A Reformed Baptist Perspective on Public Theology: Introduction to the Book of Acts

You can read earlier posts in this series by clicking on the links below:

After examining the continuities and discontinuities associated with the incarnation of our Lord, we will now further ground our discussions on public theology by examining the behavior of the apostles in the book of Acts.

In Luke’s first book (i.e. the Gospel of Luke), Luke reported “all that Jesus began to do and teach” (cf. Luke 1:1); therefore, the implication is that Luke’s second book (i.e. the Acts of the Apostles) will carry the narrative forward, showing what Jesus continued to do and teach after His ascension to heaven. He continues to act through the presence of His Holy Spirit and through the ministry of His apostles (cf. Acts 1:2). This means that the book of Acts is a retelling of the continuation of redemptive history, in which the ministry of the apostles was done openly (cf. Acts 26:26).

Background: Roman Empire and Christianity

Because of the expanse of the Roman Empire, the Roman Empire became a very pluralistic society in which numerous religions existed alongside each other peaceably. During the apostolic period, the non-Roman religions were divided into religio licita (“licensed worship”) and religio illicita (“unlicensed worship”). However, while this distinction officially existed, the Roman Empire was generally very tolerant to other foreign religions. Generally speaking, any people settling at Rome were permitted the liberty of its own native worship in so far as the exercise of it did not interfere with the peace of the state or corrupt the morals of society. Roman citizens soon discovered the fascination of oriental and Greek mystery religions, and devoted themselves to foreign gods while maintaining the necessary formalism towards the religion of the state. Consider the commentary from the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia:

It should not be forgotten that the original moral elements had fallen out of Roman religion, and that it had become simply a political and military religion for the welfare of the state, not for the salvation of the individual. The individual must conform to certain prescribed rites in order to avert calamity from the state. This done, the state demanded no more, and left him a large measure of freedom in seeking excitement or aesthetic pleasure in the warm and more social foreign mysteries. Thus, while the Romans retained the distinction of religiones licitae and illicitae, they seldom used severity against the latter. Many unlicensed cults were never disturbed. In fact, the very idea of empire rendered toleration of non-Roman religions a necessity. Practically, though not theoretically, the empire abandoned the idea of religions illicitae, while it retained it upon the statute-book to use in case of an emergency … Not only the government was tolerant, but the different varieties of religions were tolerant and on good terms with each other. The same man might be initiated into the mysteries of half a dozen divinities. The same man might even be priest of two or more gods… 

This is the background into which the Holy Spirit was poured out among the church at Pentecost. In some respects, our current society’s attitude toward religion is similar to the Roman Empire. Practically, all religions are socially permissible in our society as long as it does not disturb the public order. Perhaps, more accurately, any faith is permissible (or even commendable) as long as it is fully privatized. This is the concept of the “freedom of worship” that has become popularized with the past decade.

Despite the general toleration of religions within the Roman Empire, it was well-known that Christians were persecuted within the Roman Empire. This persecution initially began with the Jewish authorities which providentially forced the apostles to take their message to the Gentiles. The persecution then grew locally and regionally in Gentile regions until it became officially mandated in the reign of Domition. This background and this concept lead to the following question: if the Roman Empire instituted such a universally mild and tolerant policy toward various gods and cults, why was Christianity strongly persecuted? It could not be because it was a religio illicita because other unlicensed religions grew in the empire without persecution. It could not be simply because Christianity believed in proselytism because other religions (like Mithraism) were militant and aggressive and yet were tolerated. In my view, the answer to this question is based on the content and proclamation of the apostles’ message.

