Fifteen years ago, when The Differentiator was being edited by Mr. Larsen in America, he invited me to write an article for it. As for many years previously I had been greatly interested in what came to be called "the Acts 28:28 frontier." I submitted a paper on the subject. This was published, and I was invited to write further. I claim that in the series that followed I succeeded in completely overthrowing the widely-accepted frontier theory. Indeed, I hardly need trouble to make such a claim, for one fact speaks for itself, so far as I can discover, not a single person who accepts the "frontier" theory has ever seriously attempted to refute my case. I have received abusive letters, I have been told that I do not understand the subject—but no attempt has yet been made to reply seriously to as much as even one item of my case. I have been charged with poverty of thought; but none of my accusers, in their riches, have indicated where this alleged poverty is to be found in my thinking.
Nevertheless, fifteen years is a long time, and, since I began to write a number of new readers now studies The Differentiator; and as the first papers are now out of print and becoming unobtainable, these readers are unacquainted with them. Naturally, they cannot properly understand my later writings if they have no knowledge of the earlier ones. This was brought home to me forcibly when a new reader wrote asking if I had any articles "refuting the dispensational position as propounded by Charles H. Welch."
In view of this request, I think the best course is to present a summary of the case against "the Acts 28:28 frontier" theory.
There seems to be some difference of opinion about the origin of the theory; but so far as I can discover, these are the facts.
In February, 1907 issue of "Things to Come," edited by Dr. Bullinger, there appeared an article by J. J. B. Coles propounding this "Acts 28:28 frontier" theory. In the April issue there was an article by Dr. Bullinger embracing it wholeheartedly. In it, Dr. Bullinger introduced a diagram showing Paul's Epistles set out by titles in chronological order on either side of the supposed "frontier"; yet, strangely enough, Mr. Welch apparently claims to have introduced the idea to Dr. Bullinger "toward the end of 1908." (The Berean Expositor, Nov., 1949, pp. 102, 3). If so, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that it was hardly ethical for the Doctor to greet with enthusiasm a "discovery" by Mr. Welch which he himself had published less than two years before, even though with the laudable intention of encouraging a young man. We can only wonder what sort of reception Mr. Welch would have had, if instead, he had pointed out the many defects in the diagram.
Presently a few more articles by Mr. Coles appeared, but gradually he faded out. Dr. Bullinger continued to develop the theory, and then (March, 1909) a series of papers by Mr.Welch began to appear; and in 1909 Mr. Welch started his own periodical, The Berean Expositor.
From these printed records, it is plain that the responsibility for this theory rested originally entirely on Mr. Coles. Then Dr. Bullinger took it up. Finally, Mr. Welch became its most prominent exponent. Whether other printed evidence exists, I know not, and after several attempts have failed to discover, so by now it is pretty safe to assume there is none worth consideration.
The theory is to be found fully set out in various publications connected with Mr. Welch; so all we need to explain here is that, according to it, for the Apostle Paul the great dispensational frontier is Acts 28:28, so that the epistles on either side of it must be regarded as belonging to different dispensations. Quite simply, is this the truth? The followers of Mr. Coles and Mr. Welch insist that it is.
My contention is that this splitting of Paul's Epistles is a very dangerous error, that they are an indivisible unit, and that the whole idea of any sort of dispensational change at Acts 28:28 is an illusion.
"Acts" is Luke's continuation of what he recorded in his Gospel, and both are primarily history. As we begin to read Acts we come at once into a different climate of thought and feeling from that of the Gospels. At first, while Peter was in the centre of the stage, the atmosphere was heavy with impending judgment. Presently, Peter unlocked the kingdom to the Gentiles. This, with the call and commissioning of Paul, brought about a great change. The appeal to Israel to repent was still in the forefront yet the ground was visibly being prepared for Paul's ministry. Too readily and too long have many of us been bewitched by the theory that the fate of Israel was actually an open question right up to Acts 28:28. The sentence in Matt. 13:14, 15 and the prophecy in Luke 21:12-28 were never withdrawn. What follows them was, for Israel, simply a confirmation of this fact. Apart from that, there remained for Israel nothing except the destruction of Jerusalem and ultimately the judgments of Hebrew Prophecy, until their promised blessings could ultimately come about. Spiritually, Israel is not even asleep at present, but dead. That stage, however, did not begin at any time during the Acts narrative.
