Being a Pentecost Christian: The Gifts and the Gift

by Steven McCarthy

People love lists, from the Billboard Top 20, to 9-things-you-should-know-about-this, to 16-reasons-you-should-never-do-that. Perhaps this is why churches sometimes seem to obsess over lists of “spiritual gifts” (abilities the Spirit works in people),[1] even to the apparent neglect at the Giver, the Spirit, who is himself the Gift above all gifts, and the fruits of the Spirit – “love, joy, peace,” etc. (Gal 5:16-26) – which his “spiritual gifts” are meant to promote. Yet there are such lists to be found in the New Testament, in 1 Corinthians 12, Romans 12, and Ephesians 4. And, as with all the Spirit teaches in the Bible, they are for our benefit (2Ti 3:16), if properly employed. Without repeating what others will write about who the Spirit is and what he does, I will seek to treat “spiritual gifts” in the context of the gift of the Spirit and the Spirit’s fruits.

Comparing lists, 1 Corinthians 12 presents markedly miraculous powers. These range from speaking abilities, such as prophecy (most likely in the sense of uttering direct, often predictive communications from God) and a supernaturally acquired capacity to speak other languages (“tongues”), to action-abilities, such as “faith” to work miracles or to convey healing to others beyond doctors or medicine. Many have held that these so-called “sign-gifts” faded with the close of the church’s foundational era.[2] The apostle Paul confronts the divisive abuse of these gifts and of other current practices in the church at Corinth, and stresses that even such powerful abilities, which he calls “manifestations of the Spirit”, were Divinely intended “for the common good” (1Cor 12:7).[3]

Ephesians 4 actually describes official positions, roles, or functions in the church community, rather than various abilities. Many have held that some of these are unique to the foundational era of the church (e.g., apostles), while others are generally recognized as continuing (e.g., pastor-teachers). Certain abilities would of course be necessary for these various roles.

Romans 12, in contrast to 1 Corinthians, can be seen as detailing abilities of a less pronouncedly supernatural character. However, these too are attributed personally to the Spirit of God as “the Lord and Giver of Life,” and not merely to natural causes. After all, the Spirit of God is even responsible for animal and vegetable life (Psalm 104:29-30). The gifts again range from action-abilities, such as serving, to speaking-abilities, such as teaching, but this time of a kind that is generally recognized as remaining in the church (though there are debates about the precise nature of such items as “prophecy”).

By all means, examine these lists, particularly that in Romans 12 which is generally acknowledged as being in active, global currency, and consider what abilities the Spirit may have proportioned to you (1Cor 12:11). But do so with the following firmly in mind.

First, God the Spirit himself is the indescribable Gift from God the Father and God the Son (John 14:16). The Spirit’s chief work is to illumine our minds so that we understand the truth about Jesus Christ that he also first inspired to be proclaimed (John 14:26; 16:13), to renew our hearts so that we embrace this saving truth (John 3:5; Matt 3:11), and to powerfully join us to Christ and each other as we partake of him together as Savior and Lord (1Cor 6:9-11; 12:3,13).

Second, the gifts of the Spirit are for the edifying of the body of the church, which the surrounding contexts of the three lists emphasize. In 1 Corinthians, for example, a discussion of “spiritual gifts” (12:1) gives way to the emphatic urging of “faith, hope, and love” (13:13) as “the still more excellent way” (12:31) the Spirit works. “The greatest of these is love,” which Paul says, “never ends,” though prophecies, knowledge, and tongues “pass away.” (13:8,13) This is because the gifts – both those of a more decidedly extraordinary character, and those of a seemingly more mundane nature – were all given to promote the Spirit’s overarching project of producing faith in our Savior, Jesus Christ, hope for the future completion of his work in us, and love for him, the Father, and, indeed, the Holy Spirit.

Steven McCarthy is pastor of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Walton, NY, a graduate of the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Pittsburgh, PA, and a Th.M. student in Reformation and Post-Reformation Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, MI. He lives with his wife and three children in the Catskill Mountains of Upstate New York.

[1] Perhaps “spiritual” should have a capital “S”.

[2] E.g., Michael Horton, Rediscovering the Holy Spirit: God’s Perfecting Presence in Creation, Redemption, and Everyday Life (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 235-243.

[3] Scripture quotations from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016).


The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is member supported and operates only by your faithful support. Thank you.

Place for Truth is a voice of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Place for Truth and the mission of the Alliance.

Being a Pentecost Christian: Revival!

Generally speaking, to revive something is to bring it back to health or strength. Something is in some weak state and when it is revived it regains new health and vibrancy. Typically, when we hear the word “revival” in a Christian setting we think of a series of meeting that involve the preaching of the gospel in the hope and expectation that God will bring renewed spiritual health in individuals as well as the conversion of unbelievers.

Since the Holy Spirit is the person of the Trinity whom God sends to bring life to those dead in sins, the Holy Spirit is the only one who can bring revival. Moving from death to life in the “new birth” or being “born again” is a work of the Holy Spirit. He must impart life to that which is in spiritual deadness.

John 3:7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’

John 3:8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

The Spirit of God comes like a wind, according to his will, and imparts life. Without the work of the Spirit imparting new life, we cannot understand the gospel:

1Cor. 2:12 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God.

1Cor. 2:14 The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.

