Saturday, March 26, 2016

Acts 28 Dispensationalism Revisited: A Response to “Proof of Paul’s Progression” (Part Four)

Miscellaneous Subjects

As evidence for his position, Stephen claims that there are things said by Paul in his “pre-prison” letters that are not as relevant or applicable to the body of Christ today as they were when Paul wrote to the saints at that time. The examples he gives are repentance, the Lord's Dinner and the spiritual gifts (e.g., speaking in tongues, performing miracles, healing and prophesying). Stephen writes: “Consider this: if we neglect to rightly divide Paul's epistles, we have no choice but to partake in the Lord's Dinner, seek the spiritual gifts, attempt to heal others, and so forth. Paul instructed his early readers (especially the Corinthians) to do all these things, declaring that Christ had passed them along to him. If Paul's letters are all equally relevant for us today, then either those ordinances are still valid, or Paul contradicts himself.”

The Spiritual Gifts

According to Stephen, partaking in the Lord's Dinner, seeking the spiritual gifts, attempting to heal and prophesying are all “ordinances in keeping with the Israeli program.” In “The Status of the Body of Christ Prior to Acts 28:28,” I argued that the presence and exercise of spiritual gifts (e.g., speaking in tongues, healing, prophesying) at the time when Paul wrote to the Corinthians need not be understood as suggesting that Paul’s ministry at this time was in accord with an “Israeli program.” There is simply no need to divide up Paul’s letters into two distinct “dispensational” categories in order to understand why the spiritual gifts were in operation at that time, but aren’t today. It was because of the unique circumstances in that day that the spiritual gifts were present within the body of Christ when Paul wrote to the Corinthians.

One of the reasons for their manifestation had to do with the validation of Paul’s apostleship as the apostle of the nations (see 2 Cor. 12:11-13; cf. 13:1-3). In Romans 15:18-19, Paul referred to the “signs and wonders” he performed in validation of his apostleship as being “for the obedience of the nations” (not “of Israel” or even “of Greek proselytes”), and - as noted earlier - these signs and wonders had been manifested from the beginning of his ministry to the nations (Acts 15:12). They were never meant to have a permanent place in the administration of the grace of God, but continued to be manifested only for as long as God deemed it necessary. When their manifestation ceased (or began to cease), Paul’s instructions to the saints regarding them ceased to be directly applicable. But again, their ceasing had nothing to do with Israel, or with the ending of one administration and the beginning of a new one.

With regards to the issue of applicability and relevance, something that needs to be kept in mind is that none of Paul’s letters – whether they were written during the “Acts era” or afterwards – were written directly to anyone alive today. No one alive today was among the original recipients of Paul’s letters. This is not to deny that what Paul wrote to the saints in the body of Christ in the first century is more relevant, applicable and useful to believers today than (for example) James’ letter to the twelve tribes scattered abroad. But it does mean that there are some things said by Paul that are less relevant and applicable to the saints today than they were to the saints that Paul had in mind when he wrote his letters – and this, again, is true regardless of when the letters were written.

Paul’s instructions regarding the use of the spiritual gifts that were present within the body of Christ when Paul wrote to the Corinthians isn't the only example of Paul exhorting or entreating the original recipients of his letters to do things which a subsequent change in circumstances (circumstances which had nothing to do with a change in administrations) rendered inapplicable and no longer directly relevant to those reading his letters. Consider, for example, Paul’s request in Ephesians 6:18-20, as well as his subsequent remarks in verses 21-22. It would be absurd to argue that, because what Paul wrote in these verses is not directly applicable or relevant to those reading today, it must be because we live in a different administration or dispensation! The fact is simply that a change in circumstances which had nothing to do with the administration we’re under caused this part of Paul’s letter to lose its direct relevance and applicability to those reading. I’m not, of course, saying that these words of Paul are entirely without applicability, or that they have no benefit for us; I’m simply pointing out what should be obvious: not everything that Paul wrote (whether in his “pre-prison letters” or “prison letters”) directly pertains to us, or to every possible saint whom Paul believed may read his letters. Even for those saints who were among the first to read or hear what Paul wrote in Ephesians, the last few verses ceased to have the same relevance and applicability that they originally had when the circumstances that made it necessary for Paul to write what he did changed.

