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.

Outreach and Church Ministry

Introduction

What is a current prescription for outreach and church ministry in today’s context, and how does one apply Scriptural support for these strategies? These questions, among others, can be answered using the timeless truths of the Bible. Ministers of the gospel must also seek to provide a framework for applying them to the modern church, just as they applied to the first-century church. What is the beginning point for the foundation of ministry?

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:16-20).[1]

Jesus left the disciples with a series of imperative commands to take the gospel into the world, to teach the nations, and to build the church. Jesus also said the authority for these actions belonged to him. This paper will seek to build a theological case for outreach and church ministry built upon the commands of the Lord Jesus Christ, according to the Great Commission.

Has the church correctly understood the Great Commission and all its implications? Has evangelicalism sought to follow this in a manner that is consistent with Christ’s teaching? R. C. Sproul offers a pointed response:

We have to understand that when we speak of the Great Commission, it is not the great suggestion. It is not the grand idea. It is not an essay on manifest destiny. It is a mandate from the King of kings, who possesses all authority in heaven and on earth. We say that Jesus is the Lord of the church and that we believe in Him, and that means we must obey this mandate He has given us.[2]

Most Christians that have spent time in the church have read or heard Matthew 28:16-20 quoted. Many can recite them from memory, but do they grasp the reality and importance of how Christ has laid out the pattern? Today, the church wants a method “that works,” and in most cases, this means numerical growth. Sproul speaking of the Billy Graham evangelistic crusades read that Graham wondered if those that decided for Christ were involved in discipleship programs or just left to their own? He says, “The Great Commission call us to do more than work to convert people. It calls us to teach them, to ground them, to help them grow in conformity to Christ. That is our mission.”[3]

All Authority

“And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt. 28:18).

Who could make such a claim as Jesus makes? The church must readily accept and proclaim that their authority rests in the person and work of Jesus Christ. It is Christ and the truths he has taught, exemplified, lived, and proclaimed that is the only basis of authority. He not only spoke these truths, but he also proved them through miracles, and ultimately his death, burial, and resurrection.

He made outrageous claims that, if not true, would be as C.S. Lewis states, “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with a man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse.”[4]

Lewis’s words ring true today, as they did when he spoke them, but as Christ claimed to be divine, the Great Commission statement, of Matthew 28, provides more evidence of authority. Verse 17 states, “when they saw him they worshiped him.” Who else can receive worship but God?

Peter would not accept worship. “When Peter entered, Cornelius met him and fell down at his feet and worshiped him. But Peter lifted him up, saying, “Stand up; I too am a man” (Acts 10:25-26).

Paul and Barnabas would not accept worship. (Acts 14:14-15).

Worship is only lawful to God (Exodus 20:5). God’s people recognize this truth, the Apostle John recognized this,

I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things. And when I heard and saw them, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who showed them to me, but he said to me, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brothers the prophets, and with those who keep the words of this book. Worship God. (Rev. 22:8-9).

The Lord Jesus Christ, being God in the flesh, commands worship, claims authority, and proves himself, Lord. It is within this authority that he commands the following imperatives to be carried out by the New Testament church as an outflow of their love for him, and in obedience to his commands.

Who else could make such claims as Christ made? The only possible answer is that Jesus Christ, being God in the flesh, given power from the Father, could make these claims. John MacArthur lays this out succinctly and powerfully,

During His earthly ministry, Jesus demonstrated His authority over disease and sickeness (Matt. 4:23; 9:35), over demons (4:24; 8:32; 12:22), over sin (9:6), and over death (Mark 5:41-42; John 11:43-44). Except for the forgiveness of sins, Jesus even exhibited the authority to delegate such powers to certain of His followers (Matt. 10:1; Luke 10:9, 17). He has authority to bring all men before the tribunal of God and to condemn them to eternal death or bring them to eternal life (John 5:27-29; 17:2). He had the authority to lay down His own life and to take it up again (John 10:18).[5]

The evidence for authority is overwhelming throughout the Scriptures. Now let us turn our attention to the commands. How is this relevant to the church in a modern context?

Go Therefore

Because of his authority, Christ now issues a series imperatives. The first is to go, but what does this mean? Reading ahead in the narrative, the command to go will be followed by the instruction to “all nations” for discipleship, baptizing, and teaching. In order to understand the concept of “going,” let us look ahead to the book of Acts and the Lord’s departing words. “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).

Matthew Henry helps in understanding what it means to go:

It is not only a word of command, like that, Son, go work, but a word of encouragement, Go, and fear not, have I not sent you? Go, and make a business of this work. They must not take state, and issue out summons to the nations to attend upon them; but they must go, and bring the gospel to their doors, Go ye.[6]

The word go carries the connotation of going on a journey, but we must understand the purpose behind the journey. The Gospel of Mark provides the answer, “And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15).

A biblical theology of gospel proclamation to the world must be rooted in the truth of Scripture. While it would be challenging to deal with every possible way of going, this paper will address two methods of evangelism explicitly found in the book of Acts that are biblical forms of gospelizing.

Reasoning

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 9:20-22).