A common understand of a “revival” is that it centers around a special event. Typically, what happens in a revival style meeting is a preacher or evangelist is brought in for the week to preach a series of salvation messages. In past generations, revivals were often called “tent meetings” because congregants would pitch large tents and preach outdoor to large crowds.

There are good historical roots to revivals. During the First Great Awakening in America, men like George Whitefield, John Wesley, and even Jonathan Edwards experienced numerous conversions as sinners were moved by the power and might of God to repent, confess sins, and turn to Christ. Sometimes these revivals caused people to stir with great displays emotion. While some rejected such displays outright and others automatically assumed this must be what the Spirit’s work looks like, Jonathan Edwards was careful to say that if it is indeed the Holy Spirit he will also cultivate lasting fruit and permanent changes in people’s life.

There are also some bad roots to the modern conception of revival. The Second Great Awakening, in Charles Finney and a few others, we have the use of methods to work up fervor so they would respond to the message. Finney actually argued if the minister applied the music and emotions, working the person up into an excited state, they were more likely to respond. Music, the altar call, and the “anxious bench” became the methods of manipulation. But the reality is no amount of human means can revive those dead in sins. Sadly, the idea persists today that if we can just work the person into a more heightened state of emotions, then they will be able to experience the work of God.

Let’s make some applications:

  1. Revivals are only the product of the work of God by the Holy Spirit. We should be utterly dependent upon the Holy Spirit to do his work. No amount of effort on our part can cause a revival. I cannot work on the hearts of individuals, only God can. Therefore, we should pray regularly and consistently for the Holy Spirit to bring conversion.
  1. Revivals can be “big” and “small.” Sometimes we think and look for revivals as big extraordinary events. Sometimes they are this. Most times, God is at work reviving sinners in slow incremental processes of conversion and growth. The point is that while God at times may pour out the Spirit in abundance to overwhelm and convert a large number of people, this is no greater a miracle than the conversion of a single sinner. In large or small numbers, whenever sinners are moved from death to life the Holy Spirit is bringing revival. Therefore, we should ask the Holy Spirit to bring the lasting fruit that comes from conversion, rather than measuring revival by human standards of size and success.
  1. Revivals can happen to Christians. Consider in the book of Revelation, when John writes to the Seven Churches, several of them need revival. They need renewed strength, repentance, and a returning to their “first love.” There are times that the Christian needs to Holy Spirit to return them to a renewed fervor for the Lord. Therefore, we should pray that the Holy Spirit will continue to work in us and draw us closer into communion with God.

Tim Bertolet is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College and Westminster Theological Seminary.  He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Pretoria, South Africa. He is an ordained pastor in the Bible Fellowship Church, currently serving as pastor of Faith Bible Fellowship Church in York, Pa. He is a husband and father of four daughters. You can follow him on Twitter @tim_bertolet.

Being a Pentecost Christian: The Spirit & Inspiration

What do we mean when we say that the Bible is the Word of God? We mean that while it was written by men, it was not the product of their independent and fallible thoughts. It was inspired by God Himself, and specifically one Person of the Godhead: the Holy Spirit. In this book, the eternal God of the universe has spoken authoritatively, thoroughly, and finally.

Many religious texts have been written throughout human history, all claiming to be inspired by a deity or spiritual force. What separates the Bible from these other books? Namely, that its inspiration is of a different character. The legitimacy of the Bible is underscored by the fact that it was revealed not to one individual at a single point in history, but to multiple individuals over the course of thousands of years. It reveals a God who does not merely show up once or twice and then disappear from the scene, but is an active force in history.

The inspiration of scripture has been one of the most important tasks of the Holy Spirit in redemptive history. However, it is not a task He undertakes without regard to the rest of the Trinity. We confess the classic formula that the Father is unbegotten, the Son is eternally begotten, and the Spirit proceeds. The Son is eternally the Word through which all things came into being (John 1:1-3), but what then is the Spirit? He is the very breath of God sent out into the world. The Hebrew and Greek words for spirit (ruach and pneuma) both carry a connotation of wind or breath. Even as the Word creates, so the breath of God gives life, seen symbolically in the creation of Adam (Genesis 2:7) and Job’s words, “The Spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life.” (Job 33:4)

The Spirit has worked throughout history to take the Word of God and breathe it into the lives of the saints. He has accomplished this in several ways, the first being the revelation of scripture and prophecies. This is vividly portrayed in the Old Testament, where we see the Spirit entering people and allowing them to prophesy. The prophetic calls of Jeremiah and Ezekiel depict the Lord placing His words in their mouths. (Jeremiah 1:9-10; Ezekiel 2:1-2, 9-10) The New Testament confirms that these prophecies were indeed the very Word of God. As the Apostle Paul said, “The Holy Spirit rightly spoke through Isaiah the prophet to your fathers…” (Acts 28:25b)

Then we have the two great New Testament texts about the inspiration of scripture. The first tells us, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17) The Greek word translated as “inspired” actually means “breathed out” and refers to the essential role of the Spirit in the creation of scripture. Second, the Apostle Peter confirmed that prophecy came directly from the Spirit. “But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” (2 Peter 1:16-21) Therefore, the Bible does not simply claim that it contains musings about God, but that it actually is the Word of God, and every bit of it is therefore authoritative.

