A Theology of the Gospel in the Old Testament

Introduction

“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1).[1]

Where did the gospel message first begin? The Gospel of Mark points to John the Baptist as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy regarding the gospel. If John fulfilled this prophecy, the gospel had a previous beginning point.

Jesus said these remarkable words, “Beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). The critical, exegetical work of the Lord Jesus Christ tells us the gospel begins with Moses and that it is throughout all of the Old Testament.

To uncover the gospel in its totality requires starting at the beginning and showing that the Bible is a unified book bound together by the common theme of God’s good news declared to sinful man. If this thesis statement is true, there should be overwhelming evidence of the gospel message throughout the Old Testament as it points to Christ. This paper seeks to provide examples of the gospel throughout the Old Testament, which points to Christ as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). 

The First Gospel

“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel’” (Gen. 3:15).

When sin entered the world through the serpent’s deceit, God cursed mankind and all of Adam’s posterity (Rom. 5:12). The Apostle Paul declares Adam was a type of the one who was to come (Rom. 5:14). The obvious question to ask is, who is this one? Genesis 3:15 sets the answer to man’s sin problem and reconciliation with God in motion. C.H. Spurgeon said, “This is a most glorious promise, the first and only until the time of Abraham.”[2] What is revealed in this verse is nothing less than a divine promise of deliverance. Adam plunged humanity into sin and death through his act of rebellion. God saw the need in the immediate, as He had seen it before time began in the promise of a Redeemer. The great evangelist George Whitefield captures the predicament and the Divine’s answer to the problem:

An amazing scene of divine love here opens to our view, which had been from all eternity hid in the heart of God! Notwithstanding Adam and Eve were thus unhumbled, and did not so much as put up one single petition for pardon, God immediately passes sentence upon the serpent, and reveals to them a Savior.[3]

            The Lexham Bible Dictionary states Genesis 3:15 as the first gospel or protevangelium: “PROTEVANGELIUM Latin term meaning ‘first gospel.’ It refers to the promise of Gen 3:15 that the ‘seed of the woman’ would conquer the ‘seed of the serpent.’ This concept is applied to Jesus as Messiah (see Rom 16:20; Gal 3:16, 19, 29).”[4] In the opening chapter of Genesis, God had pronounced His work in creation as good, but after Adam and Eve’s creation, He pronounces the entirety of His work, “very good” (Gen. 1:31). Genesis chapter three sees the introduction of the serpent, the devil of old, and the manipulator of Eve as Adam stands by and observes the scene (Gen. 3:6). Immediately, things have changed, “then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths” (Gen 3:7). They immediately experienced something previously unknown: guilt, so they hid from God.

In the gospel message, the concept of guilt is an essential element. For Adam to know of his need for grace and mercy, he must understand he has violated God’s standard. God is not a harsh and capricious God, so He approaches Adam. K.A. Matthews offers a reason for God’s approach: “God is depicted as a gentle father seeking out his own. The means of uncovering their deed (like the serpent’s means of entrapment) is interrogation rather than charge and denunciation. The effect is pedagogical and permits the guilty to witness against themselves by their own admissions.”[5]

God metes out the consequences of their sin through a series of curses. First to the serpent, then to the woman, and finally to Adam, but within the middle of the curses is the gospel’s promise. In His great love, God has paved a path for forgiveness and reconciliation through the offspring; the seed of the woman will come as a promised deliverer.

Abraham’s Gospel Defined

“For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith” (Rom. 4:13).

            Spurgeon said the gospel’s promise has been silent since the Garden, but not without types and allusions. Types and allusions are given to the reader through God closing the doors of the Ark, as one example, the Ark being a type of Christ and Jesus the narrow gate. God’s revelation is progressive, and as so, He unfolds history in humanly understandable bits and pieces. Understanding the worldwide flood as a manifestation of God’s justice yet the salvation of Noah and his family representing His mercy is imperative to form an accurate understanding of God in all His attributes.

The world has continued its steady decline since the flood, and it is apparent it needs the gospel. Robert Gonzales writes, “Yahweh’s judgment on the Babel endeavor did not eradicate human sin any more than his worldwide Flood erased antediluvian evil (8:21). Instead, it resulted in the dispersal of sinful people-groups throughout the ancient world.”[6] God continues to reach out to the Sons of Adam and covenant with him. The covenants begin with Adam and continue throughout redemptive history, but Adam’s progeny continues to break the promises. God is undeterred in His actions toward mankind, and as revelation continues to progress, God again initiates, this time with a Chaldean named Abram:

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:1-3).

            The gospel message is revealed to Abraham in a promise from God to bless him and to make his offspring more numerous than the stars in all the heaven, and God sets His love upon him, not only in material blessing but through faith (Rom. 4:9, 22; Gal. 3:6; Jam. 2:23). “And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). There are significant theological implications in the salvation of Abraham. The text articulates that salvation is by God’s grace, not works. Abraham believed the LORD, but the belief exhibited here is initiated by God. Abraham was not seeking God; God was seeking Abraham (Gen. 15:1). Matthews provides a succinct explanation:

The narration describes Abram’s response as belief (trust) in the Lord. The Hebrew construction translated “believed” (heʾĕmin + prep.) means to place trust in someone with confidence (e.g., Exod 19:9; 1 Sam 27:12). The general idea is reliance, and the orientation of the person’s trust is the future. The LXX renders the Hebrew by episteusen, “[Abram] believed.” There is no exact equivalent in the Hebrew for Greek’s pistis (“faith”) and pisteuō (“believe”), but this verbal form (hiphil) of the word ʾāman comes closest. Here Abram’s trust is placed in the Lord (bĕyhwh), whom he believes will carry out his promise (cp. Exod 14:31; Jonah 3:5). The text emphasizes that Abram entrusted his future to what God would do for him as opposed to what he could do for himself to obtain the promises.[7]

            Abraham’s faith was predicated upon God’s intervention, not his acting upon God’s work, as many confuse the roles of faith and works. R.C. Sproul adds, “When Abraham believed the promise of God, God counted him righteous, so Paul is arguing that works did not justify Abraham, nor was he justified by circumcision.”[8] Whether Old or New Testament, the gospel message must be consistent with the root cause being faith. Sons of Adam have no ability within themselves to reach up to God for salvation, and God must always do the reaching first.

Isaiah’s Gospel

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone” (Is. 9:2).

