The Challies Chronicles: R.C. Sproul and Pentecost

rc_sproulFor the third session at Strange Fire, John MacArthur introduced his good friend R.C. Sproul. Because of issues with his health, Sproul was unable to travel to California, so instead he sent along a video message. And his task was to speak about Pentecost.

He began by saying, “I want to look specifically today at the redemptive-historical significance of Pentecost.” We’re aware that the modern Pentecostal movement began at Azusa Street and that it occurred outside of the mainline denotations until the middle of the 20th Century. Then it moved into Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, Anglican, etc. circles. Initially when it came into these various denominations there were several attempts to assimilate the theology into their creedal foundations. At the same time, Pentecostals were gathering their beliefs into a creed, which became Neo-Pentecostal theology.

-Pastor Tim Challies
“Strange Fire Conference: R.C. Sproul”
Challies.com

I’m not familiar with R.C. Sproul so I looked him up on Wikipedia. That didn’t help much, so I looked Dr. Sproul up at Ligonier.org. That was only slightly more enlightening. Oh well, I guess I just don’t know the population of presenters John MacArthur chose for his Strange Fire conference. But then, I’m an unusual Christian because I don’t know a lot of “famous names” in the Christian publication world.

I have to admit to being confused for the first part of Pastor Challies’s “live blogged” rendition of Sproul’s presentation. Dr. Sproul was supposed to be speaking about the Pentecost, the original event we see depicted in Acts 2, but then he launched into a brief history of the Pentecostal movement. Where’s the relationship?

Then Sproul said a few things that got me thinking.

The fundamental weakness of Neo-Pentecostal theology is that it understands the original Pentecost differently than the apostles, and that it considers this Pentecost too lowly.

I’m not sure most Fundamentalist Christians understand the original, Jewish context of Pentecost the way the apostles did either, but that’s not what got my attention. It was this.

The significance of the baptism of the Holy Spirit has to do principally with the Holy Spirit empowering Christians for ministry. When Jesus promised the Holy Spirit he was promising power and strength.

OK, I can buy that as far as it goes. Relative to Acts 2, the Holy Spirit was given to the apostles in preparation for their mission to spread the Gospel message to Israel, Samaria, and to the rest of the world. But that would mean only believers who have a specific mission would ever receive the Holy Spirit. Sort of like these guys.

So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord. Also, he gathered seventy men of the elders of the people, and stationed them around the tent. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him; and He took of the Spirit who was upon him and placed Him upon the seventy elders. And when the Spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do it again.

Numbers 11:24-25 (NASB)

Sproul actually mentioned this event in his presentation, and we see the Spirit God gave to Moses being “sub-divided” among the seventy elders who were to form the first Sanhedrin. The Spirit was preparing them for their mission and, like the later apostles of Acts 2, they prophesied once and then never again.

But what about this?

While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message. All the circumcised believers who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. For they were hearing them speaking with tongues and exalting God. Then Peter answered, “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?”

Acts 10:44-47 (NASB)

Receiving the SpiritIf, as in our previous examples, the Holy Spirit is only given to people who have a special mission or job to do for God as a method of empowerment, why was it also given to the Roman Cornelius and his non-Jewish household? The Bible records no subsequent information about them, so either they didn’t have a mission for God, or they did and Luke simply thought it not worthy of recording (or he was unaware of what happened next for Cornelius, his family, his servants, and so on).

Or there’s another reason we just haven’t gotten to yet.

As far as I can tell, universally in all Christian denominations, it is believed that everyone who comes to faith in Jesus Christ receives the indwelling of the Holy Spirit…except that we don’t see this event happening to the Ethiopian who receives Messiah in Acts 8:25-40, only that he is baptized by water. For that matter, we don’t see Spirit baptism happening today, at least not as it’s described in Acts 2 and 10. Christians I know today don’t say they prophesied or spoke in tongues when they came to faith. But then we also know (Acts 19:1-6) that historically, some believers weren’t even aware of the Holy Spirit, at least initially, only John’s baptism of water and repentance.

