Although no one may actually come right out and say it, when it comes to the distinctive ministry and message of the Apostle Paul, many believers apparently think, “What difference does it make?” While such a question is understandable when it comes from someone unfamiliar with Pauline dispensationalism, the question is quite disturbing when it comes from those within the “Grace Movement.”
The “third generation syndrome”1 that afflicts Christianity in general also seems to affect the Grace Movement. By the third generation, we see many descendants of Pauline grace believers going back to denominationalism or other belief systems. When asked why they are reverting back to what their grandparents or parents came out of, they often answer, “What’s the big deal?” or, “What difference does it make?”
While those of us who stand for the Grace message may chafe at such a question, it is still vitally important that we know the answer to such a question. What difference DOES it make?
The answer to the question, “What difference does it make?” will depend largely on whether or not we place a high premium on God’s Word. If we take God’s Word and living a God-honoring Christian live seriously, the Grace message makes a tremendous difference. But if we are noncommittal to God, apathetic to His Word, and don’t care to live a Christ-honoring life, then it will not make much of a difference at all.
But let us say that you take the Bible and your walk before Him seriously. If you do, then the knowledge of God’s Word rightly divided will affect all areas of your life. However, for the sake of discussion, we will focus on just three areas: Bible Interpretation, Evangelism, and our Christian Walk.
Understanding the distinctive ministry of the Apostle Paul is absolutely necessary if we are going to be able to consistently interpret the Word of God. Many times critics of the Bible say that they cannot believe it to be true because it is full of contradictions. Of course, we do not believe that it is “full of contradictions,” but it is true that without a full understanding of God’s different dispensations the Bible does appear to contradict itself.
The only method of biblical interpretation that allows the Bible to mean what it says and say what it means—to whom it was written—is the literal method of interpretation. By literal interpretation we mean letting the Bible speak with the normal meaning of words. While the Bible is a supernatural book, we read it as we would any other book, letting the normal rules of grammar and word meanings speak to us.
Even those who do not accept dispensationalism admit that if you stick to a literal method of interpretation you will have to be a dispensationalist. If you do not believe in dispensationalism then you are forced to explain away the contradictions in the Scriptures — which are not contradictions when properly understood in their dispensational context.
Many dispensationalists understand the difference between Israel and the Body of Christ. That such a distinction exists cannot be missed if you literally interpret Paul’s epistles. Many dispensational Bible teachers of the past and present (such as Scofield, Darby, Chafer, Walvoord, McGee, Swindoll, etc.) understand that we are now in the dispensation of grace, or as some call it, “the Church Age.”
But unfortunately, they fail to see the distinctive message and nature of Paul’s apostleship. By failing to see and accept this clearly stated distinction they fail to see the kingdom nature of the gospel accounts and read the Body of Christ back into them. They understand the principle of progressive revelation and know not to read doctrines about the Body of Christ back into the Old Testament, but they do not see that this same principle should also apply to the gospels as well.
They constantly take us back to the earthly ministry of Christ to the Jews as our model of conduct for today. They do this in spite of the fact that even they themselves do not believe that the Church, the Body of Christ began until Pentecost. This leaves the question of how Christ can be speaking to the Body of Christ in the gospels when it did not come into existence until afterward?
It is also hard to understand how dispensationalists who claim to interpret the Bible literally can believe that the Body of Christ is in the gospels when even Christ Himself clearly states that He did not come to the Gentiles (Matt. 10:5-6; 15:24). How can they not believe and accept Paul’s unique apostleship and message when he proclaims it so clearly? (Acts 9:15; 22:21; 26:17; Rom. 11:13; Gal. 2:8-9; Eph. 3:1; 3:8; Col. 1:27; I Tim. 2:7; II Tim. 1:11).
Only by interpreting the Bible literally and being a consistent dispensationalist will we arrive at the proper message for us today. There are many preachers and Bible teachers who proclaim the truth of salvation by grace through faith alone. They quickly run to Paul’s epistles to expound on the great doctrines of the Christian faith. They do not go to the gospels or the general epistles to prove salvation by faith alone—because you will not find it there! As the late C. I. Scofield said in the preface to Paul’s epistles in his original reference Bible:
“The Epistles of the Apostle Paul have a very distinctive char-acter…Through Paul alone we know that the church is not an organization, but an organism, the body of Christ; instinct with His life, and heavenly in calling, promise, and destiny. Through him alone we know the nature, purpose, and form of organization of local churches, and the right conduct of such gatherings. Through him alone do we know that `we shall not all sleep,’ that `the dead in Christ shall rise first,’ and that living saints shall be `changed’ and caught up to meet the Lord in the air at His return. But to Paul was also committed the unfolding of the doctrines of grace…Paul, converted by the personal ministry of the Lord in glory, is distinctively the witness to a glorified Christ, Head over all things to the church which is His body, as the Eleven were to Christ in the flesh.”
