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First Things in Acts and Paul: A Review Article

John W. Mahaffy

In the Fullness of Time: An Introduction to the Biblical Theology of Acts and Paul, by Richard B. Gaffin Jr. Wheaton: Crossway, 2022, 448 pages, $44.99.

Richard B. Gaffin Jr. has blessed the church with a most helpful fruit of his years in the classroom. He began teaching at Westminster Theological Seminary in 1965 and became Professor Emeritus, Biblical and Systematic Theology, in 2008. In the Fullness of Time is based on the course Acts and Paul, which he taught from 1977 to 2010.

Always the teacher, Gaffin has not disguised the source material of the book but rather aimed to “maintain the classroom level of its content” with the exception that the use of the original languages has been kept to a minimum. Gaffin targets not his academic peers (though they too will benefit from the book) but serious students who are “looking for an initial ‘deep dive’” into Acts and the writings of Paul (20). This book is a “must read,” especially for the audience of Ordained Servant, officers in the OPC. For many others, men and women holding the general office of believer and interested in serious study of God’s Word, this book will also prove a rich blessing.

As Sinclair Ferguson states in his foreword, for those who have studied under Gaffin, “It certainly adds to a reading experience to be able to ‘hear’ the writer’s accent” and to recognize familiar speech patterns (16). The far greater benefit, however, is that those who have not sat under his teaching are here exposed to his careful, even-handed treatment of the Word of God.

In the Introduction, Gaffin reminds us that “sound preaching presupposes and flows from solid exposition” (24). Interpretation, while intensely personal, is carried out in the context of the church of the risen, ascended Lord. His interest in the writings of Luke and Paul is for their revelatory character and function, as they are part of the revelation of the triune God that has its climactic focus in the person and work of Christ. We will be occupied with them as, in a single word that captures the essence of their content all told, they are gospel, and therefore as—a description applicable to all of them—they are “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16). (27)

God’s spoken or written verbal communication has come to us as a historical process, always “occasioned by and focused on God’s activity in history. God’s revelatory Word is oriented toward his action as Creator and Redeemer” (29). The opening words of the Letter to the Hebrews provide a biblical basis for this view of revelation, with its emphasis on the Son as God’s “last days” speaking. Gaffin draws the important distinction between “redemptive or salvation history (historia salutis), the once-for-all accomplishment of salvation, and the ongoing application of that salvation (ordo salutis, the order of salvation),” (33) while reminding us that the two are always related because God is the author of the whole.

Following a very brief summary of the history of the development of biblical theology as a recognized discipline (with, of course, acknowledgment of the crucial role of Geerhardus Vos), Gaffin emphasizes that the New Testament, while the endpoint of Scriptural revelation, also describes the progression of events in the life and ministry of Christ:

In fact, this historical progression is not only present but basic to the gospel. At the heart of the gospel is the historical progression experienced by Christ himself. He moves, pivotally by the cross and resurrection, from his state of humiliation to his state of exaltation—from bearing the just wrath and curse of God that his people deserve for their sins to being restored irreversibly, with that wrath propitiated and removed, to God’s favor. The result is the permanent transition from wrath to grace in history, effected for the salvation of his people. The gospel stands or falls with the historical sequence of Christ’s humiliation and exaltation. (41)

His contrasting this with the theology of Karl Barth illustrates Gaffin’s concern that biblical theology assists in maintaining a sound, orthodox systematic theology.

Eschatology, or the teaching of Scripture concerning the last things, is not properly limited to dealing with events shortly before the return of Christ. Rather, “Biblical eschatology is to be defined in terms of the first as well as the second coming of Christ. New Testament eschatology has a dual focus. In that respect it is elliptical, defined by two foci, present and future, the proverbial already-not-yet” (67).

“The Theology of Acts” includes an overview of the teaching of Jesus concerning the kingdom of God as found in the Gospels. It then focuses on the Holy Spirit and the kingdom in Luke-Acts, tracing it from the annunciation through the baptism and temptation of Jesus, his teaching, and his miracles. Luke 24 and Acts 1 overlap, describing that unique, forty-day period in which the resurrected but not yet ascended Christ prepared his disciples for their upcoming apostolic work.