While the inspiration of scripture occurred at particular points in history, we must also understand the ongoing nature of the Spirit’s work. The Apostle Paul spoke of scripture having a will of its own. (Galatians 3:8, 22) By this, he did not mean the physical pages, but the Spirit who inspired them. The Spirit continues to work in the hearts of believers to illuminate the scriptures. “For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12)

It is the Spirit who allows individuals to comprehend the truths of God’s Word and confess them. “Therefore I make known to you that no one speaking by the Spirit of God says, ‘Jesus is accursed’; and no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 12:3) It is the very Spirit who inspired the scriptures who continues to work through them, not only preserving them but also bringing promises to fruition. “For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, so that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” (Romans 13:4)

We must acknowledge the Spirit’s special role in the inspiration of scripture while also acknowledging that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son to reveal the Word of God. As Jesus said, “When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, that is the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify about Me…” (John 15:26) This is a precious truth for us to remember: that the Bible we cherish is not a mere book, but a living and active Word that reveals to us the triune God.

Amy Mantravadi holds a B.A. in Biblical Literature from Taylor University. She is an active member of Patterson Park Church in Beavercreek, Ohio. You can read her blog at or follow her on Twitter @AmyMantravadi.

Sexual Harassment

     In 2017-8, the long-simmering, long-suppressed scandal of sexual harassment of women in the workplace broke containment. It began when a handful of strong, brave entertainers credibly accused entertainment’s worst offenders of sexual harassment. Men had objectified, harassed, demeaned, and groped them. Bosses had pressed for sexual favors, even forced them, and threatened reprisals if a woman refused to comply or spoke up after the fact. They decided they weren’t going to take it anymore. Once a few stood up, dozens, then hundreds of others came forward. The tide began with entertainers, but women with standing in business and the media soon followed. Next came women with less power, such as hotel workers. The charges were sober and credible and many embraced the cause of reform. Titans of entertainment, media, business, and politics resigned in disgrace or were fired.

     Will that change the life of women? Reform won’t be easy. Humans persist in familiar sins. Further, false accusations will inevitably generate a backlash and give miscreants a quantum of credibility when they deny accusations. Change may be especially difficult in cinema for economic reasons – Sex sells.

     The question is whether American society is willing to see a connection between the way our fictional worlds sexualize and objectify women and the way the real world does.

     The case of Harvey Weinstein, former head of Miramax and The Weinstein Company studios, is familiar. Although he produced an array of superb films, Weinstein was banned from the film industry for pressing actresses to undress and perform sexual acts in private. Ironically, a number of his best films required actresses to undress and perform sexual acts for public consumption.

     In fact, the film industry attracts viewers and makes money by entertaining the world with sexuality, nudity, violence, and depraved acts. The industry showered Weinstein with awards for his skills as a producer. While Weinstein produced an array of character-driven dramas (The King’s Speech, Chocolat, Master and Commander), his films often feature strong violence or sexuality (Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, There Will be Blood, Shakespeare in Love, Sin City). Remembering that a number of men have confessed to offenses (Louis C. K.) or pled guilty to crimes (Roman Polanski), should we not ask if certain men are drawn to the depiction of such acts because they are drawn to the acts themselves?

     Weinstein seemed to find it difficult to separate what his actresses did professionally from what he wanted them to do privately. Indeed, Salma Hayek, who co-wrote, co-produced, and starred in Frida for Miramax, alleged that Weinstein constantly asked for “more skin… more sex.” Weinstein, who (Hayek reports) also threatened to kill her at one point, finally demanded that Hayek do a gratuitous nude scene “or he would never let me finish this movie.” He would have “his fantasy one way or another.” Hayak’s op-ed piece in the New York Times describes the effects of his demand in heart-rending detail.[1]

     The case of Kevin Spacey, an award-winning actor, has parallels. Numerous people also accused him of sexual harassment and assault. Netflix swiftly fired him as the lead in the acclaimed dramatic series, House of Cards. Ironically (again), he lost the role for doing, in real life, approximately what his character did in his dramatic life. Both involved the abuse of power and sexual exploitation.

     Is reform of cinema possible? Maybe not. Sex and violence sell, perhaps because they offer potent vicarious thrills. But as philosopher Charles Taylor says, every culture has “cross-pressures” that question and resist its dominant values. In this case, the cross-pressure battling sexualized entertainment is the passion for justice and women’s rights. But are people willing to see the connection between the sexualization and objectification of women in the fantasy world of movies and real world of business. If men constantly see attractive women sexualized on the screen, should we be surprised if men treat attractive businesswomen similarly? And while we are considering possible connections, could objectification, even dehumanization be a thread linking prostitutes, women in porn, models, and actresses in highly sexualized films? Let’s at least call it a thesis that deserves debate.

     How might reform begin? In the home, parents will teach sons and daughters what they need to know about sexuality and respect. In economics, consumers will purchase modest clothing, creating demand for more. In entertainment, disciples should stop watching sexually immoral programs. Business leaders will establish zero tolerance for sexual harassment at work and model respect for women, yes, for legal reasons, but even more because it is right. The church must learn how to speak and act, in the public sphere, as a moral leader. That includes forgiveness of offenders through the gospel of grace, sensitive counsel for the victims of sexual mistreatment, the promotion of healthy marriages and sexuality, and the wise critique of the culture.