It is unfortunate that the editors of the New Scofield Bible chose to water down Dr. Scofield’s clear teaching on the distinctive nature of Paul’s apostleship.
Many Bible teachers today properly teach salvation by grace through faith alone for this dispensation, but because they fail to understand Paul’s unique apostleship and message to the Gentiles, they often take us back to the gospels or general epistles for many teachings today.
While Paul himself says that all Scripture is profitable, we must still understand the difference between what is written for us and what is written to us. Only Paul’s epistles are written to us, but all Scripture is for us. That is, we build our doctrine from Paul’s epistles. We are then free to study all of Scripture in light of Paul’s gospel and draw application and principles from all of the Bible and apply it to our life (Rom. 15:4; I Cor. 10:6; II Tim. 3:16).
We are often criticized for our lack of emphasis on evangelism. Thankfully, many grace believers are starting to develop a renewed emphasis on evangelism. However, before we can evangelize, we first need to know what message it is that we are proclaiming for salvation.
It is interesting that even those who reject Pauline dispensationalism go to Paul’s epistles to get the majority of their evangelistic texts. This is because anyone who is saved in this dispensation is saved by believing the gospel of the grace of God as given to and through the Apostle Paul. In a way, ALL believers today are “grace believers.” NO ONE is saved today apart from understanding Paul’s gospel of faith alone in the finished work of Jesus Christ on our behalf.
There is only ONE gospel for salvation today—Paul’s gospel. Some balk at calling it that, but under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit this is what it is called (Rom. 2:16; 16:25; II Tim. 2:8). This good news is clearly laid out for us in I Corinthians 15:3-4 and it includes the death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.
“But what about Peter?” you may be thinking. “Didn’t he preach the same thing as Paul?” It is true that he also preached about the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, BUT he preached about it in keeping with Israel’s earthly kingdom program. When we look at Acts 2:22-36 and 3:13-15, we see that he preached about the crucifixion of Christ as the cause of judgment upon the Jews. You do not find Peter preaching faith alone at Pentecost.
Peter told the Jews to repent of killing Jesus Christ. If they would repent (as a nation), then the times of refreshing from God would come upon the nation Israel. While it is true that Jesus Christ is the source of the good news for both Jew and Gentile under both the prophetic and mystery programs, we certainly cannot say that Peter understood the gospel of the mystery at Pentecost (after all, it was not revealed until the Apostle Paul).
When Paul preached about the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, he did it not according to prophecy, but according to the mystery,:
“Now to him that is of power to stablish you according to my gospel, and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began, But now is made manifest, and by the Scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the everlasting God, made known to all nations for the obedience of faith” (Rom. 16:25-26).
The proper application of the gospel in this dispensation of grace is FAITH ALONE. Ephesians 2:8-9 clearly states, “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.”
“What difference does it make?” It makes a BIG difference! If we do not understand Paul’s distinct apostleship and message we may wrongly try to evangelize by preaching the gospel (the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ) according to prophecy and not according to the revelation of the mystery.
Ephesians 2:8-9 flatly contradicts the message of faith plus works as the expression of their faith that we find in the gospel accounts (Matt. 5:19-20; 12:50; 23:3; Mark 11:26; Luke 3:10,12,14; 6:46; 8:21; 10:28; 17:10; 18:18-20). If we fail to “rightly divide” the Scriptures we will have a contradictory gospel. The New Testament clearly teaches both the gospel according to prophecy and the gospel according to the mystery. In an attempt to harmonize the Scriptures, most theologians do one of three things when faced with these facts:
- Superimpose the kingdom gospel into Paul’s gospel
- Read Paul’s gospel back into the kingdom gospel
- Rightly divide the Scriptures
The first choice is what some Bible teachers have done in an attempt to make sense of the kingdom gospel and the gospel of the dispensation of the grace of God. An example of this is the Lordship Salvation teaching of Pastor John MacArthur.
The second choice is what most evangelicals and fundamentalists do. They understand the gospel of salvation as revealed in Paul’s epistles. They teach that salvation today is apart from works and totally by faith alone in the finished work of Christ. They are forced to explain away, rationalize, or spiritualize the clear teachings of the gospels that teach faith plus works.
The third choice, right division, is the only choice that allows God’s Word to say what it means and mean what it says. Understanding Paul’s unique apostleship and message allows the Bible to teach what the literal sense of the words clearly indicates—a message of faith plus works to the Jews in keeping with their earthly prophetic program under the dispensation of law and a message of faith alone to everyone today in keeping with the heavenly mystery program under the dispensation of the grace of God.
