Confessional Subscription Levels in the Church


Subscription Defined and Summarized

Subscription must be defined and summarized relating to the different subscription levels. First, what is a subscription? In his book, Robert Gonzales Jr., says, “In ecclesiastical parlance, however, the term ‘subscription’ or ‘subscribe’ refers to one’s affirmation of, agreement with, and commitment to a fixed body of doctrines or articles of faith that are officially representative of a local church’s or denomination’s beliefs.”[2] Here is a good starting point for understanding what subscription means. Scripture provides the church with a sure and steady anchor. Scripture is to be the true north, the one constant, but confessions provide a navigational tool for understanding the Scriptures.

It is easy to see why a confession is important, but it is not as easy to see how much of it is appropriate to utilize and how much the congregation must understand and agree. Carl Trueman draws a distinction when he says, “Second, we need to understand that subscribing to a creed or confession does not mean that we believe every phrase in the document was as well expressed as it could have been or that if we wrote it today we would use exactly the same vocabulary and phrasing.”[3] Level-headed Baptists will not hold the confession to the status of God-breathed, so in this distinction, there is room for negotiation. As Trueman says, confessions are ecclesiastical documents, and can, therefore, be adjusted to suit the needs of a local church or denomination. It is essential to understand the difference so that the well-intentioned does not injure the conscience of another. If one subscribes to a confession at a lower level than someone believes it should be, that is not the same as throwing out parts of the Bible someone does not like. With all this in mind, the next step is to identify the most common levels or types of subscriptions, and derivations are abundant so that this paper will focus on the most central.

Before listing the types of subscriptions, some terms must first be understood. Two Latin terms pertain to how someone views a confession. The first is quia-subscription, which means subscribing to a confession because it is biblical. The second term, quatenus-subscription, means insofar as it is biblical. Gonzales states, “Traditionally, the first is associated with tighter views of subscription and the second with looser views.”[4] He says that some forms involve a combination of both ideas. Additionally, there are nuances to subscription levels that can involve exceptions, sometimes called scruples, meaning some individuals might take exceptions to certain words, phrases, or even the promoted doctrine. It does not necessarily imply a rejection of the confession or a particular statement, but it has abstinence in view. Lastly, a confession must be taken in good faith with sincerity. The congregation and leadership must have a firm commitment to the confession. The Latin term Animus Imponentis refers to the intentions of the mind or heart, but in this case, it is a corporate, i.e., a church or denominational viewpoint, and this covers a wide path of confessional latitude. Next, the different subscription levels are reviewed and summarized.

Absolute Subscription

If one were to survey all the confessions since the church age began, one would find a lot of them. The answer to this seems obvious. It is a product of time and developing standards. In their book, Fairbairn and Reeves say, “At one level, all theological statements are local. That is, all such statements are influenced by the particular situation they arise and the problems they address. This is true of the biblical writings themselves, which is why we insist on ‘context, context, context’ as we interpret the texts.”[5]

            Absolute subscription is heavily context driven. In this view, the confession is taken as it was originally written with no variation, as this is the earliest form of subscription, and it seems obvious why given the period in which its adherents lived. They were the original writers of the confession they subscribed to. If they needed to reject a doctrine, it would have quickly occurred at the time of the writing. Outside of strict orthodox sects, absolute subscription is uncommon.

Historical Subscription

The historical subscription is like the absolute subscription, except the subscriber must agree to the intent of the original writers of the confession. The difficulties seem apparent, for how can someone living in the 21st century know the intent of someone in the 17th? The written words provide the intention of the writer’s thoughts. On this, it seems logical. If somebody is going to subscribe historically rather than absolutely, there would have to be some change, but it is not easy to ascertain what that might be. Gonzales avers, “Apparently, then, the historical view requires one to agree not merely with the basic sense of the words, propositions, and doctrines in a confession, but also with all the metaphysical and epistemological viewpoints of the confession’s authors or signatories.”[6] That proves the historical subscription to be a difficult position for those outsides of the ability to read minds.