At this point, the matter is best set out in the form of question and answer.
(1) But what about Peter's offer to Israel in his speeches after Pentecost?
But what did Peter offer? Certainly, he told of events that would happen when Israel repented; but he never said anything about "if Israel repented." Not as much as a hint is given that Israel would repent; not even that Israel could repent at that time. The plain truth is that all the talk about an "offer" to Israel in Acts is no more than a human invention, and altogether unscriptural.
(2) But did not Paul withdraw God's offer to Israel through Peter at the close of the narrative in Acts?
Many declare that he did, but the account does not say so. Paul's closing words are simple enough. He quoted the prophecy of Isa. 6:9, 10, informed his hearers that this was told to their fathers, and said: "Let it be knowable, then, that to the Gentiles was despatched this the saving work of God, and they will hear it for themselves." "Was despatched," not "is" or "will be" despatched.
When cornered, those who talk about an offer to Israel through Peter admit that the Greek reads "was despatched," but it is no more than a verbal admission, for they continue to write as if the supposed sentence on Israel began there and then. That sort of thing is not candid.
(3) Then, when was Isa. 6:9,10 pronounced on Israel?
The answer, and the only possible answer, is: "At Matt. 13:14, 15, and not at any later date." At that instant everything that was to follow had become fixed, certain to happen. No subsequent "offer" was made, for there was none to be made.
(4) Then what about Peter's speeches after Pentecost?
The answer is, "Read them as they are, and see for yourself." They were a series of appeals based on Hebrew Prophecy and the events recorded in the Gospels, a witness to Israel. Those who heeded that witness joined the company who, headed by the Twelve Apostles, had heeded the witness of the Lord Jesus Himself. Yet there is no indication whatever that this witness is confined to those who heard Peter speak. It was to Israel, both at that time and in days to come when, once more, Israel will read the Gospels and begin to heed their message. In any case, much was to happen first. Acts 3:21 indicates this. There is no "perhaps" about vv. 21-23. Those who talk about this supposed "offer" are really speculating; so they cannot properly blame us if, in our turn, we for a moment do the same thing, thus: Suppose Israel had repented in consequence of Peter's speeches. What would have happened? Quite simply, God's plans for ourselves, for the church which is Christ's body, would have come to nought, and Christ's prophecy in Luke 21 would have failed with them.
(5) Then what actually did happen at Acts 28:28?
It was simply the pronouncement at the world's metropolis to the Jews there what the Lord Himself, the Twelve Apostles and the Apostle Paul had one after another been pronouncing to Israel ever since Matt. 13:14, 15. It was the close of the series. This does not mean that it is unimportant; for, in fact, it is the final disclosure to the Jews about the Gentiles: that already God's salvation ministry was sent to them and therefore no longer belongs to the Jews. It puts in a nutshell what Paul had been doing throughout his ministry.
(6) But did not this involve a revolutionary change?
By no means. Nothing was said to the Jews of Rome that had not previously been disclosed in some way; and it was not addressed to any Gentiles. Paul was stating nothing more than an accomplished fact.
(7) But did not Paul finally withdraw the kingdom at this point?
The answer is, simply, NO! And almost as if the Holy Spirit had foreseen this very question, the account closes by asserting that, after the pronouncement, Paul went on proclaiming the kingdom of God. Moreover, nowhere does the account speak of any "offer" of the kingdom. Candid examination of the eight occurrences of the word kingdom in Acts (1:3, 6; 8:12; 14:22; 19:8; 20:25; 28:23, 31) will show that it is entirely wrong to declare, as many do, that Peter or anyone else "offered the kingdom" in Acts; or even that Israel rejected the kingdom. They rejected Messiah. That involved other rejections; yet it was not specifically these things, but the Lord Jesus Himself, that they rejected.
(8) But does not the kingdom belong to Israel, and will it not be Christ's rule over the earth during the Millennium?
