Does God speak?

My thesis:

God has revealed Himself commandingly and sufficiently in the written canonical word (i.e. the Bible).

It is commonplace today for Christians to accept that God speaks in ways outside of His written and authoritative Word (the sixty-six canonical books found in the Protestant Christian Bible). While all Christians recognize that God has spoken in ways outside of His written Word, particularly during the time before human authors completed the canonical books of the Bible, many Christians still expect this kind of special and personal revelation today.

Christians who expect, or at least accept, modern-day prophetic revelation from God are often called continuationists. In only rare cases do continuationists claim that these modern-day prophecies are divinely authoritative (equal to the authority of Holy Scripture), but the prophetic visions and/or dreams are also said to be in the category of revelation from God. I will attempt to provide examples of this kind of acceptance and expectation by citing some professing Christians on the matter, and I will also try to present the thinking that undergirds this nebulous position by sketching the logical assumptions at its foundation.

Ultimately, I will seek to demonstrate the logical and Scriptural problems associated with the continuationist position, and I shall argue for an outright rejection of it. In the end, I hope to concisely show that any expectation for receiving divine visions or experiencing revelatory dreams is at least awkward and at worst dangerous.

Setting the Scene

Since the Charismatic[1]movement began in the early 1900s (not becoming mainstream until the 1950s and 1960s), Christians have generally become increasingly open to the idea that God is still speaking to His people today in ways other than biblical revelation. I am the lead pastor of a First Baptist Church located in an unincorporated rural Texas town, and even among this conservative-minded Southern Baptist congregation you will find many who are quite accepting of the idea that God speaks today through visions, dreams, and other forms of special prophecy.

As far as I know, none of my congregants would affirm that any modern-day prophecies should be added to the canon of Scripture, and I am thankful for their hesitation. However, I am also confused by the apparent inconsistency in pairing these two affirmations. As I recently presented the difficulty to some of my congregants, I am utterly unable to understand how someone can receive a “word from God” that is not the “Word of God.” Yet, there are some who feel perfectly at ease with this dichotomy.

Visions of Today

Wayne Grudem, in his standard-setting systematic theological work, defines prophecy as “telling something that God has spontaneously brought to mind.”[2]This essay is primarily interested in the purported experiences of dreams and visions as God’s special revelation to twentieth and twenty-first-century people. However, such dreams and visions fall into the category of prophecy since they are intended to perform as God’s special revealing mechanism to humanity – even if only one human in particular.

Grudem also groups visions under the umbrella of prophecy when he explains how Agabus’s prophecy concerning the arrest of the Apostle Paul might be best explained as an errant articulation of a divine vision.[3]Therefore, I believe it is helpful to consider the argument for modern-day prophecies as contributing to the overall support for the expectation of modern-day visions and dreams from God. Let us now consider the argument for experiencing prophecy today and the expression of prophetic practice by those who live with a contemporary expectation of dreams and/or visions.

Post-Apostolic Prophecy

If one is going to advocate for present-day prophets, those who experience divine revelation through dreams and/or visions, he or she will need to begin by demonstrating some biblical basis for them. Dr. Harwood, presenting his own contemporary openness to revelatory dreams and visions, cited several biblical examples of these prophetic experiences. Among the Apostolic examples, Harwood says “Jesus appeared to Saul (later Paul) on the road to Damascus (Acts 9)… Later, God directed Paul’s ministry through a vision of a man from Macedonia (Acts 16:9)… God spoke to Peter through a vision of animals lowered on a sheet (Acts 10:9-23).” Just as Harwood mentioned elsewhere in his article, these are only some of the many biblical examples of such things.[4]These examples do not prove that one should expect twenty-first-century prophets, but they do present prophetic dreams and visions as having been a method used by God to communicate with people at some time in history – namely those whose spiritual office was that of Apostle and/or prophet.

Citing a few Bible passages (such as 1 Thess. 5:19-21 and 1 Cor. 14:29-38) that speak of prophets and/or prophesying, Grudem argues that this New Testament activity is practiced consistently by simply telling something God spontaneously brought to mind.[5]In these passages we also find some instruction concerning prophets and prophecies, as they existed and operated in the context of the New Testament local church. It is from this platform that the leap is made into the present day. If there were ordinary prophets who prophesied through the medium of visions and/or dreams in the New Testament, then it is at least possible that there would be some expectation to experience the same today. However, there is still one more loose string that must be tied before this massive leap can be safely attempted.

When Old Testament prophets prophesied, their words were authoritative and binding – the imposing and dependable Word of God. Yet, as we have already established, very few (none that I know of) advocates of modern-day prophecy desire to present it as equal in authority with canonized Scripture. Harwood affirms “the need to judge any supposed vision or dream against the truths already revealed in the Bible.”[6]

Billy Graham’s staff also encourages the use of “godly counsel” and the Scriptures when filtering a contemporary prophetic vision or dream. Gudem, too, distances himself from any claim that all prophets and prophecies carry the same authority as Scripture. In fact, after attempting to demonstrate from Scripture some reasons to accept that some prophetic visions have less than binding authority, Grudem says, “prophecies in the church today should be considered merely human words, not God’s words, and not equal to God’s words in authority.”[7]Grudem quoted Donald Gee, representing the Assemblies of God, in order to assist in clearing up the difficulty created by this two-tiered significance for prophecy. Gee said:

[There are] grave problems raised by the habit of giving and receiving personal “messages” of guidance through the gifts of the Spirit…. The Bible gives a place for such direction from the Holy Spirit…. But it must be kept in proportion. An examination of the Scriptures will show us that as a matter of fact the early Christians did not continually receive such voices from heaven. In most cases they made their decisions by the use of what we often call “sanctified common-sense” and lived quite normal lives. Many of our errors where spiritual gifts are concerned arise when we want the extraordinary and exceptional to be made the frequent and habitual. Let all who develop excessive desire for “messages” through the gifts take warning from the wreckage of past generations as well as of contemporaries…. The Holy Scriptures are a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path.[8]

While the heart of such a desire for propriety is commendable, the subjectivity of this position presents an extremely open-ended experience for Christians in the present day. In short, it is like calling gluttons to address their insatiable desire for food by using common sense consumption principles and by keeping proper perspective through an awareness of the problems overeating has caused for others. If gluttons were capable of benefitting from these simple measures, then they would not now be gluttons! So too, those who expect ‘messages’ of special revelation from the Holy Spirit are in no way dissuaded from expecting more by a subtle call to an arbitrary sense of propriety.

Furthermore, error is much more likely to enter through the subjective experiences of humanity than through the study and application of Scripture. Experience has always been pitted against God’s revealed truth, and the Bible is full of examples of humans trusting their own experiential understanding rather than trusting and submitting to God’s Word. As the next section will show, people will inevitably prefer the subjective and effortless (personal prophetic revelation) to the objective and challenging (the diligent study of God’s Word).

Dreamers Dream

The staff of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association claims that God speaks “primarily” through His Word, but “God may communicate through dreams or visions even today.” Of course, a caveat comes quickly behind such a statement, “but we need to carefully check any such guidance we receive with Scripture and godly counsel to be sure it is from the Lord.”[9]Billy Graham is an ordained Southern Baptist minister, and these statements from his staff are indicative of the common view among the Southern Baptist congregants that I have encountered over the last decade and across the United States.

While it can be somewhat difficult to acquire a scholarly work on the matter of contemporary visions and dreams, a more open view can be illustrated in the words of a distinctively charismatic writer. Goodwyn, a Christian Broadcasting Network producer, said, “[My] personal experience has confirmed” the notion that “dreams are the perfect way to hear from God.” She went on to say, “Through biblical study, I have found that God intends to speak to each of [His] followers in this manner.” Then Goodwyn quoted the oft-cited text for charismatics when they address this topic, “I will pour out my Spirit upon all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your old men will dream dreams, and your young men will see visions” (Joel 2:28; cf Acts 2:17). She does warn, though, “It’s important to understand that not all dreams are God-given.” Indeed, she asserts, “Dreams can also be from Satan.”[10]

These two examples concerning the expectation and nature of prophetic dreams and visions are not the same in every way, but they both provide some basis for further examination of the reasoning behind the continuationists position. I believe the following conclusion statements can be drawn from these two distinct sources above. (1) God does communicate with humans today through visions and dreams, and apart from His Word; (2) Not all visions or dreams are from God; (3) Dreams and/or visions are a personal message directly from God; (4) Subjectively, personal direct messages from God are preferable to ancient indirect ones.

First, both Graham’s staff and Goodwyn affirm that visions and dreams, as special revelation from God, are for Christians today. I shall address this further below, but this is an open and direct assault on the sufficiency of Scripture. If Christians should expect visions and dreams as a kind of supplemental revelation from God today, then the canon of Scripture is (by logical necessity) insufficient for the Christian to be completely equipped for all that God would do in and through him or her.

Second, both Graham’s staff and Goodwyn also affirm that Christians can receive misleading (at best) and nefarious (at worst) visions and dreams. While Graham’s staff does not explicitly attribute erroneous visions and dreams to Satan, as Goodwyn does, they still leave room for massive delusion. Moreover, if visions and dreams are to be weighed against the full counsel of God’s Holy Word, then what real practical use is the vision or dream? If such things are intended as a fast track to knowing God’s will or God’s truth, then pouring over the Scriptures for clarity and validation nullifies the speed and ease of the supposed route.