To whom does the gospel message extend? Is it only for the Jew or for the Gentile as well? God promised redemption for His people, but in defining His people was, the gospel limited to only Jews. Isaiah seems to clear this up, and being a comprehensive prophecy of the gospel message, the prophet explains that this message will come to all nations. The Gospel of Matthew explains that this fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy of Jesus residing in the region of Galilee (Matt. 4:14-16). The message of Isaiah is replete with references to the nations of the world: “He says: ‘It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth’” (Is. 49:6). When confronted with the truth of the world’s salvation (John 3:16), Nicodemus should have hardly been shocked. How did this esteemed teacher of the law miss something so obviously spelled out in Isaiah? John Calvin drives home the point:

He now adds, that this labour will be efficacious, not only among the people of Israel, but likewise among the Gentiles; and so it actually happened. Moreover, when the preaching of the Gospel produced hardly any good effect on the Jews, and when Christ was obstinately rejected by them, the Gentiles were substituted in their room. And thus Christ was “appointed to be a light of the Gentiles, and his salvation was manifested to the very ends of the earth” (Acts 13:47).[9]

            The gospel message is a thread that runs through the entirety of Isaiah, just as it does through the entirety of the Old Testament, and from the appointing of the prophet, there is an immediate theme of conviction, repentance, and atonement, all necessary elements to the gospel call (Is. 6:4-7). Immediately the prophet volunteers to the heavenly call and receives the instruction that the people will not listen, a common New Testament reference (Cited Matt. 13:14, 15; Acts 28:26, 27; [Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10; Rom. 11:8]. While Isaiah is abounding with the gospel message, the Servant Songs provide a glorious view of God’s message of salvation to man.

            It would be challenging to pick just one song in this incredible series. J. Nicholas Reid describes it like this:

So it is with the Servant Songs of Isaiah. These passages—Isaiah 42:1–9; 49:1–7; 50:4–9; and 52:13–53:12—make reference to the Servant of the Lord, and each could, like a single mountain, command attention that extends well beyond the treatment given here. In fact, one might feel the temptation to dwell only with one song without reference to the others. Another temptation might be to collapse each passage into the other, rushing from the victory of 42:1–9 to the suffering of 52:13–53:12.[10]

            Can one passage possibly due justice to God’s eternal plan to reveal His Son to the nations in all His glory? While the songs bring amazement, Isaiah 52:13-53:12 has captured the imagination of many throughout history. It culminates in that epic statement, “But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed” (Is. 53:5). This prophecy describes the brutal death the Servant would suffer, but it also proclaims the gospel. Christ suffered that His people might have peace with God. He bore the sin reserved for man. The innocent man dies for the guilty. Penal, substitutionary atonement perfectly defined.

            Isaiah’s gospel is clear. It is evident and apparent that God declared the good news through this point in redemptive history, and as it unfolds, He continues to show the same message through the minor prophets.

Jonah’s Gospel

 “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me’” (Jon 1:1-2).

Jonah is a prophet of God that appears to be in a crisis of faith. Jonah’s mission is to go to Ninevah, but he rebels, as the story quickly reveals. Can a gospel message be found in a rebellious man called to proclaim the good news to a wicked nation? The evidence is readily available that Jonah wanted nothing to do with God’s commands, and while he ultimately completes his mission, the gospel is intended for Jonah as much as for the Ninevites.

Bryan Estelle, in his book Salvation through Judgment and Mercy: The Gospel According to Jonah, writes,

In short, it seems that the author of Jonah has God intending the fish to rescue Jonah. The fish is not a means of punishment but of snatching from drowning. Jonah is saved in spite of his recalcitrance, and thus he experiences the pity and mercy of God. Hence the climactic exultation “Salvation comes from the Lord” (2:9) is a fitting conclusion to the psalm. [11]

Estelle makes an excellent point. God mercifully provides a fish to save Jonah from certain death, and this shows He is a God that rescues sinners, those hardened against His commands. Estelle, quoting Jacque Ellul, draws a comparison between Jonah and the scapegoat[12]:

What counts is that this story is in reality the precise intimation of an infinitely vaster story and one which concerns us directly. What Jonah could not do, but his attitude announces, is done by Jesus Christ. He it is who accepts total condemnation.… It is solely because of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ that the sacrifice of Jonah avails and saves. It is solely because Jesus Christ has accepted malediction that Jonah’s acceptance has something to say both to the sailors and to us.[13]

            The comparison between Jonah and Christ is applicable since Jesus Himself drew the parallel between Jonah’s time in the fish to Christ’s time in the grave (Matt. 12:40). Jonah is a type of Christ and falls short of the antitype, Christ. Jonah’s gospel message shows the tender mercies of a loving God that saves despite human failures and human rebellion. Jonah is a prophet in crisis, going through a crisis of faith, but Jonah’s story is not about Jonah and how he overcomes his problems and saves the day. The gospel of Jonah shows how God condescends to save the unworthy: “Salvation belongs to the LORD!” (Jon. 2:9). Matthew Henry summarizes the gospel succinctly: “Jonah’s experience shall encourage others, in all ages, to trust in God as the God of their salvation; all that read this story shall say with assurance, say with admiration, that salvation is of the Lord, and is sure to all that belongs to him.”[14] The gospel message may be veiled in the Old Testament through types, shadows, and illusions, but in Jonah, the gospel stands out as a bright light in a dim room.

Conclusion

When Jesus declared the entirety of the Scriptures spoke of himself (Luke 24:27), he declared the gospel message from beginning to end. The Old Testament Scriptures provide shadows and types and, most importantly, clear examples of the gospel message. The gospel message permeates throughout the Old Testament. The Lord Jesus Christ declared that this message begins with Moses and runs consistently through Malachi.

The examples listed above are only a few compared to God’s provision. What of the redemption of Ruth by Boaz showing him as a kinsman-redeemer, Rahab’s deliverance and her inclusion in the lineage of the Messiah, or the love shown by Hosea to Gomer. The reader of the Old Testament Scriptures need not look far to find countless examples and far too numerous to articulate in such a limited space.

God has not left the world without directions. These directions lead to the cross of Christ, whether in the Old or the New Testaments. The cross and the gospel are the central themes of God’s design to bring glory to Himself. God has declared the answer, which is found in the work and person of Jesus Christ. It is the critical work of the exegete of God’s word to root out these gospel jewels for the edification and benefit of the hearer, to proclaim with joy that salvation is of the Lord. The Old Testament concludes with a gospel promise, just as it began with one in Genesis 3: “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts” (Mal. 3:1).

 

Bibliography

Barry, John D., et al., eds., “Protevangelium,” in The Lexham Bible Dictionary, Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016.

Calvin, John and William Pringle, trans., Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, vol. 4., Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010.

Ellul, Jacque, The Judgment of Jonah, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971, quoted in Bryan D. Estelle, Salvation through Judgment and Mercy: The Gospel according to Jonah, ed. Tremper Longman III and J. Alan Groves, The Gospel according to the Old Testament (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2005.

Estelle, Bryan D., Salvation through Judgment and Mercy: The Gospel according to Jonah, ed. Tremper Longman III and J. Alan Groves, The Gospel according to the Old Testament Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2005.