The Message of the Apostles

First, it should be noted that the apostles were unequivocal in asserting that the society for which they were waiting and laboring was a kingdom. Note that Luke summarizes the forty days of final instruction from Jesus to His apostles before He ascended: “He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God (1:3). Moreover, this is the content of the teaching by Philip in Samaria (8:12) and Paul in Ephesus (19:8; 20:25). Luke ends the book of Acts with this account of Paul’s stay in Rome:

He lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance. (28:30-31)

It’s important that we don’t forget how dangerous such a message was in the Roman Empire. This point wasn’t missed by an angry crowd in Thessalonica who complained that the believers were causing trouble all over the world and that they were defying the decrees of Caesar by proclaiming Jesus as king (17:7). Much like the apostles did initially, the Roman Empire likely interpreted the Kingdom of God primarily in political terms rather than in redemptive and eschatological terms.

Second, the apostles refused to render formal obedience to the religion of the state, which incensed the Roman governors. This was done by proclaiming Christ as both Lord and Christ (2:36; 5:30-31; 10:36; 11:20; 17:7; etc.). Calling Christ Lord was an affront to the religion of the state (which required the confession Caesar is Lord). Like the prophets before them (such as Daniel), the apostles refused to privatize their faith; rather, they must “speak of what we have seen and heard” (cf. 4:20). Coupled with the preaching on the Parousia of the Lord, this led many (including some Christians) to believe that a new society as a kingdom was to be set up upon the earth with Christ as king, which would in essence overthrow the Roman government.

Third, the apostles were not content with an uncompromising withdrawal from the practices of heathen worship – they also actively assailed the pagan cults by proclaiming that the worship of idols is vanity (cf. 14:15-17; 17:16; 17:23-21; 19:25-27). The apostles clearly disturbed the cozy relationship between all of the various religious cults based on the content and claims of their message. From the Roman point of view, the Christians were considered atheists and since religion was a political concern for the welfare of the state, atheism was likely to call down the wrath of the gods. Thus, when disasters began to fall upon the Roman Empire, the blame was laid upon the Christians. This is part of the reason why Paul was expelled from various Gentile cities.

Conclusion

To summarize what has been said, the apostolic ministry is a ministry of witness. The apostles were eyewitnesses of Christ Jesus and were recipients of the Spirit’s outpouring on the Church. This witness was spread worldwide (i.e. to Judea, to Samaria, and to the end of the earth), was inclusive of all kinds of people (i.e. Jews, God-fearing Gentiles, Samaritans, pagan Gentiles), and was often accompanied by various signs and wonders. The witness to the gospel always called for a response and this is why the ministry of the apostles was a public witness. Because of the claims of the gospel and because of the public nature of the apostolic ministry, it would have been impossible NOT to have the opposition from the surrounding the world.

The same essential message applies to the Church today. When the Church performs the Great Commission, it is always a public ministry. In other words, it is impossible for Church to maintain its faithful witness and character while retreating from the public sphere. We must never assimilate into the religious customs of our day – in which we called to privatize our faith If we are to follow in the footsteps of the apostles, then we must proclaim His Word publicly.

In the next blog, we will focus on the particular interactions of the apostles in their public ministry.

A Reformed Baptist Perspective on Public Theology – The Reformed Confessions (Part II)

Read the first four posts here, herehere, and here.

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In the last post, we examined the approach of the framers of The Belgic Confession to public theology, specifically as it regards civil government. In this article and the next, we will shift our attention from the Continental Reformation to the English Reformation. Without further introduction, let us begin with the earliest of the English confessions we will consider: The Baptist Confession (1644 / 1646).

Not Anabaptists

The considerations that would lead to further development of the public theology laid out in The Belgic Confession came sooner for the early English Baptists than for others. In 1644, a group of Baptists came together in London to publish a new confession of faith. This Confession was meant to be a source of unity for the churches in question, but it also had a secondary purpose. On the European continent, Anabaptism had spread since the time of Zwingli. The early Anabaptists, especially those who were initially among Zwingli’s disciples, were very thoughtful, orthodox, and studious in their approach to theological systematization. However, as the years passed and persecution ensured that Anabaptists had less and less ecclesiastical resources at their disposal, they began to become more extreme in their stances against government and to develop heretical and heterodox views on key doctrines.