     This sounds like a moral program, and it is, but real reform always begins with the gospel. Without Christ, men will bounce from the sin of lasciviousness to the sin of self-righteousness, which, from an eternal perspective, is no improvement. It is better to confess that each of us – male and female – wants to get what we wish and sinfully misuses whatever power we have to get it. Everyone is a potential manipulator. It’s what sinners do and we would be wise to find and confess our own sin before we accuse others. Then we can turn to the Lord both for forgiveness and for the strength to live with a holiness and faithfulness that begins to resemble his own

Dan Doriani teaches Theology and Ethics at Covenant Seminary. He earned his M.Div. from Westminster and talked everyone into a joint Yale/Westminster Ph.D. He also pastored a very small church for five years and a very large one for eleven. He plays tennis, hikes mountains, wrangles grandchildren, speaks at conferences, and writes books, including The New Man.

[1] Salma Hayek, “Harvey Weinstein is My Monster too” New York Times, Dec 12 , 2017

Being a Pentecost Christian Podcast

Today, Pastor Danny Hyde gives us an early glimpse of his messages at the upcoming Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology in April. The conference is on the Holy Spirit and Danny’s knowledge on the subject is primarily Scriptural but also very personal.

He gives us a little bit of his background, including his conversion to Christ, his experience with Pentecostalism, and what led him to the Reformed Faith.

You might have heard some say that Reformed Christians suppress the Spirit. Is this true? What do we believe about the third person of the Trinity and how do we relate to Him? Listen to what Pastor Danny, and John Owen, have to say!

Rev. Daniel Hyde is the pastor of Oceanside United Reformed Church in Southern CA. Pastor Danny, as he’s known, is a seminary professor, chief editor of the Alliance’s Meet the Puritans, as well as the author and editor of a number of books and articles including Welcome to a Reformed Church: A Guide for Pilgrims. He will be speaking at the upcoming Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology in Philadelphia, PA, April 27-28 on the topic The Spirit of the Age: Age of the Spirit.

We’re also giving away free audio messages from the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology 2002  The Promised Holy Spirit to everyone. Just use the coupon code HS312. And sign up today!

Winners of The Attributes of God by A. W. Pink

We have some winners of the episode The Tools You Need, from ABC to PhD  who entered for a chance to win The Attributes Of God. If you didn’t win a copy, you can visit our Reformed Resources to purchase one!

Joshua L.   – from Chesapeake, MD

Scott H.      – from Harrisonburg, VA

Michael M. – from Casa Grande, AZ

Coming Up!

Do you have questions about the work of the Spirit? Of being a Pentecost Christian or a Pentecost church? Daniel Hyde is our guest to help us with these answers. He’s also one of the speakers of the upcoming Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology. Stick around to hear about his conversion to Christ, his past, and his real and present experience with the Spirit!

Social Posts

  • Giving up on the Spirit in order to be Reformed? Yay or Nay?

  • Does Reformed theology have a more robust doctrine of the Spirit? asks James…

  • Are we really doing the doctrine of the Holy Spirit if it’s stripped of Christology? – James

  • It’s a wonderful thing to think about the Spirit, but we cannot do that apart from Christ. – Danny Hyde

  • Owen focuses on the Spirit but he does it through the ministry of Christ. – Danny Hyde

  • What does it mean to live as a Pentecost Christian? – Jonathan

  • Want to experience the Spirit? Word and Sacrament! – Danny Hyde


Braving Hard Passages: The Analogy of Scripture

by Jeffrey Stivason

I recently read of one man’s experience as a student in the classroom of a famous professor. One student asked the professor, “What one trait separates the great scholar from all the rest?” The students sat in anticipation.  Would it be pedigree, proclivity for languages, resilience, intelligence, work ethic or a host of other good choices?  What would the good doctor laud as the distinguishing characteristic of a stand out scholar?

Creativity. The one trait that makes a man stand out from an already extraordinary crowd is creativity, said the professor.  Now, that was the end of the article. But it’s that sort of ending that allows the reader to argue a bit with the claim in the story. Yes, creativity can be a help. It can make a scholar stand out. But creativity is not always the best virtue to rely upon when it comes to interpreting a hard passage.

Let me give you an example. Find your Bible and read Matthew 6:19-24.  Now, focus on verse 22-23, “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness.” The eye in this passage has been interpreted in a plethora of ways. But what may appear hard is actually not all that difficult if we apply a simple interpretive rule called the analogy of Scripture, which simply states that Scripture is Scripture’s best interpreter.

So, let’s look at some Scripture that might help us. Let’s first notice Deuteronomy 15.  Moses is giving laws concerning indebtedness and generosity toward the poor.  He says in v. 9, “Beware lest there be a wicked thought in your heart, saying, ‘The seventh year, the year of release, is at hand,’ and your eye be evil against your poor brother and you give him nothing, and he cry out to the Lord against you, and it become sin among you.”  In other words, the wicked and ungenerous man is described as having an evil eye.

Now look at Proverbs 28:22, which is similar, “A man with an evil eye hastens after riches…”  Again the evil eye is associated with greed.  Or look at Proverbs 23:6, which says, “Do not eat the bread of a selfish man…”  Now, rendered literally, we are not to eat the bread of an “evil eyed man.”  Again, the greedy person or the man lacking in generosity is the man with an evil eye. 