Here there is great general confusion of thought. We are not going to have the truth by lumping all references to "the kingdom" into an amorphous mass, as most dispensationalists do. Usually the kingdom of the heavens is identified with the millennial kingdom, and the Sermon on the Mount is supposed to promulgate its laws. Are we, then, to believe that under the rule of Messiah on earth His Israel will be poor (Matt. 5:3), will mourn (5:4), will be persecuted (5:10-12), will be worrying for their soul (6:25, 34)? The discourse is appropriate only to the conditions that existed at the time and will again exist before Messiah comes in power to reign. For the Sermon on the Mount is equally unsuitable to present conditions, particularly Matt. 5:23-26, 29, 30. It must be understood within its context, and not forced into circumstances that are entirely different. The plain truth is: what is said about the kingdom of the heavens must be taken within its context. When Israel is, once again, in the same position as when the Sermon was pronounced, it will again be absolutely valid.
(9) But does not this imply recognition of several sorts of "kingdom of God"?
Not at all. There is but one kingdom of God; but the form in which it displays itself varies according to circumstances. In its present form, as set out in the eight parables of Matthew 13, grace reigns. The words kingdom and reign, so different in English, come from the same root in the Greek. Ignorance of this has mislead many. In the kingdom now there are tares as well as wheat; but the time will come for the tares to be destroyed. From then on the King will reign in ruthless power—but it will be the same kingdom. And, note, this has no connection with "the church." One good thing the dispensationalists have done is to make plain that the two notions are entirely separate and distinct.
(10) But are you not introducing confusion between the kingdom and the church?
On the contrary. It is the dispensationalists who, in the face of all the facts, do this by earmarking "the church" for us and handing over "the kingdom" to Israel. The two ideas are entirely separate. "The kingdom" is the sphere of God's rule. "The church" is His called-out company at any particular time. We are in the kingdom now, Israel will be in days to come. "The church" was, at first, the assembly of those who heard and believed the Apostle Peter. Later, in a different context, it was and still is the assembly of those who believe the Apostle Paul's Evangel. After we are snatched away (1. Thess. 4:13-17) it will be once again the assembly of believing Israelites and proselytes. Both words are common nouns, not proper nouns, and should never be written as "The Church" or "The Kingdom." This practise of capitalizing words is a most prolific source of error. "The Church" implies that there is but one standard form of "church"; but "the church" does not carry that unscriptural implication, and simply means "the particular called-out company in view for the particular context under consideration." "The kingdom" now has a very different character from the "kingdom" during the thousand years, but both mean the sphere of God's rule on earth. If we add to Scripture by giving it a capital "K" we add to the notion of its unity a further, and erroneous, notion of uniformity. Instead of saying "the kingdom of God" try saying "the rule of God." Then it becomes easier to perceive that though God can and does rule in various ways throughout history, yet they all have the one fact in common, that they are His rule.
(11) But is not Acts 28:28 a climax for us, members of Christ's body? In no way. Even Mr. C. H. Welch wrote this of it on p. 177 of his book "Dispensational Truth": "It is a climax, and a climax having nothing to do with the church, but with Israel" Here, at last, I agree with him! Yet I cannot help smiling; since the remainder of his book, some 100 pages, is devoted to the theory that it is the vital boundary line for the church, a theory of which he is now the chief exponent.
(12) But is not the close of Acts the end of history as recorded in Scripture?
Yes indeed. Scripture gives no further formal record of history. All we get is an occasional glimpse, incidentally to other matters.
(13) But is there not a dispensational gap between the epistles written before and after Acts 28:28?
The question is unanswerable as it stands, because the word "dispensational" is too vague. What is it supposed to mean? If the meaning is that something was dispensed by God in the Prison Epistles beyond what is found in his earlier epistles, why speak of a "gap," or a change for that matter? As Paul's ministry proceeded, more and more glory unfolded; but there is no need to drag in any idea of "a dispensational gap." When one becomes acquainted with the writings of the followers of J. J. B. Coles, one soon discovers that their essential feature is that God's purposes changed abruptly with the pronouncement in Acts 28:28. This makes for them a chasm between Paul's Prison Epistles and everything else in Scripture, including his earlier epistles. Evidence for this is wholly wanting-there simply is none. For consider! The doctrine of the body begins in Rom. 12:4,5, is developed in 1. Corinthians, and comes to perfect fruition in the Prison Epistles. The idea of new creation develops similarly. What the Apostle Paul calls "My evangel" is set out in the earlier epistles and completed in the Prison Epistles; it is referred to seven times in the former, four times in the latter, and once in 1. Timothy. Nor is this all. Philippians presupposes what is taught about righteousness in Romans and Galatians. Even Mr. Welch has to use "Roman stones" for his "Ephesian temple," though Romans is one of the despised earlier epistles of an outworn dispensation.