As persecution arose for Reformed pastors and theologians at different points of British history, the Reformed would often flee to the continent. Continental Europe, especially in Switzerland and the Dutch provinces, was understood to be more favorable toward the Reformation. In their sojourn on the continent, many Reformed pastors were made aware of the errors of these later Anabaptists. As a result, when Baptists began to emerge in England out of the Separatist movement, they were viewed with an eye of suspicion and slandered as Anabaptists. For this reason, they saw fit to entitle their first confession: London Baptist Confession of Faith, A.D. 1644: The CONFESSION OF FAITH, Of those CHURCHES which are commonly (though falsely) called ANABAPTISTS.

Liberty of Conscience

bloudy-tenetThe General and Particular Baptists adopted none of the theological or practical errors of the Anabaptists, but they were somewhat innovative in their approach to public theology. Due to persecutions experienced at the hands of church-run magistrates, they searched the Scriptures and came away with a doctrine that would come to be known as liberty of conscience. Thomas Helwys, a General Baptist, was perhaps the first to write on this subject. Roger Williams, an English migrant to America and a Separatist-turned-Particular Baptist, expounded on Helwys’ earlier work. In his 1644 work entitled The Bloudy Tennent of Persecution, Williams called out civil magistrates for their persecution of the consciences of saints. Nevertheless, he called the saints to expect persecution if they truly be in Christ.

“WHILE I plead the cause of truth and innocence against the bloody doctrine of persecution for cause of conscience, I judge it not unfit to give alarm to myself, and to all men, to prepare to be persecuted or hunted for cause of conscience. Whether you stand charged with ten or but two talents, if you hunt any for cause of conscience, how can you say you follow the Lamb of God, who so abhorred that practice?” (ed. Joseph Early, Jr., Readings in Baptist History, pg. 21).

The Baptist Confession (1644 / 1646)

Liberty of conscience was a universally accepted distinctive of the early English and American Baptists. In The Baptist Confession (1644), the English Particular Baptists made many concessions to the public theology of the continental Reformers as laid out in the Belgic Confession. However, they nuanced it quite a bit. The Dutch Reformers would doubtless wholeheartedly affirm Article XLVIII in The Baptist Confession of 1644. It reads almost verbatim like the Belgic Confession in its insistence that Christians are subject to magistrates:

That a civil Magistracy is an ordinance of God set up by God for the punishment of evil doers, and for the praise of them that do well; and that in all lawful things commanded by them, subjection ought to be given by us in the Lord: and that we are to make supplication and prayer for Kings, and all that are in authority, that under them we may live a peaceable and quiet life in all godliness and honesty.”

However, moving into the next article, there is a slight change of tone from the Belgic Confession to the Baptist Confession. Where The Belgic Confession offers no concession for liberty of conscience, The Baptist Confession highlights it.

“The supreme Magistracy of this Kingdom we believe to be the King and Parliament freely chosen by the Kingdom, and that in all those civil Laws which have been acted by them, or for the present is or shall be ordained, we are bound to yield subjection and obedience unto in the Lord, as conceiving ourselves bound to defend both the persons of those thus chosen, and all civil Laws made by them, with our persons, liberties, and estates, with all that is called ours, although we should suffer never so much from them in not actively submitting to some Ecclesiastical Laws, which might be conceived by them to be their duties to establish which we for the present could not see, nor our consciences could submit unto; yet are we bound to yield our persons to their pleasures” (Article XLIX).

It’s worth noting that, while Particular Baptists at this time saw no place for a civil magistrate to exercise ecclesiastical authority, they do not deny the right of the church described in The Belgic Confession to speak with prophetic authority to civil magistrates. In fact, in the next article, they themselves appeal directly to God for the hearts and the minds of the state to be bent toward them in mercy:

“And if God should provide such a mercy for us, as to incline the Magistrates’ hearts so far to tender our consciences, as that we might be protected by them from wrong, injury, oppression and molestation, which long we formerly have groaned under by the tyranny and oppression of the Prelatical Hierarchy, which God through mercy hath made this present King and Parliament wonderful honorable, as an instrument in his hand, to throw down; and we thereby have had some breathing time, we shall, we hope, look at it as a mercy beyond our expectation, and conceive ourselves further engaged forever to bless God for it” (Article L).

