Mid-Acts dispensational theology is a unique form of the evangelical Christian faith also known as “The Grace Message.”1 It garners this title because of its emphasis on the gospel of the grace of God (Acts 20:24) and the dispensation of the grace of God (Eph.3:2). This theology, also described in Scripture as “the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery” (Rom.16:25-27), is distinctively Pauline in character but congruent with historically recognized Christian orthodoxy. At its foundation is the theonthropic character and vicarious sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ (Jn.1:1-18; Phil.2:5-11; I Cor.3:11 cf. Chalcedonian Creed2). Grace theology is also consistent with the “5 Solas” of the Protestant Reformation as proclaimed by spiritual giants like Luther, Calvin, Knox, and Zwingli.3 In addition, the historic fundamentals of the Christian faith, as championed by R.A.Torrey and his contemporaries in the midst of the modernist/fundamentalist controversy of the early 20th century4, are integral tenets of mid-Acts dispensational theology.
Grace theology hinges upon a literal-historical-grammatical interpretation of the Bible. This does not mean that there is not figurative or allegorical language in the Word of God but that Scripture is to be read and subsequently interpreted in a normal fashion much like any other piece of literature.5 Among dispensationalists, this approach to Scripture has been expanded, developed, and described by some as “rightly dividing the word of truth” (II Tim.2:15). To “rightly divide” (Gr. Orthotomeo) means to straightly cut and therefore make distinctions by understanding Scripture within its proper dispensational context.6 The thrust of this dispensational hermeneutic is encapsulated in the old adage, “While all of Scripture is written for us, it is not all written to us or about us, God’s Word must be rightly divided.”7 This approach to properly handling Holy Scripture is demonstrated by none other than the Lord Jesus Christ Himself in the synagogue at Nazareth (Luke 4:14-21; Isaiah 61:1-3).8
Apparent Biblical contradictions are often the result of either a lack of comprehension of the immediate context or a failure to “rightly divide.” These perceptions drive the faithful student of Scripture to trust God the Holy Spirit for further understanding (I Cor.2:10-16; Eph.1:18). Biblical enigmas should not foster a sense of skepticism about the integrity of Scripture but rather a greater need to trust God for spiritual illumination. The authenticity of Scripture is not an issue for the believer in Christ because their fundamental presupposition is that the Bible is a reliable historical document that is also the verbally inspired Word of God. The objective standard of Scripture is therefore the first and final authority for all matters of faith and practice, orthodoxy and orthopraxy, belief and behavior, what Christians should believe and how Christians should live.9
This foundational background contributes to understanding where mid-Acts dispensational theology fits within the overall framework of the evangelical Christian faith as well as comprehending its distinctions. The essentials of grace theology include the historical beginning of the Church, the body of Christ, in the mid-Acts period subsequent to Pentecost but prior to the writing of the Apostle Paul’s first epistle, the one Holy Spirit baptism whereby the believer in Christ is identified or placed into the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ at the moment of salvation, the temporary postponement and setting aside of God’s prophetic plan and purpose for Israel until after the pretribulational rapture of the Church, Jew and Gentile salvation apart from the instrumentality of Israel but freely received by the grace of God through faith alone in the risen Lord Jesus Christ and His finished work of redemption on behalf of lost sinners at the cross of Calvary.
INSPIRATION OF SCRIPTURE
The present day attacks on the inspiration of Scripture are manifold. From the scientific claims of millions of years of earth history (and an even older universe) and the evolutionary progression of all life-forms from a common ancestor to the postmodern repulsion to the objective truth claims of Holy Scripture which include the exclusivity of Jesus Christ, there are a multitude of attacks being posited against the authority of the Bible as a special revelation from God. In the midst of this cultural milieu, it is incumbent upon Christians in general and pastors in particular to be equipped in knowing how to defend Biblical integrity against the skeptical questions of the day by upholding the authority of the Word of God over and above autonomous human reason.10
Biblical inspiration and inerrancy are directly tied to one another therefore my position is that God’s inspired revelation of Himself in the Holy Scriptures11 is accurate, reliable, without error, and therefore authoritative. Erickson describes this position accordingly, “Absolute inerrancy holds that the Bible, which includes rather detailed treatment of matters both scientific and historical, is fully true.”12 As a result, it is my firm conviction that the Bible is the Church’s first and final authority for all matters of faith.