Consider also Phil. 2:25-30, noting especially Paul’s appeal to the recipients of his letter to “receive him [Epaphroditus].” Can Stephen or any other saints besides those to whom Paul wrote this letter do what Paul requested? No. What about Paul’s further entreatment in Phil. 4:2-3? Again, the answer is no. Or how about what Paul wrote in Colossians 4:2-4, 7-10 and 15-17? Can the saints today do what Paul exhorted the original recipients of this letter to do in these verses? If not, does it mean we exist in a different administration? Or does it simply mean that the circumstances of those to whom Paul originally wrote and our own circumstances are such that what Paul wrote in these verses simply doesn’t directly pertain to us? Obviously, it’s the latter. These are not, of course, the only examples of things that Paul wrote in his letters which, although not directly applicable to us today, Paul nonetheless included in his letters because of the circumstances at that time. But these examples should, hopefully, suffice.

Repentance: It’s Not Just For Jews

According to Stephen, “Repentance is another important distinguisher between Paul’s earlier and later epistles.” Stephen then adds, “Paul’s message in his earlier epistles contained a call to repentance, whereas his latter epistles stressed justification through faith.” The sentence I underlined is perhaps the most perplexing and head-scratching statement Stephen makes in his entire article. So off-base is this statement that I actually thought I’d misread what Stephen wrote immediately after reading it. The most glaring problem with this assertion is the idea that Paul’s “latter epistles stressed justification through faith,” whereas his earlier epistles didn’t. Stephen must have been sleep-deprived when he wrote that. Even a cursory reading of Paul’s letters makes it clear that Paul spoke of justification by faith far more frequently in his “earlier letters” than in any of the letters he wrote while in prison (or after he was imprisoned). In fact, by my count the words “justification,” “justify” or “justified” appear in Paul’s “earlier epistles” (Galatians, 1 Corinthians and Romans) at least 15 times. Contrast this with the number of times that any of these words appear in his “latter epistles”: the word “justified” appears only once, in Titus 3:7. To this fact Stephen may reply, “Yes, but that doesn’t mean the truth of justification isn’t implied in Paul’s other ‘prison epistles’; just because a certain term isn’t explicitly used by Paul doesn’t mean the idea or concept isn’t present.” Agreed, but as we’ll see below, the same could be said concerning the truth of repentance.

Stephen seems to think that repenting and being justified by faith are somehow mutually exclusive – as if one cannot be justified and also be in need of “repenting” of something. But when we understand what “repentance” is, it should be obvious that this is simply not the case. The Greek noun metanoia (usually translated “repentance”) simply means “a change of mind about something or someone”; similarly, its cognate verb metanoeo (“repent”) simply means “to change one’s mind about something or someone.” There is ample evidence in the New Testament, the Septuagint (LXX) and in extra-biblical Greek literature that supports this understanding of the words.[1] The words, by themselves, are completely neutral with regards to that about which one is changing one’s mind (or not), or about which one is being called to change one’s mind (and that includes the action that is expected to follow from the change of mind). Only the context in which the words are found can inform us of this. 

Although metanoia and metanoeo were certainly used in reference to the need of an Israelite to think (and then act) differently with regards to both their individual sins as well as their national unbelief/rejection of Christ, the words have nothing inherently to do with Israel, the Mosaic Law or an Israelite’s view of Christ. For example, Paul declared to the pagan (non-proselytized) Gentiles in Athens that “God is now charging mankind that all everywhere are to repent (metanoeo), forasmuch as He assigns a day in which He is about to be judging the inhabited earth in righteousness by the Man Whom He specifies, tendering faith to all, raising Him from among the dead-” (Acts 17:30-31). In the context, the “repentance” (or change of mind) in view involves turning away from the worship of false gods/idols and worshipping the one true God (as he has revealed himself in “the man whom he specifies,” Christ Jesus).