Pragmatism is alive and well in the modern church. Evangelicalism has fully embraced the concept that whatever works is justified. The Apostle Paul never considered pragmatism as a viable option. He does not use skits and various methods of enticement. The two primary methods Paul used were reasoning and preaching. His evangelistic methods, included going into the Jewish synagogue or a public location and reasoning with those that Jesus is the Christ. Whether the crowd is Jews or Gentiles, the methodology was typically the same. Paul used the power of the Scriptures to make converts. Paul was a presuppositional apologist.

What is presuppositional apologetics? Voddie Baucham describes the concept in his book Expository Apologetics like this,

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.[7]

Paul confounded the Jews with his knowledge of the Scriptures and pointed them to Christ through the proper application of God’s Word. The approach was similar but adapted to the audience. In the case of a Gentile audience, it differed slightly. (Acts 17:22-25).

Paul was skilled in the art of rhetoric and debate. He utilized his training in the Scriptures to confound the Jews, and he was equally adept with a Gentile audience applying the Scriptures to the situation. Observe how Paul transitions into the gospel with the Epicurean Stoics and Philosophers.

Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:29-31).

The art of reasoning and apologetics plays a critical role in the advancement of the gospel throughout the ancient world, as it does today. If a modern church in our modern context is to reach the lost for the glory of God, then being skilled in this art should be stressed and taught in the church.

Preaching

“‘And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people” (Matt. 4:23).

“What would Jesus do?”[8] We have all heard the slogan, and we have often contemplated the question, but the real question is not what would Jesus do, but what did Jesus do? Matthew 4:23 provides an answer to that question. “He went throughout all Galilee. He taught in their synagogues. He proclaimed the gospel of the kingdom. He healed every disease and affliction among the people.”

This paper has attempted to show Paul’s method of reasoning, and Paul usually began his missionary work in a new city by entering the synagogue and reasoning with the Jews. Jesus had access to the synagogues, and it appears he could teach in the synagogues. Looking at the next thing Jesus did was “proclaim the gospel of the kingdom” is the focus here.

Jesus was an open-air preacher. He preached on a hillside, he preached in the towns, and he preached to thousands from a boat, and if the goal is to be like Jesus, then open-air preaching must be considered a valid form of spreading the gospel of the kingdom.

In his typical winsome manner, Charles Spurgeon offers this quote regarding open-air preaching,

No sort of defence is needed for preaching out of doors; but it would need very potent arguments to prove that a man had done his duty who has never preached beyond the walls of his meetinghouse. A defence is required rather for services within buildings for worship outside of them.[9]

While Spurgeon’s quote is powerful, open-air preaching is never without controversy. The effectiveness, and the perceived offenses of the method of reaching a broader audience is consistently challenged. Spurgeon says one of the great benefits is how many will hear that would otherwise never enter a church building. He never tries to sugar-coat the offense caused by open-air preaching but stands firmly by the method as a legitimate means to reach the lost.

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]

As practicing open-air evangelists, Denton and Smith understand the value of taking to a street corner or the college campus just as Spurgeon did. Spurgeon spoke these hard words for those that never ventured out, “These people believe in a New Testament which says, ‘Go out into the highways and hedges and compel them to come in,’ and yet they dislike the literal obedience to the command.”[11]

Spurgeon recommended upon leaving college, the first thing a new minister should do upon entering a town is to begin an open-air campaign, and for new missionary interests, he says, “out-of-door services are a main agency.”[12]

The methodologies for going, at the very minimum, must include reasoning or an apologetics ministry, and an open-air ministry for the propagation of the gospel message. Numbers of converts never measure success. If this was the case, then the Lord Jesus was a complete failure. Success is measured by faithfulness to the message. To go, therefore, is a command which requires feet on the pavement, with a bible in hand, and love in the heart. Reaching out to those that will never enter a church is every bit as relevant today as it was when Jesus did it.

Make Disciples

When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, 22 strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. 23 And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed. (Acts 14:21-23).

Jesus declared what must be done, the book of Acts illuminates the practical application. Disciple making involves preaching the gospel, strengthening souls, and encouraging them to continue in the faith.

Acts 14 provides a roadmap and a step-by-step guide on how to faithfully carry out the task. Church ministry and outreach coordinators should study Acts consistently and would be negligent if they did not.

In their excellent book, The Trellis and the Vine, Colin Marshall and Tony Payne have this to say about making disciples, “We did this because Christian ministry is really not very complicated. It is simply the making and nurturing of genuine followers of the Lord Jesus Christ through prayerful, Spirit-backed proclamation of the word of God. It’s disciple-making.”[13]

The work of making disciples is less complicated than most want to make it, but it requires diligence and work. Marshall and Payne provide an important distinction, “All of these methodologies have good things going for them, but all of them are equally beside the point—because our goal is not to grow churches, but to make disciples.”[14] The point is clear, and they further address the goals, “The fundamental goal is to make disciples who make other disciples, to the glory of God.”[15]

The churches call to go, and to make disciples, all under the authority of Christ, must also baptize and teach. We will turn our attention to these elements of the Great Commission.

Baptize

“baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19).