Full (or Strict) Subscription

While the full subscription view does not hold a death grip on the confession, it carries a strict confessional and doctrinal stance. It runs close to the absolute subscription and only allows exceptions for words or phrases. R. Scott Clark, a Presbyterian scholar, and James Renihan, a Reformed Baptist, are the leading proponents for this position. Clark appears to hold the confession to that of Scripture. He says, “It is not that the authority of the confessions is ‘very nearly tantamount to that of Scripture,’ but it is tantamount to that of Scripture, assuming that a given confession is biblical and intended to be subscribed because (quia) it is biblical.[7]

System Subscription

System subscription is the next subscription level moving from the right (conservative) to the left (liberal). As the absolute and historical subscriptions appear starch and rigid, the full and system subscriptions allow for some leeway. The system differs in that it allows more than words or phrases. It allows the subscriber exceptions to non-essential doctrines or propositions. What exactly constitutes an essential doctrine or proposition might be in the eye of the beholder, but it appears the intention is in the right place to allow for the system of a confession to operate within a church but not place an undue burden on its congregants and leaders.

At least on paper, system subscription appears to seek a balance that offers flexibility without compromising consistent orthodoxy, although not everyone sees it in the same light. Lecturing at a 2009 Conference, John Fesko makes these remarks, “[A] number of things that I have read over the years have shown that some people are of the opinion that system subscription inevitably leads to some form of liberalism or doctrinal demise in a number of different church settings throughout the history at least of the Presbyterian church.”[8] Fesko explains that the most important thing about understanding the full approach to system subscription is how it works out in practice. Waldron rightly states, “Liberty is not the right to do as I please. Liberty is the right to do as God pleases without fear.”[9] Internal motivating factors and a call to seek the right balance are within all the subscription levels.

Substance (of the Evangelical Faith) Subscription

The next level of subscription is substance (of the Evangelical) which continues to loosen its grip upon the strictness of the earlier levels. Substance Subscription requires adherence to core doctrines of the evangelical faith contained within the confession and an expressed commitment to the doctrines and a belief in them. Generally, this level does not require a declaration of the exceptions in the confession. One of the concerns with this level is that it becomes a slippery slope. What are the core doctrines, and who is the definer of them? Exactly where can lines be drawn legitimately?

            Stan Reeves, in his updated translation of the confession, provides some valuable insights:

Such a time-tested statement of biblical doctrine can give us clarity beyond our present level of study. Here is how it works. As we study the various doctrines articulated by the confession, we find that the confession faithfully summarizes the teaching of Scripture in these areas. Then we realize the countless godly pastors, theologians, and churches sharing these same convictions through the centuries have held that they are part and parcel of a biblical system of doctrine that is summarized by the confession.[10]            

In like manner to the Scriptures, “There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures” (2 Pet. 3:16), confession twisting is possible. Not every chapter will carry the same weight as Chapter 1 on the Holy Scriptures or Chapter 3 Of God’s Decree, but it is not easy to make quick and easy decisions about what is and what is not a core doctrine. All decisions need careful handling.

Substance (of the Christian Religion) Subscription

Rarely does a broadening of terms produce a more orthodox value system. It generally tends to slide down the slippery slope. Not only does it slide, but it slides quickly, which is the case with this form of substance subscription. In general terms, “of the Christian Religion” appears to be a solidly fundamental viewpoint.[11] What the term has come to mean is theological liberalism.

            Gonzales defines this level and pulls no punches as to the dangers involved, “The step of subscribing to a confession as containing the substance of the evangelical faith may lead to the further step of reducing the “essentials” to broader fundamentals or tenets of the Christian religion. This very loose form of substance subscription is where many of the mainline denominations landed in the twentieth century. Gonzales describes how quickly the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA) quickly descended into full-blown liberalism.            

Similarly to the previous subscription level of the Christian Religion, it leaves open doors for various interpretations. Gonzales provides a compelling case of how quickly the liberal slide can happen. In 1910 the PCUSA decided that five articles of faith were essential and necessary to the Christian faith.[12] Fast forward to 1977, and the PCUSA found it challenging to condemn homosexuality as a sinful act that would result in eternal condemnation.[13] While the liberal slide is the most likely, it is also possible to slide into a more extreme version of fundamentalism.[14] Some churches appear on the surface to be in the fundamentally balanced orthodox camp and make a claim to the 1689 Confession. However, in practice, they twist it to their own destruction, picking and choosing the best doctrines that fit their needs. These practices often work themselves out in a more rigid society, but the rigidity is ruled by the leadership in the church that has a tendency to disregard doctrines they dislike, not necessarily doctrines that are unbiblical. [15]

Application for Leaders and Members

Now that the different subscription levels have a working definition how should they be implemented at the church level? Is it appropriate to demand the same level of understanding from a seasoned church leader as a new convert? Fortunately, there is a considerable amount of latitude on both topics. The Scriptures do not provide explicit instructions on implementing such a document into the church’s life; however, they provide specific parameters that can guide along the path.

