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Q17 : Mid-Acts Dispensationalism

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Q17 : Mid-Acts Dispensationalism

I appreciated your comments on mid-acts dispensationalism (e.g., Cornelius Stam) that you sent to me about a month ago. Teachers of this type of dispensationalism make the point that none of the apostles before Paul taught salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus. This statement does seem terribly wrong. However, when I investigate the scriptures they cite I am amazed, for the first time, just how different scripture presents the view of salvation by the apostles contrasted to Paul.

For example, Peter tells the crowd that they must "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost" (Acts 2:38). Mid-acts teachers point out that Peter is still preaching repentance and baptism and, after his vision in Acts 10, Peter understands that "in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him" (Acts 10:35). Other scriptures could be cited, but Peter does not preach that one must believe that Jesus died for the forgiveness of our sins as the basis of salvation. Thus, as a member of the little flock, Peter's understanding of salvation is much different from Paul's. Once Paul receives the mystery revelation from Jesus the whole program of salvation changes. After the revelation of the mystery both Jew and Gentile, when saved by trusting in the death of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins, are part of the body of Christ. Before the mystery was revealed to Paul, both Jew and Gentile who repented would be part of the kingdom program belonging to the little flock.

Although I have done a poor job of explaining the mid-acts view, I do finally see their point that Peter and James never mention salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins. Such a view was the primary focus of Paul. My question is: Do Peter and James, and Paul really differ fundamentally in their presentation of the Gospel? I've always simply generalized all the verses before I began learning about mid-acts dispensationalism. Now I'm not so sure one can do that—maybe Peter and James are much different from Paul.

I trust your judgment and would appreciate your critique of this mid-acts view.

A17 : by Tony Garland

One of the most difficult aspects of interpreting the Scriptures is determining those aspects which are continuous (have not changed over time) from those which are discontinuous (changed with time). For example, the way of salvation has always been by faith alonea (Gen. 15:6; Hab. 2:4). On the other hand, God's declaration concerning that which is considered unclean has changed with time (Lev. 11:1-17; 20:25; Deu. 14:1-29 vs. Acts 10:10-17; 15:28-29). Another example of a discontinuity would be the prohibition on eating meat (Gen. 1:29 vs. Gen. 9:3; Deu. 12:15).

It becomes equally important to notice the discontinuities where changes occur and to preserve continuity where change does not occur. Many doctrinal errors are made by , on the one hand, failing to notice distinctions where they occur or, on the other hand, making distinctions where they do not. In my view, covenant theology, which sees all God's dealings with man through the framework of one (or two) covenants fails to properly notice the distinctions (and discontinuities) in God's covenant program with different individuals at different times. Thus, covenant theology errs by imposing continuity where the Scriptures indicate discontinuity. On the other hand, mid-Acts dispensationalism makes the opposite error—imposing changes upon the Scriptures where they are in fact continuous.

If we were to summarize the three views regarding God's relationship to the saved, we would have something like:

  • Covenant Theology - one people of God, a failure to account for the coming of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost (the beginning of Spirit-baptism forming the body of Christ).

  • Normative Dispensationalism- accounts for the coming of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. Those who are baptized into Christ have a unique role in the body of Christ which was not possible in history prior to Acts 2.

  • Mid-Acts dispensationalism

    • imposes a discontinuity between Peter (the early church) and Paul (the later church) which is based on inference and fails to appreciate the definition of the body of Christ (see below).

    In the case of mid-Acts dispensationalism, there are a variety of views, partly because mid-Acts dispensationalists cannot agree among themselves as to when Paul's ministry to the Gentiles is thought to have transitioned from the teaching of the early church. Did this occur in Acts 9 (at Paul's conversion)? Or in Acts 13 (at Paul's initial mission to the Gentiles, Acts 13:2)? Or perhaps it was in Acts 28 when the gospel was rejected by Israel and Paul announced he would turn to the Gentiles (Acts 28:25-28)? (Some also see the transition as being in Acts 8 or 11.)

    The problem of establishing just exactly where this supposed “gear-shift” in the plan of God takes place highlights the fact that Scripture itself lacks any clear indication of such a shift. This is where normative dispensationalism has a clear advantage: Scripture places great emphasis upon the coming of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2). This very important event in the plan of God is underscored by the signs and manifestations which accompanied it and by their initiation entirely at God's initiative. In other words, we don't have to try to read between the lines (about whether Peter or Paul presented salvation certain ways) to determine whether or when a discontinuity occurs—God Himself has made it abundantly clear in the events of Acts 2.

    Now, to comment on some of your observations and questions:

    . . . when I investigate the scriptures they cite I am amazed, for the first time, just how different scripture presents the view of salvation by the apostles contrasted to Paul. . . . For example, Peter tells the crowd that they must “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost” (Acts 2:38). Mid-acts teachers point out that Peter is still preaching repentance and baptism and, after his vision in Acts 10, Peter understands that “in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him” (Acts 10:35).