Gonzales, Robert R. Jr., Where Sin Abounds: The Spread of Sin and the Curse in the Book of Genesis with Special Focus on the Patriarchal Narratives, Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009.

Henry, Matthew. Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994.

Mathews, K.A., Genesis 11:27–50:26, vol. 1B, The New American Commentary, Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005.

Sproul, R.C., Romans: An Expositional Commentary, Sanford, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2019.

Spurgeon, C.H., CBS Spurgeon Study Bible, Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2017.

Tabletalk, “The Servant Songs of Isaiah,” accessed May 16, 2022, https://tabletalkmagazine.com/article/2019/10/the-servant-songs-of-isaiah/

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016.

Whitefield, George, Selected Sermons of George Whitefield, Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1999.


[1] All Scripture citation in this work are taken from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016) unless otherwise noted.

[2] C.H. Spurgeon, CBS Spurgeon Study Bible (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2017), 5.

[3] George Whitefield, Selected Sermons of George Whitefield (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1999).

[4] John D. Barry et al., eds., “Protevangelium,” in The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).

[5] K. A. Mathews, Genesis 1-11:26, vol. 1A, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996), 240.

[6] Robert R. Gonzales Jr., Where Sin Abounds: The Spread of Sin and the Curse in the Book of Genesis with Special Focus on the Patriarchal Narratives (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009), 95.

[7] Mathews, “Genesis,” 166.

[8] R.C. Sproul, Romans: An Expositional Commentary (Sanford, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2019), 104.

[9] John Calvin and William Pringle, Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, vol. 4 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 17.

[10] Tabletalk, “The Servant Songs of Isaiah” accessed May 16, 2022, https://tabletalkmagazine.com/article/2019/10/the-servant-songs-of-isaiah/

[11] Bryan D. Estelle, Salvation through Judgment and Mercy: The Gospel according to Jonah, ed. Tremper Longman III and J. Alan Groves, The Gospel according to the Old Testament (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2005), 66.

[12] The scapegoat is a name given to one of two goats. The scapegoat is sent into the wilderness by Aaron as a sin offering. See Lev 16:8–22.

[13] Jacque Ellul, The Judgment of Jonah, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), 36–37, quoted in Bryan D. Estelle, Salvation through Judgment and Mercy: The Gospel according to Jonah, ed. Tremper Longman III and J. Alan Groves, The Gospel according to the Old Testament (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2005), 59–60.

[14] Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), 1527.

Psychiatric Advice 5 Cents

If you grew up in my generation, you know exactly what this means. Lucy would set up shop and offer advice for a nickel, usually to her best client Charlie Brown. Here is where my analogy ends. There’s a difference here between this cute cartoon of the 70’s and what most people want to offer today.

Today it’s often unsolicited advice and I’m not sure how psychiatric it really is.

What is it about human nature that always wants to fix things and fix them quick?

I guess I will apologize in advance, but I’m not trying to be passive-aggressive or roundabout to point out people’s habits. We all have them, and we all do this. It is part of our sinful nature, but like anything else, some are more prolific at it than others.

Stuart Scott wrote about the manifestations of pride in a little booklet called From Pride to Humility. It’s good and quite convicting.

One area he discusses is Voicing preferences or opinions when not asked.

Fixer’s gonna fix…. 

I know because I’m a fixer. When my wife tells me a problem I want to analyze and find a solution, but that’s not what she’s looking for. She wants me to listen. She wants me to empathize. She wants me to be there for her. It’s that simple.

The problem for most of us is the desire to assert our opinions. Even when we haven’t been asked. The antidote for this issue is Being a good listener.

I learned something from a man that I consider incredibly humble. I went to see him once when we were contemplating a major life decision. I told him about the problem and asked him what he thought. The first thing I noticed was he sat there for a little while and thought. He didn’t rush in to answer me right away. Then he asked me some questions. He was seeking to understand the situation more fully. Perhaps he had missed something. He was a good listener. Then he spoke. He is and was the epitome of being “quick to hear, slow to speak” (James 1:19).

If we want to impart our wisdom (and we all have some) then we should be sure we fully understand the situation. Then, and most importantly, be sure they are asking for advice.

We all have some expertise in something, but the humble will express their thoughts only when asked. Do we remember Job’s friends? They were awesome at first. They sat with him for seven days and seven nights and never said a thing. When Job expressed his sorrow and regrets, they saw this as an opportunity to advise Job of his problems and provide the solution. That wasn’t what Job needed most. I think it’s a valuable lesson.   

Kevin

A Theology of Evangelism and Missions in Acts


Introduction

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).[1]

The Acts of the Apostles is the playbook for the theology of evangelism and missions for the New Testament church, and when the Lord Jesus Christ departed the earth he did not provide a detailed list of requirements, but that the revelation of the Holy Spirit would provide all they needed to be witnesses.

Matthew Henry provides an overview of Acts,

Christ had told his disciples that they should be his witnesses, and this book brings them in witnessing for him,—that they should be fishers of men, and here we have them enclosing multitudes in the gospel-net,—that they should be the lights of the world, and here we have the world enlightened by them; but that day—spring from on high the first appearing of which we there discerned we here find shining more and more. The corn of wheat, which there fell to the ground, here springs up and bears much fruit; the grain of mustard-seed there is here a great tree; and the kingdom of heaven, which was then at hand, is here set up. Christ’s predictions of the virulent persecutions which the preachers of the gospel should be afflicted with (though one could not have imagined that a doctrine so well worthy of all acceptation should meet with so much opposition) we here find abundantly fulfilled, and also the assurances he gave them of extraordinary supports and comforts under their sufferings. [2]

Christ said he would build his church. His resurrection proved his words were true, and now he promised the Holy Spirit would empower them for the mission. In our modern-day context, it is hard to imagine the confusion this group must have faced. There continued to be a misunderstanding of Christ’s mission, as evidenced by their question: “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). The thought of becoming witnesses, or martyrs, as the word means, would have been a complete shock to them at this time. Hence, the need for the Spirit of God to fill them with power.

The Acts of the Apostles provides a critical understanding of the beginning of the New Testament Church, and the starting point for Spirit-empowered evangelism and missions. Acts primarily contain historical narrative, and how do Christians apply a narrative to the work of evangelism and missions? Do these narratives serve as prescriptive imperatives for the church, or are they only descriptive? If they carry implications for the modern church, how should they be enacted? This paper will seek to define the role Acts plays in evangelism and missions, and how to carry forward the Lord Jesus Christ’s call to reach the nations.

Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the End of the Earth

The Lord Jesus Christ has provided the instruction to wait upon the Holy Spirit, to receive the power of the Spirit, and then to go into the world and be witnesses. Christ has given this instruction in what one might describe, like concentric circles. It starts in Jerusalem and begins to expand from there and to spread out.