The commands of the Lord Jesus Christ follow a succinct order intended to convey a logical progression of faith. When the church proclaims the gospel, salvations occur. When a new convert comes to Christ, the first significant act of faith is baptism. In the first-century church, this gave testimony of service to a new king, the Lord Jesus Christ. It meant an abandonment of the old life and a recognition of the new life. Calvin provides clarity on the requirements of baptism, “Christ enjoins that those who have submitted to the gospel, and professed to be his disciples, shall be baptized; partly that their baptism may be a pledge of eternal life before God, and partly that it may be an outward sign of faith before men.”[16]

Additionally, the critical distinction is not baptism alone, but baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The difference between truly knowing God and false worship hinges on the triune nature of God. Calvin makes this clear,

Thus we perceive that God cannot be truly known, unless our faith distinctly conceive of Three Persons in one essence; and that the fruit and efficacy of baptism proceed from God the Father adopting us through his Son, and, after having cleansed us from the pollutions of the flesh through the Spirit, creating us anew to righteousness.[17]

Calvin also clarifies that while baptism is linked to faith and serves as a testimony of faith, it is not a requirement or a half-cause of salvation. Baptism serves as one of the two sacraments instituted by Christ for the New Testament church. A testimony of the work Christ has done in a sinner’s life. The act is one of importance to the New Testament believer that they have professed faith and allegiance to Christ.

Teaching to Observe the Commands

teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).

The Christian life and ministry involve teaching and observation of the commandments Christ has given through his word. It is a lifetime of seeking the Lord’s will. The Christian world is replete with non-commitment “Christians” that go to church on Sunday and live like the devil the rest of the week. Christ has not left that option available.

“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42).

The example of the diligent study of God’s word is evident in this passage, and these believers knew the importance of the teaching of the apostles. The New Testament, not yet being complete, required hearing directly from these men. Today, we have a closed canon so that we can go directly to the source. The point is devotion to this study, seeking the Spirit to grow in grace.

R.C. Sproul provides a commentary on this passage,

There is no such thing as a Spirit-filled Christian who neglects the study of the Word of God. There is no such thing as a Spirit-filled church that does not give itself continually and steadfastly to the study of sacred Scripture. The first sign of a Spirit-filled church is one in which the Spirit-filled people do not flee from Scripture and seek a substitute for it but are driven to it to have their spiritual lives rooted and grounded in the Word of God.[18]

To have a full-orbed understanding of the Great Commission, it must include obedience to the commands. Obedience is not a self-manufactured condition. Obedience must occur through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The unregenerate will not desire to obey Christ. The false professor of Christianity may have signs of morality, but often give themselves away in the heart of the matter. While on a surface level, they might appear obedient, a more in-depth look will usually reveal the truth.

I Am with You

“And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20).

Without this essential concluding statement from the Lord Jesus Christ, it all falls to human effort. Jesus has bookended the Great Commission with two crucial statements. He has the authority to send his disciples into the world, and he is with us. It is with this confidence that the New Testament believer can go into the battlefield assured of the victory.

MacArthur concludes with this statement in his commentary,

As crucial as are the first four elements for effective fulfillment of the church’s mission, they would be useless without the last, namely, the power that the Lord Jesus Christ offers through His continuing presence with those who belong to Him. Neither the attitudes of availability, worship, and submission, nor faithful obedience to God’s Word would be possible apart from Christ’s own power working in and through us.[19]

What great mercy the Lord provides his followers. The New Testament church cannot fail in its mission if it obeys. The failure comes when the church is rebellious to the call. The call to outreach in church ministry is foundational to the church’s success. In a similar manner to personal holiness, evangelism, missions, and any other activity require the Holy Spirit, but it also requires obedience

Conclusion

A biblically informed theology of outreach and church ministry includes the truth of the scriptures and the testimony of the church. The New Testament provides a roadmap to guide and inform, abandoning pragmatism and glorifying God. Christians desiring obedience to the Great Commission have the promises of Jesus that he will ensure the success of the church mission.

Following the guidelines laid out by Christ in the Great Commission is not only biblical, but it is also practical. It puts feet to the street, and the book of Acts provides consistent counsel to the effort of taking the gospel message to the nations. In this, the modern-day Christian can have great confidence their efforts are never in vain.

Bibliography

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

Calvin, John., and Pringle, William. Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke, vol. 3 Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010.

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

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

Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity, The C.S. Lewis Signature Classics. Harper Collins Publishing, 2017.

MacArthur, John F. Matthew 24-28, MacArthur New Testament Commentary Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 1989.

Marshall, Colin., and Payne, Tony. The Trellis and the Vine: The Ministry Mind-shift that Changes Everything. Matthias Media, 2009.

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

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

Spurgeon, C.H.  Lectures to my Students. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, Reprinted 2011.

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

Wikipedia. 2020. Wikipedia: What Would Jesus Do. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. Last modified January 31, 2020, at 01:05 (UTC). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/What_would_Jesus_do%3F.


[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] R. C. Sproul, Matthew: An Expositional Commentary (Sanford, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2019). 764.

[3] Ibid., 765.

[4] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, The C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (Harper Collins Publishing, 2017). 50, 51.

[5] John F. MacArthur, Matthew 24-28, MacArthur New Testament commentary (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 1989), 338, 339.

[6] Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), 1775.