“What transpired, as it might be pictured, was a forty-day intersession in which Jesus gave a crash course on Old Testament hermeneutics, in how to interpret the Old Testament as a whole from a postresurrection perspective. . . . This interpretive activity consisted in showing that his earthly ministry, culminating in his death and resurrection, is the focus of Scripture, the sum and substance of the Old Testament . . .” (88)

At the heart of the Book of Acts stands Pentecost, the baptism of the apostolic church by the risen, ascended Lord. Gaffin takes us back to Luke 3 and the promise of John the Baptizer that the One coming after him would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Both blessing and judgment are implied. For the baptism at Pentecost to be one of blessing, it was necessary for the Messiah to undergo his own baptism with fire, the second Adam bearing the sins of his people in his suffering and death before being raised triumphantly. Jesus’s own baptism by John was the occasion for the Father to send the Holy Spirit upon the Messiah to equip him for his public ministry.

When the ascended Lord deluges (to use Gaffin’s term) the church with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, this is an epochal event. Those familiar with Gaffin’s Perspectives on Pentecost[1] will recognize the biblical argument developed at some length here, that Pentecost is not the first in a series of repeatable events to be sought after by the church and by individual believers. Rather, it is foundational, as unique as the incarnation, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The once-for-all character of Christ’s accomplishment of salvation and of the outpouring of the Spirit in no way distances us from either Christ’s work in our lives or the enlivening, empowering work of the Spirit. While carefully guarding against any confusion of the persons of the Trinity, Gaffin, looking at John 16, speaks of the “functional identity of Christ and the Spirit” as they work in the lives of believers and in the church (162). The involvement of the Father in Pentecost (Jesus speaks of the promise of his Father) . . . opens up the widest possible perspective on Pentecost, because it links Pentecost to the fulfillment of the promise that is at the core of Old Testament expectation. . . . the promise that is at the core of covenant history and has shaped its course and outcome from the beginning. That is the promise of Genesis 12:3 that in Abraham all the families or nations of the earth will be blessed. (163)

Gaffin brings out several underemphasized aspects of Pentecost (though this review does not have the space to summarize the biblical arguments he uses). Pentecost has a forensic or judicial aspect:

Returning to Acts 2, when at Pentecost Christ comes to baptize his people—triumphant as he now is from his baptismal ordeal—for them the just wrath they deserve has been removed. For them, the church, the judicial fire of destruction has been exhausted, quenched by his death. (168)

It also has adoptive force. While guarding against the error of adoptionistic Christology, Gaffin anticipates the point he will make in discussing Romans 1:4, that “by his resurrection through the action of the Spirit, Christ, the preexisting divine Son” was appointed or declared “Son of God in power” (172).

Calvin is known as the theologian of the Holy Spirit. Gaffin outstandingly maintains that emphasis for our generation. His focus on the work of the Spirit is not confined to Pentecost or the Book of Acts—it is also prominent in his treatment of the theology of Paul.

In contrast with much contemporary Pauline scholarship, Gaffin takes seriously Paul’s words in 1 Thessalonians 2:13, “when you receive the Word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the Word of God.” God, not Paul, is the primary author (185). Yet it is at the same time fully Paul’s teaching as well.

Chapter 7, “Paul and His Interpreters,” provides a brief overview of the church’s understanding of the apostle. Prior to the Protestant Reformation, Paul, though cited and commented on, seems to have had relatively little impact, with a notable exception of Augustine. That neglect was remedied by Luther and Calvin. Gaffin touches briefly on representative figures in the historical-critical school, who, given the rise of rationalism, denied or neglected the divine source and authority of Scripture. In a footnote, Gaffin, agreeing with Vos, explains his method, “I proceed in this largely descriptive manner convinced that for those who do not share its unbiblical commitments and rationalistic procedures, diagnosis of the true intent of criticism is the best prophylaxis” (204). He interacts more extensively with the New Perspective on Paul, concluding, contrary to that perspective, “that the Reformation is essentially correct in its understanding of Paul’s opposition to Judaism” (217). The chapter ends with a brief note of appreciation for the work of Vos and Ridderbos.

Paul’s letters are occasional and pastoral, not a doctrinal handbook, though they are rich in theological content and Paul is a profound theologian. Is there a center to his theology? “[T]he center of Paul’s theology is the gospel, and at the center of that gospel are the death and resurrection of Christ.” The death and resurrection for our sins are “nothing less than eschatological.”