    What mid-Acts dispensationalists take as an indication of different views of salvation I believe is better understood as the artifacts of progressive revelation and the relationship between faith and works.

    Regarding progressive revelation: In both testaments, God has revealed His truth over time, in layers, like peeling an onion. There is no doubt that Peter, especially in the early portion of Acts, did not have as complete a revelation of the doctrine of the body of Christ as would eventually be given to Paul. But does this provide solid evidence of two different groups with two different relationships in regard to salvation? I think not. For example, we need only go back to the time of Abraham (far, far in advance of Peter in Acts 2) to see the truth of salvation by faith alone apart from works (Gen. 15:6). Interestingly, it is Paul himself who identifies Abraham's faith as the very means by which the Roman church attained salvation (Rom. 4:3-9). Was Peter teaching a different avenue to salvation than the OT records for Abraham or that which Paul would preach subsequently? No—the basis in every case—is faith in what God had revealed. Was Abraham's understanding of the basis of salvation exactly like that of Peter? Was Peter's understanding—at the time of Acts 2—fully that of Paul's when he penned his later epistles? Almost certainly not. This is a reflection of progressive revelation not a basis for inserting a dispensational boundary.

    Regarding the relationship between faith and works, it is quite easy to pop into almost any context (whether OT or NT, Pauline or otherwise) and come out with a statement which appears, on the face of it, to indicate reliance upon works as a contributor to salvation. Yet, we must judge Scripture with Scripture. When the full teaching of Scripture is brought into view, it is clear that neither Abraham, nor Peter, nor Paul believed works were a requirement for salvation—but merely an indication of true and active faith. Moreover, we can find statements by Paul, late in Acts, which essentially sound much like Peter in early Acts:

    Therefore, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, but declared first to those in Damascus and in Jerusalem, and throughout all the region of Judea, and [then] to the Gentiles, that they should repent, turn to God, and do works befitting repentance. For these reasons the Jews seized me in the temple and tried to kill [me].

    Here we have Paul (Acts 26:19-21) stating much the same thing as Peter (Acts 10:35) regarding the elements of salvation. This stands against the mid-Acts dispensational belief that Peter and Paul have a different understanding of salvation. There is no doubt that Paul eventually has a greater grasp of aspects of the Jew/Gentile unity which is the body of Christ (e.g., Gal. 2:11-21), but this does not mean that Peter and Paul had different understandings regarding the basis of salvation.

    It is also clear that works, in any form, has never been a contributor to salvation. This is a point which Paul emphasizes at length (Acts 13:39; Rom. 3:20; 4:2-5; Gal. 2:16, 21; 3:11, 21; Heb 7:19; Heb 10:1-2).

    Another aspect I wanted to respond to:

    Thus, as a member of the little flock, Peter's understanding of salvation is much different from Paul's. Once Paul receives the mystery revelation from Jesus the whole program of salvation changes. After the revelation of the mystery both Jew and Gentile, when saved by trusting in the death of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins, are part of the body of Christ. Before the mystery was revealed to Paul, both Jew and Gentile who repented would be part of the kingdom program belonging to the little flock.

    The key phrase which I disagree with is after the revelation of the mystery. Here is the essential question: is it the timing of the revelation of the mystery (to Paul) that serves as the line of discontinuity which demarcates the body of Christ, or is it the timing of the means by which the mystery becomes operational? Mid-Acts dispensationalism says the former. Traditional dispensationalism says the latter.

    The key to cutting through the confusion is found in the teaching of Paul himself. Here is the line of reasoning which, I believe, completely refutes mid-Acts dispensationalism:

    1. What is the mystery which is the subject of Paul's special revelation? The mystery concerns the identity of the body of Christ: “that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, of the same body” (Eph. 3:6). Participation in the body of Christ requires the indwelling of the Holy Spirit: “To them God willed to make known what are the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles: which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” (Col. 1:27).

    2. What did Paul teach regarding the means by which one enters the body of Christ? “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and have all been made to drink into one Spirit” (1Co 12:13). “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal 3:27). “[There is] one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who [is] above all, and through all, and in you all” (Eph 4:4-6).

    3. When did this baptizing work of the Spirit first begin? It began for (1) Jews on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2); (2) somewhat later for Samaritans (Acts 8) and; (3) later still for Gentiles (Acts 10). These three occasions correspond to the statement of Jesus concerning the “promise of the Father”—Spirit-baptism—which was coupled with the going forth of the gospel to (1) Jerusalem, (2) Judea and Samaria and; (3) the end of the earth (Acts. 1:4-8).