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

[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/What_would_Jesus_do%3F

[9] C.H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, Reprinted 2011), 303, 304

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

[11] C.H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, Reprinted 2011), 303

[12] Ibid., 314

[13] Colin Marshall and Tony Payne, The Trellis and the Vine: The Ministry Mind-shift that Changes Everything (Matthias Media, 2009), 151.

[14] Ibid., 151.

[15] Colin Marshall and Tony Payne, The Trellis and the Vine: The Ministry Mind-shift that Changes Everything (Matthias Media, 2009), 152.

[16] John Calvin and William Pringle, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke, vol. 3 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 385.

[17] John Calvin and William Pringle, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke, vol. 3 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 387.

[18] R.C. Sproul, Acts: An Expositional Commentary (Sanford, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2019). 48.

[19] John F. MacArthur, Matthew 24-28, MacArthur New Testament commentary (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 1989), 346.

The Use of Tongues in the New Testament

Introduction

And they were filled with the Holy Spirt and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance (Acts 2:4).[1]

Perhaps few things are more confusing and controversial to the New Testament church than the phenomenon of tongues. Are tongues a natural language to be interpreted? Or the ecstatic language heard only by angels and understood by God a legitimate expression of the texts of Scripture?

What is the appropriate balance if there is one? Have tongues ceased? Can they, or more importantly, should they, be practiced today? There can be an overreaction to the extremes of Pentecostalism. There can also be an overreaction to cessationism,[2] the teaching that the gifts have ceased following the time of the apostles.

This paper aims to present a cogent exegetical and theological presentation of what the writers of the New Testament intended for us to know and teach. It will attempt to give a fair treatment of both sides of the argument and allow the reader to draw sound theological conclusions based upon the evidence presented.

The examination of this topic requires looking at the relevant texts of Scripture that speak of the word tongues. Additionally, the meaning of the word tongues and the different contexts in its usage. Lastly, it is crucial to examine the other voices through church history, and modern commentators cited here who have come to different conclusions. It is essential to understand that good men and women on both sides of the issue can disagree but still be faithful believers in Christ.

The Definition

There are two primary definitions of the word γλῶσσα (glṓssa). Eerdmans Bible Dictionary defines it as such:

Tongue (Heb. lāšôn; Gk. glṓssa).† In biblical usage not only the physical organ (e.g., Ps. 22:15 [MT 16]; Mark 7:33), but also, by extension, the capacity for speaking (Exod. 4:10; Jas. 1:26; KJV, 1 John 3:18; RSV “speech”), different manners of speaking (Job 5:21; Prov. 6:24), and any language as distinguished from other languages (Rev. 5:9; KJV, Gen. 10:5). The KJV also translates Gk. diálektos “language” as “tongue” (Acts 1:19; 2:8; 21:40; 22:2; 26:14).[3]

The definition is easily understood and predictable based upon the context. The only options appear to be the tongue as an organ in the mouth, the type of speech used in speaking, or an understandable language.

Wayne Grudem says, “It should be said at the outset that the Greek word glṓssa, translated ‘tongue,’ is used not only to mean the physical tongue in a person’s mouth but also to mean ‘language.’”[4] Grudem states that languages are in view in the New Testament. If the word glossa carries only these two meanings, it would certainly clear up any misunderstandings. Grudem affirms this as well, “But if English translations were to use the expression ‘speaking in languages,’ it would not seem nearly as strange, and would give the reader the sense much closer to what first-century Greek-speaking readers would have heard in the phrase when they read it in Acts or 1 Corinthians.”

Why is there such a misunderstanding of the meaning? Where does the modern understanding come in, as to the erratic speech found in the continuationist[5] teaching or charismatic churches?

Another term used to describe speaking in tongues is “glossolalia.” According to Eerdmans Bible Dictionary,

The terms “speaking in tongues” and “glossolalia” both arise from Gk. laleín hetérais glṓssais “to speak in other tongues [i.e., languages]” (Acts 2:4) and similar forms used in the New Testament of miraculous ecstatic speech. Ecstatic speech and praise are common to many religions ancient and modern, and was present among the early prophets of Israel and surrounding nations (1 Sam. 10:5–6, 9–13; 1 Kgs. 18:29).[6]

Eerdmans Bible Dictionary states that in Acts 2, it was an understandable human language not known to the speaker and provides an area to explore in the exegesis of the text. Did the speakers supernaturally understand what they were saying, or did only the hearers perceive their native languages spoken to them? Additionally, Eerdmans states the erratic speech of “glossolalia” is not an actual human language, not to be understood in those terms, but directed toward God, and is referred to as “tongues of men and angels” (1 Cor. 13:1) by the Apostle Paul.

When arriving at a theological conviction, one certainty is that glossa represents a legitimate language. A language spoken, heard, and recognized by different people groups. “And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?” (Acts 2:8). As to the meaning of glossolalia, this needs to be rooted out. Was Paul referring to an unknown language of God or angels, or had the spirit of the day and pagan culture drifted into the Church? Analyzing each section of these relevant texts is the only proper way to draw sound conclusions.

Acts 2

“When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place” (Acts 2:1).

