the matter in man’s hands, as if God’s glory is dependent on our producing “biblically healthy” churches.  Furthermore, the only way to come up with such a positive view concerning the Church and the necessity for revival and “biblically healthy” churches, is to re-interpret scriptures that are not even talking about the Church but about the promised future for Israel, as being really about the church — the common error of Church Replacement Theology that looks at the optimistic passages in the Old Testament prophets and applies the blessings to the Church but leaves the curses to Israel.

Since God never promised such blessings to the Church but to the future Kingdom age, those who re-interpret the scriptures (to think of our age as the glorious Church/Kingdom) face a serious disconnect between their view of God’s word and observed reality — a disconnect that can only lead to disappointment and frustration as they continue to expect to see certain things, such as revival and biblically healthy churches — while the reality fails to live up to the ideal of the great “blessings” as described by the prophets.

Acts 3, The Prophets, and the Church Age

March 16, 2010 Leave a comment

In my last post I considered dispensationalism and ecclesiology, noting that the descriptions of the future kingdom, in the OT prophecies, do not agree with the assessment of the New Testament church age as described by the apostles.

Now that I’ve been following the (modified) Horner Bible reading plan for a year, I can definitely see a benefit:  really becoming familiar with what God’s word actually says.  After all, one year of this reading plan results in the following:  almost three readings through the Prophets, six readings through the New Testament Epistles, and over seven readings through the book of Acts.  From the Prophets I now notice several major themes, including the pattern of Israel’s apostasy, followed by God’s judgement, and then the wonderful hope of future restoration of Israel: into a right relationship with God, and the associated blessings of that — dwelling in the land in peace, safety and abundance.

In my current reading through Acts, Peter’s message in Acts 3 especially sticks out.  Notice verse 21 especially:

(Jesus) whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago.  (ESV)

My last post mentioned the overall differences between the Old Testament prophecies and the present church age.  This passage in Acts 3 is far more direct and to the point.  Jesus must remain in heaven (referring to this age) “until the time” (future) “for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago.”

Now, what did the prophets speak about, and what is meant by the restoration (the “restoring”)?  Acts 1:6-7, just two chapters earlier, answers the second part of this question.  After 40 days spent with Jesus post-resurrection, the apostles asked Him, “are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”  As has often been pointed out, if the amillennialists are right and this age is the kingdom, this would have been the perfect opportunity for Jesus to correct their understanding.  Instead, He simply told them that it was not for them to know “the times or dates” of when it would come.  Acts 3:21 clearly refers to the same thing, a future restoration that will come after the present time (while Jesus remains in heaven) — in other words, at our Lord’s Second Coming.

Back to the first question:  what did the prophets speak about?  Again, multiple readings through that section of the Bible (Isaiah through Malachi) show the very oft-repeated theme of apostasy-judgment-future restoration and blessing, and all of these relate to national Israel, with language concerning “the house of Judah and the house of Israel.”  The theme is so prevalent throughout these books, that it boggles my mind that anyone could conceive of the idea that the first two parts — apostasy and judgment — involve Israel, but the third part — future restoration and blessing — is something completely disjointed from the previous two and said to apply to the Church instead.  A strong, solid knowledge of the Old Testament prophets, and the book of Acts (plus the many descriptions of the current Church age as a good contrast) makes the truth plain.

Biblical ignorance — and sinful Gentile pride, the very thing the apostle Paul warned against in Romans 11– is behind that which now boggles my mind.  Such ignorance and pride itself are an indication of the underlying problems with the Church age, as yet more proof that the Church age is NOT the kingdom of God, is NOT the fulfillment of all that the prophets spoke of long ago.

In years past when my own Bible study was more lacking (casual reading through the Bible once a year, and listening only to what was taught at my own church), I likewise did not think about these issues so much — and at a superficial glance, it does sound good when a pastor skims over a few verses out of Isaiah or Jeremiah and says “this is talking about our age now.”  We know the great things that Christ did for us in His atoning work on the cross, and eternal life in heaven, and so, naturally, it sounds great to hear that the Church is the wonderful outworking of God’s plan.  We’re all Christians, and the gospel is going out victoriously into this age and changing lives, and so it seems natural that God is doing all this for us Gentiles in the Church Age.