    The inescapable conclusion is that the “mystery” concerns the unity of Gentiles and Jews on completely equal footing in the “body of Christ.” Paul was given this revelation, but the timing of the creation of the body of Christ is not tied to the timing of Paul's teaching. Rather, it is tied to the coming of the Holy Spirit to baptize believers forming, for the first time in history, the body of Christ (John 7:37-39; Acts 1:5; 2:2-4; 8:17; 10:44; 11:15-18).

    Thus, the beginning of the body of Christ (which operates in Christ's absence, John 14:16-18; 16:7) occurs at Acts 2 with the arrival of the Holy Spirit to begin His new ministry. It does not begin when Paul is given revelation, nor when he happens to pen it in an epistle. It is not the understanding of Paul nor the understanding of the recipients of Paul's teaching which defines the body of Christ, but Spirit-baptism. To attempt to divide those baptized by the Spirit into a pre-Pauline group and a post-Pauline group is making a distinction which Scripture provides no evidence for. It is elevating supposed subtle differences in the revelation of Peter and Paul (and arguments about differences in salvific statements, largely based on silence) over the clear boundary given by Scripture itself:

    He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water. But this He spoke concerning the Spirit, whom those believing in Him would receive; for the Holy Spirit was not yet [given], because Jesus was not yet glorified. (John 7:38-39)

    Notice also that it was Peter who, in a special way, was given the keys to the kingdom (Mat. 16:19). Interestingly, it is also Peter who is present at the initial baptizing work for all three people groups: Jews (Acts 2); Samaritans (Acts 8), and Gentiles (Acts 10). Take special note that the “apostle to the Gentiles” is Paul, yet it is Peter who presents the gospel to the Gentiles and argues for their inclusion in the same plan of salvation. Listen carefully to Peter's remarks at the Jerusalem council (referring back to the Spirit-baptism of the Gentiles in Acts 10):

    And when there had been much dispute, Peter rose up and said to them: "Men and brethren, you know that a good while ago God chose among us, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. So God, who knows the heart, acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as [He did] to us, and made no distinction between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they." (Acts 15:7-11)

    This is a most amazing statement by Peter! Notice some of its elements:

    1. Peter recognizes it is by his mouth (not Paul's) that the Gentiles first heard the gospel. Thus, the mixed Jew/Gentile body of Christ was initiated through the ministry of Peter, not Paul. (I believe this was purposeful and designed, in part, to avoid the error of ultradispensationalism which attempts to base the body of Christ upon Paul. It is standard fair for aberrant teachings to attempt to separate Paul and his theology from other NT teachers, whether Peter or Jesus.)

    2. Peter acknowledges the sign of the Gentile's inclusion in salvation to be the reception of the Spirit (Spirit-baptism).

    3. This Spirit-baptism was “by faith” (not works).

    4. The Jews were unable to keep the law, so neither should the Gentiles. Salvation is by “grace.”

    5. The manner of Jewish salvation is identical to that of the Gentiles. Note that the events that Peter is talking about (Acts 10) involved neither Paul nor any of his special revelation.

    To summarize, it is clear that any differences in the content of salvation passages in Acts and the epistles are due to progressive revelation and differences in emphasis. Peter understands salvation is apart from works—even though certain passages seem to imply otherwise. Similarly, Paul also makes statements at places which appear much like those of Peter. These recognize that faith produces works, but does not depend upon them.

    Furthermore, the body of Christ is a new creation in the historical plan of God. It is defined by spiritual union with Christ by the baptizing work of the Spirit—something which never occurred before the Day of Pentecost. But once the Spirit arrived the body began. Moreover, the earliest Gentile members of the body of Christ became so in the presence and teaching of Peter, not Paul. Although more Gentiles would enter the body through Paul's ministry and he was given greater revelation concerning the “one new man,” that which he reveals is not something different from what God began on the Day of Pentecost when He sent the Spirit.

    In my view, the key error of mid-Acts dispensationalism is the failure to recognize the importance of Spirit-baptism in the formation of the body of Christ. This is one reason why I highly recommend an in-depth study of the book of Acts in the context of the gospels—especially in light of John the baptist's promise of a coming One Who would baptize with the Spirit (Mat. 3:11-12), John's explanation of Jesus' words about living water (John 7:37-39), and Jesus' teaching concerning the promise of the Spirit in the upper-room discourse ( John 13-17).

    Additional resources I would recommend:

    I can't overemphasize the importance of a study of the coming of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. It is key to understanding what is actually going on in the historical context and avoiding errors which are reflected by the teachings of covenantalism, Pentecostalism, and mid-Acts dispensationalism. A solid grasp of the unique ministry of the Spirit in this age is also key to understanding the Israel/Church distinction, the Rapture, and aspects of the Tribulation.


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