Understanding Paul’s gospel not only gives us the proper evangelistic message, it also provides us the proper motivation for sharing the gospel of the grace of God. We are not to be motivated by guilt. Rather, the love of Christ should compel us just as it did the Apostle Paul (II Cor. 5:14).
The end does not justify means. This is especially true when it comes to interpreting and applying the Scriptures. While they may mean well, far too many Bible teachers revert to kingdom Scriptures when trying to motivate us to share our faith.
An Old Testament passage commonly used to this end is Ezekiel 3:17-21. After this passage is read, we are then exhorted that we are the designated “watchmen” of our generation and that if someone who we failed to witness to dies and goes to hell, “his blood will be upon our head.” Should we take advantage of every opportunity to share the good news of salvation? Most certainly! But if we don’t take advantage of the opportunity, will that person’s blood be on our head? Absolutely not. However, we should be aware that while we will not be guilty of the person’s blood, we ourselves will suffer loss at the Judgment Seat of Christ.
What difference does this make? It can make a big difference in our motive and approach to evangelism. If we share the gospel with others because we are motivated by guilt or fear our attitude will be evident to them. Our motive for evangelism should be the love of Christ, not our own self-interest. And believe me, people can tell the difference.
Another verse used is Luke 14:23 wherein we are told to go out into the highways and byways and “compel” them to come in. Again, while it is true that we should lovingly urge those to whom we witness to accept Christ, there is no place for arm-twisting or being ungracious in our approach.
Probably the most frequently misapplied passage as related to evangelism is Matthew 28:19-20. Most conservative Christians have been taught that this is the “Great Commission.” Most people fail to see the 100% Jewish context of these verses. The command to “teach all nations” does not refer to teaching them the gospel of the grace of God; rather, what they are to go out teaching is the gospel of the kingdom. The Jews were always intended by God to be the channel of salvation for the Gentiles. (That Gentiles could be saved is not the gospel of the mystery. The aspect of Gentile salvation that was not revealed until the Apostle Paul is that Gentiles could be saved apart from Israel). The fact of the kingdom gospel is further emphasized in that they are to be “baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” You never find water baptism to be a part of the gospel of the grace of God. As a matter of fact, Paul said just the opposite in I Corinthians 1:17 where he states, “For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect.”
Another phrase within this text that shows its Jewish/kingdom nature is “teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.” What did Christ command His disciples? He taught them to keep the law: “Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to His disciples, Saying, The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not” (Matt. 23:1-3).
It is only by reading Paul’s gospel into the kingdom program that we can try to apply the so-called “Great Commission” to us today.
But even as we say that the “Great Commission” is not for us today, we also want to point out just as quickly that this does not mean that we do not believe in the need for evangelism. Quite the contrary! We have what has been called the “Greater Commission!”
“Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. And all things are of God, Who hath reconciled us to Himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation. Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God” (II Cor 5:17-20).
We are sent out not as someone who testifies under compulsion, fear, or guilt. Rather, we are sent out as joyful ambassadors on behalf of our God! We do not go to the world with a message of judgment, but with one of reconciliation. This we can do with joy and love on behalf of those to whom we are sent.
What motivates us to testify of the gospel of the grace of God is love, not guilt or fear. We share our faith because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts and not out of self-interest. We witness for their benefit, not ours. The lost world around us can tell what motivates us, and as one has said, “The world doesn’t care what you know until they know that you care.”
Not only does understanding the gospel of the grace of God provide a proper motive for us to share our faith, it also gives us the proper motive and means to live the Christian life effectively.
By what method or means are we enabled to live a proper Christian life? The fact that a proper walk is desired by God is evidenced by the many times in Paul’s epistles that we are exhorted to “walk worthy” or to practically live up to what God has called us to be in Christ. In Ephesians 4:1 Paul beseeches us that we would “walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called” (Eph 4:1). (See also Rom.6:4; Eph. 2:10; 5:8; Col. 1:10; 2:6; 4:5; I Thes. 2:12; 4:1).
But while we may readily admit the need to live in such a way that honors Christ, we also ask “How?” What is the means to living what some call a “victorious Christian life”?
Some would have us believe that the way to walk worthy is to “speak the word of faith” and to command Satan to leave us alone. Any lapse or failure to achieve victory is blamed on us. “You didn’t have enough faith” we are told. Unfortunately, those who try to live out this misapplied teaching find themselves frustrated because it simply does not work in this present evil age. In this age, we are not exhorted to bind or rebuke Satan, but to put on the whole armor of God so that we can stand against him:
“Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand” (Eph 6:11-13).