            Carefully choosing a confession is imperative to the success of any church.[16] The choices primarily involve the Westminister Confession of Faith (WCF) or the 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith (2LBCF), assuming a Protestant background. Considering whether one is a Presbyterian or a Baptist makes this a clear choice. Within the Baptist line, there are options between the 1689, the Abstract Principles, or the New Hampshire Confession of Faith. In many instances, churches will utilize two confessions in conjunction with one another, such as the 1689 and the New Hampshire Confession. Herein, it provides an opportunity for various commitment levels built into the two confessions. The 1689 is considerably more in-depth and requires a deeper understanding, whereas the New Hampshire Confession has a more streamlined approach.

            In some cases, the officers would affirm faith to the 1689 and church members would confess the New Hampshire. A second option is to have two subscription levels contained within the 1689. Officers may be required to be full or strict subscriptions, and the non-officers have a system subscription. It also bears mentioning that confessional knowledge and affirmation should not be required for church membership. The confession itself states the requirement is a credible profession of faith, and obedience unto God (26.2 of the 2LBCF). No matter the ultimate decision, it seems the best thing to provide the most flexibility without compromising a firm orthodoxy is to discuss and reach a consensus among men of goodwill. The issue is rarely the wrong subscription level, although not entirely, but is often one of the domineering personalities that must have their way. The goal for noble churchmen should be the glory of God and seek Him to bless their labors.


Confessions of faith and the use thereof provide countless benefits for the church if used correctly and within the confines of leaders with pure desires. No matter how great a document might be, it is difficult to control if it is in the hands of someone bent on hurtful behaviors, and this is true of nearly anything under the sun. The subscription levels of confessions create a framework for an operation that can guide and direct the church and provide a systematic method for growing in sanctification and love. When the confession is rightly honored as subservient to the Scriptures and used as a guardrail to protect the church it serves its purpose well. Then it can be trusted to keep oneself within the confines of sincere orthodoxy.

1] The 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith is often abbreviated as the 1689, and this paper will refer to it as such, or abbreviate it as 2LBCF.

[2] Robert Gonzales, Jr., ed., The Confessing Baptist: Essays on the Use of Creeds in Baptist Faith & Life. (Conway, AR: Free Grace Press, 2021), 133.

[3] Carl R. Trueman, The Creedal Imperative (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 192.

[4] Gonzales, The Confessing Baptist, 134.

[5] Donald Fairbairn and Ryan M. Reeves, The Story of Creeds and Confessions: Tracing the Development of the Christian Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2019), 8

[6] Gonzales, The Confessing Baptist, 139-140.

[7] R. Scott Clark, Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety and Practice (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008), 178. Quoted in Robert Gonzales, Jr., ed., The Confessing Baptist, 141.

[8] John Fesko, “System Subscription,” Lecture 2 Transcript, accessed December 6, 2022, Quoted in Robert Gonzales, Jr., ed., The Confessing Baptist, 147.

[9] Samuel E. Waldron, A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith. 5th ed. (Durham, UK: Evangelical Press, 2016), 310.

[10] Stan Reeves, ed., Confessing the Faith: The 1689 Baptist Confession for the 21st Century (Cape Coral, FL: Founders Press, 2012), 9.

[11] When referencing fundamental I am referring to what Packer termed Evangelicalism, not the pejorative used today to describe extreme sects of Christian Fundamentalism. J. I. Packer, Fundamentalism and the Word of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1958), 24.

[12] “Five Articles,” The doctrinal deliverance of 1910, accessed December 8, 2022, Quoted in Robert Gonzales, Jr., ed., The Confessing Baptist, 151.