Acts chapter 2 sees the arrival of the promised Holy Spirit. Jesus had said, “He would send the Helper” (John 14:16). The Holy Spirit had been promised previously in the prophecy of Joel chapter 2, “But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel:” (Acts 2:16). The outpouring of the Spirit not only fulfilled the prophecy of Joel and confirmed what Jesus had said, but it also ushered in a restoration of the scattering of people and the confusion of the languages as had occurred at Babel (Gen. 11:7). Matthew Henry says, “The difference in languages which arose at Babel, has much hindered the spread of knowledge and religion. The instruments whom the Lord first employed in spreading the Christian religion, could have made no progress without this gift, which proved that their authority was from God.”[7]

The purpose of using different languages seems abundantly clear: to spread the gospel message. This event occurred at a time and place where many had gathered from many areas abroad (Acts 2:9-11). It truly represents the reversal of Babel. Alexander Duncan bolsters the point, “Let us here also adore the wisdom of God in the gift of tongues, both as a necessary and fit means to diffuse the gospel throughout the world, and as opening a way for the successful use of all the other apostolic endowments.”[8]

An evaluation of Acts 2:4-12 provides a clear contextual understanding of the narrative. Verse 4 states: “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:4). Something new has happened, just as Jesus had promised the coming of the Spirit, He has now arrived, and miraculous events begin to occur through the Spirit’s actions. The Spirit gives them “utterance,” which is to say, “speak one’s opinion plainly.” [9] However, what is evident is they were not providing an opinion as one might generally perceive an idea, but they were proclaiming the mighty works of God.

Even a cursory review of the text gives a strong indication of the meaning behind the word tongues. It also provides their purpose. Verse 5 says, “devout men from every nation under heaven.” It would seem evident that not all would speak the same language, and verse 6 states this clearly, “And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language” (Acts 2:6).

Calvin adds weight to verse 5, speaking of the diversity of languages: “This serveth to increase the greatness of the thing. For the Cretians and men of Asia, dwelling so near together, might have some likelihood and agreement in speech; but the same could not be betwixt the Italians and the men of Cappadocia, betwixt the Arabians and those of Pontus.”[10]

If context dictates the meaning of the text, then firm conclusions appear from Acts 2. When the Holy Spirit came in power, God’s mighty work enabled these men to speak understandable and clearly defined languages. Verse 12 says they were amazed and perplexed, asking, “what does this mean?” (Acts 2:12). The pericope concludes with others mocking, a common reaction to God’s revelation.

If Acts 2 is the only reference to speaking in tongues, it would appear an open and shut case; however, turning to 1 Corinthians 12—14 seems to muddy the theological waters, and investigating these texts is imperative to discovering Paul’s intent in these crucial passages.

1 Corinthians 12

I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment (1 Cor. 1:10).

The problems at the Church of Corinth are well known. It is evident by the tone and tenor of the letter the Apostle Paul had great affection for the Corinthians, but his purpose in writing the letter carried the need for correction. “I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. I urge you, then, be imitators of me” (1 Cor. 4:14-16). Spurgeon said this about the Church, “The most gifted Church is not always in the healthiest condition. A church may have many rich, influential, or learned members; yet that Church may be in an unhealthy condition.”[11]

It is helpful to keep these issues at the forefront related to the topic of tongues. The glossolalia was a common pagan religious practice, and to believe that the Corinthians, in their immature state, brought with them previous habits is not out of the question.

John MacArthur provides a good description in his commentary:

Several pagan practices were especially influential in the Church at Corinth. Perhaps the most important, and certainly the most obvious, was that of ecstasy, considered to be the highest expression of religious experience. Because it seemed supernatural and because it was dramatic and often bizarre, the practice strongly appealed to the natural man. And because the Holy Spirit had performed many miraculous works in that apostolic age, some Corinthian Christians confused those true wonders with the false wonders counterfeited in the ecstasies of paganism.[12]

While there may not always be direct evidence, circumstantial evidence can be convincing. Applying logic and reasoning to the equation is helpful. MacArthur goes on to say that Satan had immediately begun to counterfeit the gifts of the Spirit, “[w]ether through false manifestations or through misguided and selfish use, poison God’s spiritual organism and make it weak and ineffective.”[13]

His point hits the mark when it comes to what seems to be a manufacturing of the gifts of tongues. Many will attempt to fake it to be seen as spiritual or to fit in with the group. Many readily admit to this phenomenon. One of them is John Piper.

In his Ask Pastor John podcast, Piper claims to desire the gift of speaking in tongues and has tried many times and asked the Lord for this gift. He states that he would sit outside the church singing in tongues but knew he was making it up and said, “but this is what they try to get you to do.” Ultimately, he knows he is making it up in his heart and mind.[14]

In chapter 12, Paul addresses spiritual gifts, and it is essential to see what he says regarding these gifts. “Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be uninformed. You know that when you were pagans you were led astray to mute idols, however you were led” (1 Cor 12:1-2). An immediate clue to the context relevant to MacArthur’s commentary is the Corinthians conversion from paganism. They undoubtedly brought with them paganistic practices, but Paul warns them these are mute and will lead you astray (1 Cor. 12:2). Verse 10 provides the relevant text: “to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues” (1 Cor. 12:10).

