Book Review: In the Fullness of Time, by Richard B. Gaffin Jr.
Richard B. Gaffin Jr., In the Fullness of Time: An Introduction to the Biblical Theology of Acts and Paul. Crossway, 2022. 448 pages.
Dr. Richard B. Gaffin Jr. has been a mainstay at Westminster Theological Seminary for decades. His former colleague, Sinclair Ferguson, coined the verb “gaffinized” in an attempt to describe the deep impact Gaffin often had on his students and their understanding of the deep structures of the gospel (17).
Unfortunately, unless one was willing to pick up their families and move to Pennsylvania, very few have had direct access to his teaching—until now. Gaffin has been teaching a course on the book of Acts and the letters of Paul for almost as long as he has been teaching. His book In the Fullness of Time serves as the culmination of his decades of work on Paul and the story that describes him.
The book essentially operates as a Pauline theology with a large section discussing Pentecost, but it is not exhaustive. As he explicitly states, Gaffin opts to deal with things that he considers of first importance such as justification, sanctification, union with Christ, and so forth (19).
In each of the areas, Gaffin strives for one thing—balance. After making his reformed commitments explicit, Gaffin spends most of the book rounding out what he sees to be malformed views, many of which are held within the reformed tradition itself. Usually, this balancing involves pushing the scales from the subjective to the objective, from a focus on the ordo salutis, the ongoing application of salvation, to the historia salutis, the once-for-all accomplishment of salvation (33).
His discussion of Acts serves as a perfect example. Gaffin spends nearly his entire section on part two of Luke’s narrative working toward the thesis that Pentecost is a part of the historia salutis, not a part of the ordo salutis. In other words, the pouring out of the Spirit in Acts 2 was a climactic salvific event much like Christ’s death, not an event to be repeated in the lives of a believer as most within the Pentecostal tradition maintain (120, 124). Gaffin’s argument is too intricate to summarize here, but his main point is that the pouring out of the Spirit is closely connected to the saving work of the Messiah both in the Old and New Testaments. It is a gift procured by Christ’s death and resurrection (122–24). As Christ’s death is unrepeatable, so also is the pouring out of the Spirit that it obtained.
Gaffin’s work on Paul shows similar tendencies. After describing and critiquing the history of Pauline scholarship from F. C. Baur onward (204–23), Gaffin argues that the center of Paul’s theology is the history of salvation, not how that salvation is applied to believers (229). Paul’s main concern was Christ’s atoning work, not justification by faith.
To argue this case, Gaffin looks at various programmatic statements within Paul’s corpus, arguing that these statements usually concern the objective events of the gospel. For example, Paul says, “for I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2 ESV). This statement occurs in a passage “in which Paul is concerned to provide an important overall perspective on his ministry as an apostle” (236). Thus, it provides insight into Paul’s primary concerns.
Gaffin should not be read here as denying the importance of topics like justification. He merely intends to point out that Paul views such subjective components of the gospel as effects of the historia salutis and, as such, less fundamental to the apostle’s theology.
In the last portion of the book, Gaffin discusses the indicative-imperative problem in Paul. For decades, Pauline scholars have struggled to reconcile justification and sanctification. Why does one need to pursue what he already is declared to be?
Gaffin’s answer to the question attempts to hold two issues in tension. First, he wants to “maintain the forensic (justification) in a way that does not allow it to be undermined by making it transformative” (200). Second, he wants to uphold this forensic component in such a way as to prevent “viewing the renovative (sanctification) as secondary or nonessential or even dispensable in salvation” (200).
Gaffin holds this tension by arguing that the gospel includes both. Jesus’s death not only allowed a sinner to be declared righteous before God, but it also freed him from the dominating effects of sin (391). Sanctification, therefore, is not merely a response to justification. It is a gift that stands alongside it, equally procured by Christ’s atoning work. As can be seen, Gaffin prefers a both-and answer rather than an either-or. Driven by a high view of inspiration, Gaffin attempts to balance these seemingly disparate pieces of Acts and Paul.
Gaffin is clear from the beginning that his work is one of exposition, not application (23). Multiple of his points, however, yield immediate practical implications.
Take his view of justification and sanctification, for example. Gaffin seems right when he says evangelical churches tend “to view salvation and the message of the gospel exclusively in terms of justification as the free forgiveness of sins” (391). This tendency shows itself in many evangelical sermons on warning passages of the Bible, such as Romans 8:12–13, that attempt to quell the unease these passages produce by quickly turning toward the assurance of forensic justification. If these passages are allowed to speak at all, they are typically taught as if the holiness they call their readers to pursue happens automatically (378).
If Gaffin is right about sanctification, then evangelical preachers should allow these warnings to do their work. God both declares sinners righteous and calls them to actively pursue righteousness. The former must not completely overtake the latter.
Also, consider Gaffin’s view of the book of Acts. In his view, Acts is a closed history. It is not a prescriptive document. It merely describes how the gospel spread through the hands of the apostles (52–53). If true, that would make Acts more difficult to use as a major source of ecclesiological thinking. Luke would not be laying out patterns for later churches to follow. He would merely be describing what the first generation of churches did. Nothing more. Nothing less.
It is perhaps here, however, that Gaffin’s argument is the least persuasive. For example, it is simply too much to argue that Luke intends the apostles and their mission to be the exclusive focal point of the narrative because Jesus addresses the original twelve apostles in Acts 1:8 (52). Although an apostle, Paul was not a part of this group, and Stephen, who was not an apostle at all, seems to embody the statements that Jesus makes to these original twelve. To be sure, the narrative does focus on the apostles’ work, but it certainly does not do so exclusively.
Nevertheless, even if Gaffin is right, pastors could still glean ecclesiological value from Acts. When Luke describes the repeated practice of appointing elders in Acts 14:23, for example, it stands to reason that such a practice was a norm for the church, whether Luke intended his narrative to be prescriptive or not. Thus, Gaffin’s view of Acts would merely require an intermediate step for Luke’s narrative to regain its ecclesiological utility.
In the Fullness of Time proves valuable for the pastor and scholar alike. It is a streamlined discussion of Acts and Paul, not overly encumbered by footnotes or extraneous details. Gaffin chooses points pertinent to the current evangelical moment, and he establishes these points with careful argument.
Those who wish to have access to Gaffin’s decades of experience teaching Paul and Acts now do in a mere 400-page book. As Sinclair Ferguson elegantly states in his foreword, “Having the echoes of [Gaffin’s] class hours as we read In the Fullness of Time is surely the next best thing to ‘being there’” (16).