[13] “The Church and Homosexuality: A Preliminary Study,” PCUS, 1977, accessed December 7, 2022,$fn=default.htm,

[14] Here the term fundamentalism is being used as a pejorative

[15] This is a personal observation, lived out for nine years inside of a church declaring their loyalty to the confession and living in direct opposition to many of its basic tenets.

[16] An assumption is being made that the churches being dealt with here are and will be confessional. There are reasonable statements of faith available for those not choosing the confessional course, but that is not what is being discussed in this paper.


Clark, R. Scott. Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety and Practice. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008. Quoted in Robert Gonzales R. Jr., The Confessing Baptist

Fairbairn, Donald, and Ryan M. Reeves. The Story of Creeds and Confessions: Tracing the Development of the Christian Faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2019.

Fesko, John, “System Subscription.” Accessed December 6, 2022,

“Five Articles.” The doctrinal deliverance of 1910. Accessed December 8, 2022.

Gonzales, Robert R. Jr., ed. The Confessing Baptist: Essays on the Use of Creeds in Baptist Faith & Life, Conway, Arkansas: Free Grace Press, 2021.

Packer, J. I. Fundamentalism and the Word of God. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1958.

Reeves, Stan. Confessing the Faith: The 1689 Baptist Confession for the 21st century. Second Printing, 2013. Cape Coral, FL: Founders Press, 2012.

“The Church and Homosexuality: A Preliminary Study,” PCUS, 1977. Accessed December 7, 2022,$fn=default.htm,

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

Trueman, Carl R. The Creedal Imperative. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012.

Waldron, Samuel E. A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith. 5th ed. Durham, UK: Evangelical Press, 2016.

Chapter 9 – Of Free Will – Exposition

Chapter 9: Of Free Will


                The topic of free will has been misunderstood and misrepresented throughout history, and it often justifies good or bad behavior. Perhaps, part of the misunderstanding of free will is man’s inability to think clearly and rightly about biblical topics outside of regeneration and a new life in Christ. One other possibility is that it contradicts their theology. Mankind tends to hold himself up as an example of goodness and overestimates his abilities. The writers of the 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith recognized free will as a tricky topic or one to be held in tension. How much free will does man have compared to what God grants him? With these issues in mind, it is the goal to examine Chapter 9, Of Free Will, to exposit what God and the writers of the Confession teach about this important topic.

1. God has endued the will of man with that natural liberty and power of acting upon choice, that it is neither forced, nor by any necessity of nature determined to do good or evil. 1

1. Matthew 17:12; James 1:14; Deuteronomy 30:19

The first thing to notice about Chapter 9, Paragraph 1 is that God is the first cause of man’s[1] ability to do anything. He, being the Creator, has created man and provided man with a will. Here we see man created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27). The modern version of the Confession substitutes endued with the word given, meaning God has given to mankind everything pertaining to life and godliness (2 Pet. 1:3). The ability that God has provided is what the Confession calls natural liberty and the power of acting upon choice.

Natural liberty and the power of acting upon choice need to be defined. It is imperative to define free will and what free will is not.

Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary provides this:

  1. : voluntary choice or decision
  2. : freedom of humans to make choices that are not determined by prior causes or by divine intervention[2]

Most people understand they can do or avoid what they want. To have the ability to cross the street or stay put, run a red light, stop at a red light, wear blue jeans, or wear shorts. Human beings can make these natural choices without any spiritual or moral consequences. In this sense, man can make a free-will choice, and while God is sovereign over all things, He allows these choices.

Sam Waldron clarifies, “The human will is not subject to any physical necessity. Men are free. Their choices are not determined by factors external to their free, personal identities and moral natures. There could not be the human responsibility and accountability the Bible clearly teaches, unless this were the case (Proverbs 1:24 – 33; John 3:18, 19).”[3]

The Bible rejects the teaching of determinism. Britannica defines determinism this way.

determinism, in philosophy and science, the thesis that all events in the universe, including human decisions and actions, are causally inevitable. Determinism entails that, in a situation in which a person makes a certain decision or performs a certain action, it is impossible that he or she could have made any other decision or performed any other action. In other words, it is never true that people could have decided or acted otherwise than they actually did.[4]

In His wisdom, God has provided mankind with decision-making abilities and the freedom to choose certain things, and in God’s wisdom, man is also responsible for his rejection of God. He is not forced to choose or reject God; instead, God changes the heart of men so that they willingly and freely choose Him (Ez. 36:26).