The theologian’s understanding of Biblical inerrancy is directly related to his position on the inspiration of Scripture. Erickson writes that, “Inerrancy is a corollary of the doctrine of full inspiration.” In II Timothy 3:16, the Apostle Paul writes, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (c.f. II Pet.1:21). The historic evangelical position on Biblical inspiration is that all Scripture is verbally inspired by God and is of plenary authority. Verbal inspiration is described by Erickson as being “that the Holy Spirit’s influence extends beyond the direction of thoughts to the selection of words used to convey the message.”13 He also defined inspiration as the “supernatural influence of the Holy Spirit on the Scripture writers which rendered their writings an accurate record of the revelation or which resulted in what they wrote actually being the Word of God.”14
Since Scripture is verbally inspired by God, is can be understood to be accurate, reliable, and without error. The Bible is God’s special revelation of Himself to mankind in written form. Its transmission accurately records everything including the lies of men and Satan. Since the Bible is accurate, it is therefore dependable and worthy of our greatest trust. What follows is that Scripture is also inerrant to the point that it is absolutely authoritative. This authority is derivative because Scripture is a direct revelation from the God Who cannot lie (Titus 1:2). Skepticism over the authenticity of Holy Scripture is reflective of the theologian’s position on the character and integrity of Almighty God.
My position firmly rests on the absolute inerrancy of the Holy Scriptures because the Bible is the verbally inspired revelation of the benevolent, omnipotent, and transcendent Creator God of the universe. Holy Scripture is the standard by which individual believers in Jesus Christ and the corporate body of Christ determine orthodoxy and orthopraxy. It is never subservient to the autonomous human reasoning of fallen man which includes hermeneutical considerations from “science.”15 Such a precedent has been under severe attack since the garden therefore it is imperative for men of God who stand in the pulpit to stand unequivocally upon the Word of the God Who is and has clearly spoken (II Tim.4:2).
Christ and the apostles all view the Scriptures as the authoritative and verbally inspired Word of God. Peter affirmed its dual authorship and authority over personal experience (II Pet.1:16-21). Paul taught its Divine origin and subsequent authority as the inspired Word of God (II Tim.3:15-4:5). The Lord Jesus Christ Himself upheld the inspiration of Scripture even to the smallest detail of a letter or verb tense (Matt.5:17,18; 22:32). He also stood upon its inspiration and authority by affirming the historical accuracy of the Bible from the very beginning (Matt.19:4-6; Mk.10:6-9).16
HISTORICAL BEGINNING OF THE BODY OF CHRIST
Grace theology has traditionally recognized Acts chapter 9 or Acts chapter 13 as acceptable positions on the historical beginning of the body of Christ because they both mark the inception of the Church prior to the writing of the Apostle Paul’s first epistle. This distinct eccelesiology is therefore recognized as mid-Acts dispensational theology and distinguishes itself from other interpretations of the Church. Not only does the grace view distinguish itself from Presbyterian and Reformed positions which see the Church as a replacement or a form of spiritual Israel but also the dispensational Baptist understanding that Pentecost is the birthday of the Church. Of the two acceptable views, the Acts 9 position appears to be more Biblically accurate and more consistent by recognizing Paul’s unique testimony of salvation, his simultaneous calling to ministry by the risen Christ, and the defense of his apostleship evidenced by his epistles.
The unique testimony of Paul’s salvation while on the road to Damascus where the risen Christ appeared to him confirms that God initiated something different in Acts 9. Paul taught that his salvation was the first in a sequence in order to be a pattern for the salvation of others who would be saved after him (I Tim.1:16).
When the risen Christ saved Saul of Tarsus on the Damascus road, He also commissioned him as the apostle of the Gentiles. His salvation and apostleship are inextricably linked to one another. First Corinthians is an epistle that necessitated a defense of his apostleship and its accompanying authority because of its corrective nature and rebuke contained therein. Paul writes, “Am I not an apostle? Am I not free? Have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord” (I Cor.9:1 NKJV cf. I Cor.15:8,9)? These texts are consistent with Paul’s testimony before King Agrippa where Christ is recorded to have explicitly stated that He sent Paul to the Gentiles on the road to Damascus (Acts 26:15-18).