Let me give you one more text.  Look at Matthew 20.  It is the familiar story of laborers in the vineyard.  A landowner went to the market place in the morning and hired laborers to work his vineyard for a denarius.  About the third hour or 9 AM he hired more for the same amount.  He also went at the noon hour and even as late as three O’clock in the afternoon.  But he wasn’t finished even then.  He went at the 5 O’clock hour and hired more laborers! 

At the end of the day all the laborers came for their pay.  And it was then that those who had worked all day discovered that they were getting paid the very same amount as those who had started working at the end of the day.  Complaining erupted.  But the landowner responded saying (v. 15), “Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own?  Or is your eye envious (evil) because I am generous (literally “good”)?”    

Having this understanding under our belt let’s apply what we have learned to our text.  Jesus says, “The eye is the lamp of the body; so then if your eye is healthy (the word can be translated generous) your body will be full of light.”  Jesus goes on, “But if your eye is bad (evil) your whole body will be full of darkness.”  Now, do you see what Jesus is saying?  If your eye is good, in other words, if you have been generous you are full of light.  You have been storing up treasure in heaven (v.20-21).  But if you eye is evil, if you lack generosity, then you may have earthly treasure but you are spiritually poor (v. 19). 

Notice how this plays into a proper understanding of verse 24.  It says, “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and wealth.”  The point?  You must decide between Jesus and your money.  In other words, who or what is your God?  Rather than build your heaven on earth, Jesus is calling you to be generous and so store up treasure in heaven.  Or to put it another way, have a good eye rather than an evil one.  So, the simple lesson is, the ability to apply the analogy of Scripture trumps creativity, though, or course, the two aren’t mutually exclusive.  

Jeffrey A. Stivason is the pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA. He also holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA.  Jeff is the author of From Inscrutability to Concursus (P&R), he has contributed to The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans) and is the Executive Editor for Place for Truth.


The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is member supported and operates only by your faithful support. Thank you.

Place for Truth is a voice of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Place for Truth and the mission of the Alliance.

Braving Hard Passages and Godliness

To rightly read and understand Scripture takes a fair share of mental energy. One should not and can not check his mind at the door while engaging with God’s revealed word. And thankfully there has been a resurgence within evangelicalism for thinking deeply about God’s word. This is essential and is in a large part what Place For Truth seeks to develop. But it strikes me as significant that when the Apostle Peter discusses how to read and understand Scripture, especially those passages which are harder to understand, his emphasis falls more on the persons life and walk, rather than on his mental capacity.

At the end of Peter’s second epistle, he comments briefly on the apostle Paul’s letters, writing that “there are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:16). Peter admits that there are hard passages within the canon of God’s word. But notice how he labels those who misread and misapply these hard passages. Peter calls them ignorant and unstable.

To be ignorant is to not know, to not understand. Not only do the ignorant not know what’s being said, more than likely they don’t know how to understand what’s being said. And so, in ignorance, they twist the hard passage, distorting its meaning into something else entirely.

The emphasis though is not so much that the passage is hard to understand. No, for Peter, it’s that in ungodliness some people ignorantly get the passage wrong. We know that all Scripture is understandable. Paul tells us that “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent and equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16). And this has to include those hard to understand passages, for they too are God-breathed Scripture!

But notice even here, that Paul connects an ability to teach Scripture with godliness! Teaching implies understanding because it’s only those who understand that can teach. And yet Paul makes the point that Scripture’s usefulness is only useful to those who are godly. Inherent within this connection is the idea of submission to God’s word; that a right understanding of God’s word presupposes standing under God’s word. Conversely then, we can say that a failure to rightly understand God’s word often implies a man seeking to stand over God’s word. If we connect this with Peter’s earlier statement, ignorance is not so much an aspect of intelligence, but rather an aspect of the heart.

Is this not what we see when Satan blinded all of humanity to God’s word? His temptation to Adam and Eve was to have them stand over and against God’s word, tempting them to know good and evil according to their own judgments, rather than submitting to God’s word. And in that fateful posture, what was the result? Paul tells us clearly: “If our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:3-4). Here our connection makes itself known again – a failure to understand God’s word is often due to our failure to stand under God’s word.

This seems to be what Solomon so rightly emphasized in his Proverbs, that true wisdom only really came from submitting to God’s words. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7). Indeed, Solomon’s own wisdom came from asking the Lord to give him a listening heart (1 Kings 3:9)! Help me listen rightly to what you’ve revealed, Lord; give me an understanding mind. And in his godly submission, he found understanding, he found wisdom. Or as Augustine provocatively put it, “I believe in order to understand.”

And so we’re reminded that the act of reading and understanding God’s word is not some abstracted, neutral act. We don’t come to God’s words with just our minds, though certainly we can’t read without them. No, we come with hearts already submitting to what God has clearly commanded, and ready to submit to what God is saying in the hard passage before us. And it’s there, in that posture of submission, that by God’s grace we begin to understand.

This is exactly why Peter encourages his readers on either side of this passage to pursue godliness. In verse 14 he calls Christians to “be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish.” And then in verse 17 he repeats the same idea, to “take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability.” It seems that for Peter godliness is a prerequisite for right understanding.