This was a clear appeal not only to God but also to the civil magistrates to show mercy and kindness to them for conscience sake. Yet the Particular Baptists went on to explain that, even if the magistrates did not show mercy but dealt treacherously with them, they were still to submit in all things lawful, yet without violating their consciences. The revision of this Confession in 1646 goes on to expound on this idea of liberty of conscience recognizing it as a duty the state owes to its citizenry. It even goes so far as to dictate to the magistrates what are their duties to men regarding liberty of conscience. As such, we see that the early Particular Baptists did view the use of the prophetic voice as a deterrent for governments that might otherwise violate their liberty of conscience. They did not concede to the notion that the church should not speak to matters of government, only that governments were not free to dictate terms to the church.

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In our next article, we will conclude our discussion of public theology in the Reformed confessions by examining developments in The Westminster Confession and The Baptist Confession (1677 / 1689).

The New Birth in First Peter

With Sovereign Grace Baptist Church in San Angelo, TX., I have had the honor of preaching through the book of 1 Peter. This past week, we got as far as 2:17 in our study. Reflecting on the study thus far, and looking forward to where we are headed, I have come to the conclusion that everything in the first half of 1 Peter flows out of the reality of the new birth (1Pt. 1:3).

Outline:

As a result of the new birth:

1) …we have a new relationship with God (1:1-21).
2) …we have a new relationship with one another (1:22-2:3).
3) …we have a new relationship with unbelievers (2:4-3:17):

a) …unbelieving Jews (2:4-12).
b) …unbelieving civil authorities (2:13-17).
c) …unbelieving masters (2:18-20)

(In all this Christ is our example; 2:21-25)

d) …unbelieving husbands (3:1-6).
e) …unbelieving wives (3:7).

4) …we are to love as brothers (3:8-12).
5) …we will suffer (3:13-17).

Hopefully this serves as a helpful outline for those of you who would like to engage the book of 1 Peter a little deeper. I was almost done with the first chapter of the book before I realized this was what Peter was doing with his argumentation. Let me flesh it out a little further though for those of you who may be a bit skeptical of my approach here.

New Relationship with God

Peter starts by securing our new relationship with God in eternity past through the election of God’s people (1:1-2). Understanding how our new relationship with God is rooted in eternity past gives us great security. He will go one to explain how our relationship with God is also being kept secure in the here and now.

First, he points us to the new birth itself (1:3-9). We are born again to a living hope, an inheritance being kept in heaven for us who are being kept by God Himself. We rejoice in this new standing we have before God as heirs of the promise, even though now we are sojourners in a land where we are persecuted strangers. We have a home, a glorious family awaiting us in heaven. The hope and assurance of that great promise sustains us through our trials.

Second, we have this hope revealed to us this side of the incarnation. We are a privileged generation in that we have these great mysteries revealed to us. The prophets prophesied of the Messiah to come, the things He would suffer, and the glories that would follow, but they did not have as full a revelation as we now have.

Third, as a result of this new birth, this inheritance we have received as sons of God, we have a new relationship with Him. We are no longer children of wrath (Eph. 2:3) and sons of disobedience (Eph. 2:2; 5:6; Col. 3:6). Rather, we are now called children of obedience. As such, our behavior is to reflect what we truly are as a result of having born again into the family of God (1Pt. 1:13-21).

New Relationship with One Another

IMG_8323Also, as a result of our new birth, we have new brothers and sisters. We have brothers and sisters in the flesh, but flesh is like grass. “All flesh is like grass, and all its glory like the flower of grassThe grass withers, and the flower falls off, but the word of the Lord endures forever” (1:24-25a). By contrast, our inheritance and relationships with our new family are imperishable (1:22-25).