The Pauline epistles defend his apostleship and message by stating that he received his commission from Christ Himself. In the very first verse of the rebuke-filled epistle to the Galatians, Paul clearly states that his apostleship was from Christ. “Paul, an apostle (not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised Him from the dead)” (Gal.1:1 NKJV cf. Rom.1:1-5). Finally, in Colossians, Paul writes, “For the sake of His body, which is the church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God which was given to me for you” (Col.1:24b,25a NKJV cf. Gal.1:11,12).
The Biblical teaching that the historical beginning of the Church is generally located in the mid-Acts period and specifically in the ninth chapter correctly recognizes Paul’s apostleship and message as distinctly for the edification of the body of Christ. This relegates the General Epistles17 to be specifically written to the Jews and therefore pertain to God’s prophetic program for Israel. Paul’s testimony of the Jerusalem Council bears out that Peter, James, and John agreed to confine their ministry to the Jews (Gal.2:6-9). With this in mind, Hebrews through Revelation are to be studied, preached, and taught not only for their dispensational content but also for life principles and truth regarding the character of God as the Sovereign Governor of history.
ONE HOLY SPIRIT BAPTISM
First of all, water baptism must be recognized as a ceremonial Jewish rite. God delivered the Hebrews out of Egyptian bondage and called Israel to Himself at Mount Sinai where He gave them His law through Moses, the man of God. It was there that He told them, “And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex.19:6a NKJV cf. I Pet.2:9). When the Levites were consecrated into the priesthood, they were ceremonially washed with water (Ex.29:1-4).
Water baptism was also not an option but a mandatory step of religious devotion. Many years after the giving of the law at Mount Sinai, John the Baptist, the forerunner of Christ, “came baptizing in the wilderness and preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins” (Mk.1:4 NKJV cf. Lk.3:3). Israel was called to be a kingdom of priests and the kingdom was at hand because the King, the prophesied Messiah, had come. Despite John’s earnest pleas and warnings of the wrath to come, their religious leaders despised God’s truth and spurned His will by rejecting John’s baptism (Lk.7:30). After Christ’s ascension, the twelve waited for the promise of the Father which came upon them through the Spirit’s outpouring at Pentecost. Once the people were confronted with their rejection of Messiah, Peter instructed them to “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins” (Acts 2:38a NKJV cf. Mk.16:16).
The careful student of Scripture will also recognize that there are multiple baptisms recorded in the Word of God. Three of which are John’s baptism with water, Christ’s baptism with the Holy Spirit, and His baptism with fire (Matt.3:11). Fulfillment of the second in the sequence is observed on the day of Pentecost where Christ is baptizing His people with the Holy Spirit. By way of contrast, the Apostle Paul teaches that believers become members of Christ’s body by being baptized into Christ by the Holy Spirit. Elsewhere, he teaches that one essential of the seven-fold doctrinal unity of the Spirit is the “one baptism” (Eph.4:5). Since there are multiple baptisms in Scripture, this demands an answer as to which one of them is for the body of Christ. The Biblical conclusion is that the one baptism for the Church in the dispensation of grace is the one Holy Spirit baptism whereby believers in Christ are identified or placed into His death, burial, and resurrection at the moment of salvation (Rom.6:3,4 cf. Eph.1:13,14).
ISRAEL AND THE BODY OF CHRIST
There is a clear bifurcation between God’s prophetic program for the nation of Israel and His mystery or secret program for the Church, the body of Christ. Prophecy’s theme pertains to Israel’s hope of an earthly kingdom where Messiah will rule and reign for 1,000 years. The theme of the mystery pertains to the body of Christ and the exaltation of its members in the heavenlies with their Head, the Lord Jesus Christ.