While expressing their concerns about the coming kingdom, Christ redirects the conversation. The real need they had to prepare for the mission ahead is power. R. C. Sproul provides a commentary,

Jesus went on to say that as soon as He received His crown, He would declare the sending of the Holy Spirit upon them, upon His church, to empower their mission. The mission of the church, the reason we exist, is to bear witness to the present reign and rule of Christ, who is at the right hand of God. If we try to do it in our own power, we will fail. The reason for the outpouring of the Spirit is not to make us feel spiritual. It is not to give us a spiritual high. It is so that we can do the job that Jesus gave the church to do.[3]

Thinking about the impossibility of the task at that moment in time must have been overwhelming. These young believers probably had no idea what it meant, but the Lord was clear what the intention was, and he articulated in no uncertain terms the job was not to restore an earthly rule, but to be witnesses to what Christ had done. In our modern context, it may seem like a more relaxed time and an easier task, but would that be the case? Michael Greene has this to say,

Wherever they went, Christians were opposed as anti-social, atheistic and depraved. Their message proclaimed a crucified criminal, and nothing could have been less calculated than that to win them converts. To the Greeks such a story showed how ridiculous the new faith was; to the Romans how weak and ineffective it was; while the Jews could not bring themselves to stomach it at all. To Jew and Gentile alike Christians were offensive, on account both of the doctrines and of the behaviour credited to them. All this they had to live down if they were going to win anybody at all for Jesus Christ. [4]

It was not an easy time to be a Christian, and it was not an easy task the Lord had laid before these Christians. It was an impossible mission, with impossible odds, but in the hands of a living God, all things are possible, and it does not take long to realize God can do impossible things with ease.

Jerusalem

Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:36-38).

What does it take for the salvation of three thousand souls in one sermon? Peter, being anointed by the Holy Spirit, delivers a powerful message on the streets of Jerusalem, and at this moment, the New Testament church begins. There are several noteworthy points about Peter’s sermon that are relevant to the work of missions.

The first point is that Peter bases his argument in the Scriptures. Peter cites the prophet Joel, the Psalms, and references the life and death of David, stating that David is still in the tomb, but Christ is risen, as prophesied, and not only this, but this Jesus is declared both Christ and Lord.

Secondly, Peter argues that Jesus proved himself to be the Christ through might works. Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—” (Acts 2:22).

Lastly, there is a call to repentance and faith in Christ. What is noteworthy in Peter’s methodology and the sermon is this emulates the model utilized throughout the book of Acts. The gospel call goes out. God saves the elect. Peter, and the rest of Acts, is an exercise in what Voddie Baucham refers to as Expository Apologetics, and in his book, he defines what it means,

In its simplest form, expository apologetics is about three things. First, it is about being biblical. We answer objections with the power of the Word. Second, its about being easy to remember. If we can’t remember this simplicity, we won’t use it in our everyday encounters. Third, it is about being conversational. We must be able to share truth in a manner that is natural, reasonable, and winsome.[5]

The theology and philosophy behind evangelism and missions must begin with the authority of Scripture. Peter illustrates this perfectly; additionally, it must hinge on the life, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. There is nothing to bring to the table outside of the truths of the Scriptures. Peter’s sermon to Jerusalem illustrates this perfectly.

Judea and Samaria

Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word. Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ. (Acts 8:4-5).

The New Testament church had been established and was growing nicely. God was blessing the work of evangelism. In all the success, the church seemed to have forgotten its mission was to expand outward. These early Christians begin to suffer persecution, but now it is going to force the church out of its nest.

Saul has begun his reign of terror, and God uses this to spread the gospel into Samaria. God always uses persecution to break the church free from its comforts. J. H. Bavinck provides a critical understanding of this,

And still further it is of importance to notice the means God used to move his reluctant church to missionary work. During the time of the apostles he utilized the persecution in Jerusalem, and in later centuries he employed many different means. He let the Roman Empire be flooded by diverse nations, and thereby made his church again become active. [6]

The scattering is a natural occurrence to persecution, and what happens as a by-product? Christ is proclaimed abroad. This paper will explore the concept of evangelistic methods later, but for now, it is crucial to see that Philip is an evangelist, and he has a missionary zeal for his calling. Philip is entering Samaria, he is openly preaching Christ, and people are converted.

The conversion of Saul begins the expansion into further points of Judea and Samaria; additionally, Peter’s vision reveals the gospel is also for the Gentiles.

So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. As for the word that he sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all), you yourselves know what happened throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John proclaimed: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power (Acts 10:34-38).

The gospel message begins to spread through the means of persecution and conversions. Sinners receive the gift of salvation and go forth to proclaim the message—ordinary people, not professional ministers. J.H. Bavinck remarks, “In particular it is to be noted that the book of Acts makes repeated reference to the use made of unofficial preachers.”[7]

The Ends of the Earth

While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.

So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus. When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews. And they had John to assist them (Acts 13:2-5).

The conversion of the Apostle Paul is one of the most significant events in history. God used Saul to scatter the church, but God then used Paul to take the gospel to the ends of the earth. Paul’s knowledge of the Jewish scriptures and his training in Judaism, as well a knowledge of logic and rhetoric, made him a formidable apologist for the Christian faith. Additionally, Paul’s empowerment of the Holy Spirit enabled him to endure suffering beyond comprehension.

R.C. Sproul commenting,

We can commission people, but we have no power. We can license, ordain, and send people on sacred tasks, but unless the Holy Spirit anoints them, their labors will be in vain. In this brief text we find the onset of the most significant missionary undertaking in the entire history of the church, indeed in the entire history of the world.[8] (189, 190).

Empowered by the Holy Spirit, the Apostle Paul was enabled to take the gospel throughout the entire Mediterranean region, and finally to Rome. The significance of the gospel getting to Rome means that it would continue its spread throughout the Roman Empire, and to the ends of the earth, and this should be the concern of every Christian today. John Piper makes this clear,

We should love to hear how the advance of King Jesus is faring. We should love to hear of gospel triumphs as Christ plants his church among peoples held for centuries by alien powers of darkness.

This is God’s design in world history—that people from all nations and tribes and languages come to worship and treasure Christ above all things. Or as Paul put it in Romans 15:9, “that the Gentiles [all the peoples] might glorify God for his mercy.” There can be no weary resignation, no cowardly retreat, and no merciless contentment among Christ’s people while he is disowned among thousands of unreached peoples. Every Christian (who loves people and honors Christ) must care about this.[9]

Paul’s evangelistic methods and approach to missions should compel the church to consider its approach, whether in theory or practice is to be determined, and the next sections will tackle these topics.

Evangelism

And on the Sabbath day they went into the synagogue and sat down. After the reading from the Law and the Prophets, the rulers of the synagogue sent a message to them, saying, “Brothers, if you have any word of encouragement for the people, say it.” So Paul stood up, and motioning with his hand said: “Men of Israel and you who fear God, listen (Acts 13:14-16).