Third, the last two suppositions, which I believe may also be inferred from an honest assessment of the declarations cited from Graham’s staff and Goodwyn, are both linked to personal subjectivity and preference. Any Christian would jump at the opportunity to receive personal divine revelation in this mortal life. Such a thing excites my interest as I consider it, even as I do not believe it is plausible. The sheer pleasure of a personal message from God, regardless of its content, is enough to keep a Christian consumed and pursuing the experience for quite some time. While personal divine revelation is an exciting notion, it is even more desirable when compared with the indirect and ancient revelation that one will find on the pages of Scripture. While I have heard no continuationist argue for pursuing visions or dreams over seeking God’s revelation of Himself in His Word, it does seem inevitable that Christians would eagerly look for the former over the latter.

If Christians adopt the position that prophetic visions and dreams are to be expected from God in the modern day, then a powerful fog of disillusionment may be blown upon Christians everywhere. How will these modern-day prophets be kept in check? Who will tell us what is the Word of God and what is not? If prophets can be wrong about some things, how can we trust anything that they say? If prophecy through visions and dreams is for today, then why is there such an inconsistency between the authority of biblical prophets and those we should expect in our present day? How can something be a ‘word fromGod’ and not the ‘Word ofGod?’ All of these questions and more create a whirlwind of uncertainty, but possibly the greatest usurpation of this charismatic confidence in present-day dreams and visions is that such a confidence presents a thinly-veiled (even if naively unintentional) attack on the sufficiency of Scripture.

The Sufficiency and Authority of God’s Word

Scriptures itself is the ultimate arbiter of truth, and even the continuationists (at least the ones cited above) acknowledge that Christians should turn to the Bible to either affirm or deny the validity of a dream or vision. I believe it would be logical and wise, then, to look to the Scriptures in order to affirm or deny the validity of expecting such dreams or visions in the first place.  After all, if the dream or vision that contradicts Scripture should be jettisoned, then the expectation of dreams and visions may also be pitched overboard if the concept is understood to be divergent from the testimony of Scripture. Let us investigate some aspects of two distinct passages (for the sake of brevity we may only consider two), and then judge whether it is wise to expect any personal contemporary messages from God via dreams and/or visions.

The Apostle Peter wrote to encourage Christians who seem to have been in need of a strong and comforting reminder of the trustworthiness and faithfulness of God. Peter wrote, “[We] have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place” (2 Peter 1:19). Peter was referring here to the text of Scripture that was “confirmed” by God in real human history – namely in the person and work of Christ. It seems that Peter was particularly referring to the Old Testament in this passage, but Peter also includes the writing of the Apostle Paul in the category of “Scriptures” just two chapters later in the same letter (2 Peter 3:15-16).

Blum writes, “In view of the Christological fulfillment and the Father’s confirmation of the Old Testament Scriptures, Christians are to study and pay careful attention to the Word of God. It will provide light in the midst of murky darkness for the Christian until the return of Christ…”[11]

This admonition to “pay careful attention to the Word of God” comes in contrast to Peter’s own vision and hearing of personal divine revelation. Just before Peter speaks of the “prophetic word more fully confirmed,” he recalls the pinnacle of his own personal experience with the incarnate Christ. Peter saw Jesus transfigured in glory before him and heard the voice of God from heaven (2 Peter 1:16-18), and yet Peter tells his readers to pay attention to the “prophetic word” (or written Scripture) that is better in some sense.

The sense in which the written Word of God is, in some sense, better than the incarnate Word of God is not within the scope of this brief essay. However, it is spectacularly important that we do note here what Peter has chosen to emphasize. Peter calls his readers to pay attention to the Word of God, which he deems to be better in some sense than the transfigured incarnate Christ and voice from God in heaven! This is no small matter, and we are foolish to skip over the significance of such an exhortation.

Another oft-cited passage regarding the value and function of Scripture is found in one of the Apostle Paul’s letters to his young disciple, Timothy. Paul said, “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 Timothy 3:16-17). There are two things that I hope to point out in this passage that will weigh in on our discussion.

First, Scripture is unambiguously affirmed as being “breathed out by God” (theopneustos). Because the Bible is the very words of God as breathed out by Him, then such a reality has massive implications on matters of authority, trustworthiness, and so on. The doctrine of inerrancy, for example, is largely undergirded by the fact that God Himself is true and trustworthy. R.C. Sproul says, “If the Bible is the Word of God, and if God is a God of truth, then the Bible must be inerrant – not merely in some of its parts, as some modern theologians are saying, but totally, as the church for the most part has said down through the ages of its history.”[12]

The reason for bringing up authority, inerrancy, and the “God-breathed” nature of Scripture in a discussion about modern-day prophecy, which may or may not be authoritative or inerrant, is to point out an uncomfortable dichotomy. Mathison, in his book on the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, argues against the Roman Catholic interpretation of 2 Timothy 3:16-17, and his argument has import for this different discussion here. Mathison says, “Any word from God is by definition God-breathed whether communicated in writing or orally.”[13]This statement from Mathison gets to the point and should cause tremendous discomfort for anyone who affirms the possibility of someone receiving a dream or vision from God that is meant to be revelatory without necessarily being inerrant or authoritative.

God only reveals the truth, and the truth He reveals is always authoritative!

The second emphatic concept that I would like to point out in the passage from 2 Timothy is that the Scripture itself affirms that it is sufficient in all that a Christian needs in order to be “complete.” The idea presented in this passage is that the Christian who receives and absorbs the biblical text is fully equipped to be and do all that God would have him or her to be and to do. Because Scripture is God’s revealed Word to humanity, and because God is no fool and no deceiver, then all Christians must expect that God has revealed Himself sufficiently in His Word. To look elsewhere for further revelation or clearer revelation or more personal revelation is to cast a disparaging look upon Scripture, which is God’s only inerrant and trustworthy revelation to humanity today.

In my view, there are many well-meaning Christians that speak of dreams or visions (even promptings or intuitions) as vehicles through which Christians may receive divine revelation today. Regardless of their motivation, it seems flat against the teaching of Scripture to regard these notions as helpful or beneficial. At best, one’s openness or expectation for personal revelation through dreams or visions is out of step with God’s revelation in the Bible. At worst, any acceptance or anticipation for such things draws attention away from God’s true revelation and towards foolish error. May God give all Christians an unquenchable thirst for His Word, and may He forgive us for ever searching for Him elsewhere.

 

 

[1]Charismatics are a subcategory of evangelical Christians who emphasize the miraculous and fantastical work of God’s Holy Spirit. A particular distinguishing mark of Charismatics is the expectation of miracles, like those experienced by the early Church, especially the practice of ‘speaking in tongues.’

[2]Grudem, 1050

[3]See Grudem’s explanation of Acts 21:10-11, 1052

[4]See Harwood’s full article, Does God Speak Today Through Visions And Dreams, as cited in the bibliography below.

[5]Grudem, 1054

[6]See Harwood’s full article, Does God Speak Today Through Visions And Dreams, as cited in the bibliography below

[7]Grudem, 1055

[8]Grudem, 1041

[9]See full article at the website listed beside “Does God Reveal Things through Dreams and Visions?

[10]See full article at the website listed beside Goodwyn, “Dreams And Visions: God Uncensored.”

[11]Geisler, 48

[12]Sproul, 121

[13]Mathison, 166

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

“Does God Reveal Things through Dreams and Visions?” 2004. Billygraham.Org. Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. June 1. http://billygraham.org/answer/does-god-reveal-things-through-dreams-and-visions/.

Geisler, Norman L., ed. 1980. Inerrancy. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub. House.

Goodwyn, Hannah. 2015. “Dreams And Visions: God Uncensored.” Dreams And Visions: God Uncensored. Christian Broadcasting Network. Accessed October 1. http://www.cbn.com/spirituallife/biblestudyandtheology/perspectives/goodwyn_dreams.aspx.

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

Harwood, Adam. 2015. “Does God Speak Today Through Visions And Dreams.” SBC Today. SBC Today. January 7. http://sbctoday.com/does-god-speak-today-through-visions-and-dreams/.

Mathison, Keith A. 2001. The Shape of Sola Scriptura. Moscow, ID: Canon Press.

Sproul, R. C. 2005. Scripture Alone: the Evangelical Doctrine. Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Pub.

White, James. 2012. Scripture Alone. Bloomington, MN: Bethany House Publishers.

The Inspiration of Scripture

It would not be an overstatement to say that God’s revealed word has been a source of controversy from nearly the beginning of time. The serpent of old asked Eve, “Did God actually say…” (Gen. 3:1), and that question has been an incessant refrain ever since.

One of the central topics of the conversation, especially during the last 150 years, is inspiration. What do we mean when we say that God inspired the Bible? How has God inspired the texts we understand to have been written by various authors over the course of about 1,500 years?

There are many more questions that arise in this kind of conversation, but it is helpful to begin by asking, “Is the Bible the Word of God?” Of course, even this question will require some explanation, but here is a constructive starting point.

Basil Manly has written a fantastic work on exactly this topic (The Bible Doctrine of Inspiration), and I found it to be extremely productive. Surprisingly, it was also food for my soul.

Manly sets the stage by helpfully arranging the stuff of Christianity. He writes,

“Christianity is the Religion of the Book. It is not an external organization, nor a system of ceremonies, nor a philosophy, nor a vague inquiry and aspiration, nor a human invention for man’s own convenience or advantage. It is a definite system divinely given, consisting primarily of Facts, occurring both on earth and in heaven; Doctrines in connection with those facts; Commands growing out of both these; and Promises based upon them.”[1]

The ideas Manly presents here are beneficial for any context, but it seems especially so in the context of contemporary American culture. Remembering that Christianity is about propositional truths concerning real historical events, from which we derive indicatives and imperatives regarding the most important issues of human existence, should keep Christians from attempting to minimize the Christian Faith. But many still try to make it something of lesser substance or merely subjective experience.