How seriously then ought we to consider the place of Christian obedience when it comes to understanding the Bible. In a fascinating display of mockery, the prophet Isaiah derided the nation of Israel for their idolatry, worshipping blind and deaf statues carved out of wood. But then he says that their very sin – the ungodliness of their idolatry – has actually made them blind and deaf as well! Their inability to understand God’s revelation was due to their ungodliness. Of course, God used this to further their judgment, giving them up to their own ungodly desires. But God was clear – He looks to the humble and contrite in spirit and to those who tremble at His word (Isaiah 66:2).

Paul, when writing to Timothy, warns him to watch out for false teachers, men who “have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions” (1 Timothy 1:6-7). And Paul is explicitly clear that their inability to understand stems from an impure heart and a seared conscience (1 Timothy 1:5; 4:1-3). Thus Paul actually warns Timothy to keep a good conscience himself, lest he cease to understand God’s word and make a shipwreck of his faith (1 Timothy 1:18-20). Paul understands that Timothy’s ability to read, understand, and teach God’s word is grounded in his holy obedience to God. “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:16).

O Christian, lets ground our ability to deal with hard passages first in our submission to God and in living lives that are pleasing to Him. God gives grace to the humble but opposes the proud.

Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC.  He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.

Braving Hard Passages: Baptism for the Dead

I have always taken comfort from the fact that if Peter could find some of Paul’s saying as hard (2 Peter 3:15-16), so can I. One hard saying in the Apostle Paul’s writing is his remark in 1 Cor. 15:29 regarding the baptism of the dead:

1Cor. 15:29 Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?

Two principles that are worth remembering when you come to hard texts are (1) we must always let Scripture interpret Scripture; and (2) do not form an entire doctrine from one obscure and difficult text. This second principle really flows from the first. No major doctrine in Scripture entirely hangs on one text. The beauty of Scripture’s unity is that the clear text interprets the less clear text, or at least keeps us from the misapplication of an unclear text.

First, we should consider the context of a passage unclear to us. For the Corinthian text, two contexts are worth noting: first, the near context of 1 Cor. 15, some in the church were denying the resurrection. Paul’s argument is to set them straight, there is a resurrection.

The other element of context worth remembering is the church of Corinth as a whole. If you read through the entire book you see that there was no small amount of problems in their doctrine, their unity, and their obedience. There was division and infighting over who followed Paul, Apollos, or Peter, and even competition over who baptized them. There was sexual immorality, improper activity at the Lord’s table, etc. This should lead us to think that if Paul is referencing some element of practice at the church, he is not necessarily endorsing it.

Finally, as we think through what baptism is, it is a sign and symbol of our union with Christ. Paul says in Romans:

Rom. 6:3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?

Rom. 6:4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

One possible interpretation then of “baptism for the dead” refers to a baptism for their own deadness in sin. “Why are you baptized as part of your death and your resurrection in Christ if Christ isn’t even raised from the dead?” This is possible but really is too much of an outside possibility. Gordon Fee even suggests traditional punctuation of the text could be reworked here (remember the punctuation isn’t inspired, First Corinthians, 766).  

In his commentary of First Corinthians, Gordon Fee suggests a few other options, including baptism being used metaphorically as martyrdom (First Corinthians, 765). He also suggests that it could be baptism for the ‘soon to be dead’ (766).

Anthony Thiselton surveys another possible option but concludes Paul is referring to normal experiences where someone dies and that leads to the conversion of a family member who is then baptized in a normal baptism. Thus, the dying of one person led another to convert and be baptized because they had hope and expectation of seeing them again (First Corinthians, 1248). This is a very attractive solution but it is tough to be confident that this is what is actually going on.

The phrases “on behalf of the dead hyper tōn nekrōn“ and “on their behalf hyper autōn“ really seem to have the sense of in place of, or on behalf of another. It seems to be some kind of vicarious baptism for other people. Baptism for the dead then is not for spiritual deadness but people being baptized for others who have already died.

I am persuaded by Manfred Branch’s interpretation. He argues that the plain reading of the text indicates that some Corinthian Christians were either being baptized for dead relatives or friends, or it was practiced for those who had converted by died before baptism was administered (Hard Sayings, 175). First, keep in mind, Corinth had a lot of problems with the ordinances as evidenced by the comments of Paul on the Lord’s Supper. Second, Paul does not affirm or rebuke this practice rather it seems part of his rhetorical argument, “why are you doing this, if you don’t believe in the resurrection?” Whatever they were doing, the force of Paul’s argument says “your actions are inconsistent. Yet your actions indicate your belief in a resurrection.”  I believe this rhetorical trap is more important in the scope of understanding all of 1 Cor. 15 even if I can’t be precisely sure who was being baptized and for whom they were baptized.

Two last pieces of advice for handling a hard passage:

  1. Don’t be afraid to read the commentaries. Sometimes they have a better understanding of hard passages than we do because of their expertise. That being said, Fee concludes “But finally we must admit that we simply do not know” (767).
  2. Do not be afraid to say we do not entirely know. We can come close to an answer. If you’re teaching the passage, illustrate what you think are the strongest options. Maybe explain why you think it is a particular option but acknowledge good evangelical brethren can reasonably disagree because it is a verse that is not as clear as we like. Do not be dogmatic in your view and do not turn it into a major doctrine.