Our new relationships with one another yield new behaviors (2:1-3). As a result of our new birth, we now have familial obligations and familial motivations. We seek unity rather than division, and this new motivation effects how we live in fellowship with one another. We put aside devices of discord and cling to the One who builds up the body: Christ Jesus.

New Relationship with Unbelievers

As a result of our new birth, we have been grafted into true Israel (2:4-12). Paul taught that unbelieving Jews in the New Covenant have been broken off so that believing Gentiles might be grafted in (Rom. 11:17-24). This is part of a greater argument Paul made about his unbelieving brothers in the flesh starting in Romans 9. Peter refers to these unbelieving Jews as builders. We know he has unbelieving Jews in mind because he quotes the same verses Paul quotes in his argumentation in Romans 9-11.

We also know that he is referring to unbelieving Jews and Gentiles who are being grafted into true Israel because he applies uniquely Jewish titles to the New Covenant believing community. He describes the church as a temple being built and we are the stones and we are the priests, with Christ as the Capstone / Cornerstone. In fact, Peter calls us a royal priesthood and a holy nation. We ought not to take this to mean that we have replaced Israel, though. We have not. We have merely been grafted into true Israel. As such, true Israel has taken on a new shape.

As a result of the new birth, we also have a new relationship with civil government (2:13-17). Just as I would expect my kids to obey any adults with whom I would leave them, God expects us to honor the authorities He has placed in our lives. To disobey and dishonor the civil authorities God has established in our lives is to disobey and dishonor God.

We also have a new relationship to our masters as a result of the new birth (2:18-20). This has particular application in our day and age where people hold so loosely to their commitments to their employers. In Peter’s day, you entered into a contractual agreement with your master. It was much like joining the military. If a man were to come to a church and say, “I went AWOL from the military, because my sergeant was an unbeliever,” our proper response would be to tell him he needs to return and honor his enlistment. In the same way, Christian employees should not be flippant about jumping from job to job simply because their employers are unbelievers. We need to honor our commitments and show honor to our bosses.

Christ is our example in these things (2:21-25). When He was slandered and reviled, He did not revile in return. He willingly submitted to His persecutors and, as such, He was submitting to the will of God. We do not know the will of God for our lives or what He is orchestrating for our future, so we ought to humble ourselves and submit to the hardships we will receive as a result of our new relationship to the world.

Our new birth does not give us license to divorce or liberty to ill-treat our spouses (3:1-7). Rather, wives are to respect and submit to their unbelieving husbands. Husbands, are likewise to deal with their unbelieving wives in an understanding way and not to domineer them. When I was first introduced to the Doctrines of Grace, I tried to force-feed them to my wife. This is not how wives learn. We need to be patient with them and allow them to sit under the word and be convinced by God, not our forcefulness.

Love for the Brethren

Once again, Peter returns to our familial motivations / obligations (3:8-12). As a result of the new birth, we are to deal with one another with brotherly affections. This will result in certain heart motivations, which will then lead to changes in the way that we behave toward one another.

The Suffering to Follow

If we commit all of these things to memory and allow them to shape us and motivate us in how we walk in this world, we will have hardship. The world hates Christ. As those who are being made over in His image, they will hate us. We are to be ready to give a defense in the face of the trials that come our way. However, we must do so in fear and solemnity, recognizing that we represent our holy Father who is in heaven, and we have a brotherhood who will reap the consequences for our misdeeds in the flesh.

The Document No Man Can Shred

When my daughter sets her mind to something, she’s always devastated when she doesn’t get it. I try to tell her that she should not invest so much hope in the object, but she inevitably sets herself up for disappointment. If we adults are honest, we do it too. I would argue that many of us have done so in recent years. We have placed our hope in men’s words, when really we should be putting our hope in the word of our God in heaven.