There may be greater or lesser doctrines, and there are definitely experiences accompanying the Christian life, but the Bible is essential and foundational. And, critical to our inquiry here, it is highly interested in informing its reader that God has spoken.

Because Christianity is so dependent upon the Bible, the nature of this particular book is of great importance.

If the Bible is simply one good book among many, then it may still be of great value. While it may come as a surprise to some, there could still be a Gospel for sinners – we may still know of the person and work of Jesus Christ – even if God did not inspire the Bible. However, there are some serious problems that would arise if one were to demonstrate that the Bible is not the word of God or inspired by God.

Explaining the deficiencies of an uninspired Bible, Manly says, “It would furnish no infallible standard of truth.” Truth may still be known with an uninspired Bible, but we would have no objective standard or rule as our guide.

He goes on to say, “it would present no authoritative rule for obedience, and no ground for confident and everlasting hope.” One may still have hope, and one may still find the ‘tips’ or ‘principles’ in the Bible helpful, but there would be a lesser confidence in any promises it contained and it would have no solemn authority that any sinner must obey.

Lastly, he says, “it would offer no suitable means for testing and cultivating the docile spirit, for drawing man’s soul trustfully and lovingly upward to its Heavenly Father.”[2]

Manly touches on the nature of Scripture well here when he conveys the reality that it is precisely because the Bible is the word of God that it cultivates submission in the heart of a sinner and draws him or her near with love and trust.

Manly’s defense of Verbal Plenary Inspiration is excellent throughout this text. He articulates the doctrine well, and affirms both divine and human authorship. Both authors are vital to this doctrine. Manly writes,

“The Word is not of man, as to its source; nor depending on man, as to its authority. It is by and through man as its medium; yet not simply as the channel along which it runs, like water through a lifeless pipe, but through and by man as the agent voluntarily active and intelligent in its communication.”[3]

As with other doctrines, such as providence and the hypostatic union of Christ, there is a paradox here that requires adherents to maintain a tension without a contradiction. Manly argues for a view of inspiration that neither obliterates the human participants nor lessens the divine authority. God is the decisive source and author of the Scriptures, and intentional contributors wrote the Scriptures according to their own education, experiences, and understanding. Indeed, both of these truths are simultaneously affirmed from the Scriptures themselves.

This is neither a contradiction, for God is the author in a distinct sense and men are also authors in another distinct sense, nor is this a denial of any essential participant, for these are both the words of men and the words of God. One is not required to leave his rationality behind when he affirms this doctrine, but he is required to believe something that is ultimately a mystery to him. The mechanics are not explained in such a way so as to be understood easily by humans, but this does not necessarily mean that there is a problem with anything other than human cognitive ability.

Verbal Plenary Inspiration has been the assertion of Christians for millennia, though not necessarily under this title, but a recent question has caused the conversation to take a speculative turn.

After hearing this doctrine articulated and defended, one may still ask the question, “But how has God done this?” This question gets to the heart of many liberal and speculative arguments against Verbal Plenary Inspiration, and it may be the source of intellectual frustration for some sincere Christians. But Manly reminds us well of what we must know and remember when he says, “If we undertake to go beyond, and to explain how this was accomplished, we leave what has been made known to us for the barren and uncertain fields of conjecture.”

This question gets to the heart of many liberal and speculative arguments against Verbal Plenary Inspiration, and it may be the source of intellectual frustration for some sincere Christians. But Manly reminds us well of what we must know and remember when he says, “If we undertake to go beyond, and to explain how this was accomplished, we leave what has been made known to us for the barren and uncertain fields of conjecture.”[4]

God does not tell us how He inspired the biblical writers; He simply told us that He did.

Manly’s text masterfully and passionately defends the doctrine of inspiration. God has spoken, and He has made Himself known through human agency. The individual Christian need only believe what God has said, just as the Christian should believe that God has said it. This is the only way that a sinner may enjoy the right relationship with God that once was experienced by humanity when the question was first asked, “Did God actually say…”

May God help us to answer with confidence, “Yes, as a matter of fact, He did.”

 

 

[1] Manly, Basil (2013-10-04). The Bible Doctrine of Inspiration (Kindle Locations 6-9). Titus Books. Kindle Edition.

[2] Manly, Basil (2013-10-04). The Bible Doctrine of Inspiration (Kindle Location 27). Titus Books. Kindle Edition.

[3] Manly, Basil (2013-10-04). The Bible Doctrine of Inspiration (Kindle Locations 124-126). Titus Books. Kindle Edition.

[4] Manly, Basil (2013-10-04). The Bible Doctrine of Inspiration (Kindle Locations 138-139). Titus Books. Kindle Edition.

Is the Bible Reliable?

The Bible has been copied and translated so many times that no one can know what Jesus really said.

You can’t possibly believe the Bible is a reliable source of God’s truth! You don’t have the original documents, and no two copies of any manuscript are the same.

If statements like these worry you, infuriate you, or befuddle you, maybe this brief post will help. None of these reactions are necessary, and Christians can be comfortably secure in the tenacious reliability of the Bible. There are many ways one might argue for the reliability of the Bible, but the angle I am going to take here will address something called textual variants.

A textual variant is any difference in spelling, wording, or word order when comparing one manuscript to another (see Dr. Wallace’s article HERE). When we compare each manuscript of the New Testament with the others, we notice textual variants. Copyists differed from one another… often.

The number of textual variants among the New Testament manuscripts currently total about 400,000. This may be staggering (especially if you are new to the idea of textual variants and manuscript comparison), but you can take a deep breath. I’d like to argue that the Bible is tenaciously reliable, and I’ll try to do that through a closer look at textual variants.

First, textual variants are additions, not subtractions. I do not mean that no manuscript copy leaves anything out. I do mean to say that no textual variant removes any information from our treasury of data.

Quite simply, the textual variants in the New Testament manuscript tradition provide 1,074 pieces (not a technically precise number) to a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. We do not have to wonder if we have all the words of the original authors; we are merely left with the task of fitting the pieces together appropriately and leaving the extras on the side.

Second, textual variants are numerous because we have so many manuscript copies of the New Testament. 400,000 is a lot! Yes, that is true, and it is also to be expected. We currently have nearly 6,000 Greek manuscript copies of the New Testament. That is about 10 times as many as copies Homer’s Iliad and 600 times as many as copies as Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars.

In addition to the Greek manuscript copies, we also have Latin, Slavic, Syriac, Armenian, and others, totaling nearly 20,000. That’s over 25,000 manuscript copies! And, while most copies are not complete New Testament manuscripts, the average length of the content for each one is about 450 pages of written text. The sheer volume of text makes the number of variants (even 400,000 of them) much less surprising for any honest observer.

More manuscript copies (not less) is a very good thing, and these numerous manuscripts are going to contain variants. However, variants do not have to mean uncertainty or confusion. Allow me to illustrate with a very simplistic exercise.

Consider the following copies of an original sentence, and see if you can deduce the original text from the copies I have provided below.

Tha dog ran.

The dag ran.

The dag run.

Tho dod ran.

What is the original sentence? Do you know it? If so, how can you be sure? Not one of these copies is without error, and there are five textual variants in all. That’s five textual variants compared to only three words! How could you possibly know the original statement?

Well, the original is “The dog ran,” of course. You knew that already because the textual variants were understandable errors which did nothing to meaningfully change the text. You also benefit from having more than one or two copies of the original. In fact, more copies would only give you greater certainty as to the original statement – even if every one of those copies added more variants.

This crude and simple illustration helps us to begin to understand the treasure we have in the numerous New Testament manuscript copies. Yes, there are many more variants than we would like; but these variants do not have to obscure the original text, and the greater amount of information only benefits the inquirer.

Third, less than 0.5% of the total number of textual variants in the New Testament manuscript copies are viable. The viability of a variant is measured by the reasonable possibility that the variant could be the original. In other words, the textual critical scholars are not particularly sure if the standard word is original or if the variant word is actually the original (and, therefore, should be the standard). It could be either one, but there is usually a greater possibility of one rendering over another.

Furthermore, only a small number of the viable variants are also meaningful. If a viable variant is meaningful it would change the meaning of the passage or verse, depending on which rendering is original. For example, if my copies listed above would have included “runs” and “ran” an equal number of times and each variation had come from a broad spectrum of sources (date and location), then the variant would be both viable and meaningful. One transmission would be present-tense, singular, indicative and the other would be past-tense, singular, indicative. This would, at least slightly, change the meaning of the text.

Consequently, we can be highly confident that 99.5% of the words in our New Testament are exactly what the original authors wrote. This is incredible accuracy and confidence!

Fourth, all viable textual variants are documented. It is bothersome that there are any viable textual variants, much more frustrating is the idea that some of those are meaningful. However, most modern translations include their textual critical notes as footnotes on each page of Scripture. This means that the reader can know the possible renderings and interpret the passage accordingly.

As was mentioned above, we have too many pieces of the puzzle, not too few. We have 100% of the original New Testament text, plus a handful of potentially authentic alternate renderings in the footnotes. This is a treasury beyond compare!

Fifth, no doctrine or historical fact of Christianity is at risk in any of the viable and meaningful variants. Even today’s best-known textual critical scholar in opposition to biblical Christianity cannot find any significant evidence of doctrine at risk. Dr. Bart Ehrman is certainly not the first textual critical scholar to express antipathy towards orthodox and historic Christianity, but he has proven himself uniquely capable of popularizing such antagonism.