Tim Bertolet is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College and Westminster Theological Seminary.  He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Pretoria, South Africa. He is an ordained pastor in the Bible Fellowship Church, currently serving as pastor of Faith Bible Fellowship Church in York, Pa. He is a husband and father of four daughters. You can follow him on Twitter @tim_bertolet.


Manfred Branch, Hard Saying of Paul (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1989).

Gordon Fee The First Epistle to the Corinthians, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987).

Antony Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2000).

Witnesses: A Meditation on the Passion

The pivot of history is the life of Jesus Christ; the capstone is His resurrection. To take His resurrection seriously we need good witnesses to His death. Some opponents claim that Jesus’ followers fabricated the resurrection out of wishful thinking. Others claim that Jesus didn’t really die, particularly Muslims.

Jesus’ Followers: Oddly, the disciples were among the missing, gripped by despair and fear – real fear, not mere paranoia. They met in secret, doors locked, since they were the next likely target (John 20:19).

 “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” So said two despairing disciples, reflecting on what might have been (Luke 24:21-23).

It is psychologically unbelievable that His followers cooked up a plot. They were beyond hope – whipped, exhausted by fear and despair. They hadn’t listened closely enough to Jesus’ teaching![i]

The Centurion: He was the first to acknowledge something unusual about Jesus’ death, saying, “Truly this was the Son of God.” He couldn’t have explained the theology, but spoke more than he knew. (Matthew 27:54)[ii]

Creation: “And the earth shook, and the rocks were split.” (v. 51) Jewish and Roman sources independently confirm that the temple shook and a lintel collapsed. They set the date at 40 years before its destruction in 70 AD. In the Bible, earthquakes often accompanied special activity by God (Exodus 19:18, Isaiah 6:4).

God Himself: Historians add that the bronze gates of the inner court opened of their own accord. God welcoming His people? Once inside, access to His inner sanctum, the Holy of Holies, was now possible through the curtain, torn at Christ’s sacrifice.

Righteous Dead: The earthquake unleashed a crowd of human witnesses. The tombs opened and many holy people came to life, entering Jerusalem after Jesus’ resurrection.  The population must have found it unnerving! You didn’t know whom you might meet! Those once-dead witnesses testified that Death’s power was exhausted (vv. 52-53).

Soldiers: Not dead? Ha! Roman soldiers knew their business. They thrust a spear through His lungs to His heart. He truly died that Friday (John 19:34).

Joseph and Nicodemus: Jewish law required that an executed man be buried before sundown. Jesus’ Galilean family had no tomb in Jerusalem (Deuteronomy 21:22-23, John 19:38-39).

So wealthy friends buried him.

When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph…. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate ordered it to be given to him (vv.57-60).

Joseph and Nicodemus were rulers on the Sanhedrin council. Joseph’s discipleship was secret, reason unknown. But something changed! They brought lavish provision for the burial of Jesus’ body, surely not expecting resurrection. Like other followers, they hadn’t listened.

Jewish Leaders: Even dead, the Jewish authorities were afraid of Him, lest Jesus’ disciples steal the body and spin a story. So they went to Pilate, the Roman governor, a Gentile ‘dog’. That alone is amazing! Religious Jews went to see a Gentile, defiling themselves, on the highest of holy days, Passover! But I suppose, once you’ve broken the Mosaic Law earlier, you might as well break it again in the evening (v.62).

They tell Pilate. “Sir, we remember” – His disciples forgot; they remembered –  “how that impostor said, while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise.’” So we need ‘to be sure to be sure’ that He stayed buried or “the last fraud will be worse than the first” (vv. 62-65).[iii]

They asked Pilate for a seal on the entrance and a guard posted for three days. “Pilate said to them, ‘You have a guard of soldiers. Go; make it as secure as you can.’” (v. 65)

The Women: “And Joseph… rolled a great stone to the entrance of the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.” (vv. 59-61) Those who ministered to Jesus during His lifetime, again stood ready. Knowing exactly where to go, they bought spices for anointing dead bodies. But again, there was an earthquake. The stone was rolled back. Jesus was missing. They believed someone had move His body (Mark 16:1, John 20:2, 13-15).

The Guards: So much for careful planning! When the angel appeared, the guards trembled in terror and became “like dead men.” The seal was broken. One wonders how much the Jewish leaders paid out in bribes to keep that secret – unsuccessfully (Matthew 28:12-15).

His enemies were chagrined, their plan counter-productive. The resurrection is all the more credible because the tomb had been under the watchful eye of Roman soldiers. We’re grateful they did that!

All these witnesses are God’s joyous shout of vindication, His great “Amen!” to the work of Christ. The plan of salvation was accomplished!

This good Man put to death by bad people did us a world of good. So that dreadful day becomes for us the happiest day! The idea of resurrection took time to sink in. When He first appeared, the disciples were frightened, then incredulous! But the power of the resurrection sent them from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth (Luke 24:37-43).

Jesus Christ’s resurrection was the ‘firstfruits’, a promise more convincing than once-dead people wandering around Jerusalem. Those people died again, but He did not and we will not (1 Corinthians 15:20-23)!

Now, when God asks us, “Why should I let you into my heaven?” we have an answer. We point to Jesus, crucified, dead and buried – raised on the third day.

Many will answer, “I lived a good life. I gave to charity. I was in church regularly.” How pointless, unless I can say with Paul, “The Son of God… loved me and gave Himself for me (Galatians 2:20b).