Paul’s statement is abundantly clear. God gave these gifts to the church. The question remains for how long? Was it to continue into the modern era, or is there possibly a combination of both? One thing that is evident about tongues is there are various kinds of them, and there is an interpretation (1 Cor. 14:26-28).

Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, while cautious, believes the gift of speaking in tongues continues. He qualifies that these gifts occur only as the Spirit moves upon a person, not at will, and if ever to be done publicly, requires interpretation.[15] If there is an understanding of a heavenly language of angels, understood only by God, would this also require an interpretation? A better question might be, for what purpose does it serve? Verse 7 highlights an essential argument for Paul and a correct understanding of the text. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good (1 Cor. 12:7).

Paul highlights the importance of mutual edification and a gift that functions for the benefit of the church. He uses a metaphorical reference to the entirety of the human body working concerning the other parts. They are all critical. The use of gifts is primarily meant for the Church as a whole, not for individual gain or unique insights, and if someone is using tongues to edify himself or lacks interpretation, it seems imperative to ask questions.

Lastly, it is relevant to examine verses 28 through 29 whether it makes a case for cessationism. “And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles?” (1 Cor. 12:28-29).

The critical question is, do we still have apostles today? Most Christian’s affirming Orthodox teaching will agree that someone claiming to be an “apostle” is not in step with biblical teaching. If Paul affirms that offices were temporary, are other administrations of the manifestation of the Holy Spirit also temporary? E.g., healings, tongues?

Calvin makes a thought-provoking point, “[we] must note that some of the offices, to which Paul is referring, are permanent, while others are temporary…The temporary ones, on the other hand, are those which are designed, at the beginning, for the founding of the Church, and the setting up of the Kingdom of Christ; and which ceased to exist after a while.”[16]

Lloyd-Jones questions this as well: “There seems no point or purpose in some praying in some private language, what is there to be gained by that? There doesn’t seem to be any object or purpose in it. Well, what is this?” He believes many counterfeits go along with the crowd or make up the ecstatic speaking, just as Piper affirmed that he knew he wasn’t speaking from God.

1 Corinthians 13

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal (1 Cor. 13:1).

Chapter 13 is transitional in that it points out the purpose of spiritual gifts is love. Paul focused his argument in chapter 12 on unity in the body of Christ, and he put great emphasis on this point. He says we suffer together, we rejoice together, and in all of this, the highest gift is love.

Christianity is all about love, but true Christian love is lacking in Corinth, just as it is in many modern churches. Paul seeks to correct their focus on orthodoxy to orthopraxy. MacArthur says, “It is easier to be orthodox than to be loving, and easier to be active in church work than to be loving.”[17] Most assuredly, MacArthur, and certainly Paul, have a legitimate point. God’s greatest gift is love.

Chapter 13 begins with a statement “tongues of men and angels,” but what are these tongues? The charismatic movement has used this verse to support a private prayer language, but is that what is in view here? Is that what Paul was saying?

If the rule of faith is that Scripture interprets Scripture, one must ascertain other references to this angelic language to find the meaning of the passage. However, there is no other reference to an angelic language, and it would seem prudent to apply this hermeneutical principle to the topic. When angels come on the scene in the New Testament, they speak in a familiar, discernible language to the hearer. And the angel said to them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people’” (Luke 2:10). Calvin offers his interpretation:

When he speaks of the tongue of angels, he uses a hyperbolical expression to denote what is singular, or distinguished. At the same time, I explain it rather as referring to the diversity of languages, which the Corinthians held in much esteem, measuring everything by ambition—not by fruit. “Make yourself master,” says he, “of all the languages, not of men merely, but even of Angels.[18]

Similarly, MacArthur believes there is no Scriptural reference to a heavenly language that men can learn. Those that would argue for this position would claim this is a heavenly language taught by the Holy Spirit to the speaker, just as happened with the actual languages of Pentecost. No matter where one sides on the debate, ultimately there is only one truth, and in alignment with Paul’s goals in chapter 13 lies the underlying point of love.

The Apostle addresses another topic within chapter 13 worthy of discussion, encompassing verses 8 through 9. “Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away” (1 Cor. 13:8-9). The text’s plain meaning seems abundantly clear if read and understood as stated. The entirety of the chapter has been about the importance and the supremacy of love. The love of God in Christ is the ultimate form of love, and it will never end. Next, there is a contrast, “as for,” which makes a clear transition to a different topic.

Matthew Henry notes this difference:

It is a permanent and perpetual grace, lasting as eternity; whereas the extraordinary gifts on which the Corinthians valued themselves were of short continuance. They were only to edify the Church on earth, and that but for a time, not during its whole continuance in this world; but in heaven would be all superseded, which yet is the very seat and element of love.[19]

Henry says that the ceasing of tongues is the miracle of speaking languages without learning them and that the Holy Spirit inspires this to edify the hearers, primarily the spread of the gospel. It is difficult to edify without understanding.

If there is a language of angels, and verse 1 is the prevailing proof text, then verse 8 must also be given the same weight; tongues will cease. In the context of chapter 13, it appears there is no other way to work around the argument. Paul provides the contrast in that love never ends, and then prophecies pass away, tongues will cease, and knowledge will pass away.