(14) Yet surely the earlier epistles deal with the things of immaturity, which are left behind when we come to the Prison Epistles?
This idea is very misleading, as a concordant study of the word teleios, mature, will indicate; for it occurs four times in the earlier epistles of Paul, four in the Prison Epistles, as well as three in Matthew, two in Hebrews, five in James and once in 1 John. Some of the Corinthians were mature (1 Cor 2:6) though collectively this church was immature. In any case, why should not such people be ministered to? There are plenty of them in the churches nowadays, and these "immature" exhortations are as greatly needed now as ever they were. There is something shockingly smug about the attitude of assumed superiority in those who affect to despise Paul's earlier epistles. When one thinks of the matter soberly and calmly, why should Paul be expected to repeat in his later epistles what he had already set out perfectly clearly?
(15) But if we are to accompany you in this matter, shall we not be forced to scrap all the truths that dispensationalism has won for us?
We must all sympathize with the feeling behind this question, for there is no denying that "dispensational" studies have won us a vast deal of fresh light which we simply cannot afford to scrap. Yet the fact remains that they have brought in their train a vast deal of confusion and darkness as well. Why not keep the light and scrap the darkness and confusion?
As I have frequently pointed out, the reality behind the mass of error and complication that constitutes so much of what is called "dispensational truth" is extremely simple. In fact, the chief stumbling block for many is this simplicity. At first it appears too good to be true. Moreover, most people like complication, for they have a sort of instinct that what is true must needs to be complex. It usually seems complex at first; but that seeming is due to our own imperfections, not to the perfection of truth.
Briefly, all humanity can be divided into two classes: those who believe God and those who do not. Those who during the course of history come to believe God are themselves divided into two sharply distinct classes: those who are not under covenant and those who are under it; that is to say, the contrast is between those who have uncircumcision and those who have the circumcision, the sign and seal of covenant. Within this distinction come all the valid issues commonly called "dispensational."
This is easily put to test. Take the most conspicuously "dispensational" matter of all, the Secret of Eph. 3:6-12. At its portals are, like great pillars, two basic pronouncements: "in spirit" and "the Gentiles." By their very nature these instantly call to mind their corresponding contrasts: "in flesh" or "according to flesh," and "Israel"—and at once we have before us the "two sharply distinct classes" defined above—those who are not under covenant and those who are.—Or take another conspicuously "dispensational" matter, the New Covenant of Jer. 31:31-34 and Heb. 8:8-12. This is about the house of Israel and the house of Judah and God's Law; and it immediately calls to mind the Gentiles and all the issues dealt with in earlier chapters of Romans.
There is no "dispensational" question that does not come within this distinction. Take, for example, the so-called "dispensation of law." When did it terminate? The question is meaningless. For you, I trust, and for me it has terminated finally. For the orthodox Jew it is still in full force; as it is, sad to say, for many who call themselves Christians. If we read 2. Corinthians 3 intelligently we will see that the sons of Israel have not yet discovered that, in Christ, the Old Covenant is vanishing. Not, let us bear in mind, "has vanished." Scripture is very exact, and nowhere are we told that the Law is over and done with. On the contrary, Matt.5:17 stands to refute such an idea. No more are we told that the Law is vanishing, but the Old Covenant. This distinction is vitally important. The New Covenant is in essence bound up with the law and is pointless without it.
(16) But what about the idea of a dispensation as a period
We must write it off. Here is a real triumph! We can shake ourselves free, once and for all, from such notions and from bondage to systems involved in them. No longer need we ask, "To what dispensation does Acts belong?"; for now such questions are seen to be meaningless as well as prolific sources of confusion. The simple truth is that there are no such things as periods of time that can be classed as "dispensations."