In a brilliantly-worded article (see it HERE), Dr. Ehrman argues that there are significant and meaningful variants. However, the evidence he provides is utterly laughable, especially when it comes from someone of such a sharp intellect. Dr. Ehrman is quite capable of spinning a tale, but he is not able to demonstrate that anything faithful Christians have learned from diligent Bible study is untrue or even at slight risk.

In conclusion, the manuscript copies we have are an “embarrassment of riches” not a problematic heap of chaotic errors (see Dr. Wallace’s argument HERE). Christians can celebrate manuscript discoveries and the clarity we continue to gain from them. Christians can also trust that the Bible they have in their hands is an accurate and faithful transmission of the God-breathed original text of the prophets and Apostles.

Of course, there are good, bad, and better translations, but that is a topic deserving its own treatment…

 

Should that story be in my Bible?

Asking American Evangelicals to read their Bible at all may be asking a lot, so inviting you to read the fine print might sound ridiculous. And yet, this is exactly what I am inviting you to do. Why do some scholars and translators of the Bible believe that John 7:52-8:11 should not be in the Bible? To answer this question, we need to do a little investigative work and a lot of honest critical thinking.

It seems that most Christians simply read right over the translator’s notes in their Bibles. For the average Evangelical, thinking about how the words contained in the Bible got to be “in the Bible” is out of bounds or something only liberals do. However, your Bible (whatever translation you have) was compiled by someone (probably a group) who made analytical decisions about what would be included and what would not.

Some Christians are inclined to investigate these things further, and many non-Christians are all-too-happy to use the discipline of textual criticism against the Bible. My goal in this essay is provide an introductory discourse for the average Bible-reader, and maybe it will benefit the two groups mentioned above as well. Please open your Bible, and let’s consider John 7:53-8:11 (technically known as the pericope adulterae).

First, this story is recorded and well-attested outside of Scripture. In fact, this story is uniquely validated in ancient writings. Whether it is authentic to John’s Gospel, it is almost certainly an accurate record of an event that really took place. Kyle Hughes has done some great study on this matter, and he says,

“We can affirm the essential historicity of the event recorded in PA (or pericope adulterae) to the extent that it is preserved in the Didascalia (a first-through-fourth century compilation of various Christian traditions), since identifying the account with the L source (the source documents from which Luke formed his Gospel) places it into the middle of the first century.”[1]

Here we have a genuine story of Jesus’ interaction with a sinful woman. The grace shown toward her is  incredible, and Jesus is the picture of wisdom. His thoughtful dealing with both the sinner and her accusers is astonishing, and we may all marvel fittingly.

Second, everything in this passage is supported by other Bible verses and passages. This means that we learn nothing new in this story about Jesus, humanity, first-century Pharisees, adultery, Mosaic Law, forgiveness, walking in holiness, grace, obedience, Jesus’ teaching role, prideful rebellion, or humiliating shame.

  • Jesus teaches in the temple (8:2), and He does the same in John 7:28 and numerous times elsewhere.
  • Scribes and Pharisees oppose Jesus and abuse others (8:3-4), and this is nearly the same interaction recorded in John 5:10-16.
  • Jewish leaders try to pit Jesus against Mosaic Law (8:5-6), and they did the same (judging Jesus guilty of blasphemy) in John 10:31-33. There they even tried to stone Jesus to death.
  • Jesus gives grace to the humble and justice to the proud (8:7), and He tells a parable about this very thing (the tax collector and the Pharisee) in Luke 18:9-14.
  • The angry crowd loses interest when Jesus holds His ground (8:9), and this same thing occurred a few times in the previous chapter (Jn. 7:25, 30, 44).
  • Jesus graciously forgives and authoritatively commands obedience from those who believe (8:10-11), and He does the same in John 8:31-32. He also used the same language of “Go, and sin no more” on another occasion, talking to the crippled man (seemingly an unbeliever) in John 5:14.

In short, the passage is a potent story, exemplifying in vivid form what we already know from the Bible’s teaching elsewhere. This means that the story is not essential to the teaching of John’s Gospel or the Bible as a whole. Now that does not necessarily mean the passage does not belong; it merely reminds us that we may conclude the passage is inauthentic without also jettisoning critical biblical teaching.

Third, there is nothing crucial to Christian doctrine or history in this passage. As stated above, nothing in this story is unique or critical to the biblical record. We learn nothing new here, and no essential (or even peripheral) Christian doctrine hinges on the inclusion or exclusion of this passage.

Fourth (this is the more controversial stuff), we must take note of the textual variant. In my ESV translation there is a brief statement included in the biblical text: “Some manuscripts do not include 7:53–8:11;” and the footnote below also says, “other [manuscripts] add the passage here or after 7:36 or after 21:25 or after Luke 21:38…”[2]

If you are like most Christians, this is enough to make you want to stop reading immediately. This kind of thing is scary, and only those people who hate the Bible want to emphasize things like this, right? On the contrary, I love the Bible, and I believe the Bible is tenaciously reliable. But, I believe we must start from a posture of open-eyed honesty.

Furthermore, we all must make a decision that will inevitably reject the testimony of at least some biblical manuscript copies. Yes, that’s right… your decision to accept John 7:53-8:11 as authentic to John’s Gospel will necessarily be a rejection of those manuscript copies that do not include this story. Or, your decision to reject John 7:53-8:11 and inauthentic to John’s Gospel will also be a rejection of those manuscripts that do include the story.

Either way, you are rejecting at least some manuscripts of the biblical text and accepting others. There is no decision that doesn’t require a critical assessment of the biblical text we have received from those who copied what they believed to be the original text of the New Testament.

Fifth, scholars and theologians are mixed on their assessment of this passage. Some say it is authentic and others say it is not.

For example,

A.W. Pink said, “The one who is led and taught by the Spirit of God need not waste valuable time examining ancient manuscripts for the purpose of discovering whether or not this portion of the Bible is really a part of God’s own Word… The internal evidence…and the spiritual indications…are far more weighty than external considerations.”[3]

On the other side,

D.A. Carson said, “The diversity of placement [of this story in various manuscripts] confirms the inauthenticity of the verses.” And, he said, “even if someone should decide that the material is authentic, it would be very difficult to justify the view that the material is authentically Johannine (or written by John).”[4]

While some pastoral theologians are inclined to label the passage as authentic, I am unaware of any textual critical scholar who wants to make a case for it. In fact, some textual critical scholars are so convinced it is unauthentic that they are calling translators to stop including this passage among the biblical text.

Daniel B. Wallace said, “I am calling for translators to remove this text from the Gospel of John and relegate it to the footnotes. Although this will be painful and will cause initial confusion, it is far better that laypeople hear the truth about scripture from their friends than from their enemies. They need to know that Christ-honoring, Bible-believing scholars also do not think that this text is authentic, and that such a stance has not shaken their faith one iota.”[5]

So, what is the technical case that motivates such a strong statement from Dr. Wallace?

Here are five points to argue against the authenticity of John 7:53-8:11.

  1. It is absent from the earliest and best manuscripts (copies of NT text). It does not show up in the manuscripts of John’s Gospel until the fourth or fifth century.
  2. It is sporadically introduced in the manuscript copies. When it does come into the manuscript tradition of John’s Gospel it is placed here, after Jn. 7:44, 7:36, or 21:25; some place it after Luke 21:38.[6] Daniel Wallace says it is “a story looking for a home.”
  3. None of the earliest church fathers (those who followed immediately behind the Apostles) commented on this passage in their biblical commentaries – they go straight from 7:52 to 8:12.
  4. The internal structure of the storyline John 7:52 to 8:12 is clearer and more sensible without the addition of an interval of a day (8:1-11). Jesus’ statement in 8:12 is particularly potent because it coincides with the activities of the “great day” of the feast (7:37).
  5. It contains several phrases and sentence constructions which more resemble Luke’s writings than John’s. In fact, at least one textual scholar thinks the story may well have been part of Luke’s source material from which he wrote his own Gospel (see Kyle Hughes’ note above).

For a more detailed treatment, see the NET Bible’s Textual Critical note.[7] In short, the editors conclude that the passage is unoriginal and unauthentic.[8]

No doubt, there are good and faithful Christians (even some much more scholarly and thoughtful than myself) who accept this story as authentic to John’s Gospel. This issue is not something that must divide Christians, but it is also not something unimportant to Christians. On the contrary, the matter is of great importance to anyone who believes God has spoken. Since God has spoken, we must be very careful to pay attention to what He has said, and we must also be very careful to guard our mouths against claiming divine authority for only those words that have actually come from God.

Wherever you land in this discussion, may God help us all to give effort and consideration to His holy word.

 


For the interested reader, I have also written an article in defense of the reliability of the Bible. You may see it HERE. Thanks for reading.


 

[1] See Hughes’ full article here: https://danielbwallace.com/2013/06/26/where-is-the-story-of-the-woman-caught-in-adultery-really-from/

[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[3] Pink, A. W. (1923–1945). Exposition of the Gospel of John (p. 417). Swengel, PA: Bible Truth Depot.

[4] Carson, D. A. (1991). The Gospel according to John (p. 333). Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans.

[5] See Wallace’s full article here: https://bible.org/article/my-favorite-passage-thats-not-bible

[6] “Although most of the manuscripts that include the story place it here (i.e. at 7:53–8:11), some place it instead after Luke 21:38, and other witnesses variously place it after John 7:44, John 7:36 or John 21:25.” He concludes, “The diversity of placement confirms the inauthenticity of the verses.” Carson, D. A. (1991). The Gospel according to John (p. 333). Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans.

