Saturday, March 25, 2017

To Whom the Epistles Were Written

An important support of the modern phenomenon of excessive emphasis on visible local churches at the expense of the doctrine of the Invisible Universal Church is the allegation that the epistles of the New Testament were written to visible local churches and thus that the New Testament doesn't make sense without keeping this in mind. "Paul wrote to the (local) church at Corinth/Rome/Colossæ," they say. "That means local churches with identifiable leadership, membership, and schedule," they say. If they're really bold, they throw in "...and street address." Let us examine, though, whether this is actually the case.


The Bible teaches that two kinds of people exist in the world - those who remain in slavery to sin and the devil, darkness, and rebellion, who are headed for Hell, and those who are redeemed, born again, liberated from sin unto slavery to Jesus Christ, repentant, and being sanctified during their lifetimes by the Holy Spirit until the Lord rescues them from this body of death and takes them to repose and later a sure and final victory.

These in the latter category constitute what is known as The Invisible Universal Church, that ekklesia/assembly/congregation spoken of in passages such as Matthew 16:18, Ephesians 5:23-32, Colossians 1:18 and 24, and 1 Timothy 3:15.

And when these slaves of Christ gather together, the New Testament also labels that gathering an ekklesia. In a vacuum, that is an obvious sort of thing, for obviously those who have been redeemed from the useless things of this present world would want to fellowship and worship and serve with other believers on a regular basis for many reasons, not the least of which is that the New Testament commands such. But there is a problem - not all who profess slavery to Jesus are indeed His slaves. False conversion and profession are significant enough problems that they merit many mentions in passages such as Matthew 18, 1 Corinthians 5, Galatians, Titus 3, 2 Peter, 1 John 2, and Jude.

Specifically, 1 John 2:19 informs us:
They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.

Galatians 2 explains further:
Yet because of false brothers secretly brought in—who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery—to them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.

False brothers sneak in, sent and inspired by the devil and other fleshly motivations. This is an ubiquitous phenomenon. But how to identify them, and what should be done once they become known?


The New Testament describes and prescribes various elements of a process usually labeled church discipline. Those people in whom the spirit of God is at work will indicate by the fruit of their lives and of their professions that they belong to Jesus and not to themselves. But if the fruit is not in accord with the profession of faith in Jesus, the profession is to be considered a false one and the person is to be taught closely, reprimanded, and eventually expelled from the assembly if they continue without repentance. Thus, the spies of the devil, as it were, lose their access and influence among the people who truly do belong to Jesus.

However, it can take time first to identify, then to gather evidence and bring to bear witnesses, then finally to confront, teach, rebut, and ultimately expel from the fellowship a person who proves by their life and profession to possess an unrepentant spirit. Sometimes these false brothers can even remain concealed for many years, which means that there exists an excellent chance an unregenerate person is gaining and exercising influence in any given local assembly, of which fact Paul and Peter were doubtless aware.


If these Epistles are written to everyone, both lost and regenerate, then the Apostle Paul is engaging in communication and activity that just doesn't make sense. Do Paul and the Holy Spirit who breathed out His Word through Paul expect unbelievers to act like believers and to be devoted to Christ? Do unbelievers warrant being addressed with passages like these?

Galatians 3:3-5 -
Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain— if indeed it was in vain? Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith...?
Do unbelievers hear with faith? Has the Spirit been supplied to them? Have they begun by the Spirit?

Romans 6:17-18 -
But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness...
Romans 8:9 -
You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.
This is important because the New Testament describes over and over the fact that people who are not regenerate simply can not submit to God nor even understand his word very well.

For example, 1 Corinthians 2:14-15 -
But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no one.
These "natural (men)" are otherwise known as outsiders, those whom the Apostle Paul reminds us we are not to judge in the same way nor by the same standard as those inside the church; 1 Corinthians 5:9-13 -
I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world. But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside, God judges. REMOVE THE WICKED MAN FROM AMONG YOURSELVES.
To expect an outsider, a natural man, to grow in holiness and grace, knowledge of the Scripture, and zeal for good works as defined by the Scripture, is a complete category error. Natural men don't even understand much of that, much less desire to be made like Christ in their behavior, priorities, and dealings, so the principal emphasis between Christian and unbeliever must be on repentance, the change of mind and heart that accompanies regeneration by the Holy Spirit, transforming a natural man to a spiritual one. You must be born again.

Let's turn our attention now to a different angle of this matter.


To whom did the epistolary authors send their letters? Let's find out from their own pens:

Romans 1:1Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God...7to all who are beloved of God in Rome, called as saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  8First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, because your faith is being proclaimed throughout the whole world.

1 Corinthians 1:1Paul, called as an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother, 2To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling, with all who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours:
  3Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
  4I thank my God always concerning you for the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus, 5that in everything you were enriched in Him, in all speech and all knowledge, 6even as the testimony concerning Christ was confirmed in you, 7so that you are not lacking in any gift, awaiting eagerly the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ, 8who will also confirm you to the end, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.