There are multiple facets to God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility, and both are at play. Waldron defines it well when he says, “Divine freedom (God’s sovereign, decretive will) and human freedom are not in conflict. Rather, it is only because our wills are made in the image of the freedom of God’s supreme will that our derivative wills are free. Human freedom is rooted in God’s sovereign freedom.”[5]

It is also essential to understand that free will is not libertarian or that man is autonomous.[6] While some believe they have autonomy, it is easy to prove they do not. As an example, a person must eat to sustain their life. They must work to provide a home or attend a class on time to achieve a grade. Nobody is without responsibility. Even those that reject authority and the idea of being accountable to anyone need necessities to survive, so their will is not wholly free.

Lastly, these choices are not forced or bound by nature to do good or evil. These choices are legitimate. They are not predetermined as determinism defines them, nor are they without consequence. The choice to commit an evil act land squarely on the shoulders of the one who made it. While the old statement, “The devil made me do it,” has some validity, since mankind’s natural inclinations are bent toward evil, it does not relieve them of responsibility.

2. Man, in his state of innocency, had freedom and power to will and to do that which was good and well-pleasing to God, 2 but yet was unstable, so that he might fall from it. 3

2. Ecclesiastes 7:29 3. Genesis 3:6

“And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:16—17).

God’s command to Adam was clear. Adam lacked for nothing. God provided all of Adam’s needs and only gave one regulation. He was forbidden from eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Is it reasonable to believe that God had equipped Adam with the ability to obey? In paragraph 1, the Confession states that mankind is not forced to do good or evil. God provided Adam with an opportunity. Do this, and you will live. Do this, and you will die.

K.A. Matthews provides clarity,

“The prohibition against eating the fruit of the “tree of knowledge” gave Adam opportunity to worship God through loyal devotion. Luther likened the tree to “Adam’s church, altar, and pulpit. Here he was to yield to God the obedience he owed, give recognition to the Word and will of God, give thanks to God, and call upon God for aid against temptation.”[7]

Adam’s choices were real choices. He has been given God’s command not to eat of this one tree, and as Matthews articulates, he can call upon God to help in his temptation. If Adam had rejected the serpent’s lies and confronted his wife, he would have pleased God. God provided the testing of his faith, but Adam failed the test.

It is also significant to understand that Adam’s world was good and very good (Gen. 1:31). In other words, the world had not yet experienced sin. Adam holds a unique position in humanity as the first human being and the first in a state of innocence, as the Confession says. He was uncorrupted by sin but not incorruptible. As humanity’s federal head, Adam would represent all of mankind and his posterity. Paul summarizes this in Romans 5.

“Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned—” (Rom. 5:12).

Adam’s act of rebellion ushered sin into the world, and with the entrance of sin, God’s words, “you shall surely die,” echoed forth.

“Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:18—19).

God’s testing period for Adam ended in failure. His trespass condemned the whole human race under sin, yet God promised a Redeemer. His obedience and righteous acts will save sinners from their sins.

Adam proved his instability by failing to keep the command, and just as the Confession states, he fell from this state of innocence and became a transgressor of the law. Adam had the power to choose good, but instead, he chose evil.

3. Man, by his fall into a state of sin, has wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation; 4 so as a natural man, being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, 5 is not able by his own strength to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto. 6

4. Romans 5:6, 8:7 5. Ephesians 2:1, 5 6. Titus 3:3-5; John 6:44

While it is clear from the Confessions’ first two paragraphs on free will that mankind makes legitimate choices in life, these choices are without coercion. What is the difference between man’s “morally neutral” decisions and the free will decision to follow the Lord? There is no relationship. Paragraph three transitions to a post-fall condition and sets up a clear dividing line between everyday decisions and the decision to follow Christ.

It all begins with a promise from God to Adam that if he remains obedient, he will live, but should he disobey God’s commands he will surely die (Gen. 2:17). As the narrative of Genesis progresses to Adam’s rebellion, the immediate consequence of his disobedience appears. God pronounces curses upon him and the woman, but Adam does not drop dead.