Thanks be to God!

This is based on a message called “After the Passion.” from the audio set TRINITY: The Two Natures of Christ. Though this text is from Matthew, the set largely addresses Hebrews 2, delivered by Liam Goligher, Senior Minister at Tenth Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia PA, in early 2017.

He is also the host of the broadcast No Falling Word on the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals site. They have produced two sets of his TRINITY messages. “The Highlights of the Trinity Debate” page includes the blogs he wrote, which set ablaze a wide-spread discussion of the Trinity, beginning in June 2016, and is ongoing.

[i] Matthew 12:40, 16:21, 17:23, 20:19, Mark 8:31, 9:31, 10:34, Luke 9:22, 18:33-34, John 2:19-21

[ii]  This message was derived from Matthew 27:32-66. Any verse-only references are from this passage. All other Scripture references will specify the book of the Bible and chapter.

[iii] Matthew 12:40, 26:61; Mark 8:31, 9:31, 10:34; John 2:19-21

Braving Hard Passages: Hard Passages to Holiness

Words hardly do justice to the experience of preaching and teaching God’s word. Irony is the blanket from which the preacher cannot free himself. After all, the hope of glory is Christ in you (Col. 1:27), but those in whom Christ resides are, by themselves, corrupt, polluted, wayward, deaf and blind (Isaiah 35:5; 42:6-7, 16-17; Rom. 3:1-9; Rev. 3:17). This is how God describes people—even his people in whom he resides, because his residence does not eradicate all sin during our lives. Broken hardly does justice to this condition. Viciously, deceitfully, relentlessly opposed in our self-assured sincerity is more like it. When considering the topic of “hard passages” we might do well to adjust the angle from which we look.

One is reminded of Abraham Heschel’s statement: “Rather than blame things for being obscure, we should blame ourselves for being biased and prisoners of self-induced repetitiveness.”[1] From this perspective, every passage in God’s word is hard to read, understand, preach and hear. There are only hard passages because living the Christian life is a hard passage.

Jesus spoke this way. “For the gate is narrow and the way is hard leading to life, and few are those finding it.” (Matt. 7:14). Then he coupled that with warning us against false prophets. Hmmm. Part of the difficulty of the path leading to life is that it is populated by those who handle God’s word so that it seems easy—easily understood, easily accessible, easily adored, easily acted upon. Sincerity with a smile is their stock in trade. They are allergic to conflict of any kind. They hyperventilate when a debate breaks out regarding the interpretation of any passage of Scripture. All controversies are immediately swept aside by appealing to the simple gospel. Billions die and go to hell, why we debate . . .     

Everything the Word made flesh is against and abolishing is what I am, what we his covenant people are, in and by ourselves. No wonder Paul’s words, “Christ in you, the hope of glory,” is set within the context of suffering. Yet we in America live in a culture in pursuit of the avoidance of suffering that thereby inflicts and enflames suffering, and often unknowingly. Heschel was correct: What “horrified the prophets are even now daily occurrences all over the world.”[2] Sort of raises the question as to how comfortable one can become in such a world.

Yet we must live in this creation. God brought it into existence, placed us in it; our lives are an extension of it. He subjected it and us to futility, to bondage to sin and its consequences. Still he is rescuing his creation and his covenant people from this death through his Word and Spirit. These are not mere ideas upon which to intellectually dwell, or implement for social and political improvement, but chiefly and intensely personal realities determined, governed and actualized by the personal Triune God. He has revealed himself supremely in his Son. The Word became flesh and lived an earthly life for more than three decades in order to destroy the works of the devil (1John 3:8). No wonder he was described as a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. We have no record of him ever smiling or laughing. That’s not inconsequential.   

That God’s word became flesh highlights what takes place when we read the written text of Scripture—we engage with the resurrected and reigning Lord Jesus. God’s written word is no mere written text. It describes itself as living and active. Our exegesis—reading the text to discern its meaning—involves us in a titanic struggle to submit to Jesus. Among other things, it means we never depart from reading Scripture unchanged or failing to act. Either we are at work being conformed into the image of God’s Son, or being conformed to the world. Sin is either being rooted out of us, or we are being reinforced in our sin. We dare not presume that we can easily discern which is happening at any given time. To those who had vast portions of the Old Testament memorized, but who were constantly arguing with Jesus, the question was asked: “Have you not read?” (Mt. 12:3, 5; 19:4; 21:16, 42; 22:31). 

God’s word tells us that conformity to the image of God’s Son means we cry, “Abba, Father” in the midst of a life of suffering to become like him (Romans 8:12-17). The written text of God’s word through the work of God the Holy Spirit is the primary means through which we experience sanctifying sufferings. The passages are hard because the passage is hard that is the highway of holiness. But the Good Shepherd walks with us through this valley of the shadow of death, and we do not remain unchanged.  

David P. Smith (Ph.D.) is the author of B. B. Warfield’s Scientifically Constructive Theological Scholarship (Wipf & Stock) and co author with Ronald Hoch of Old School, New Clothes: The Cultural Blindness of Christian Education Wipf & Stock). David is Pastor of Covenant Fellowship A.R.P. Church in Greensboro, North Carolina.  

[1]Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets (NY, NY: HarperCollins, 1962; reprint Peabody, MA: Prince Press, 1999), x.

[2]Ibid, 3.