Lloyd-Jones allowed for the continuation of the gift of tongues in his sermon, but what of miracles and prophecy? Is there a clear demarcation point of when these ceased? MacArthur provides clarification on the topic of ceasing, “In the first place, tongues was a sign gift and as with the gifts of healing and miracles, it ceased to operate when the New Testament was completed. God has never ceased to perform miracles, and He continues today to heal miraculously and to work in other supernatural ways according to His sovereign will.”[20]

MacArthur’s distinction is a good one. Many that push back at the idea of cessationism believe those that subscribe to the doctrine think God has wholly abandoned miracle work today. It is not that God has ceased to do miracles, but that God is not doing miracles through the hands of men in the same way He did in the first century. There is a marked difference between the two.

1 Corinthians 14

Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy (1 Cor. 14:1).

Chapter 14 contains the final discussion of spiritual gifts, and particularly tongues. Paul supports his previous argument about the pursuit of love in the church, and spiritual gifts are essential especially prophecy. The gift of prophecy builds up the church, where tongues only edify the speaker.

“So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air” (1 Cor. 14:9). Calvin adds, “For Paul is tacitly taking them to task for the lack of love, which had been apparent up to then in the way they were abusing their gifts.”[21]

Paul seems to speak plainly in his argument as he illustrates the point with the analogy of musical instruments. It carries no meaning if they are not in sync or out of tune. He then clarifies his position even further, “There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning, but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me” (1 Cor. 14:10-11). It appears this is a compelling argument against the glossolalia the Corinthians practiced.

Calvin further addresses this point, stating the Corinthians were giving more attention to tongues because it brought more attention due to the showiness.

Calvin doesn’t leave room for anything other than a legitimate language and a limited period:

We must pay particular attention to this, for God has bestowed no gift on His Church without there being some purpose for it; and tongues were of some use at that time. But, granted that, through their misguided zeal for showiness, the Corinthians were turning that gift into something that was, to some extent, superfluous and valueless, and to some extent even harmful, yet by correcting this fault, Paul is giving his approval to tongues none the less.[22]

Lloyd-Jones agrees on this point, “Of all the spiritual gifts it is the one most likely to be abused and it tends to lend itself to exhibitionism.”[23]

Verse 13 clarifies the other critical point about speaking in tongues, and that is there is to be an interpretation. According to Paul, speaking in tongues to be accepted in the church must be interpreted, and only an actual language has an interpretation. The purpose is to edify the church, not show off as an individual. If the glossolalia is not the tongues of angels or speaking to God, what is it? That is a difficult question to answer. It seems to come down to one’s biblical interpretation. One group believes tongues have ceased; another believes they are still credible.

Paul closes out this section with an appeal to maturity. He states that he speaks in tongues more than all of them in verse 18, but these are useless without instruction, and so he would rather speak only five words that could be understood than ten thousand that are undiscernible. It appears Paul is employing an ironic element to drive home his point. The act of erratic speech edified nobody. It is apparent that rather than supporting this form of speaking, Paul is condemning it.

His following line of reasoning provides answers. Paul calls them to maturity; he seeks to shame them for their immaturity and then draws them to an Old Testament prophecy from Isaiah 28:11-12. MacArthur says this is the heart of chapter 14 and was given as a sign to unbelievers, specifically unbelieving Jews. Jews would have understood the prophecy of Isaiah 28 and that it carried curses and blessings.

Calvin drives this point home, which should cause anyone seeking to speak in tongues concern. The curses that Isaiah 28 promise tongues are not a healthy form of communication but one of condemnation, describing that “they will not listen to me, says the Lord.”

Calvin provides two possible interpretations, the one that should concern the reader is, “‘You realize brethren, that the thing you are wanting so eagerly, is not a benefit which God gives to believers, but a punishment with which He takes vengeance on unbelievers.’”[24] Paul would not be taking into account the permanent use of tongues, but would be referring only to an actual situation that arose just once.” Calvin affirms that he won’t quarrel over another interpretation, but he is quite satisfied with this interpretation.

If Calvin is correct, this clarifies tongues for modern believers. Calvin firmly believes the gift was for a time and place to proclaim the gospel to unbelievers for a temporary purpose. It was, after all, miraculous that someone would hear the gospel in their native tongue spoken by someone who did not speak that tongue naturally.

Paul concludes this section with a sobering thought. Are you out of your mind? “If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds?” (1 Cor. 14:23). Here is the crux of the argument. There are two opposing viewpoints. Speak in tongues and allow unbelievers to think this place is crazy, speak from the Scriptures in the form of prophecy, and edify the church and convict the unbeliever. Paul’s argument is sound and logical. The Scriptures lead to truth, and through the Scriptures and proclamation of the gospel, one is saved (Romans 10:14).

It is essential to understand the difference between a church that speaks tongues with an interpretation compared to charismatic chaos. If Pentecostal churches believe in the continuation of the gift of tongues they must seek to practice it biblically by having an interpretation. However, in the latter, the extreme movements fail to keep what Paul has laid out and must understand they fall under the interpretation Calvin gave as to condemnation. Paul explains this point by stating that God is not a God of confusion but of peace (1 Cor. 14:33), and when disorder runs amok in the church meeting, there is a lack of the most basic understanding.