It is worth a short detour to look at how Adam did indeed die, but not in the immediate. The Confession lays out free will in a progressive manner. Waldron says, “The first paragraph defines free will. Paragraphs 2 – 5 deal with the different states in which it exists. These move from the state of innocency, where it is marked by instability, to the state of glory, where it is marked by immutability. As finite, ethical beings we do undergo a moral and ethical development.”[8]

What sort of death occurred in Adam and all his posterity? Matthew Henry remarks on one way in which Adam died,

Thou shalt become mortal and capable of dying; the grant of immortality shall be recalled, and that defence shall depart from thee. Thou shalt become obnoxious to death, like a condemned malefactor that is dead in the law” (only, because Adam was to be the root of mankind, he was reprieved); “nay, the harbingers and forerunners of death shall immediately seize thee, and thy life, thenceforward, shall be a dying life: and this, surely; it is a settled rule, the soul that sinneth, it shall die.”[9]

Of course, Adam eventually died in the flesh, but a spiritual death occurred within Adam and all his posterity. The doctrine of original sin. Paul writes in Romans 5 as one of the proof texts the Confession provides, but a few verses later describe this death that passes to all.

“Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Rom. 5:12).

Paragraph 3 provides the proof texts that indicate this spiritual death. Ephesians 2:1 is a prime example stating mankind is dead in his sins and transgressions. In this deadness, the Confessions states mankind is without any power to convert himself. He has not had the free will to will himself to God. Romans 3:11 says, “no one understand; no one seeks for God.” The simplicity of this statement is evident. The Spirit of God must move and draw, or man stays dead in his sin.

The quotation of John 6:44 is appropriate as Jesus said, “unless the Father draws him.” The drawing is never forced or compulsory; it is a work of the Spirit that makes a man willing. Calvin provides a succinct view.

“True, indeed, as to the kind of drawing, it is not violent, to compel men by external force; but still it is a powerful impulse of the Holy Spirit, which makes men willing who formerly were unwilling and reluctant.”[10]

While it is essential to understand the inability to respond to God without God’s help, it is equally important to realize this does not provide man with a pass should he never come to Christ. The gospel invitation is a sincere invitation for all to come to Christ. Those that remain in their sin and rebellion do it willingly, which is the topic of paragraph 4.

4. When God converts a sinner, and translates him into the state of grace, He frees him from his natural bondage under sin, 7 and by His grace alone enables him freely to will and to do that which is spiritually good; 8 yet so as that by reason of his remaining corruptions, he does not perfectly, nor only will, that which is good, but does also will that which is evil. 9

7. Colossians 1:13; John 8:36 8. Philippians 2:13 9. Romans 7:15, 18-19, 21, 23

Paragraph 4 is a progressive step in Chapter 9 that relates to post-conversion. God converts a sinner. He takes him from his sin and moves him out of darkness and into his marvelous light (1 Pet. 2:9). There is a full-on change to him or her; they are now children of God. They have been justified and sanctified[11] by the blood of Christ.

Where he once was enslaved to sin (John 8:34), he now becomes a slave to righteousness (Rom. 6:16). The natural inclination or proclivity toward sin has now been radically altered toward godliness. The sinner has now become a saint and begins to live in the light of the gospel.

Ezekiel prophesied this new reality in chapter 36.

“And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Ez. 36:26—27).

The change wrought by God in the heart gives a new attitude, affection, and an entirely new perspective. The outward evidence is obedience to the commandments of God. It does not mean perfection, for that would be impossible (1 John 1:8), and as the Confession continues to expand, evil still resides in the heart of the converted.

In many fundamental or strict orthodox circles, obedience tends to mark the status of justification. Mercifully, the Lord has provided a clear revelation that faith is never dependent upon works, but works will proceed from faith. The recent rise of Federal Vision Theology has reignited the debate about the law and gospel distinction. It can create confusion in the minds of many, especially in churches where overly zealous pastors attempt to assist the Holy Spirit in His work of sanctification toward the people. The tendency is to make judgments regarding salvation purely based on external measures. The Confession addresses this concern in Chapter 17, paragraph 3.[12]

In summary, the paragraph states that believers can fall into grievous sins for a time, but God will renew and preserve them in Christ to the end. Here is a powerful statement about the Divine grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Man looks on the outside, but God looks upon the heart (1 Sam. 16:7).