At the center of Paul’s theology, constituting that center as much as anything, are Christ’s death and resurrection—or, more broadly, messianic suffering and glory, his humiliation and exaltation, in their saving and Scripture-fulfilling, eschatological significance. The center of Paul’s theology is determined by the triangulation of his Christology, soteriology, and eschatology. (238)

Gaffin then explores Paul’s Christology and soteriology in the light of his eschatology. He examines key texts that reference the present age and contrast it with the age to come (Gal. 1:4; Eph. 2:2; Rom. 12:2; 1 Cor. 1:8–3:23; 2 Cor. 5:17; Rom. 1:2, 16:25–27; Col. 1:26–27; and others). Gaffin’s theology is exegetical. The age to come arrives with the coming of the Messiah. For Judaism in Paul’s day and orthodox Judaism today, “Messiah has not yet come. For Paul the Messiah has already come in the person of Christ. The end of this age has arrived, the age to come has been ushered in” (281). Yet the coming of the Messiah has two stages, epochs, or installments. His first coming with its saving events has ushered in the kingdom, but believers, still subject to a sin-cursed world, have a certain hope of his second coming. The Christian not only looks forward to the fulfillment of the age to come but, because the risen Christ has ascended to the right hand of God, also looks upwards, seeking the things that are above, for his life is hidden with Christ in God.

I dare say that most readers who have studied under Gaffin will recall him drawing on the chalkboard (or its more modern equivalent) the rectangular diagram from Vos’s The Pauline Eschatology, illustrating the relationship between the present age and the age to come. That diagram, slightly modified with arrows pointing backward, forward, and upward, is reproduced as “Paul’s Tridirectional Eschatology” (293). He comments, “The arrival of the age to come in its fullness at Christ’s return will mean the disappearance not of the distinction but of the present disjunctive distance between heaven and earth.”

Gaffin works through several Pauline passages that focus on the resurrection of Christ and its connection with believers. “On balance, for Paul, the resurrection of Christ is thoroughly messianic, just as much as are his sufferings and death” (320). That leads to exploring what his resurrection meant for Christ personally—crucially, the relationship between Christ and the Holy Spirit. He spends nearly twenty pages unpacking 1 Corinthians 15:45, “The last Adam became the life-giving Spirit” (his translation). “What should not be missed, particularly prominent in this passage, is the large megapoint that keeps coming out as we consider Paul’s theology: the way in which his eschatology both shapes and is shaped by his Christology, and with that, his soteriology” (341).

In his treatment of Paul’s summary of his gospel in Romans 1:3–4 (“who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh, who was declared to be [or appointed] the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by the resurrection from the dead.” Gaffin’s translation), he carefully guards against any view that Paul is confusing the persons of the Trinity or has an adoptionistic Christology. “[B]y resurrection, the incarnate Son of God was in his human nature transformed by the Holy Spirit and entered the eschatological order of the Spirit’s working” (359). He discusses the Pauline contrast between flesh and Spirit, leading him to observe that the present situation of believers is “in the flesh, but not according to the flesh.”

The ongoing challenge to the church is to recognize and not lose sight of both of these dimensions and so to avoid falling into the extreme of some form of triumphalist thinking, on the one hand, or of no longer being able to distinguish itself from the present evil age on the other. (358)

He summarizes:

The inseverable bond between Christ and the Holy Spirit in the experience of believers (in the ordo salutis), expressed in Romans 8:9–10, exists because, prior to their experience (in the historia salutis), Christ has become “the life-giving Spirit” (1 Cor. 15:45), and the Spirit is “the Spirit of Christ” (Rom. 8:9; cf. Gal. 4:6; Phil. 1:19). (365)

Because believers have been raised with Christ and their lives are hidden with Christ in God (indicative statements of fact), they are commanded (imperative) to set their minds on things above, rather than on earthly things.

The covenant bond established by God with his people at the beginning of redemptive history has been given its final, eschatological form in Spirit-worked union between the exalted Christ and believers. Union with Christ is the climactic realization of the covenant relationship structured by the promise, “I will be their God, / and they shall be my people.” (373)

Romans 6 provides a crucial perspective on sanctification. Given Paul’s emphasis on the believer’s union with Christ in his death and resurrection, the important, ongoing, progressive work of sanctification (which is not merely our work, but, no less than other aspects of our salvation, is God working in us) has undergirding it a definitive break with the enslaving power of sin. Following John Murray, Gaffin argues that Romans 6 tells us the believers are dead to sin and have been made alive to God (385). Even in Reformed circles, that definitive break with sin is too often overlooked. Describing the debated relationship between justification and sanctification, Gaffin argues,

The reason that justification and sanctification are inseparable is because of Christ, because of who he is as our righteousness (1 Cor. 1:30). His is the righteousness that is the final, eschatological answer to any and every charge against God’s elect, the justifying and intercessory righteousness of God reckoned as ours (cf. Rom. 8:33–34). (395)

But our sanctification cannot be separated, because “the Christ of our concern is Christ who is what he now is in the fullness of his exaltation glory and redemptive triumph and because we have been united with this Christ.” (396) He cites Calvin’s emphasis that we cannot receive a partial or a half Christ.