Again, to repent is simply to change one’s mind about something or someone (which, depending on what one is changing one’s mind about, will result in changed behavior). Our being justified – i.e., our being declared (or reckoned) righteous by God – does not put us beyond the need to change our mind with regards to some erroneous belief(s) we may have, or concerning some unloving, sinful behavior(s) we may be engaged in. It does not put us beyond the need to think differently about something and then to begin to act differently. The saints in Corinth to whom Paul wrote had been “justified in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and by the spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:11) and thus become “God’s righteousness in Christ” (2 Cor. 5:21). As such, they were “new creations” (v. 17). And yet, Paul did not hesitate to rebuke them for certain sinful and immature behavior they were engaged in, and to exhort them to think and act differently. We find this throughout his first letter to them. Interestingly, however, Paul never explicitly tells the Corinthian believers to “repent” of what they were doing in his first letter. And yet, whenever he rebuked them or exhorted them to think or act differently, their need for repentance (to change their mind) was implied. That this is the case is evident from the fact that Paul spoke of their response to his first letter as appropriately involving repentance (2 Cor. 7:9-10). Although Paul seemed satisfied with how some of the saints had responded to the rebukes and exhortations of his first letter, there were still others within the ecclesia who remained in need of “repenting of the uncleanness and prostitution and wantonness” which they were committing (2 Cor. 12:21). Did this mean that, while they were in need of repentance, they weren’t justified by faith? No; of course not. Their eonian life “in the heavens” was just as secure as when they first believed and received the “earnest of the spirit” (2 Cor. 5:1-5). But their justification (and eonian expectation) notwithstanding, they were still “minors in Christ,” and greatly lacking in maturity (1 Cor. 3:1-4).

Because a need for repentance was implied whenever Paul exhorted the Corinthian saints to think and behave differently than how they were behaving (again, Paul never explicitly mentioned repentance in his first letter to them), it can be reasonably concluded that a need for repentance was equally implied elsewhere in his letters whenever he exhorted the saints of other ecclesias to not behave in a certain way or do certain things. For example, Paul’s exhortations in Ephesians 4:17-32 (such as, “Let him who steals by no means still be stealing; yet rather let him be toiling, working with his hands at what is good, that he may have to share with one who has need”) imply a need for repentance for any of the saints who may have been engaged in such sinful behavior, rather than walking worthily of the calling with which they had been called (Eph. 4:1). If someone was stealing or engaged in prostitution (for example), then such behavior was something of which they were in need of repenting (i.e., changing their mind about). But again, a need for a believer to repent (to think and act differently than how they’re thinking and acting) does not imply that one isn’t justified, or that one is in any danger of losing one’s eonian life.

The Lord’s Dinner

Concerning the “Lord’s dinner” referred to by Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:20-34 (cf. 1 Cor. 10:16-17), there is no indication that Paul considered this an ordinance that had to be kept, a “sacrament” that had to be “administered,” or a ceremonial ritual that had to periodically observed by the saints to whom he wrote. There is no evidence that it was considered something that had to be done in order for one to be saved, or in order for one to comply with some standard of righteousness (such as the Mosaic Law). There is, consequently, no contradiction between what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 11 on this subject, and what he wrote in Colossians 2:16-23 concerning our freedom from having to comply with religious dietary laws, observe religious holy days, etc. 

Although some have claimed that the Lord’s dinner was the Passover feast, there are several considerations that show this position to be mistaken. We know, for example, that there were uncircumcised Gentiles in the Corinthian ecclesia, and that some of the Gentile saints (perhaps most) were even former idol-worshiping pagans (as has been argued in a previous section). However, we know from Exodus 12:43-48 that uncircumcised Gentiles were not allowed to participate in Israel’s Passover feast. In addition to this, it is implied that the meal which Paul had in view was not an annual event (as was Israel’s Passover feast); it was, rather, something that occurred (or, at least, was suppose to occur) whenever they came together to eat (1 Cor. 11:33-34). Not only does the Lord’s dinner not refer to the Passover, but the meal of which Christ and his twelve disciples partook on the last night of our Lord’s mortal life was not the Passover, either.[1] The so-called “last supper” occurred on the night before the Passover (John 13:1, 29; 18:28; 19:14, 31, 42). Although certain preparations were made for the Passover feast by Christ's disciples, Christ knew his intense yearning to celebrate it with his disciples before his suffering would not be fulfilled (Luke 22:15), and that he would not be eating of the Passover meal with his disciples until after the coming of the kingdom of God (v. 16).