With such general ideas, I once supposed that previous generations of the Church age were much better than now:  that people were really more godly, moral and church-going back in the middle 20th century, or the early 20th century, or other times before that, such as on the 19th century frontier, Victorian England, colonial America, etc.  Perhaps other times were more outwardly civilized, with the restraints of law and societal pressure, but the more I learn and read of history the more it truly agrees with what the Bible says about this current Church Age.  I have read many sermons from C.H. Spurgeon, delivered in the 1850s (150+ years ago), that one would surely think were talking about the early 21st century.  Then as now, most people did not really read their Bibles, did not take the time and effort and were more interested in magazines and popular literature.  Then as now, people were lazy with excuses regarding church attendance and with really living a good Christian life.  Then as now, only a few Christians spoke out against and contended against the constant barrage of errors and evils coming against the church.  Then it was Spurgeon; now it is leaders such as John MacArthur, and others at various points throughout church history.

Dispensationalism and Ecclesiology

March 12, 2010 5 comments

Michael Vlach, in his recent Shepherd’s Conference message highlighted the distinctives of dispensationalism, including one point I’ve often heard, that dispensationalism speaks to the matters of eschatology and ecclesiology.

In my studies over the last year and a half, I’ve mainly learned dispensational eschatology.  However, as I continue my daily (12-14 chapters) Bible reading and consider what scripture has to say concerning the Church Age, versus the ideas promoted by amillennialists, I understand more of what the ecclesiological issues are.

The New Testament speaks of this present evil age (Galatians 1:4), of how we wrestle against the spiritual forces of evil (Ephesians 6:11-12), of how we must resist the devil (James 4:7).  In Acts 20:29-30, Paul warns the Ephesian elders to be on guard, for “I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them.”

Horatius Bonar well said, in reference to this Church age:

With reference to the Church, the interval is evil, not good; dark, not bright. During all this period she is a little flock,—a lily among thorns. Her lot is tribulation, persecution, shame, and tears! As an oppressed widow, she cries against her adversary day and night, “How long, O Lord! how long?” Satan rages on every side, seeking to devour her. The world, like a flood, circles her about with its swelling waves. The haters of the Master are haters of the servant too. Nor does time soften the hostility or abate the persecution. The evil increases, the darkness thickens into deeper darkness as the crisis approaches. Satan pours forth his fiercest, fullest rage when the time of his binding draws near. And, besides all these, the absence of the Bridegroom keeps her sad and weary. So long as he is not with her, earth must be a wilderness, even though no enemy threatened, no sorrow wounded, and tempest wasted her. Nothing but His return can satisfy her.

Contrast this with the unbiblical ideas of amillennialists who say that this is the glorious millennial age, in which Satan is bound (a concept they redefine to something less than the words mean) and the gospel is going out triumphantly into the world.  Jeremiah (they say) wrote of our age, and they then quote words from the prophets — words about the future Millennial Kingdom — but claim that it’s really talking about our age.  But never does the New Testament speak of the Church Age in such terms, but to the very opposite, as demonstrated in the verses cited above (among many other passages).

Surely, if those Old Testament passages were really meant to be reinterpreted by our New Testament understanding, then the New Testament authors would at least agree with those reinterpretations, with New Testament statements affirming a more positive description of the present Church age.

Amillennialists are said to be the more pessimistic version of their close-cousin post-millennialists, but both groups give great credence to the unscriptural idea that the Church is now experiencing the blessings originally promised to Israel.  Since both groups spiritualize Old Testament texts that speak of Israel’s future kingdom and apply them to the Church — while conveniently ignoring the very plain, literal words of the New Testament regarding this age — both take an overly optimistic and unwarranted view regarding the impact of the gospel and the Church’s influence on the world.  Post-millennialists have the hubris to think that man can bring God’s kingdom to the earth,  but amillennialists are equally blinded and do not see the inevitable decline, failure and apostasy that must come to pass in the Church age, up to the time of the Second Advent.

Here indeed is the great divide between Covenant Theology / NCT, and dispensationalism, in the matter of ecclesiology.  To the one, the Church is the end all of God’s Divine Purpose, the complete fulfillment of God’s plans until His return, the resurrection and establishment of the New Heavens and New Earth.  The latter, however, looks at the whole counsel of God, to understand that in every age (or dispensation) man is given increasing advantages, yet every age reveals the complete failure of man — to the greater glory of God and His greatness;  along with a sober understanding that the Church is God’s plan for this age, but not THE final purpose, which will include a restored Israel along with saved Gentiles. “For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all” (Romans 11:32).