This two-fold purpose between prophecy and mystery is demonstrated by the Apostle Paul in his recognition of God’s design for Israel to be a channel of blessing to the world as the covenant people of God. It was to them that the covenants of promise were given as well as the law and the overall service of God as His representatives on earth. Israel was to be the agent of truth through which God’s light would shine unto the nations and draw them unto the Creator. Apart from their testimony, the Gentiles were in darkness possessing no hope in the world (Eph.2:11,12). Instead of drawing the nations unto Jehovah, their harlotry drove the Gentiles to blaspheme the name of God (Rom.2:24). Israel’s heart was hardened to the point that when Messiah came, she rejected His ministry and called for His crucifixion. In obstinate rebellion, Israel spurned the apostles’ testimony and stood by their rejection of Christ by stoning His servant, Stephen.
Upon the three-fold rejection of the Godhead, the Lord temporarily set His prophetic program aside and ushered in His mystery or secret program for the Church, the body of Christ. Today, through Israel’s fall, salvation has freely come to the Gentiles as Israel has been blinded until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in (Rom.11:11,12,25). This present state of affairs will continue until after the pretribulational rapture of the Church (I Thes.4:13-18) when God resumes His plan and purpose for the earth with the prophesied time of Jacob’s trouble, the outpouring of His wrath in the dreaded tribulation period (II Thes.2:1-4).
Today, in the dispensation of grace, God is lavishing the world with the riches of His grace through the risen and exalted Christ. The Church is the steward of God’s message of grace and it is through its ministry that Jews and Gentiles alike are made nigh to God and blessed with a position in His family described as being fellow heirs (Eph.2:13; 3:6). God is no longer dealing with mankind primarily through His law, as in times past, but now He operates primarily on the basis of His grace. There is no longer national distinction, but under grace God is dealing with the world on the basis of His grace made available through the shed blood of Christ at Calvary.
The salvation of depraved sinners through Christ begins and ends with God Himself. Adonai Jehovah is the transcendent, immutable, and holy Creator God of the universe. Mankind committed a treasonous act of rebellion against His sovereign authority and subsequently plunged the human race under the curse of physical and spiritual death (Gen.2:17; Rom.5:12). Left by himself, man will one die physically and be banished forever from the presence of God and suffer the second death in the lake of fire (Rev.20:15). From the heart of God, came redemption through the Person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ as the perfect and only Savior of mankind. Any lost sinner can be saved from the penalty of his sins in the lake of fire by God’s grace through faith alone in the Person and work of Jesus Christ.
Salvation has always been made available to mankind by the grace of God although it has not always been received by faith alone in Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. Theologians understand today that the merits of Calvary are applied retroactively to the redeemed of all ages (Rom.3:25) even though believers at the time may have known very little truth beyond the prophecy of the coming Seed of the woman (Gen.3:15). In times past, there were required expressions of faith that were outward testimony of the genuine faith value of one’s belief in God. For example, the ceremonial rites of the covenant, under the Mosaic law, mandated animal sacrifices as a blood atonement or covering for sin’s committed. Recognizing that there were required expressions of faith under the law is the key to understanding the contrast between such Biblical texts at James 2 and Romans 4.
In the dispensation of grace, salvation is still available to lost sinners by the grace of God but the gift is received through faith alone apart from any works. Today, a person must see himself as a depraved sinner deserving of wrath in the sight of a holy God (Rom.3:9,19-20, 23; 6:23). Once the sinner sees his need for salvation, he must understand that the Lord Jesus Christ, God the Son, shed His blood on the cross to pay for his sins, was buried, and conquered sin and death by rising again on the third day that He may glorify Himself in giving the gift of eternal life to all who will receive it by faith. Intellectual agreement with historical fact is not salvation but the lost sinner must have the merits of Christ personally appropriated to his heart and life by receiving Christ as Lord and Savior. A sinner receives Christ by placing his faith and trust in Christ. The sinner must respond in faith to the grace of God by believing in his heart that Christ died on the cross for his sins and rose again that he might have life eternal. At the moment of salvation, the believer receives the total forgiveness of sins through the blood of Christ, the gift of eternal life through Christ’s resurrection, is robed in Christ’s righteousness through the one baptism, and made eternally secure in Christ through the sealing by and with God the Holy Spirit (Eph.1:13,14; 2:8,9). Soli Deo Gloria!