THIS is the secret to a dynamic Christian life! Not in “speaking the word of faith” or other such New Age and in some cases, occultic practices! There is no magic formula, no quick and easy shortcut to Christian maturity and victory. Maturity comes only as we read and submit to God’s Word in our life. Victory comes only by the daily sacrifice and submission of ourselves to God (Rom. 12:1-2).
The gospel of the grace of God also gives us the proper motivation for living righteously before God. Our primary motivation to live as we should is the overwhelming love of God that is poured out upon us (Rom. 5:5; II Cor. 5:14; Gal. 5:6; Eph. 2:4; 3:19). It is this love that is supposed to motivate us to in turn love God and others (Eph. 5:2).
The reason that we are separated from the world and unto God is not because of some legalistic mindset, but because of our love for others. Paul says that he is careful to not offend the unsaved (Jews or Gentiles) or the saved (the church of God) and that he doesn’t seek his own profit, “but the profit of many, that they may be saved” (I Cor. 10:32-33).
This is why we refrain from certain activities. Not because we think we are more pious or holy than others, but to make sure that we do not place a stumbling block in front of them (i.e., trip them up) spiritually.
“We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let every one of us please his neighbour for his good to edification. For even Christ pleased not Himself; but, as it is written, The reproaches of them that reproached Thee fell on Me” (Rom. 15:1-3).
“But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to them that are weak… And through thy knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died? But when ye sin so against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, ye sin against Christ” (I Cor. 8:9,11,12).
We see that the love and grace of God toward us and our love for others for the sake of the gospel should constrain us to live righteously and holy in this present evil age. Our motivation should not be what pleases us, but that which leads to the edification and salvation of others.
Another seldom mentioned aspect of the dispensation of Grace that should motivate us to walk as we should is the Judgment Seat of Christ. As stewards we will be required to give an account before God as to how we have administered the gospel that He has entrusted to us (Rom. 14:12; I Cor. 4:2; II Cor. 5:10).
We do not have to ever worry about eternal damnation or judgment for sin because that was paid for by the blood of Christ and we are secure in Him (Rom. 8:31-34; Col. 2:10). However, there will be an accounting. Just as God’s love compels us to serve Him (as that of a son who wants to please his earthly father), fear of His displeasure likewise motivates us as well. Just as an earthly son does not want to experience the displeasure of his father, so we should also be concerned about our Father’s displeasure at the Bema Seat of Christ.
But we must remember that displeasure does not equal damnation or loss of sonship. My son may do something that displeases me, but that will never change the fact that he is my son and heir. While there is nothing that can change the established fact that we are sons of God and heirs with Christ, this does not mean that our Father cannot be displeased with us, either here or at the Judgment Seat of Christ.
This is why Paul, speaking of the children of Israel, writes in I Corinthians 10:5, “But with many of them God was not well pleased: for they were overthrown in the wilderness.” And he goes on to say, “Now these things were our examples, to the intent we should not lust after evil things, as they also lusted” (I Cor. 10:6). Paul is saying that just as God was not well pleased with many (not a few) of the Israelites, He is often not pleased with the Church, the Body of Christ today—in a practical sense. The Israelites were still His chosen people. We are still members of the Body of Christ. But being in the Body of Christ and knowing certain truths does not mean that we are living in such a way that is well-pleasing to God.
Some believers have unfortunately (and to their detriment) misinterpreted II Timothy 2:15. They mistakenly think that “study” simply means to academically study God’s Word and know the facts about God’s program for today as revealed through the Apostle Paul.
To “study” means to be diligent. Diligent unto what? Diligent unto the end of being “approved unto God.” Approved unto God refers to the Judgment Seat of Christ (II Cor. 5:10). What will be judged at the Judgment Seat of Christ? Our knowledge of the Scriptures? Our knowledge of “right division”? No! What will be judged at the Bema Seat of Christ are “the things done in his [our] body, according to that he [we] hath done, whether it be good or bad.” Notice that it is our works that will be judged—our walk, not our talk.
The last part of II Timothy 2:15 “rightly dividing the Word of truth” is the means to the end, not the end itself. “Rightly dividing the Word of truth” or knowing God’s program for today is what gives us the means or way to “be diligent” and live our life in such a way that we will be “approved unto God” at the Bema Seat of Christ.
- The “third generation syndrome” is the tendency for third generation Christians to walk away from the faith. The first generation of people saved tend to be enthusiastic and “on fire” for the things of the Lord. The children of the first generation are in church and saved but tend to be less enthusiastic for the things of the Lord. By the third generation many children are typically nominally involved in church, or not involved in the things of God at all, or in worse case scenarios, not even saved.