Pristine Grace

Progressive Revelation in the Book of Acts
by Bob Higby

Progressive Revelation in the Book of Acts

"I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you. All things that the Father has are Mine. Therefore I said that He will take of Mine and declare it to you." John 16:12-15 NKJV

     Both the traditional Reformed covenant and mid-Acts dispensational theologies deny progressive revelation of the truth after the resurrection of Christ and first coming of the Holy Spirit in Pentecostal power. Covenant theology would propose that the gospel in its fullness was known by the apostles from the very beginning of Acts, therefore, the revelation to Paul had nothing to add to it. We are told that any other position is a denial of the authority of the God-breathed sayings quoted from the infant era of the Christian community. Dispensational theology would propose that all the quotations in early Acts were for the Jewish and not Gentile economy of redemption, therefore, they portray no misunderstanding of the gospel. So anyone challenging both ‘poles’ of teaching will have to endure a white-hot hellfire from both sides as opposed to icy blue rhetorical fire that either pole has to endure from the other.

     Prior to God’s revelation of the full-corn gospel to Paul in Arabia and the unleashing of that testimony to the world, there is not a shred of evidence that any apostle or other follower of Christ abandoned a single one of the old laws and sacraments of Judaism. There is some debate over whether God’s revelation to Peter in Acts 10, 11:1-18 came before or after the events of Acts 11:19-30. The narrative of Acts 11:19-30 easily lends to the conclusion that the events following overlap the prior events instead of being successive. At any rate, the uniform proclamation of the full-corn gospel message by both Paul and Peter started around the same time. In spite of Stephen’s proclamation that God does not dwell in temples made with human hands (Acts 7:47-50, there was no abandonment of the externals of old Judaism before Acts 11. The white-hot quarrels over the law that became so common after the advent of Paul’s testimony to the Gentiles did not exist prior to it.

     Many statements and events recorded in early Acts betray a lack of understanding of what God would ultimately reveal as the gospel in its fullness. Starting with the apostles’ question to Christ in Acts 1:6Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel? we see a sequence of immature persuasion on display. The Lord might have answered immediately: "Don’t you remember what I said in the parable of the vineyard laborers? The kingdom will NEVER be restored to Israel" but that is not what he did. He left the weeding out of false beliefs to the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit that would finally result in a full understanding of the truth of the gospel.

     The two most common errors of the early apostles were misguided zeal for the old law and equation of water baptism with the old era washings that purged the guilt of sin. There was not an immediate disassociation of Christian baptism from John’s "preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins" (Mark 1:4, Acts 2:38; 19:4, 22:16). In the old law remission of sins was tied to the rites of water purification, as well as the rest of the sacrificial system. All of it was sacramental. The initial practice of Christian water baptism added the name of Jesus to the baptism of repentance taught by John. However, receiving the forgiveness and grace of God was still believed to be dependent upon it. The Lord did not see fit to correct this immature understanding even in Acts 8. The Holy Spirit waited until after the application of water baptism before he came upon any of the converts in Pentecostal power.

     In the first days of the apostolic era, it was not God’s purpose to unleash the full-corn gospel of assurance of justification by faith alone (which always includes repentance as a corollary—Acts 20:21). Men were instead assured of justification by repentance unto life AND water baptism in the name of Christ. They also believed that God required continued zealous obedience to the entire Jewish law once (including circumcision) after forgiveness to evidence genuine conversion. Not until Acts 10 do we see the first event of the Holy Spirit coming upon believers prior to their water baptism—and upon those who would continue to ignore obeying the Jewish law!

     The Reformed will always try to impose aspects of the old law and sacraments on us: Sabbaths in the form of Sunday, tithes, circumcision in the form of infant dabbing, the legitimacy of gospel preaching and sacramental administration as only ordained by institutional power. They quote from early Acts to enforce these notions and ignore the testimony of the Pauline gospel. Likewise, the dispensationalists will always say God will pour out his wrath on those who deny the Jewish administration of the gospel in early Acts and the restoration of Israel in the future. We can just ignore both of them and stand by the truth of God.

     In the end, the zeal for the law that characterized Christianity in its infancy was not commended but condemned (Acts 20:21 and all of the Pauline writings). Once the fullness of the gospel came, God expected men to abandon the old attachments to Judaism. After the complete revelation of the truth, a stubborn refusal to abandon teaching obedience to the Jewish laws and a sacramental doctrine of baptism meet the judgment of God. The Lord plunged the Jerusalem community professing Christ into poverty and famine from which it never recovered.

     We should not be disturbed by the fact that Acts records the early ignorance of many aspects of gospel truth as it would later be revealed by the Holy Spirit. The testimony of those events was recorded by Luke under inspiration--but not all of the words quoted are free from error as judged by later revelation. We might state that in a sense they were free from error at the time—because God saw fit not to correct some of their Jewish traditions until later. That is how he chose to work in his sovereign control of the history of the gospel!