[7] “This entire section, 7:53–8:11, traditionally known as the pericope adulterae, is not contained in the earliest and best MSS and was almost certainly not an original part of the Gospel of John. Among modern commentators and textual critics, it is a foregone conclusion that the section is not original but represents a later addition to the text of the Gospel. B. M. Metzger summarizes: “the evidence for the non-Johannine origin of the pericope of the adulteress is overwhelming” (TCGNT 187). External evidence is as follows. For the omission of 7:53–8:11: 𝔓66, 75 א B L N T W Δ Θ Ψ 0141 0211 33 565 1241 1424* 2768 al. In addition, codices A and C are defective in this part of John, but it appears that neither contained the pericope because careful measurement shows that there would not have been enough space on the missing pages to include the pericope 7:53–8:11 along with the rest of the text. Among the MSS that include 7:53–8:11 are D 𝔐 lat. In addition E S Λ 1424mg al include part or all of the passage with asterisks or obeli, 225 places the pericope after John 7:36, f1 places it after John 21:25, {115} after John 8:12, f13 after Luke 21:38, and the corrector of 1333 includes it after Luke 24:53. (For a more complete discussion of the locations where this “floating” text has ended up, as well as a minority opinion on the authenticity of the passage, see M. A. Robinson, “Preliminary Observations regarding the Pericope Adulterae Based upon Fresh Collations of nearly All Continuous-Text Manuscripts and All Lectionary Manuscripts containing the Passage,” Filologia Neotestamentaria 13 [2000]: 35–59, especially 41–42.)… But before one can conclude that the passage was not originally part of the Gospel of John, internal evidence needs to be considered as well… Internal evidence against the inclusion of 8:1–11 (7:53–8:11): (1) In reply to the claim that the introduction to the pericope, 7:53, fits the context, it should also be noted that the narrative reads well without the pericope, so that Jesus’ reply in 8:12 is directed against the charge of the Pharisees in 7:52 that no prophet comes from Galilee. (2) The assumption that the author “must” somehow work Isa 9:1–2 into the narrative is simply that—an assumption. The statement by the Pharisees in 7:52 about Jesus’ Galilean origins is allowed to stand without correction by the author, although one might have expected him to mention that Jesus was really born in Bethlehem. And 8:12 does directly mention Jesus’ claim to be the Light of the world. The author may well have presumed familiarity with Isa 9:1–2 on the part of his readers because of its widespread association with Jesus among early Christians. (3) The fact that the pericope deals with the light/darkness motif does not inherently strengthen its claim to authenticity, because the motif is so prominent in the Fourth Gospel that it may well have been the reason why someone felt that the pericope, circulating as an independent tradition, fit so well here. (4) In general the style of the pericope is not Johannine either in vocabulary or grammar (see D. B. Wallace, “Reconsidering ‘The Story of the Woman Taken in Adultery Reconsidered’,” NTS 39 [1993]: 290–96). According to R. E. Brown it is closer stylistically to Lukan material (John [AB], 1:336). Interestingly one important family of MSS (f13) places the pericope after Luke 21:38. Conclusion: In the final analysis, the weight of evidence in this case must go with the external evidence. The earliest and best MSS do not contain the pericope. It is true with regard to internal evidence that an attractive case can be made for inclusion, but this is by nature subjective (as evidenced by the fact that strong arguments can be given against such as well). In terms of internal factors like vocabulary and style, the pericope does not stand up very well. The question may be asked whether this incident, although not an original part of the Gospel of John, should be regarded as an authentic tradition about Jesus. It could well be that it is ancient and may indeed represent an unusual instance where such a tradition survived outside of the bounds of the canonical literature. However, even that needs to be nuanced (see B. D. Ehrman, “Jesus and the Adulteress,” NTS 34 [1988]: 24–44).”

[8] The NET Bible editors concluding Scriptural Note: “Double brackets have been placed around this passage to indicate that most likely it was not part of the original text of the Gospel of John. In spite of this, the passage has an important role in the history of the transmission of the text, so it has been included in the translation.”

A Simple Introduction to Textual Criticism (John 5:3-4)

The careful reader of Scripture will likely at some point ask, “Why is there no verse 4 in chapter 5 of John’s Gospel?” If not this specific question, then one like it. There are numerous places one might turn for textual variations among English translations (both old and new). This brief article will not address the matter exhaustively, but it will provide an introductory explanation and basic defense of the affirmation of biblical reliability and fidelity.

First, let’s take a look at the particular passage in view, John 5:3-4.

King James Version

“3 In these lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, withered, waiting for the moving of the water. 4 For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.”

New American Standard Bible

“3 In these lay a multitude of those who were sick, blind, lame, and withered, [waiting for the moving of the waters; 4 for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool and stirred up the water; whoever then first, after the stirring up of the water, stepped in was made well from whatever disease with which he was afflicted.] (Notice: brackets are included by NASB translators)”

English Standard Version

“3 In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. (Notice: verses 3b and 4 are simply missing from this translation)”

Second, let’s consider why many translators include verses 3b and 4.

The reason why some English translations include the verses is that the text is included in the majority of later manuscripts.[1] Manuscripts are the multitude of copies of the original biblical text, dated at various points throughout human history. While we have no original documents, the vast number of manuscripts gives us a great deal of confidence regarding the content of the originals. Because most manuscripts available to translators during the time of their translation do include verses 3b and 4, several groups of translators have believed it prudent to include the verses in their translation.

One translation that includes the disputed verses is the King James Version (KJV), also known as the Authorized Version (AV), which was originally published in 1611 and revised for spelling and vocabulary in 1769 by Dr. Benjamin Blayney. The KJV is based on many sources, including the Septuagint [LXX], the Latin Vulgate, Textus Receptus (TR), Erasmus’ Greek NT, many available manuscripts, and William Tyndale’s translation work. In fact, Tyndale’s translation accounts for 84% of the New Testament and more than 75% of the Old Testament.[2]

Another translation containing verse 3b and 4 is the American Standard Version (ASV), which is grounded in the KJV and originally published in 1901. It was updated in the form of the Revised Standard Version (RSV) and the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), published in 1952 and 1989 respectively. However, both later translations omitted the disputed text.

The most recent translation to keep the curious verses is the New American Standard Bible (NASB), which was grounded in the ASV and KJV, originally published in 1960, and most recently updated in 1995. The clear demarcation of brackets around these verses (as noted above), and other included-but-dubious texts, makes this translation a good combination of historical gratitude and biblical fidelity.

These translations and others, which include verses 3b and 4, are not unfaithful for doing so. These translations are not deceptive, nor are they lacking in integrity. These translations, like all faithful ones, seek to bring the original text of infallible and inerrant Scripture to the contemporary reader through the use of fallible and imperfect translations. Such an effort is commendable and greatly appreciated.

However, the reality is that translations do require perennial critical review and appropriate responses to the findings. The Committee of translators of the NRSV (which excludes verses 3b and 4) explained the situation well in their preface.

“This preface is… to explain, as briefly as possible, the origin and character of our work… To summarize in a single sentence: the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible is an authorized revision of the Revised Standard Version, published in 1952, which was a revision of the American Standard Version, published in 1901, which, in turn, embodied earlier revisions of the King James Version, published in 1611… With good reason [the KJV] has been termed ‘the noblest monument of English prose…’ We owe to it an incalculable debt. Yet the KJV has serious defects. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the development of biblical studies and the discovery of many biblical manuscripts more ancient than those on which the KJV was based made it apparent that these defects were so many as to call for revision.”[3]

The message is clear: we continually discover more manuscripts, encounter earlier manuscripts, and advance in our efforts and methods in the field of biblical studies. This necessarily will lead to the criticism of past work in the field of translation, as well as other fields.

The translators of the original King James Version of the Bible believed that this kind of criticism was what they were doing, and they expected that such criticism would continue after them. They wrote in the preface:

Let us… bless God… to have the translations of the Bible maturely considered and examined. For by this means it cometh to pass, that whatsoever is sound already… the same will shine as gold more brightly, being rubbed and polished; also, if anything be [uncertain], or [added], or not-so-agreeable to the original, the same may be corrected, and the truth set in place… [There is] no cause, therefore, why the word translated should be denied, or forbidden, notwithstanding that some imperfections and blemishes may be noted in the setting forth of it. [For nothing is] perfect under the sun… [except that which the] Apostles… men endued with an extraordinary measure of God’s Spirit, and privileged with the privilege of infallibility, [wrote from] their hand…”[4]

From the view presented above, it is inevitable that their own work would eventually become the object of scrutiny and come to need ‘rubbing,’ ‘polish,’ and even ‘correction.’

Third, let’s consider why many translators exclude verses 3b and 4.

Because of discoveries and advances in the field of Bible documentation and translation, translators have come to realize that the earliest manuscripts do not include the disputed text (v3b-4). Since it is more likely that biblical text would be added during transcription than subtracted, many translators concluded that the later manuscripts must be the result of a scribal addition (maybe multiple scribes).

The New International Version (NIV) was originally published 1973 (based on best available Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic manuscripts at the time), and it was updated in 1978 and 1984. The 2011 NIV update is a notable departure from the NIV translation tradition, but these exclude verses 3b and 4 and feature translation notes explaining the omission.[5]

The English Standard Version (ESV) is grounded in the RSV and KJV translation traditions and is based on Masoretic text and the best available Greek texts (the Greek New Testament 5th Ed. and the NA28). It was originally published in 2001, and it too excludes the brief passage (v3b-4).