If the Lord’s dinner referred to in 1 Corinthians 11 was neither the Passover feast nor some other type of religious ceremony, ritual or ordinance that the body of Christ had to observe, then what was it? It was (and is), I believe, simply this: a shared meal between members of the body of Christ when we come together “in the same place” to fellowship with one another. Whenever this occurs - and there is an endeavor to “keep the unity of the spirit” (Eph. 4:2-4) – our eating and drinking together is the Lord’s dinner (cf. 1 Cor. 10:16-17). Through the sharing of a meal in a way that displays this unity, the saints in the body of Christ “are announcing the Lord’s death until He should be coming” (1 Cor. 11:26). However, to the extent that disunity characterizes the gathering together of the saints in the body of Christ - and the ecclesia of God is “despised” through selfish, unloving behavior (vv. 21-22) - the Lord’s dinner is not being eaten.

The Jerusalem Council Decrees

Concerning the “essentials” decided upon at the gathering in Jerusalem (as described in Acts 15), Stephen writes:

"When Paul and Barnabas met with the apostles and elders of Jerusalem to discuss the requirements for salvation for the nations, they agreed that while circumcision was not a requirement, other observances of the Mosaic Law--items they deemed "essentials" (v. 28)--were still to be kept (namely: abstaining from ceremonial pollution with idols, and prostitution, and what is strangled, and blood). This decision, agreed upon by Paul in Acts 15, is a far cry from his later evangel of God's grace which requires no law keeping, whatsoever."

As noted in part three, the decrees presupposed that the nations in view were not proselytes. Rather, the decrees presupposed that they came from a pagan, idol-worshipping background. The meeting in Jerusalem had to do with whether or not those among the nations who were “turning back to God”[2] had to become proselytes (which would’ve involved their being circumcised and keeping the law of Moses) in order to be saved. As Stephen would agree, the answer on which everyone agreed was “no.” Becoming proselytized was not required for the believing Gentiles. This decision notwithstanding, Stephen believes that the four things that they decided the nations would be “well engaged” to be abstaining from were “observances of the Mosaic Law” that were “requirements for salvation.” However, nowhere in the letter in which the decrees are mentioned is there any mention of salvation. Nor do we read of any penalties/consequences for violating the decrees; the letter simply ends by saying that if the nations abstain from the things referred to, they “will be well engaged” (CV), “shall prosper” (Rotherham), or “shall do well” (Young). 

Thus, while the decrees were certainly exhortations to avoid certain things, that does not make them “requirements for salvation” or an example of “law keeping.” Being examples of apostolic exhortations, they should be understood as having the same status as the exhortations found throughout Paul’s letters. They are, in other words, standards that reveal how believers should be “walking” in order to “walk worthily of the calling with which [we] were called” (Eph. 4:1; cf. 4:17-19; 5:15-16). They are not a matter of eonian life or death, but of living in a way that honors God and Christ and promotes peace and harmony between believers. These decrees are no more Mosaic commandments than are Paul’s exhortations that believers not steal (Eph. 4:28), that they avoid prostitution and uncleanness (5:3), and that they abstain from getting drunk with wine (v. 18).

But why were these particular “essentials” chosen, as opposed to others? If, as Stephen believes, these four decrees were selected as requirements for salvation and law-keeping for believing Gentiles, then it would be inexplicable why these four were selected and others excluded. If these essentials are understood as a selection from the 613 laws of Moses that the believing Gentiles were to keep in order to be saved, the selection would be completely arbitrary. To help the reader better appreciate this point, consider the following imaginary dialogue between Peter and James:

James: “Okay, so I think we’re all agreed that the salvation of those among the nations who believe doesn’t depend on their being circumcised - which, as we all know, would make them debtors to the whole Mosaic Law [Gal. 5:3]. At the same time, we don’t want any non-proselytized Gentiles to be complete violators of the whole law, either.”