Caution must be extended toward those acting in rebellion. The state of their salvation should be a two-way street. Dr. Brian Borgman preached an excellent sermon on not being overly righteous or overly wicked, providing context to the balance that needs to be maintained.[13] The ditches are steep on both sides of the narrow path. Avoiding licentiousness is just as important as avoiding legalism; they are both wrong and dangerous. The Confession addresses these concerns and provides the right balance if understood correctly.

True disciples, followers, and believers in the Lord Jesus Christ look forward to the day they are free from sin and the troubles of this present world, and that is the topic of the final paragraph of Chapter 9.

5. This will of man is made perfectly and immutably free to good alone in the state of glory only. 10

10. Ephesians 4:13

Ongoing sin will continue within the life of a believer. Paul spent a good portion of Romans chapter 7 relaying how this internal battle continues to rage. There will be no ultimate peace until glorification or the act of being perfected after physical death in this world.

The Confession writers tell us that man’s will is made perfectly and immutably free. The struggling believer is made whole. As the believer once saw dimly, he will now see clearly. The rags of sin are exchanged for those final garments of white that are perfect, in Christ, and unchangeable. Sin reigns no more. It is finally and totally eradicated in glorification. It is the ultimate consummation of the beauty in Christ.

Christians have a calling to do good in this world. They are to be light in a dark place and impact the society around them. Throughout history, Christians have sought to help the sick and indigent free slaves and stand against the horrors of abortion. The good done by Christians in these contexts are imperfect, and God only recognizes their good works as works done through Christ (Matt. 25:40). Works outside of Christ carry no eternal merit because it is impossible to please God outside of faith (Heb. 11:6).

Once the believer departs the present world and enters the kingdom of heaven, there will be no more pain, no more suffering, and no more struggle with sin. The will of the glorified believer will entirely focus on worshipping the redeemed Savior. They will forever be in the image of Christ as sons and daughters.

As John describes the final victory scene in Revelation, he says there be no more pain, no more tears, and no more death. Sin is the cause of all these, and when sin is vanquished, only beauty remains, and man’s free will has been wholly created new in Christ and glorification.

“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4).

[1] For ease, the term “man” will be substituted for mankind or used interchangeably. The term includes male and female.


[3]Samuel E. Waldron, A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, 5th ed. (Welwyn Garden City, UK: EP Books, 2016), 166.


[5] Ibid., 166.


[7] K. A. Mathews, Genesis 1-11:26, vol. 1A, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996), 210–211.

[8] Samuel E. Waldron, A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, 5th ed. (Welwyn Garden City, UK: EP Books, 2016), 166—167. 

[9] Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), 9.

[10] John Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel according to John, vol. 1 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 257.

[11] Sanctification has an immediate effect (1 Cor. 6:11) but will also be ongoing (Heb. 10:14) in a progressive fashion, so this is not to say the sinner is fully sanctified.

[12] 3. And though they may, through the temptation of Satan and of the world, the prevalency of corruption remaining in them, and the neglect of means of their preservation, fall into grievous sins, and for a time continue therein, 9 whereby they incur God’s displeasure and grieve his Holy Spirit, 10 come to have their graces and comforts impaired, 11 have their hearts hardened, and their consciences wounded, 12 hurt and scandalize others, and bring temporal judgments upon themselves, 13 yet shall they renew their repentance and be preserved through faith in Christ Jesus to the end. 14


A Theology of the Gospel in the Old Testament


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

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

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

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

The First Gospel

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abraham’s Gospel Defined

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isaiah’s Gospel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jonah’s Gospel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tabletalk, “The Servant Songs of Isaiah,” accessed May 16, 2022,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[7] Mathews, “Genesis,” 166.

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

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

[10] Tabletalk, “The Servant Songs of Isaiah” accessed May 16, 2022,

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

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

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

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

A Theology of Evangelism and Missions in Acts


“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.


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.


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.


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.


“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.


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.


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.


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.

A Theological View of Canonicity


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 (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.


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. “


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.