Both the NIV and the ESV include translation notes, which explain that the missing text is found in some translations. However, the NET Bible, published in 1996 and updated in 2005, provides extensive textual-critical notes throughout. This translation is unique among others for its open and candid attempt to exhaustively furnish the reader with sufficient rationale behind textual and translation decisions. The NET Bible excludes verses 3b and 4, for the reasons cited above.

With these translation committees disagreeing on such an important matter (Is this text canonical or not?), what is a person to do? Any thinking person can see that this has big implications for the rest of Scripture and the general trustworthiness of the Bible.

Fourth, and last, let’s consider four features of a thoughtful response.

First, I think it is wise to take a deep breath… and acknowledge that God never promised anyone an inerrant translation of His word. Christians have overwhelmingly affirmed (and successfully defended) the inerrancy and sufficiency of the Bible, but only in its original manuscript form. Christians have just as regularly been willing to embrace the unique difficulties that transmission and translation over the centuries create for faithful Christians.

Second, faithful Christians need not release their grasp on a strong affirmation of biblical inerrancy.[6] Acknowledging errors or variants in a copy or a translation does in no way undermine the potency and purity of the original. We may simultaneously recognize the need for constant criticism of translations and manuscript evidence and boldly affirm the historic doctrine of biblical inerrancy.

Third, for this particular passage (John 5:3b-4), I believe we can and should acknowledge it as a scribal addition and not canonical Scripture. The earliest manuscripts we possess do not contain verses 3b-4; this portion includes vocabulary and syntax which does not match John’s writing generally; and several of the manuscripts that do include verses 3b-4 place an asterisk or obelisk to mark the portion as a scribal addition. Therefore, I believe it is unauthentic, and rightly excluded. For a much more thorough (and scholarly) address of this subject, see Gordon D. Fee’s essay “On the Inauthenticity of John 5:3b-4[7]

Fourth, we must consider our selection of Bible translation wisely and knowingly. I do not think that any of the translations cited in this article are bad ones. In fact, I believe each one has value beyond that of any other book known to mankind. However, we ought not blindly hold a view of any translation that the translators themselves did not hold. Nor should we place our trust in any notion of an inerrant translation.

Do research on which translation best brings the original text of Scripture to your mind and heart. Ask your pastor which translations he prefers and why. Don’t throw away a translation you like, but be aware of its own unique flaws, so that it will not surprise or offend you when someone else points them out.

There are attacks launched from many vantage points against Christianity today. Even from within American Evangelical churches, you may hear the Scriptures undermined. In such a cultural climate, Christians cannot afford to credulously parrot tired slogans and call it evangelism or fidelity. Christ has called His followers to much more than that, and His word is worthy of more than that.

For our own sake, for the sake of those who do not now love and trust Christ, for the sake of the next generation, for the sake of God’s glory… let us seek to wisely affirm the power and purity of God’s holy word. Let us make bold claims from sure and solid ground. And let us find incredible confidence in the trustworthy promise of God: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Luke 21:33).

 

___________________________________________

[1] “The majority of later MSS [abbreviation for ‘manuscripts’] (C3 Θ Ψ 078 f1, 13 𝔐) add the following to 5:3: ‘waiting for the moving of the water. 5:4 For an angel of the Lord went down and stirred up the water at certain times. Whoever first stepped in after the stirring of the water was healed from whatever disease which he suffered.’ Other MSS include only v. 3b (Ac D 33 lat) or v. 4 (A L it). Few textual scholars today would accept the authenticity of any portion of vv. 3b–4, for they are not found in the earliest and best witnesses (𝔓66, 75 א B C* T pc co), they include un-Johannine vocabulary and syntax, several of the MSS that include the verses mark them as spurious [or unauthentic] (with an asterisk or obelisk), and because there is a great amount of textual diversity among the witnesses that do include the verses. The present translation follows NA27 [Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament, 27th Edition] in omitting the verse number, a procedure also followed by a number of other modern translations.” Biblical Studies Press. (2005). The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press.

[2] Lawson, Steven. The Daring Mission of William Tyndale (A Long Line of Godly Men Profiles) (Kindle Locations 1848-1849). Reformation Trust Publishing. Kindle Edition.

[3] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

[4] Translator’s Preface of the King James Version: http://www.dbts.edu/journals/1996_2/KJVPref.pdf

[5] For more on the NIV, see this article: https://marcminter.com/2016/03/15/is-the-niv-bible-good-or-bad/

[6] I recommend the following resources on the subject of biblical inerrancy: “Scripture Alone” by James White; “The Bible Doctrine of Inspiration” by Basil Manly; “The Scripture Cannot Be Broken” edited by John MacArthur; and “Inerrancy” edited by Norman Geisler

[7] Fee “On the Inauthenticity of John 5:3b-4” (PDF): https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/eq/inauthenticity_fee.pdf

Revival: Edwards and Finney

Spiritual conversion and revival are the stuff of much Christian thought. Whether one is serving in vocational ministry or merely seeking the transcendent good of his or her neighbor, the desire for spiritual life seems to inevitably lead one to question the cause and nature of this kind of renewal. The aim of this essay is to focus on the biblical causes of conversion and revival, and to do so through the perspectives of two important characters of American Church history.

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) and Charles Finney (1793-1875) were not contemporaries of one another, but these two men represent two contrasting ministry paradigms of early American Christianity. Of course, America had not yet become a nation until after Edwards’ death, but the formation of religious thinking and practice was well under way before the Declaration of Independence was penned and signed.

Edwards and Finney, in many ways, also epitomize two revivals that took place during their respective ministries. The First Great Awakening, during which Jonathan Edwards was pastoring and preaching, occurred during the 1730s and 40s. The Second Great Awakening began in the 1790s, gained energy over time, and continued into the 1820s. In this second revival period in America, Finney was a major driving force behind the activities associated with spiritual renewal. While the historical details surrounding each revival are quite complex, containing some similarities and stark differences, these revivals represent the outworking of the emphases of each man – Edwards and Finney.

Let us consider each man’s understanding of conversion and revival, compare these with each other, and then look to the Scriptures to compare each with the biblical teaching. By measuring each against Scripture, we will not only discover which man had the more biblical perspective, but we shall also come to a clearer view of the biblical teaching on spiritual renewal as well.

Jonathan Edwards

Edwards wrote that God’s aim in arranging the “disposition of things in the affair of redemption” is chiefly “that man should not glory in himself, but alone in God…”[1] Edwards, typical of Puritans, was most interested in God’s glory above all else. God alone is to be glorified and treasured in all things, and this includes the work and application of redemption. With this idea in mind, it may surprise some to learn that Edwards was quite content to enjoy the freedom that such a focus produced. Edwards did not believe that God was limited in the display of His glory in the salvation of sinners. He wrote,

“What the church has been used to, is not a rule by which we are to judge; because there may be new and extraordinary works of God, and he has heretofore evidently wrought in an extraordinary manner… We ought not to limit God where he has not limited himself.”[2]

Truly, Edwards longed for the glory of God in the salvation of sinners, and he was ready to embrace both – however, God might put them in front of him. And yet, Edwards was tightly connected to the Scriptures in his expectations of God’s spiritual work. His willingness to freely embrace the Spirit of God did not mean a jettison of the Scriptures or any part of them.

Desirous of genuine spiritual renewal, Edwards listed several “distinguishing scripture evidences” that a revival was authentically of the Spirit of God, and not merely sensational or spuriously demonic. He found his evidence from the Scripture, of course, and his text was 1 John 4:1-6.

“1 Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. 4 Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. 5 They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. 6 We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.”

First, from verses two and three, Edwards said, “When the operation is such as to raise their esteem of Jesus… and seems more to confirm and establish their minds in the truth of what the gospel declares… it is a sure sign that it is from the Spirit of God.”[3]

Next, from verses four and five, Edwards said that a work was reliably from God if it “operates against the interests of Satan’s kingdom, which lies in encouraging and establishing sin, and cherishing men’s worldly lusts.”[4] Third, from verse six, Edwards noted, “The spirit that operates in such a manner, as to cause in men a greater regard to the Holy Scriptures, and establishes them more in their truth and divinity, is certainly the Spirit of God.”[5]

Fourth, Edwards continued in the same verse, “Another rule to judge of spirits may be drawn from those compellations given to the opposite spirits, in the last words of the 6th verse, ‘The spirit of truth and the spirit of error.’”[6] Fifth and finally, from all that follows from verse six to the end of the chapter, Edwards said, “If the spirit that is at work among a people operates as a spirit of love to God and man, it is a sure sign that it is the Spirit of God.”[7]

From Edwards’ passage choice and from his derived evidence, it is clear that Edwards believed that conversion and revival are works of God’s Spirit. It is also clear that he believed conversion and revival were works preceding and evidenced by the subsequent results mentioned. Love for Christ, belief in the Gospel, resistance towards sin, thirst for the Scriptures, growing awareness and apprehension of truth, and love of God and others all flow from true spiritual renewal.