Sproul said:

It is admitted that some people can have conversion or regeneration simultaneously with their baptism by the Holy Spirit, but in the main there is a time difference between original conversion and the baptism of the Holy Spirit.

I can only assume this means Sproul too believes all people who come to faith in Christ receive the Spirit, although he seems to indicate that there’s some sort of difference between “original conversion” and “baptism of the Holy Spirit.” We see some indications of this in scripture, as I noted above, but I’m still not sure if Sproul is referring to these scriptures or something else.

In the Old Testament a person could only be a believer by being born again of the Holy Spirit. But the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament with respect to Pentecost is that in the Old Testament the Spirit was only given by God selectively to isolated individuals, such as the prophets or the judges when they needed strength for the particular task.

OK, here’s the really interesting part. Sproul says that an Israelite could only become a “believer” (I find the term somewhat anachronistic, since being a “believer” isn’t mentioned let alone emphasized in the Tanakh or “Old Testament” as it is in modern Christianity) by receiving the Holy Spirit. I agree that the Biblical record only shows certain individuals receiving the Spirit (such as Prophets), so does that mean Sproul is saying only Old Testament Prophets were saved? Does that mean the vast, vast, majority of ancient Israelites who were born, lived, and died in a covenant relationship with God worshiped the Creator in vain and have no place in the World to Come?

I’m not sure Sproul meant to say it that way and even if he did, it’s not in line with scripture. If the faith of Abraham was counted to him as righteousness, and the Abrahamic covenant carried down to Isaac, and then Jacob, and then the twelve tribes, and then all of Israel, it would be difficult to believe that covenant faith being counted as righteousness somehow didn’t translate into salvation. After all, the Tanakh has tons and tons to say about Jewish faith in God.

It would make more sense to believe that the faith of the Israelites was counted as saving righteousness by God’s grace, and that only those individuals who required special empowerment to carry out the acts of God, such as the Judges and Prophets, would require the Holy Spirit.

ShavuotOf course, this brings up the question of why everyone who comes to faith post-Acts 2 receives the Holy Spirit, especially since the Strange Fire conference attempts to convince us all that no one has the gifts of the Holy Spirit, prophesy or anything else.

I certainly am not going to throw the ancient Israelites in the Torah and the Prophets under the bus because one presenter may have inadvertently suggested that the Holy Spirit has suffered a change in job description between the Old Testament and New Testament records, and that the “old” God only saved those Jews who were possessed of the Spirit of prophesy.

Here’s another interesting detail.

In Acts 8:14-17 we have the record of what happened among the Samaritans. There is a second Pentecost among the Samaritan believers when Peter and John lay hands on them. In Acts 10:44-48 the Spirit falls on the God-fearers, which Peter recounts in 11:13-18. This is Pentecost number three. Just as in the case of the first and second Pentecosts, all of those present received the Holy Spirit. In Acts 19:1-7 the Gentiles in Ephesus receive the Holy Spirit and are empowered for ministry.

So you have four separate Pentecosts, one for each people group in Acts. When Paul was dealing with the Corinthian church, he wrote in 1 Corinthians 12:12-14 that by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body. Here he speaks of the universality of the Sprit’s [sic] empowering of every believer. That’s the significance of Pentecost.

If I didn’t know what little I know about Sproul, I wouldn’t be so surprised by such statements. “Pentecost” just means “the fiftieth day” and is the Greek name for Shavuot or the Feast of Weeks. Shavuot or Pentecost only comes once a year on the Jewish (and Christian) religious calendar, so it’s a little odd (for someone who should know better) to say there were “four separate Pentecosts.” It’s also strange to believe in four separate events of the giving of the Holy Spirit to specific populations (however, he may have been waxing poetic).

If God was doing something new in the giving of the Spirit (but not entirely new it seems) to those requiring power to perform a ministry, I would interpret Acts 2 as the beginning of a continual process rather than the start of four separate and distinct “waves” of “Pentecost events” based on differences between people groups.