Readers unfamiliar with Gaffin’s other writings may be surprised that the final chapter, “The Resurrection and the Christian Life (Part 2),” is subtitled, “Christian Suffering.” Gaffin writes, “My thesis, as paradoxical as it might at first sound, is that for Paul, suffering is an essential mark of the believer’s present experience of resurrection. Suffering specifies as fundamental a dimension as any of the Christian life, precisely as that life is sharing in the life of the resurrected Christ” (399). Gaffin deals at some length with 1 Corinthians 4:7–12 and Philippians 3:10–11: “The sequence is not, as might be expected suffering-death-resurrection, but resurrection-suffering-death” (407). The age to come has dawned, but believers, though united to Christ, still live in the present age, with the resultant tension and suffering: “For Paul, Christ’s resurrection power is to have cruciform effect. The impact of Christ’s resurrection life in the church, the impression or imprint that the resurrection ought to leave in the life of the believer, is, as much as anything, the cross” (408).

Gaffin is not a pessimist. He considers himself, like Paul, an “optimistic amil” (298). The church is filling up the afflictions of Christ pending his return, when it will enter its exaltation.

But while in this way the church is one large step behind its Lord, he has not left it behind. The church is not on its own or abandoned. For in its state of humiliation its exalted Lord is present in the power of his Spirit. Already, not just in the future, he become [sic] the life-giving Spirit, is active as “head over everything for the church” (Eph. 1:22 NIV), And in its suffering, his resurrection life and power are being perfected. This is why, we may say, Christ’s present eschatological victory is for the church an eschatology of suffering. (418)

If the church evades sharing in the sufferings of Christ, it risks losing its identity and fails to be faithful to its Lord.[2] On that note, Gaffin concludes this book.

Why read In the Fullness of Time? Read it because when Gaffin deals with a passage, as he does repeatedly in this book, one is left with the indelible impression that he has examined it thoroughly and with transparent clarity. The quotes in this review illustrate his careful exegetical work. Read because, even though this book is written on a level not too academic for the ordinary saint, Gaffin models careful, respectful scholarship at its best. He presents opposing views correctly, avoiding unsubstantiated generalizations. He writes with a readable and refreshing humility. Read because this book, although self-described as an introduction, provides a sweeping framework of biblical thought, an explication of the structure of biblical theology, that will assist the reader in understanding all of Scripture. John Murray’s Redemption Accomplished and Applied,[3] reprinted multiple times, has been a profound influence on the church for more than seventy years. In the Fullness of Time has the potential to have a similar impact on our understanding the Scriptures for at least the next seventy to one hundred years.

If the book has a weakness, it is that, even at more than 400 pages including exceedingly helpful Scripture and subject indices, it is only an introduction. At times the reader is left wishing that space and time had allowed Gaffin to deal with additional passages of Scripture or to have explored issues further. (One can hope that chapters in other books and internet articles referenced in footnotes could be gathered into a Collected Writings of Richard Gaffin.) Yet his explication of the text manifests the depth and the height of the Word. His introduction has an astounding grasp of the passages he considers. One cannot put it better than Sinclair Ferguson does in the Preface:

A hallmark of In the Fullness of Time is its penetration into the deep structures of Paul’s thought. There are many pages here where I suspect readers will want to slow down, perhaps reread, meditate, and, best of all, worship. (16)

Endnotes

[1] Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., Perspectives on Pentecost: Studies in New Testament Teaching on the Gifts of the Holy Spirit (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1979.

[2] That evasion appears in some circles in which an emphasis on exercising dominion downplays the humiliation of Christ and jumps to him as the rider on the white horse in Revelation 19. While that may be cited as justification for the aggressive instincts of males (for instance in Michael Foster and Dominic Bnonn Tennant, It’s Good To Be a Man: A Handbook for Godly Masculinity (Moscow, ID: Cannon Press, 2021), 301), such a view flattens the eschatology of the New Testament.

[3] John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955).

John W. Mahaffy serves as the pastor of Trinity Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Newberg, Oregon. Ordained Servant Online, August-September 2022.

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