Charles Finney

Finney wrote, “There is nothing in religion beyond the ordinary powers of nature. It consists entirely in the right exercise of the powers of nature. It is just that, and nothing else.”[8] For Finney, spiritual renewal and religious revival centered on the purposes and activity of men. He did not seem to deny God’s glory in such matters, but Finney’s chief concern was that men would glorify God in and through their own efforts. He said, “When mankind become religious, they are not enabled to put forth exertions which they were unable before to put forth. They only exert the powers they had before in a different way, and use them for the glory of God.”[9]

Like Edwards, Finney believed that conversion and revival were necessarily related to godly living. However, Finney seemed to consider spiritual renewal and the actions of godly living as much the same thing, rather than emphasizing spiritual renewal as the cause of such actions. Finney said, “A revival is nothing else than a new beginning of obedience to God.”[10] Finney was not an innovator for thinking that men should obey God, nor was he irregular in his thinking that obedience to God would contribute towards spiritual growth and energy. Finney was unusual because of his pragmatic and naturalistic views of conversion and revival.

Finney also seemed to depart from the clear majority of Christian soteriological thinking when he purported a non-miraculous conversion of sinners. For Finney, conversion and revival needed no miraculous work of God’s Spirit, since these are simply a redirection of human activity and purpose. In fact, he supposed that any miraculous intervention from God would remove true virtue from the sinner. Finney said,

“Some persons speak of a change of heart as something miraculous — something in which the sinner is to be entirely passive, and for which he is to wait in the use of means, as he would wait for a surgical operation or an electric shock. We need nothing added to the constitution of our body or mind; nor is it true in experience, that those who have a new heart, have any constitutional alteration of their powers whatever. They are the same identical persons, so far as both body and mind are concerned, that they were before. The alteration lies in the manner in which they are disposed to use and do actually employ, their moral and physical powers. A constitutional change, either in body or mind, would destroy personal identity. A Christian, or one who has a new heart, would not be the same individual in regard to his powers of moral agency, that he was before — would not be the same agent, and under the same responsibilities.”[11]

Finney did not think that sinners would simply revive themselves without effort, however, so he taught that there should be a strong demand placed upon them for change. In consideration of the pastoral responsibility towards sinful men, Finney wrote,

“The preacher should… engage the sinner’s whole attention, and then lay himself out to the utmost to bring him to yield upon the spot. He who deals with souls… should present that particular subject, in that connection and in that manner, that shall have the greatest natural tendency to subdue the rebel at once.”[12]

Finney was very intent on preachers and pastors being capable of exposing the sinner’s own guilt. For Finney, the one “who deals with souls” must make the wisest use of all knowledge to gain an entry into the conscience of his hearer. The purpose of such an entry is to urge the sinner to reform his sinful ways and thereby enter a new path towards obedience to Christ.

From the writings of Charles Finney, it seems clear that he believed conversion and revival are works of man, and not God’s Spirit. He appears to have believed that these works were the natural and willful exercise of human efforts to reform body and mind. Love for Christ, the resistance of sin, the performance of religious duties, and love for God and others all define what revival is and looks like.

Different Destinations

As is already becoming evident, Edwards and Finney had two different goals or destinations in mind regarding conversion and revival. One believed spiritual renewal was granted by the Spirit of God in the work of regeneration, and the other believed it was accomplished through the appropriate application of human efforts.

Edwards spoke of spiritual renewal in terms of God’s Spirit “convincing [sinners] of Christ, and leading them to him,” and confirming in “their minds the belief of the history of Christ as he appeared in the flesh—and that he is the Son of God,” who was “sent of God to save sinners.” Edwards believed that God’s Spirit alone could convince the sinner “that [Christ] is the only Savior, and that they stand in great need of him.” Furthermore, Edwards expected that God’s Spirit would “beget in [sinners] higher and more honorable thoughts of [Christ] than they used to have, and incline their affections more to him.”[13] For Edwards, spiritual renewal (conversion and revival) centered on the regenerating work of God’s Spirit, whereby He brings spiritual life to a dead sinner, and all subsequent evidence proceeds from there.

Finney’s thoughts on conversion and revival, on the other hand, centered on the awakening of sinners to a committed effort towards personal and communal reform. Finney wrote, “[A] revival of religion in a community is the arousing, quickening, and reclaiming of the more or less backslidden church and the more or less general awakening of all classes, and [giving] attention to the claims of God.”[14] For Finney, both broad revival in a community and individual revival in a person presented the same goal: a passionate recommitment to religious obedience. Therefore, the destination for Finney was different than that of Edwards. Edwards worked and prayed for spiritual life, which would result in obedience; while Finney worked for and expected obedience as the substance of spiritual life itself.

Different Paths

Because the destinations of these two men are not the same, so too their paths differ as well. Finney believed “the reformation and salvation of sinners” came in three “stages of conviction, repentance, and reformation.”[15] By this he meant that the one who “deals with souls” would press in upon the sinner so as to bring conviction to his heart and guilt to his mind. Then the demands of repentance (turning from sin) and reformation (living obediently before God) would be laid upon the poor sinner, and his need for considerable personal efforts towards such things would surely be a heavy load. Finney’s view of conversion and revival put spiritual devotion under the category heading of duty – the sinner mends himself and becomes obedient because he must.

Edwards had a different view. He believed that spiritual devotion sprang from a heart of renewed affections. He said, “The Author of our nature has not only given us affections, but has made them very much the spring of actions.” Because regenerated persons are renewed in the whole man (will, affections, mind, etc.), Edwards believed “holy affections not only necessarily belong to true religion, but are a very great part of such religion.”[16] Edwards’ view of conversion and revival put spiritual devotion under the category heading of delight – the sinner is mended by God’s Spirit and becomes obedient because he yearns.

Looking to the Scriptures

This subject (conversion and revival) deserves a much greater import of Scriptural analysis than we shall be able to do here. However, the clarity and synchronization of the Scriptures on this subject will provide us the opportunity to see quite easily which of the men considered above more closely aligns with the biblical teaching. Let us first introduce the matter by citing a few passages and establishing the harmonious teaching.

The Bible teaches that Christians “cannot keep on sinning, because [they have] been born of God” (1 John 3:9). Note the consequence is “cannot keep on sinning,” and the cause is “[they have] been born of God.” Elsewhere we read that the commands of God are “not burdensome” to the Christian since he or she has been given “the love of God,” and general obedience to His commands are the byproduct of such a change in the affections (1 Jn. 5:2-3). Furthermore, the Bible tells us that God’s great love is lavished upon sinners while they are still “dead in… trespasses;” and the result of God’s gracious gift (apart from any work) is that of “good works, which God prepared beforehand, that [those made alive in Christ] should walk in them” (Eph. 2:4-10).

The biblical teaching could not be clearer, but I will cite one more passage. The Scripture proclaims, “the goodness and loving kindness of God” initiates redemption for sinners, who are saved (i.e. converted and renewed) “not because of works done by [them] in righteousness, but according to [God’s] own mercy…” The application of that redemption is accomplished “by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.” Based upon this magnificent reality, those who are renewed “may be careful to devote themselves to good works” (Titus 3:4–8).

Simply put, spiritual renewal (conversion and revival) occurs as a miraculous work of God’s Spirit, and sinners with renewed affections are set on a new trajectory of personal obedience out of a heart of love for their Redeemer.

Conclusion

Did Edwards or Finney have a more biblical understanding of the causes of conversion and revival?

Based on what has been discussed in this essay, Finney’s view places entirely too much weight on the sinner and personal reform. Edwards seems to have the much more biblical understanding of what causes spiritual renewal – both for the individual and the group. Edwards never wondered if there was a spirit at work in the revival he experienced (during the First Great Awakening); he only sought to understand if it was an authentic work of God’s Spirit or another.

Clearly, for Edwards, and (more importantly) according to Scripture, true spiritual renewal could only be brought about by the Spirit of God, and all else that evidenced religious affections would stem from His miraculous work.

 

 

[1]Edwards, Jonathan (2011-11-27). The Works of Jonathan Edwards: Volume I & II (Kindle Location 53128). Kindle Edition.

[2]Edwards, Jonathan (2011-09-04). Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God (Kindle Locations 55-57). Kindle Edition.

[3]Edwards, Jonathan (2011-09-04). Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God (Kindle Locations 401-403). Kindle Edition.

[4]Edwards, Jonathan (2011-09-04). Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God (Kindle Locations 432-434). Kindle Edition.

[5]Edwards, Jonathan (2011-09-04). Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God (Kindle Locations 476-477). Kindle Edition.

[6]Edwards, Jonathan (2011-09-04). Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God (Kindle Locations 500-501). Kindle Edition.

[7]Edwards, Jonathan (2011-09-04). Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God (Kindle Locations 516-517). Kindle Edition.

[8]Charles G. Finney (2010-03-30). Lectures on Revivals of Religion (p. 3). Kindle Edition.

[9]Charles G. Finney (2010-03-30). Lectures on Revivals of Religion (p. 3). Kindle Edition.

[10]Charles G. Finney (2010-03-30). Lectures on Revivals of Religion (p. 5). Kindle Edition.

[11]Finney, Charles (2016-07-10). Sinners Bound To Change Their Own Hearts (Kindle Locations 76-83). Unknown. Kindle Edition.

[12]Finney, Charles (2016-07-10). Sinners Bound To Change Their Own Hearts (Kindle Locations 603-608). Unknown. Kindle Edition.

[13]Edwards, Jonathan (2011-09-04). Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God (Kindle Locations 418-422). Kindle Edition.

[14]Charles G. Finney (2010-03-30). Lectures on Revivals of Religion (p. 5). Kindle Edition.

[15]Charles G. Finney (2010-03-30). Lectures on Revivals of Religion (p. 6). Kindle Edition.

[16]Edwards, Jonathan (2011-11-27). The Works of Jonathan Edwards: Volume I & II (Kindle Locations 25998-26003). Kindle Edition.

 

Bibliography

Edwards, Jonathan. Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God. 2011. Kindle Edition.