Evangelism is nothing more complicated than the propagating of the message of the good news that in Christ, God has provided the gift of salvation. The message is consistent, God is consistent, but methodologies take different approaches given the needs of the moment. Acts primarily deal with the ministries of Peter and Paul, and while the narrative is different, there are similarities in the methodologies.

Looking into the ministry of the Apostle Paul shows a clear pattern of his methodology. He arrives in a new community; he begins by entering the synagogue, reasons with the people, and he attempts to win converts, and when enough are converted, a church is planted. In some instances, this goes well for Paul, but in many situations, Paul’s intrusion into the community is unwelcomed and ends in violence.

Reasoning

For some days he was with the disciples at Damascus. 20 And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” 21 And all who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called upon this name? And has he not come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests?” 22 But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ. (Acts 9:19-22).

It was evident by the context of this passage that Paul had achieved a reputation. He was well known to have been the one that was seeking to destroy the church and punish all adherents to this new religion called The Way. Paul’s conversion was remarkable in countless ways; however, what is even more remarkable is the immediacy and urgency with which Paul begins his new ministry. Paul has a plan, and he immediately puts it into practice. What is this plan? Reasoning from the Scriptures that Jesus is the Christ, this is a consistent pattern of Paul (Acts 9:19, Acts 13:5, 15, Acts 14:1).

Paul’s methodology was presuppositional. He reasons from the Scriptures. Acts 17 provides three examples of Paul’s evangelistic efforts in Thessalonica, Berea, and Athens.

Thessalonica: And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures” (Acts 17:2).

Berea: “The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue” (Acts 17:10).

Athens: “So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there” (Acts 17:17).

Paul had formed his theological framework for evangelism. His intent and method were to engage the Jews in the synagogue and engage the Gentiles in the marketplace. One slight modification to this is the conversion of Lydia. In Acts 16, Paul comes across a small community that did not have a synagogue, so he goes to where they meet.

“And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together” (Acts 16:13).

No matter the place or the setting, Paul is prepared to evangelize, and while he is primarily speaking and reasoning, we also see Paul preaching at the Areopagus. In their book, A Certain Sound, Ryan Denton, and Scott Smith argue, “Crowded markets and thoroughfares were always seen as excellent opportunities for proclaiming the gospel.”[10]

Paul’s consistent pattern of reasoning is apparent as we examine the evidence Acts lays out, and we saw this similarly with Jesus as he began and continued in his public ministry, and in addition to the ministry of teaching, Jesus preached as he went into the towns. Let us turn our attention to the public preaching of the gospel as an approved method of articulating the gospel message to the masses.

Preaching

“But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them: “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words” (Acts 2:14).

Preaching in the open-air is rich in tradition throughout the entirety of the Bible, but we see clear examples of how this spread Christianity throughout the world. Starting in Jerusalem at Pentecost, Peter delivers a message that many consider one of the greatest sermons ever preached, except for the Sermon on the Mount, by the Lord Jesus himself. Not even Christ had this kind of “success,” or so the argument might go, but God, for his purposes, chose to save over three thousand souls at this moment.

Preaching in the open air needs no apology, and although not readily accepted, it is none the less, the method employed by the biblical writers throughout the Scriptures. Spurgeon said, “It would be very easy to prove revivals of religion have usually been accompanied, if not caused, by considerable amount of preaching out of doors, or in unusual places.”[11]

Denton and Smith argue forcefully for open-air preaching from the book of Acts,

After Pentecost the disciples went to the streets with their message, which explains the enormous number of new converts piling into the church. Peter proclaimed the Word of God at Solomon’s Portico, which would have been outside (Acts 3:11-26). Philip preached on the streets of Samaria (Acts 8:6-8). It is true Paul and others preached in synagogues, but their most memorable seasons came while preaching in the open air. The entire city of Antioch was shaken by Paul’s outdoor deliveries (Acts 13:44-52). His first European convert came as a result of open air evangelism (Acts 16:11-15). His address on Mars Hill was in the middle of the city, away from the confines of the synagogue (Acts 17:22-34).[12]

It is difficult to imagine that more evidence would be required for this method of gospel proclamation. Peter, James, John, and Paul sought to proclaim Christ, to evangelize the nations, and they did it through reasoning and preaching.

Missions

The final section of this paper turns to the theology of missions in the book of Acts. This first missionary journey begins with the sending out of Paul, Barnabas, and John Mark.

“So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus. When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews. And they had John to assist them” (Acts 13:4-5).

The first missionary journey provides very little insight into Paul’s missiology, it supports our earlier premise that he reasoned in the synagogues, but it does not provide details about church planting. However, as we look deeper into his second journey, Paul’s past comes into focus.

“Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas” (Acts 15:22).

Our first clue is that there is a church established in Antioch. This church is organized under elders, and the apostles provide oversight.

So when they were sent off, they went down to Antioch, and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. And when they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement. And Judas and Silas, who were themselves prophets, encouraged and strengthened the brothers with many words. And after they had spent some time, they were sent off in peace by the brothers to those who had sent them. But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the Lord, with many others also (Acts 15:30-35).

We can surmise since Paul and Barnabas remained to teach and preach; they were additionally training men in the ministry, and clearly, Timothy was a disciple and went on to be the pastor in Ephesus.

“Paul came also to Derbe and to Lystra. A disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was a Greek” (Acts 16:1).

The third missionary journey has found new churches planted throughout the regions, and we see them now in Corinth, Ephesus, Antioch, Caesarea, Galatia, and Phrygia. Disciples, churches, and missions are spreading like wildfire throughout these regions, and the Lord is growing converts quickly. As Paul is preparing to depart from Ephesus, he leaves the elders with instructions, which are still applicable to the church today.

Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears. And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified (Acts 20:31-32).

Paul had a clear and distinct call to the mission field, and his methodology and theology are evident throughout Acts. Paul had a desire for the glory of God and sacrificed his comforts, and all he held dear. He sought to fulfill his call to spread the gospel. The missionary call is to die to self, to give up all the world values. Jim Elliot knew this calling and gave it all in the pursuit of the glory of God.

‘My going to Ecuador is God’s counsel, as is my leaving Betty, and my refusal to be counseled by all who insist I should stay and stir up the believers in the U.S. And how do I know it is His counsel? ‘Yea, my heart instructeth me in the night seasons.’ Oh, how good! For I have known my heart is speaking to me for God! No visions, no voices, but the counsel of a heart which desires God.’[13]

Christ-centered missiology must include hunger and thirst for the glory of God, a Scriptural based directive, and counsel from those that have gone before. The Acts of the Apostles provide the most transparent overview of how this works itself out practically. Additionally, we have the pastoral epistles, and other letters in the New Testament to support our theological framework.