Paul says, “But all things should be done decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40). The evidence points to this final statement. If things are not done decently, and in order they are out of order. They are out of line with the Scriptures, and this is a litmus test of sorts. Calvin closes out his commentary stating that God has given believers liberty of conscience and freedoms, but these freedoms should never go beyond the limits of His Word. He says it is a guardrail to protect the bride of Christ in effect. It is in this vein the topic of tongues should be discerned. If there were limitations to the time frame and tongues have ceased, it creates many difficulties for some denominations and countless believers. At this point, one must be commended to his conscience before the Lord but base those convictions on sound biblical evidence and study.

Conclusion

To have a proper understanding of tongues in the New Testament depends on the definition and the proper interpretation of the texts of Scripture relating to the topic. Acts 2 is the beginning point which indicates the purpose behind the use of tongues. Tongues were a native language that those of that native tongue were discernible. Its purpose was for the proclamation of the gospel and to fulfill the prophecy of Joel 2.

1 Corinthians 12 – 14 is more difficult to understand. Is there a legitimate use of private prayer language? Were the Corinthians misusing the gift in tongues in their immaturity? Were they relying on pagan traditions? A proper exegetical look at what Paul wrote provides the answers.

The third concern is what is to make of modern-day believers that still practice glossolalia or the erratic speech, which does not appear an understandable language? Once again, evidence points to conclusions, yet those who practice it should not be easily dismissed as unbelievers or deceived. There is a sincerity to those that practice such things, and yet it would appear the Scriptures are clear that the word glossa means either tongue or language.

It leaves many readers confused, yet God says He is not the author of confusion, so it is imperative to continue studying and draw sound exegetical conclusions based on evidence and not feelings. It also forces one to discard tradition and thoroughly examine languages to make decisions about the topic. While it can create struggle, trusting in the Lord to reveal the truth is a worthwhile endeavor.

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

Calvin, John and Beveridge, Henry, trans. Commentary upon the Acts of the Apostles, vol. 1 Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010.

Calvin, John and Pringle, William, trans. Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, vol. 1 Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010.

Duncan, Alexander and Camp, Andrew W. eds., Family Worship Bible Commentary: Walking through the Scriptures with our Forefathers, vol. 3 Present Reign Publications, 2018.

Grudem, Wayne A. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994.

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

Henry, Matthew. Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible (Concise). Accessed November, 29, 2021. https://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/matthew-henry-concise/acts/2.html

Liddell, Henry George, et al., A Greek-English Lexicon Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.

Lloyd-Jones, Martyn, MLJ Trust. “The Gift of Tongues,” Accessed November 14, 2021. https://www.mljtrust.org/sermons-online/john-1-26-33/the-gift-of-tongues/

MacArthur, John, The Macarthur New Testament Commentary. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2016.

Myers, Allen C. The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987.

Piper, John. “Are Prophecy and Tongues Alive Today?,” Desiring God. Accessed December 2, 2021. https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/are-prophecy-and-tongues-alive-today.

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

The Spurgeon Study Bible. Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers, 2017.

Theopedia, “Cessationism,” accessed December 9, 2021, https://www.theopedia.com/cessationism

Theopedia, “Continuationism,” accessed December 1, 2021, https://www.theopedia.com/continuationism


[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] “Cessationism,” Theopedia, accessed December 9, 2021, https://www.theopedia.com/cessationism

[3] Allen C. Myers, The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), 1011.

[4] Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), 1069.

[5] “Continuationism,” Theopedia, accessed December 1, 2021, https://www.theopedia.com/continuationism

[6] Myers, “Bible Dictionary,” 1011.

[7] Matthew Henry, “Matthew Henry Commentary on the Whole Bible (Concise),” accessed November 29, 2021, https://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/matthew-henry-concise/acts/2.html.

[8] Alexander Duncan and Andrew W. Camp, eds., Family Worship Bible Commentary: Walking through the Scriptures with our Forefathers, vol. 3 (Present Reign Publications, 2018), 221.

[9] Henry George Liddell et al., A Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 226.

[10] John Calvin, trans. Henry Beveridge, Commentary upon the Acts of the Apostles, vol. 1 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 79.

[11] The Spurgeon Study Bible. (Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers, 2017), 1536.

[12] John MacArthur, The Macarthur New Testament Commentary, 1 Corinthians. (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2016), 280.

[13] Ibid., 281.

[14] John Piper, “Are Prophecy and Tongues Alive Today?,” accessed December 2, 2021, https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/are-prophecy-and-tongues-alive-today

[15] Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “The Gift of Tongues,” accessed November 14, 2021, https://www.mljtrust.org/sermons-online/john-1-26-33/the-gift-of-tongues/

[16] Calvin, trans. Beveridge, “Acts,” 270.

[17] MacArthur, “1 Corinthians,” 327.

[18] Calvin, trans. Pringle, “Corinthians,” 419.

[19] Henry, “Whole Bible,” 2269.

[20] MacArthur, “1 Corinthians,” 359.

[21] Calvin, trans. Pringle, “Corinthians,” 285.

[22] Ibid., 287

[23]Lloyd-Jones, “Tongues”

[24] Calvin, trans. Pringle, 297.