The Shredded Constitution

Nothing new to your ears, I’m sure, but the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) handed down a major decision yesterday. SCOTUS essentially broke contract with the states by interpreting the United States Constitution in such a way that gave them permission to override the sovereignty of the states and the voice of the people who had voted in those states. Now, the states are left with little recourse and few who are willing to do what’s necessary to reverse course, politically.

“It is He who changes the times and the epochs; He removes kings and establishes kings; He gives wisdom to wise men And knowledge to men of understanding” (Dan. 2:21; NASB).

In essence, what SCOTUS did was to shred the constitution indefinitely. All doors are open now, and there are no borders. Power has been centralized in the hands of 5 unelected, rogue individuals who seem dead set on redefining biblical institutions to slap God in the face (Psalm 2). But all is not doom and gloom.

A Constitution to Elevate Religious Freedom

The American Constitution was a document framed in a day and age when most on this continent actually cared what the Bible had to say. It worked as a framework to elevate a largely Christian collective of citizens, much like how a pulpit elevates the word of God. The Constitution was a sort of handmaid to support a nation largely comprised of Christians and carries that baggage with it into our current anti-Christian culture. So it should be no wonder that those who hate Christ and His bride would trample underfoot a document that has for nearly two and a half centuries provided Christians (but all religions really) freedom to live, and speak, and operate according to the dictates of their faith.

The problem for us (Christians) comes when we place our faith in that which elevates us in society over against that which elevates us to our God. As an American and a Texan, I am personally incensed at how this once great document has been shredded by the very court that is tasked with upholding it to the letter. As a Christian, though, I must remind myself that my faith is not founded on that document, but another.

When Religious Freedom Is Taken

In Eastern Europe, there resides a once great nation called Romania. In its glory days, they had a dynasty with great riches and were adored by all. In World War I, they took a neutral stance and were largely unaffected by the war. However, in the days leading up to World War II, they made the unalterable mistake of siding with Hitler and the Nazi regime. When the war started, Hitler placed a puppet government over Romania. When that was overthrown by the Soviets, they placed a puppet government over Romania themselves. That government remained in power until 1989 when it was overthrown in the December Revolution. Romania has limped along ever since.

During the time of Communist power in Romania, religious persecution was rampant, especially for Protestants. A Lutheran pastor by the name of Richard Wurmbrand was imprisoned. He was placed in solitary confinement for much of his imprisonment and regularly subjected to torture. He had no contact with the outside world and did not even know whether or not his wife was still alive. The only comfort he had was his God, and the only access he had to God’s word was the amount that he had committed to memory.

“Your word I have treasured in my heart,

That I may not sin against You” (Ps. 119:11; NASB).

Our Proper Fixation

We spend a lot of time fixating on those things we think will bring us ultimate fulfillment in this life. For me, one of those things is politics. I am opinionated about most things, but especially about politics. This is not a bad hobby to have, but when it becomes a fixation, it can be deadly open_bible_by_rachel_titiriga_-_creative_commonsdangerous. We can start to focus so much on these things and invest so much of our hope and our dreams in these things that they become idols to us. I love the American Constitution, and if I’m not careful, it can become an idol.

What we need today is not to invest so much hope in a man-made document like the Constitution. What we need is to invest our energies in God’s word. We need to be reading it, studying it, sitting under the preaching of it, memorizing it, and meditating on it. And when that day comes when we are locked away with no contact to the outside world and no access to written materials, we can then say that we have the comfort of God, because we’ve stored up His word in our hearts.

We could spend our time storing up a man-made document in our hearts, but what would be the point of that? There will always come a day when such documents will be shredded and trampled underfoot. “The grass withers, the flower fades.” There is one document that we can be sure will always endure, though.

“The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever” (Isa. 40:8; NASB).

Conclusion

Let us then commit ourselves to that which is lasting, that which is sure, that which will never fail us: God’s word. With the same fervor, let us lay aside our ever-disappointing hopes that we can find any lasting security in men’s words. Our security is found in Christ, and Christ is only to be found in the word of God.