Edwards, Jonathan. The Works of Jonathan Edwards. Vol. I & II. 2011. Kindle Edition.

Finney, Charles G. Lectures on Revivals of Religion. 2010. Kindle Edition.

Finney, Charles G. Sinners Bound to Change Their Own Hearts. GodSounds, 2016. Kindle Edition.

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (ESV), Containing the Old and New Testaments. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2011.

What is the Baptism in the Holy Spirit?

All Bible-loving Christians must believe in something commonly referred to as baptism in the Holy Spirit,[1] but there are differences in various definitions and expectations of it. Charismatic Christians sometimes presume that non-Charismatic Christians do not believe in a Holy Spirit baptism, but this is not necessarily justified. I shall seek to explain the biblical meaning of baptism in the Holy Spirit, and I shall argue for the expected and universal experience of this baptism among Christians. I shall also consider and answer some common objections to my argument. Since this is not merely an academic essay, but a work of applied theology, I will begin with a little personal background.

As I was growing up, I experienced times of significant discomfort in church services. My strange feelings arose as a response to some odd sights and sounds. I remember my mother’s body bizarrely shaking, while she shrieked an incomprehensible and chaotic repetition. The image of a church leader spontaneously running across the stage or around the room is easily recalled in my mind. Various members of the congregation would each contribute to a cacophony of noises, which might be described as groaning, wailing, yelling and sometimes laughing. These were common among my childhood and teen experiences with Christianity.

Local churches who experience these kinds of things, and/or many similar experiences, are often called Charismatic. The term “charismata” means divine gifting or empowering, and the Christians who compose these Charismatic congregations affirm the present and ongoing expectation of a certain kind of divine gifts. A major expectation among Charismatic Christians is that the baptism in the Holy Spirit is a distinct and subsequent event to Christian conversion. We will seek to understand what biblical relationship there is between Holy Spirit baptism and Christian conversion, so let us turn to the Scriptures.

Baptism in the Holy Spirit

Seven verses in the New Testament speak about someone being baptized in or by the Holy Spirit. Matthew 3:11, Mark 1:8, Luke 3:16, and John 1:33 all record similar recitations of John the Baptizer’s words concerning Jesus and baptism in the Holy Spirit. John said, “I have baptized you with water; but he [Jesus] will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mk. 1:8). Two more passages are found in the book of Acts. In Acts 1:5, Jesus reminds His followers about John’s prediction, and He tells them to expect to be baptized in the Holy Spirit “not many days from now.” In Acts 11:16, Peter refers back to Jesus’ words in Acts 1:5, and he marvels at the reality that Gentiles have also received the same baptism as the Jewish believers did on the day of Pentecost (as recorded in Acts 2:1-4). All six of these passages refer to the occurrence of baptism, but – this is important – none of them explain what it is.

The seventh passage in the New Testament that mentions the baptism in the Holy Spirit is 1 Corinthians 12:13. The Apostle Paul says, “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (RSV). Here, the apostle Paul is talking about what makes all Christians part of the “one body,” namely union with Christ and with one another. He says that the defining moment, the transition from unbelief to belief, is that instant when the Christian is baptized by the Holy Spirit.

This transition is what Christians commonly refer to as conversion or (more theologically termed) regeneration. Allison says, “the conclusion to be drawn from these passages is that one of the aspects of God’s work of saving sinful human beings is Jesus Christ’s baptism of new converts with the Holy Spirit, by which they are incorporated into his body, the church” (Allison, 8). It seems clear from these biblical texts that Allison’s conclusion is accurate; baptism in the Holy Spirit occurs in the life of every Christian as a synchronized event with their conversion.

Some Objections Considered

Many who hold the Charismatic or Pentecostal position will object to such a conclusion, however. They claim that the passage from 1 Corinthians 12 is different from the other six, because the baptizing agent is different in this passage. One might argue that the Holy Spirit is the one doing the baptizing in 1 Corinthians, while Jesus is the one doing the baptizing in the other six verses. However, Grudem refers to this objection when he says,

“although the distinction seems to make sense from some English translations, it really cannot be supported by an examination of the Greek text, for there the expression is almost identical to the expressions we have seen in the other six versus” (Grudem, 1604).

Grudem also points out the translators’ possible goal of avoiding a confusing repetition in 1 Corinthians 12:13. For example, the ESV records, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body…” The baptism is in one Spirit and also into one body, but both of these together can elicit the question, “Is it a baptism in the Spirit, or into the body?” The only biblical answer is, “Yes… it is both.”

Another objection that is often cited is that of the subsequent occurrence of baptism in the Holy Spirit from the conversion of New Testament believers. There is a record of Christians who were baptized in the Holy Spirit after they believed the Gospel and trusted in Christ. On this basis, it is argued, the Holy Spirit baptism and Christian conversion are explicitly separate events. On the front end, this objection is quite warranted; but we must inevitably ask a big question about what is assumed in this objection: Are these chronologically delayed Holy Spirit baptisms normative or unique? First, let us look at the recorded events themselves.

Jewish believers, who were already Christians, gathered in the upper room on the day of Pentecost. They believed in Christ as Lord and Savior, but they were not baptized in the Holy Spirit until the day of Pentecost, which was clearly after they had first believed (Acts 2:1-4). Furthermore, there are two other occurrences (later in Acts) where believers receive the baptism in the Holy Spirit after they have already believed in the Lord Jesus Christ.

In Acts 8:14-17, we learn that Peter and John encountered some Samarian (half-Jew) Christians who had been “baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus” (they had been water baptized as a sign of repentance and faith), but the Holy Spirit “had not yet fallen on any of them” (Acts 8:16). After Peter and John “laid their hands on them,” the Samarian believers “received the Holy Spirit” (Acts 8:17).

A very similar description is given in Acts 19:1-7. However, in this case, we meet believers who are not even half-Jews; they are Ephesian Gentiles. Paul learns the same about these Christians as Peter and John learned about the Samarian ones. They had been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus, but they had not yet experienced the baptism in the Holy Spirit. Paul, like Peter and John, laid his hands upon these believers, and they “began speaking in tongues” as the “Holy Spirit came on them” (Acts 19:6).

A simple explanation can be offered for these delayed experiences, and I will use a three-premised syllogism to build it out.

First, Peter told his hearers that the baptism in the Holy Spirit, which occurred at Pentecost, was the fulfillment of the prophecy Joel wrote many years before. Through the prophet Joel, God promised to “pour out [His] Spirit on all flesh” (Acts 2:17), as opposed to only sending the Holy Spirit to select individuals and for certain tasks throughout the Old Testament. Grudem says, “the day of Pentecost was the point of transition between the Old Covenant work and the ministry of the Holy Spirit and the New Covenant work in the ministry of the Holy Spirit” (Grudem, 1612). Pentecost, then, was that predicted outpouring, and it was a unique event in human history.

Second, the New Covenant in Christ Jesus brought the realization of that spiritual union that was promised, and it also brought about a highlighted ethnic expansion. The promise of God’s blessing was always for the offspring of Abraham and extending to the whole world (Gen. 12:1-3), but it was only after the coming of Christ this offspring blessing was emphasized as a spiritual lineage or heritage. The Apostle Paul says, for example, “if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring” (Gal. 3:29). This was a fact in the Old Testament as well (Gen. 12:2-3), but its prominence is greater in New Testament.

Third, we see a progressive ethnic expansion of God baptizing believers in the Holy Spirit as a testimony of His blessing upon all peoples. Notice that all of the believers who were baptized in the Holy Spirit in Acts 2 were Jewish (Acts 2:1-4, cf. Acts 11:17-18). In Acts 8:14-17, Samarians (half-Jews) were baptized in the Holy Spirit. In Acts 10:1-48, we read of a God-fearing Gentile (an Italian centurion) and his family who received the Gospel, and “the Holy Spirit fell” upon them (Acts 10:44). Finally, in Acts 19:1-7, we read about Ephesian Gentiles who had believed the Gospel and experience water baptism, but when the Apostle Paul “laid hands on them” they too were baptized in the Holy Spirit. These demonstrate an intentional expansion, both on God’s working in human history and Luke’s record of these events.

Therefore, we are to understand that the application Peter made on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2) is carried over to the subsequent experiences (Acts 8, 10, 19) of the same unique fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy. Peter tells us, I believe, that these occurrences are collectively that of which the prophet Joel spoke. God promised to pour out His Spirit upon all peoples, and that is exactly what He progressively did. Let me be clear; I do not merely tolerate these experiences of baptism in the Holy Spirit subsequent to Christian conversion during the time period of the early church. I celebrate these emphatic and unique baptisms in the Holy Spirit, for these are God’s own witness of His fulfilled promise of blessing to all peoples through Christ Jesus.

Conclusion

Far from believing that the baptism in the Holy Spirit has somehow stopped, I believe that the baptism in the Holy Spirit is essential to every Christian. The Holy Spirit baptism is not reserved for only a select few Christians or some elite spiritual group, but this baptism is the defining mark of every believer. God miraculously brings sinners into union with Christ by baptizing them in the Holy Spirit, and this life-giving event happens the very moment the Christian – every Christian – believes.

 

[1]I understand an interchangeable use of the terms “in” and “with,” as they relate to Holy Spirit baptism, so I use “in” throughout this essay. For a more thorough examination, see Grudem’s Systematic Theology, especially chapter 39.

 

Bibliography

Gregg R. Allison, “Baptism with and Filling of the Holy Spirit,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, vol. 16, no. 4 (Winter 2012).

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