Conclusion

A properly informed theology of evangelism and missions includes the truth of the scriptures and the testimony and example of those that have traveled this path previously. The goal is to apply God’s truths to the hearts and minds of God’s people, through reasoning, proclaiming Christ, planting churches, which have oversight. God, in His great mercy, has provided various means by which his truths can be received, and the primary means is the preaching of his Word. Whether this is in the context of missions, in a church pulpit or on a street corner, God is gracious to provide his truth and provide a means by which the elect will be saved, sanctified, and ultimately glorified.

Bibliography

Baucham, Voddie. Expository Apologetics: Answering Objections with the Power of the Word. Wheaton: Crossway, 2015.

Bavinck, J.H. An Introduction to the Science of Missions, trans., Freeman, David H. Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1960.

Denton, Ryan., and Smith, Scott. A Certain Sound: A Primer on Open Air Preaching. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2019.

Elliot, Elisabeth. Through Gates of Splendor. Carol Stream: Tyndale House, 1956.

Green, Michael. Evangelism in the Early Church. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970, 2003.

Henry, Matthew. Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994.

Piper, John. Don’t Waste Your Life. Wheaton: Crossway, 2003.

Sproul, R.C. Acts: An Expositional Commentary. Sanford: Reformation Trust, 2019.

Spurgeon, C.H. Lectures to My Students, quoted in Ryan Denton and Scott Smith, A Certain Sound: a Primer on Open Air Preaching. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2019.

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016.


[1] All Scripture citation in this work are taken from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016) unless otherwise noted.

[2] Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), 2061.

[3] R.C. Sproul, Acts: An Expositional Commentary (Sanford, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2019). 9.

[4] Michael Green, Evangelism in the Early Church (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1970, 2003), 50.

[5] Voddie Baucham, Expository Apologetics: Answering Objections with the Power of the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 20.

[6] J.H. Bavinck, An Introduction to the Science of Missions, translated by David H. Freeman (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1960), 279.

[7] J.H. Bavinck, An Introduction to the Science of Missions, translated by David H. Freeman (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1960), 39.

[8] R.C. Sproul, Acts: An Expositional Commentary (Sanford, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2019), 189, 190.

[9] John Piper, Dont Waste Your Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2003), 162, 163.

[10] Ryan Denton and Scott Smith, A Certain Sound: a Primer on Open Air Preaching (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2019), 14.

[11] Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students, 275, quoted in Ryan Denton and Scott Smith, A Certain Sound: a Primer on Open Air Preaching (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2019), 14.

[12] Ryan Denton and Scott Smith, A Certain Sound: a Primer on Open Air Preaching (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2019), 12.

[13] Elisabeth Elliot, Through Gates of Splendor (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publisher, Inc., 1956), 2.

I Can’t, I Won’t…

“In the censures of the church, it is more suitable to the spirit of Christ to incline to the  milder part, and not to kill a fly on the forehead with a mallet, nor shut men out of heaven for a trifle.” Richard Sibbes – A Bruised Reed

I’ve been asked on more than one occasion when I’ll stop writing or posting about Grace Fellowship Church and the pastor, Mike Reid. It’s a good question, I suppose, and the stated reason for the concern is that I won’t become, or I’ll stop being bitter. First, for the record, I’m not bitter, nor will I become bitter. I am free and, as a family, have experienced the incredible joy of living for Christ outside of the bounds of strict authoritarianism, legalism, and even cultish if, not cult behaviors.

All in the name of an orthodox, Reformed, “1689” London Baptist Confessional, church. I put quotes around 1689 because they only use it as window dressing to pick and choose what they like and reject much of the confession.

This morning, I  remembered these matters, and let me summarize my answer to the well-intended individuals who ask me. I ask them questions in return.

When do you stop caring about the truth?

When did the Bible change its position on exposing false teachers and false doctrine?

When should we stop speaking up for the children that will have to grow up in this authoritarian environment?

I’m sure I could go on, but you get my point.

Dr. Michael Kruger has written a blog series on the abusive church, and a friend did a summary of Dr. Kruger’s blogs, posted HERE, and it makes a lot of sense to post it here rather than recap it myself, well, for one I couldn’t do it this well. Secondly, I think I’ve hit on a lot of these points in previous articles.

The leadership of Grace Fellowship are disqualified from Christian Ministry. I want to declare here what I’ve said to them privately. I have much more to say, but for now, I will leave this here. I encourage anyone that knows these men to call them to repentance. The trail of wounded and abused is well-known and well-documented. Enough is enough. 

Kevin

A Theological View of Canonicity

Introduction

For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope (Rom. 15:4).[1]

The word of God has been given to Christian’s for instruction according to Romans 15:4, and additionally, Paul writes, “for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16). In a world that seeks to undermine and destroy the word of God, why should God’s word be established and canonized? The word of God has been under attack since the beginning, and the attacks have not relented but intensified. For this reason, it is imperative to understand the preservation of God’s word, its recognition as Scripture throughout the Old Testament and the development of the New Testament.

Deconstructionism is a post-modern tenant that seeks to dismantle the meaning of words, whether spoken or written. Donald A. Carson provides a clear definition.

There is no escape from the hermeneutical circle [i.e., by interpretation of what is written], none whatsoever. As for words (structuralism), but words are viciously self-limiting. In the strongest form of deconstruction, not only is all meaning bound up irretrievably with the knower rather than with the text, but words themselves never have a referent other than other words, and even then with an emphasis on irony and ambiguity. The ‘plain meaning’ of the text subverts itself. Language cannot in the nature of the case refer to objective reality. [2]

If words have no meaning, then it is impossible to know God has articulated objective truth, and it is impossible to establish when He spoke it carried authority. To gain a canonical view of the Scriptures requires understanding how they came into existence and its affirmation. Is there a difference between canon and Scripture? When did Scripture become canonized? This paper seeks to provide an overview of the biblical and theological view of the canon of the New Testament. Additionally, an analysis and critique of A. C. Sundberg’s ideas on canonicity and Scripture.

What is Canon?

“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

If God breathes out all Scripture, then there must be a finite number of books and words that were God-breathed. The goal is to determine what is and what is not Scripture. Canon is a “rule” or a “standard” according to Kostenberger, Kellum and Quarles in, The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown.[3] They go on to state, “The term eventually came to refer to the collection of the Christian Scriptures.” Wayne Grudem defines canon as the following: “The canon of Scripture is the list of all the books that belong in the Bible.”[4]

The canon is what most evangelical Christians know today as the twenty-seven books of the New Testament and the thirty-nine books of the Old. The Scriptures have developed through history as God worked through the writers. The Scriptures have a human and a divine element of transmission. Human, in that men, wrote them down using their style and personalities, divine in what they wrote the Spirit of God has inspired.