2 Corinthians 1:1Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the church of God which is at Corinth with all the saints who are throughout Achaia...7and our hope for you is firmly grounded, knowing that as you are sharers of our sufferings, so also you are sharers of our comfort.

Ephesians 1:1Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints who are at Ephesus and who are faithful in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 1:1Paul and Timothy, bond-servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers and deacons.

Colossians 1:1Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, 2To the saints and faithful brethren in Christ who are at Colossae.

1 Thessalonians 1:1Paul and Silvanus and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace. 2We give thanks to God always for all of you, making mention of you in our prayers; 3constantly bearing in mind your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ in the presence of our God and Father, 4knowing, brethren beloved by God, His choice of you.

2 Thessalonians 1:1To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: 2Grace to you and peace from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 3We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brethren, as is only fitting, because your faith is greatly enlarged, and the love of each one of you toward one another grows ever greater; 4therefore, we ourselves speak proudly of you among the churches of God for your perseverance and faith in the midst of all your persecutions and afflictions which you endure.

1 Peter 1:1Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who reside as aliens, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, who are chosen 2according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with His blood...

2 Peter 1:1Simon Peter, a bond-servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who have received a faith of the same kind as ours, by the righteousness of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ...

Notice how each letter is sent expressly to people whom the author identifies as born again people. There can be no doubt by the way he describes them each time - saints, faithful, obedient to Jesus, hoping in Jesus, being chosen by God, etc. All these descriptive phrases are indicative of the intended recipients of the letters - the regenerate, people in the Invisible Universal Church. Surely Paul and Peter didn't momentarily forget the concepts related to the natural/unregenerate/lost man and spiritual/regenerate/reborn man dichotomy as they were writing their opening salutations.

Consider the man who was committing immorality with his father's wife, described in 1 Corinthians 5. He was still part of the local assembly just as much as anyone else at the time Paul wrote the epistle, and that is why Paul had to specifically tell the rest of them to expel him from their midst. So, are verses 4-8 of 1 Corinthians 1 true of this man?
I thank my God always concerning you for the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus, that in everything you were enriched in Him, in all speech and all knowledge, even as the testimony concerning Christ was confirmed in you, so that you are not lacking in any gift, awaiting eagerly the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ, 8who will also confirm you to the end, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Was this man enriched in God? Was the testimony concerning Christ confirmed in him? Was he a partaker of spiritual gifts? Was he awaiting eagerly Christ's revelation? Was there any reasonable expectation he would be confirmed at the end and blameless? No! The epistle is partly about this man, not written to him. And he was just as much part of that local church (if you will) as anyone.

I have omitted Galatians because the opening salutation is so short and the Apostle Paul is clearly engaging in internal debate during the course of the letter as to whether the Galatians are indeed born again, for regenerate people will not ultimately fall prey to deadly heresy and go so far as to deny the very Gospel itself while affirming the sufficiency of the quality and saving power of their own works in the sight of a holy and jealous God, thus revealing they consider the cross of Christ to be devoid of power, a mostly needless gesture on God's part.


Obviously it would be very strange to propose that these epistles are addressing anyone other than true believers. And that's the point here. To address "a local church" like, say, the church at Galatia is to address:
1) some people who were true believers and who were standing firm,
2) some who were true believers but who were wavering (in whom the Spirit of God had not yet brought to completion His work of sanctifying them unto rejection of the false Judaiser gospel),
3) some who appeared to be true believers but who would soon follow after the Judaisers and leave the truth, and
4) the obvious false teachers which were the Judaisers themselves.

Yet none of the content of the epistle is addressed to the two latter groups. It is about the three latter groups and is only addressed to the two former or at best the three former, the people whom Paul considers to be possibly (or certainly) truly regenerate.

So, since the epistles are addressed to the regenerate and not the unregenerate, and given that virtually every local church contains some unregenerate people, how can we say that they are written to local churches rather than to the Invisible Universal Church, or if you prefer, to the very people of God no matter where they are?

Even those who insist that these epistles were written to local churches do not act like it, for they take the commands and proscriptions therein to be applicable across the ages to their own local church context thousands of miles and thousands of years away. They aren't part of the church at Ephesus during the 1st century, yet they read Ephesians 1 and deduce Calvinistic election and Ephesians 5 and infer proper marital roles and 1 Thessalonians 4 and see a teaching about the Rapture. But these letters were not addressed to these modern folks making these deductions!

Or were they? Did not the Holy Spirit know that they would be read by all, even far removed from the original recipients, by time and distance? Why then did the Holy Spirit take such pains to warn readers of the fact that false conversion is a thing, that false conversion sometimes takes a long time to recognize, and that often it would require significant sacrifice and determination (not to mention painstaking time and procedure) to root it out? And yet He speaks to the regenerate about the unregenerate. Why? Because He intends His message for those who are truly His children, not those who hate His children but are pretending to be His children so they can destroy His children.

Thus in reality, one who agrees with the argument as laid out in this article holds to a higher doctrine of the church than one who disagrees, for I am denying that God sent such important information as New Testament letters to people who hate Him and deny His Son.

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