Peter: “Good point. What do you propose, James?”

James: “Let’s just come up with four commandments to make sure at least part of the law will be kept by them. That should suffice, right?”

Peter: “How about abstaining from idol sacrifices, and blood, and what is strangled, and prostitution?”

James: “Sure; sounds good. All those in favor, say ‘Aye!’”

Understood in this way, the decrees and the decision reached would've been completely contrary to everything Paul wrote concerning the nations being justified by faith apart from the works of the law (as revealed most clearly in Galatians and Romans). Had Paul understood this to be the purpose and nature of the decrees, there is no way he would’ve agreed to it. But if these four decrees aren’t a random selection from the Mosaic Law, how then should we understand them? Although several theories have been put forth (such as seeing the decrees as having their basis in the so-called “Noachide Laws”), I believe the best explanation is that all four essentials had to do with customs associated with pagan cults.[3] That is, the decrees did not comprise a random list of things that the nations were to avoid, but were all connected to certain activities/rituals that were performed in (and were seen as inseparable from) the worship of false gods. This understanding of the decrees would explain why Paul would have no problem approving of them; as Paul made clear in 1 Cor. 10:14-22, it was not appropriate for the saints to be participating in activities that were connected with the worship of demons (which Paul understood as being behind all idolatrous practices).

[1] See, for example, the article at the following link:

[2] When those from the nations repent of their idolatry and turn to the one true God, it can be spoken of as a “turning back to God.” At one point in history, all humanity (i.e., before there were Israelites) worshipped the one true God. Only later did the worship of the one true God degenerate into the worship of false gods/idols. Thus, when any Gentile repents of his idolatry, he is returning, in a sense, to the primitive state of his ancestors.

[3] For a more in-depth defense of this position, the reader is encouraged to check out the following articles: and


  1. Thank you Aaron!This is great help in the understanding department.I trust in God's help in the deportment of this truths in my personal many things to repent from that I have difficulty doing.But I'm so thankful for the security of eonian life.I hope to get rid of unwanted baggage here, wherever possible and whenever possible.Thanks again brother.

    1. You're welcome, brother...thanks for the encouraging comment. As far as wanting to "get rid of unwanted baggage wherever and whenever possible," I know exactly what you mean, and share this desire. But it's wonderful to know that, regardless of what we do (or fail to do) in this life, nothing is condemnation for us...even when our "baggage" remains (or accumulates), God's grace super-exceeds (Rom. 5:20)! Indeed, it is this very grace that I believe enables us to discard the junk in our life (Titus 2:11-14). Thanks again for the comment, and may God's grace be with you!

  2. Aaron, I want to start by saying how pleased I am to have met you and your wife in Birmingham a few years ago, having no idea at that time what a powerful instrument for the truth you are! I'm in awe of your analytical and deductive powers, knowing fully God has given you these tools to glorify Him. Brother, it is indeed a pleasure to read your work, and deeply gratifying to witness one from the next generation whom God is raising up as a faithful dispenser of His truth. May God continue to lavish you with Spirit and faith that you may remain staunch, keenly perceptive and filled with Wisdom, standing immovable in His love.

    1. Thank you so much for the kind, validating and encouraging words, Anonymous! It really means a lot. I consider the time of the Birmingham conference a pivotal and catalytic moment in my life, and I look forward to the next time Chrissy and I get to fellowship with such a wonderful (and relatively large) group of people as were present at that conference. Thank you again so much for your words of encouragement, and may God's grace be with you.

  3. Aaron, maybe I'm dense but I don't see what advantage there is in the Acts 28 premise, to the Jew of member of Christ's body. Even in Mr. Knoch's time, who benefits from believing this stuff about an Acts 28 dispensational dividing line?
    What's your take on it brother?

    1. That's a good question. I think there may be several factors that could explain someone's coming to hold to the Acts 28 theory. Hopefully the main reason is that they've become convinced that there is scriptural evidence to support it (obviously, I think it would be a mistake to think this)! Thanks for the comment.