(17) Yet, surely, a person who became a "believer" during the period covered by Acts must have belonged to some sort of "dispensation"?
(18) But is there no difference between them?
Certainly not. There is a vast difference; but it is not in Whom they believed, but in how they believed. The Twelve believed as Israelites as people who enjoyed the benefit of the circumcision. They looked for God's promises to Israel, and in due time they will receive them, for we must not dare even to suggest that God's promises to them (Matt. 19:28) can possibly be broken. How many of those who heard and believed the Twelve continued in their faith is not disclosed. Some, like the Circumcisionists (Acts 10:45; 11:2) certainly held their ground and would not go on even as far as Peter did (Gal. 2:12), and some at least were not regarded as blameworthy (Col. 4:11). Others received Paul's Evangel, followed him in repudiating their standing as Israelites, and became members of the church which is Christ's body, as did the Gentiles who believed.
(19) But, surely, you are not suggesting that this state of affairs persisted?
No. Paul's Evangel changed all that. We must not overlook that Paul's Evangel is concerned with the Gentiles only and that nobody could receive it except as sinners and therefore Gentiles. The truths enunciated in Romans 1-4 had become operative. Circumcision had become nothing. By their rejection of Messiah the Jews' circumcision had become uncircumcision (Rom. 2:25). This meant that as covenant people they had ceased to exist, and will continue thus until God begins to deal with them as such once again. Only Israel according to flesh remains in existence.
Yet, at the time, a faithful remnant remained (Romans 10). These were the Twelve and those who heard and followed them. God's gifts and calling are not subject to change of mind (Rom. 11:29). The calling of the Remnant was therefore not affected by the new calling embodied in Paul's Evangel, that is to say, unless individuals were chosen to cast it aside as Paul did (Phil 3:4-16), and we are nowhere told that this ever occurred. So their calling stood until, as one by one they died off, all had left this earth; and then Paul's Evangel covered all God's people, for no other way remained.
(20) Do you, then, mean that this present state of affairs will persist always?
By no means. When the complement of the Gentiles has entered (by the fulfilment of 1. Thess. 4:13-17) the way will be clear for the promulgation of the Evangel of the circumcision. The work started by Peter will then proceed, to be brought to perfect completion in the conclusion of the New Covenant.
This is what is true in "dispensational truth," and it is perfect, and utterly satisfying.
In conclusion, the strangest feature of the "Acts 28:28 frontier" theory is the way it established itself so speedily and completely; for there does not appear to have been any effective resistence to it until Mr. A. E. Knoch prepared a fine exposure of some of its weaknesses in 1917 (Unsearchable Riches, Vol. 8, p. 233 and p. 271). The subsequent triumphant destruction of the theory owes much to his pioneer effort. Perhaps the reason why Mr. Coles met with so little opposition at first was the way his theory seemed to clear up most of the "dispensational" problems that had been giving trouble. For instance, the spiritual gifts (Pneumatikos), particularly tongues (glOssa), so prominent in 1. Corinthians, vanish when we come to the Prison Epistles. The temptation to explain this by a "change of dispensation" at Acts 28:28 was too strong for most people to resist. Yet a little attention to the facts would have solved the problem. The subject of "tongues" is confined in the epistles to 1. Corinthians 12-14. Of the twenty six occurrences of pneumatikos, only three are rendered by spiritual gift in the A.V. (Rom. 1:11; 1 Cor. 12:1; 14:1) and of these the first cannot rightly be associated with the other two, for it is connected with charisma, and the Concordant Version correctly speaks of "some spiritual grace." Thus, if the subject of "spiritual gifts" and "tongues" together (for "tongues" alone are referred to in Mark 16:17; Acts 10:46; 19:6) is to be used as a "dispensational" touchstone, it must needs mark off 1. Corinthians "dispensationally" from the whole of the rest of the Greek Scriptures, and not merely from the Prison Epistles. This conclusion goes further than any "dispensationalist," even the most advanced, has cared to venture.
In short, in its place theory is a useful thing; but its place is not as a substitute for insight into and understanding of the Scriptures. Let us, then, do away with such fancies and hold fast to the facts indicated in this paper, with man-made theories cast aside, we can then rest securely on the truth. R.B.W.
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