In God’s mind, the Spirit-inspired books achieved canonical status immediately upon completion. The more significant issue became its recognition as canon. The establishment of canon is critical to knowing God through His word. Grudem provides his reasoning:

The precise determination of the extent of the canon of Scripture is therefore of the utmost importance. If we are to trust and obey God absolutely we must have a collection of words that we are certain are God’s own words to us. If there are any sections of Scripture about which we have doubts whether they are God’s words or not, we will not consider them to have absolute divine authority and we will not trust them as much as we would trust God himself.[5]

Sundberg’s View

How did the canon of the Old and New Testaments come into existence, and when were they recognized as Scripture? Additionally, is there a difference between canon and Scripture? If the New Testament canon was developing in the first century, and Christians understood what encompassed Scripture, when were these books finalized? These questions are not easy to answer, and many have made assertions or theories. Kostenberger, Kellum, and Quarles state, “The basic facts and data pertaining to the canonization process of the NT are not widely disputed.” They go on to say, however, it is the interpretation of the date and the formation of the canon that becomes debatable.[6]

A.C. Sundberg posited the New Testament canon as “a closed list of authoritative books.”[7] Sundberg also argued the canon was not officially recognized until the end of the fourth century and put forth a difference between Scripture and canon.

Craig Allert provides a succinct analysis of Sundberg’s position regarding canon and Scripture.

Sundberg’s research has led some to agree that an essential distinction be made between the terms “Scripture” and “canon.” Sundberg thus argued that “Scripture” should be understood as writings that are held in some sense as authoritative for religion. “Canon,” on the other hand, should be understood as a defined collection that is to be held as exclusively authoritative with respect to all other documents. The issue here is one of anachronism: We should not refer to a document as “canon” that would historically have been referred to as “Scripture.” Thus, we cannot claim canonicity for a New Testament document that is cited with the same formula as an Old Testament document unless we are prepared to say that the church fathers had a larger Old Testament canon than we currently have. Based on these conclusions, Sundberg argues that a New Testament canon did not appear in Christianity until the latter half of the fourth century, when lists of canonical books begin to appear.[8]

It is not simple to put a date to the closing of the canon, so it is easier to argue for the later date of the fourth century. Did Christians living in the first and second centuries understand which books were Scripture, and would they consider them canonical? What seems clear is that the early church fathers did not appear hung up on labeling the canon as we know it today. The early church utilized the writings of the New Testament and understood these books were special. The Lexham Bible Dictionary describes it like this,

The early church fathers were not insistent on deciding what is in the canon because they were also guided in other ways. What eventually came to be known as the biblical text was central to the faith of the early church fathers, but they were also guided by the Holy Spirit and the tradition passed down from the apostles that they called the “rule of faith,” essentially corresponding to the Apostles’ Creed. [9]

Did Sundberg have a legitimate claim on the idea of a canon? After all, many books did not gain early acceptance.

Critique of Sundberg’s View

Sundberg’s theories must be considered and not dismissed as without merit. While Sundberg makes valid points from a modern perspective, making definitive statements about a closed canon in the first or second century would be more difficult. The early church was still wrestling with certain books, and even utilizing other non-canonical documents, thus making it difficult to declare the canon closed at this time in history.

Allert provides clarity on this topic, “We can talk of an authoritative body of Christian Scripture in the first century, but we cannot claim that that collection of writings was closed even into the fifth century.”[10] Allert’s comments are valid, as it is not always as straightforward as one might think.

Sundberg viewed canon and Scripture as separate issues. Canon meant no longer fluid. However, Scripture was considered sacred writing. It seems this is splitting theological hairs, but it does evidence Sundberg’s thought process. Sundberg argued for a later date for the canon to be finalized based on his perceived difference between canon and Scripture. Why would there be a difference in Sundberg’s mind? Sundberg viewed canon as a historical invention. He was not the first proponent of this view. Johann Semler came before him and argued that God’s Word and Holy Scripture were not the same things. These arguments fail to recognize the divine aspect of the Scriptures, and since it is words written by men, ultimately, it carries no more authority than any other writing.

In response, orthodox Christianity must affirm the dual nature of Scripture, and if God has spoken, then ultimately, there is no difference between canon and Scripture. The Muratorian Fragment and Athanasius’s 39th Letter provide further evidence worthy of investigation concerning Sundberg’s theory.

The Muratorian Fragment

The Muratorian Fragment or Canon presents a considerable concern for Sundberg’s theory. The fragment contains one of the oldest canonical lists of the New Testament. It includes one of the earliest references to the New Testament writings. Most scholars date the fragment to the second century. The Lexham Bible Dictionary states,

Muratori concluded that the fragment was based on a canonical list first written around ad 196. Today many scholars date the origin of this list to approximately ad 170–200. A second-century date of composition is based largely upon the fragment’s reference to the Shepherd of Hermas. Before arguing that the writing should not be read alongside the prophets and apostles, the author notes that the Shepherd was written during the tenure of bishop Pius of Rome. Pius may have served as the bishop of Rome until sometime between ad 154 and 161.[11]

Sundberg challenges the second century’s origin because the early date presents problems for his theory. Non-canonical works included in the fragment helps Sundberg’s claims, but is it enough to allow for a later date? The author rejected the heretical writings, including, most famously, Marcion. The fragment included most of the books now accepted as New Testament canon except for Hebrews, James, and 1 and 2 Peter. If canon and Scripture are separate categories, how would one view Paul’s quotation of Greek Philosophers? While Paul’s words and actions are Scripture, it does not assume the philosopher’s to be on the same level, as some might argue.

The Muratorian Fragment is a significant artifact and provides credible evidence that the canon was already in play and utilized by the New Testament church.  

Athanasius

Athanasius (296-373) was the Bishop of Alexandria and was a proponent of the term canon to describe the approved books of the Old and New Testaments. He wrote in his festal letter of 367, “There must be no hesitation to state again the [books] of the New Testament.”[12] The list Athanasius provided is the exact list of the New Testament canon today.

The significance of this statement by Athanasius is that it provides clarity as to the timeframe these books were being codified as canon and widely recognized throughout the Christian world as the finalized list of books.

The Catholic Encyclopedia clarifies Athanasius’ thinking when it came to the authority of the Scriptures and assigned different categories to books. His highest regard was for the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, but he also recognized the value of other writings.