Maybe I’m “majoring in the minors” here, but it seems like Sproul’s presentation didn’t really amount to much, at least for me.

No, I don’t want to give up on Sproul’s presentation yet. Here’s how Challies ended it on his blog post:

In Ephesians 2:11-19 Paul again addresses this issues [sic] that threatened to divide the 1st century church, the issue of what role the Gentiles have in the body of Christ. Paul’s “mystery” in Ephesians and Colossians is that Christ has folded Gentiles into his body and indwells them. “Through Christ we both have access through one Spirit to the Father.” This is a Trinitarian work.

My concern with Charismatic friends is that they have a low view of Pentecost. They don’t see it as a signal of the outpouring of God on all Christians. They believe all Christians can have it and should have it, but they miss the point that the pouring of the Spirit at Pentecost means that all Christians already have the Spirit and have been empowered by him, and that they don’t need to be baptized by the Spirit again.

Pouring waterI think Sproul is saying that the giving of the Spirit to Christians is a one time event, like water baptism, and that Pentecostals have repeated events of accepting the Spirit, thus “cheapening” the gift of the Spirit. Also, it is the giving of the Spirit Acts 10 to Gentiles that indicates that we are also accepted into the redeemed body of Christ, and it is faith in Messiah that allows us to receive the Spirit and be saved in the same way as believing Jews.

That helps, but it doesn’t close the can of worms I think Sproul opened up in terms of Old Testament Jewish salvation. We seem to see though, that Sproul is saying the Spirit was only given for empowerment of prophets in the Old Testament, but that in the New Testament, the Spirit was given, not only to empower, but as a sign of induction into the body of Messiah. I’m still not willing to accept that only the Spirit-filled Prophets and Judges of ancient Israel were “saved.”

According to MacArthur’s viewpoint though, even if all believers after the Acts 2 event received the baptism of the Holy Spirit, post-closure of Biblical canon, whatever gifts a person once received from the indwelling of the Spirit simply ceased to exist. But we don’t know why.

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6 thoughts on “The Challies Chronicles: R.C. Sproul and Pentecost”

  1. Perhaps if we [neurotic Western-Hellenized] Gentile Christians ceased trying to find Aristotelian “systems” and “logical patterns” in God’s behavior and simply see Him as unknowable-in-full as He truly is (as C.S. Lewis writes, “not tame” but “good”) we’d all be better off and doing more of the repair work and gathering of sparks He’s expecting of us. Platonic dualism really does get old and annoying over time. 🙂

  2. God may be raw and untamed Dan, but human beings need to at least pretend we have some control, so we develop systems to organize the jungle. Problem is, the map isn’t always the actual territory.

  3. Right. I’m thinking Plato’s Cave and how when we do “pretend” to have some control we quite likely misperceive the “shadow” as being the true thing, which can wind up sending us in some fairly strange directions. “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” Again, this is why I love the mystical Jewish constructions which do act as “telescopic” metaphors as we look into that mirror, that aid us in our conception of the Almighty One.

  4. Agreed. Putting God in a box limits God (well, not really) and limits our perception of Him. We can never know Him fully, but we should have the courage to peek behind the curtain of the universe and to encounter God on His own terms…not ours.

  5. James, the people speaking at this conference are Calvinists. Their view is that “regeneration” initiated by the Holy Spirit comes first, enabling a person to believe and repent and thereby be “saved”.
    That doctrinal viewpoint is perhaps the reasoning behind this: “Sproul says that an Israelite could only become a “believer” … by receiving the Holy Spirit.”

    I find that Calvinist view summarised above is a clear reversal of what is shown in scripture, considering Peter’s Pentecost statement:

    “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.”

  6. The sequencing of that statement would support free will, that we have to make a conscious decision before receiving the Spirit. I tend to believe that God also works in our lives to get us to the point of making the decision, however. That’s how I recall the sequence of events (a rather long one, in my case) that led me to salvation.

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