Mid-Acts dispensational theology is consistent with historic Christian orthodoxy but distinct among the evangelical Christian faith. Its essentials include a mid-Acts beginning for the body of Christ, an emphasis upon the believer’s total identification into Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection being a product of Holy Spirit baptism at the moment of salvation, the temporary postponement and setting aside of God’s prophetic plan and purpose for Israel until after the pretribulational rapture of the Church, Jew and Gentile salvation apart from the Mosaic law but freely received by God’s grace through faith alone in the risen Christ and His shed blood on behalf of depraved sinners at Calvary. Grace theology thoroughly emphasizes the gospel of God’s grace (Acts 20:24) and the dispensation of His grace (Eph.3:2) and is therefore also known as “The Grace Message.” As the primary dynamic of Biblical doctrine and Christian living, believers in Christ are not only saved by grace (Eph.2:8,9) but also live well-pleasing and fruitful lives unto the Lord by His grace (Titus 2:11-14). The sum and substance of Who God is and what He has done through Christ is for the purpose of glorifying Himself throughout eternity and that our lives, as redeemed saints, would bear testimony “to the praise of the glory of His grace, by which He made us accepted in the Beloved” [Jesus Christ] (Eph.1:6).
Baker, Charles F. A Dispensational Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Grace Publications, 1994.
Blades, Keith R. Satan and His Plan of Evil. Calgary, Alberta, Canada: Enjoy the Bible Ministries, 1994.
Chafer, Lewis S. Systematic Theology. Dallas, TX: Dallas Seminary Press, 1976.
DeWitt, Dale S. Dispensational Theology in America During the 20th Century. Grand Rapids, MI: Grace Bible College Publications, 2002.
Driscoll, Mark, and Gerry Breshears. Doctrine. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2010.
ESV Study Bible. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008.
Elwell, Walter A., ed. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001.
Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), p.405-406.
Finck, Joel. The Mystery. Rapid City, SD: Grace Bible Church Publications, 1997.
Ham, Ken, ed. The New Answers Book 1. Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 2009.
Ham, Ken, ed. The New Answers Book 2. Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 2009.
MacDonald, S. Craig. Understanding Your Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Grace Gospel Fellowship, 1995.
Mortenson, Terry, and Thane H. Ury, eds. Coming To Grips With Genesis. Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 2008.
Reeves, Michael. The Unquenchable Flame. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing, 2010.
Ryrie, Charles C. Dispensationalism Today. Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1981.
Sadler, Paul M. Exploring the Unsearchable Riches of Christ. Germantown, WI: Berean Bible Society, 1993.
Stam, Cornelius R. Things That Differ. Germantown, WI: Berean Bible Society, 1985.
Webb, Donald. Basic Bible Doctrines. West Lafayette, IN: Day of Grace Ministries, 1996.
1 Hereafter, also referred to as “grace theology.”
2 ESV Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008), 2519.
3 Michael Reeves. The Unquenchable Flame. (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing, 2010), 106.
4 Walter A. Elwell. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 475.
5 Craig S. MacDonald. Understanding Your Bible. (Grand Rapids, MI: Grace Gospel Fellowship, 1995), 5.
6 Having said that, Biblical teaching regarding such doctrines as the character of God and applicable principles for life can still be derived from all of Scripture. Therefore, the entire Bible deserves careful attention.
7 Cornelius R. Stam. Things That Differ. (Germantown, WI: Berean Bible Society, 1985), 20.
8 Paul M. Sadler. Exploring the Unsearchable Riches of Christ. (Germantown, WI: Berean Bible Society, 1993), 16.
9 Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), 248.
10 Ken Ham, ed. The New Answers Book 2. (Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 2009), 13.
11 The original autographs were specifically inspired by God yet Biblical translations are also still considered to be recognized as the Word of God.
12 Erickson, Millard J., Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), p.248.
13 Ibid, p.232.
14 Ibid, p.225.
15 Terry Mortenson and Thane H. Ury, eds. Coming To Grips With Genesis. (Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 2008), 454.
16 Ken Ham, ed. The New Answers Book 1. (Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 2009), 255.
17 Grace theologians also refer to the General Epistles as the Kingdom or Circumcision Epistles.