Alexandria, with its elastic Scriptures, had from the beginning been a congenial field for apocryphal literature, and St. Athanasius, the vigilant pastor of that flock, to protect it against the pernicious influence, drew up a catalogue of books with the values to be attached to each. First, the strict canon and authoritative source of truth is the Jewish Old Testament, Esther excepted. Besides, there are certain books which the Fathers had appointed to be read to catechumens for edification and instruction; these are the Wisdom of Solomon, the Wisdom of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), Esther, Judith, Tobias, the Didache, or Doctrine of the Apostles, the Shepherd of Hermas.[13]

Additionally, Francis Turretin said, “In this sense, Athanasius (near the beginning of Synopsis Scripturae Sacrae [PG 28.283]), tells us that the books of the Christians are not infinite but finite and comprehended in a ‘certain canon.’”[14]

            Athanasius provides a robust symbiotic relationship between canon and Scripture, showing that he saw the value in other writings, but he differentiated between the divine and human works.

Theological View of Canon

“For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21).

A proper theological view of the canon may begin with the Scriptures. After all, it is that which is divinely inspired that carries the utmost authority. The words of Scripture itself bear a significant witness to their validity. They are self-attesting and have an internal consistency that other books do not possess.

A cursory look to the words of the Lord Jesus Christ would also be a benefit to see how He viewed them, and when He said, “not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished,” (Matt. 5:18) it carried the full weight and authority of God.

Peter tells us the prophecies of the Old Testament tie directly into the gospel of Christ and New Testament believers. They looked forward to the coming Christ. New Testament Christians look back and can see the fulfillment of these prophecies. The two testaments are inextricably linked, according to Peter (1 Peter 1:10-11).

Paul’s words are also of the utmost importance for the New Testament church. It appears Paul had in mind the entirety of the Scriptures, not just his words, not just the words of Christ, but both testaments.

John Calvin provides a helpful understanding of the passage (2 Tim. 3:16-17) related to Paul’s reference. Does he speak of “all” as in both testaments, or is he more singularly focused?

All Scripture; or, the whole of Scripture; though it makes little difference as to the meaning. He follows out that commendation which he had glanced at briefly. First, he commends the Scripture on account of its authority; and secondly, on account of the utility which springs from it. In order to uphold the authority of the Scripture, he declares that it is divinely inspired; for, if it be so, it is beyond all controversy that men ought to receive it with reverence.[15]

Calvin declares the Old Testament as Divine Revelation, and it is evident by much of what Paul quotes that he had a canonical view of the Old Testament. Peter had a Scriptural view of Paul’s words in (2 Pet. 3:16), but whether canonical is questioned. Tom Schreiner makes this statement, “This indicates that at quite an early stage the Pauline letters were valued enough to be read on a fairly wide scale, though any notion of a canon of letters is anachronistic at this stage.”[16]

It is challenging to intertwine the words Scripture and canon together in one sense canon, which man uses to wrap his mind around God’s authoritative and declarative words, which is called Scripture. Canon is that which we bundle it all together and declare it to be the word of God. It is attested down through history and recognized by the church fathers and tradition. Once again, the Lexham Bible Dictionary is helpful,

Early church historian Eusebius is perhaps most helpful in understanding the process of canonization. Eusebius puts forward a list of “New Testament” books, “disputed” books, and “spurious” books. Eusebius then says that he has done so “in order that we might be able to know both [the writings affirmed by the church] and also those which the heretics put forward under the name of the apostles; including, for instance, such books as the Gospels of Peter, of Thomas, of Matthias, or even some others besides these, and the Acts of Andrew and John and the other apostles. To none of these has any who belonged to the succession of ecclesiastical writers [that is, church writers] ever thought it right to refer in his writings.[17]

Forming an appropriate theological view of the canon involves the words of God, an understanding of how the early church and their traditions viewed canon, and the self-attestation of Scripture.

Conclusion

There seems to be little doubt the New Testament writers viewed the Old Testament as Scripture and most likely as canonized by the first century. The New Testament is not as easy a topic to discern. There are strong indications and references to the New Testament being scripture and that the writers, church fathers, and church understood many of the writings as canonical.

It is not as easy to place closed quotes around the books [in the first century], and in this respect, Sundberg has a legitimate theory. To abandon the divine attribute of inspiration it might be said, all bets are off.

Are we on firm ground that what we hold in our hands today is what God intended for a canonized list of the books of the Bible? In faith and the providence of God, we can trust and have reasonable assurances that, as Grudem stated, “canon is the list of the books that belong in the Bible, and that is trustworthy and sure. “

Bibliography

Allert, Craig D. “The Formation of the New Testament,” in Faithlife Study Bible Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012, 2016.

Barry, John D. and Van Noord, Rebecca. “Canon, Timeline of Formation of,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016.

Calvin, John and Pringle, William. Commentaries on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010.

Carson, D.A. The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism. Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996.

Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000.

Köstenberger Andreas J., L. Scott Kellum, and Charles L. Quarles. The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: an Introduction to the New Testament. Seconded. Nashville, TN: B & H Academic, 2016.

Laird, Benjamin. “Muratorian Fragment,” ed. Barry, John D. et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016.

Reid, George. “Canon of the Old Testament,” ed. Herbermann, Charles G. et al., The Catholic Encyclopedia: An International Work of Reference on the Constitution, Doctrine, Discipline, and History of the Catholic Church New York: The Encyclopedia Press; The Universal Knowledge Foundation, 1907–1913.

Schreiner, Thomas R. 1, 2 Peter, Jude, vol. 37, The New American Commentary Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2003.

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016.

Turrettinus, Franciscus, Francis Turretin, George Musgrave Giger, and James T. Dennison. Institutes of Elenctic Theology. 1. Vol. 1. 10 vols. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publications = Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1992.


[1] All Scripture citation in this work are taken from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016) unless otherwise noted.

[2] D. A. Carson, The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996), 72.

[3] Köstenberger Andreas J., L. Scott Kellum, and Charles L. Quarles, The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: an Introduction to the New Testament, Second (Nashville, TN: B & H Academic, 2016), 3.

[4] Wayne, Grudem. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 54.

[5] Ibid., 54.

[6] Ibid., 13-14.

[7] Ibid., 14.

[8] Craig D. Allert, “The Formation of the New Testament,” in Faithlife Study Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012, 2016).

[9] John D. Barry and Rebecca Van Noord, “Canon, Timeline of Formation of,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).

[10] Ibid.

[11] Benjamin Laird, “Muratorian Fragment,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).

[12] Ibid., 10.

[13] George Reid, “Canon of the Old Testament,” ed. Charles G. Herbermann et al., The Catholic Encyclopedia: An International Work of Reference on the Constitution, Doctrine, Discipline, and History of the Catholic Church (New York: The Encyclopedia Press; The Universal Knowledge Foundation, 1907–1913).

[14] Turrettinus, Franciscus, Francis Turretin, George Musgrave Giger, and James T. Dennison. Institutes of Elenctic Theology. 1. Vol. 1. 10 vols. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publications = Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1992), 95.

[15] John Calvin and William Pringle, Commentaries on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 248.

[16] Thomas R. Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, vol. 37, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2003), 396.

[17] Ibid.