Review of Richard B. Gaffin Jr. In the Fullness of Time: An Introduction to the Biblical Theology of Acts and Paul

Dr. Richard Gaffin, professor emeritus of biblical and systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia), is famous for his emphasis on redemptive history and the historia salutis, or the factors concerning Christ’s once-for-all accomplishment of redemption. Claiming the legacy of Geerhardus Vos and Herman Ridderbos, he has focused his scholarly efforts on the major redemptive-historical shifts that occurred in Christ’s first coming, also highlighting the eschatological flavor of New Testament, particularly Pauline, theology. Gaffin’s students have often lauded his course on Acts and Paul as his fundamental contribution to the field. His most recent book, In the Fullness of Time, preserves those lectures in published form, produced from transcriptions of his recorded lectures and edited by Gaffin himself.

This book is essentially a work on eschatology, arguing that the inbreaking of the last day in Christ’s advent is a primarily encompassing feature of New Testament theology, and tracing out its implications. It has two parts, the first exploring the theology of the book of Acts, and the second examining the Pauline corpus. Under each topical chapter, Gaffin performs careful and detailed exegesis on several passages related to the point he is considering, each focusing in some way or other on the already-not yet of New Testament teaching.

Part one on the theology of the book of Acts predominantly focuses on Pentecost’s theological significance. Gaffin argues, rooting his claims not only in the events of Acts 2 but also in a holistic consideration of Luke’s treatment of the Holy Spirit and God’s kingdom in both installments of his account to Theophilus, that Pentecost belongs to the historia salutis as a facet of the once-for-all accomplishment of redemption and a turning point in redemptive history itself. His target, of course, is Pentecostalism, which has often posed Pentecost—at least in the categories with which Gaffin is grappling, even if not their own—as part of the ordo salutis. That Pentecostal position entails that every individual believer should experience the same sort of phenomenon as occurred in Acts 2 because they see that tied to how salvation is applied to the believer. Gaffin, on the other hand, makes a strident case that the Holy Spirit’s outpouring at Pentecost is not a normative experience as part of the ordo salutis but was a pivotal moment in redemptive history wherein Christ sent the Helper whom he promised to send, so that the church would be equipped for her kingdom-expanding mission of gospel ministry.

Gaffin’s exegesis is thoroughly persuasive on this point, demonstrating Pentecost’s age-shifting significance as the extension of Christ’s kingdom into this world by the power of the Spirit to be carried forward in the church’s means of grace ministry. As a convinced cessationist, I am glad for this thorough pushback against destructive understandings of the Christian’s experience of the Spirit. The presentation, however, does leave some questions unanswered. Gaffin convincingly outlines what Pentecost’s implications are not, yet never outlines what its implications are with much specificity. The dawning of the age of the Spirit is of course an exhilarating idea, prompting thanks for the Spirit’s presence with the church in our endeavors. This material’s value could be richly supplemented, however, by focusing also on what it means to live in the age of the Spirit and how the Christian experience of the Spirit should be understood. That is not to say this experience need be described all that experientially, but is to say that sometimes extended refutation (and even positive exposition that is nonetheless rightly but primarily aimed to circumvent error) can leave us with only half of what we need. What does the Spirit do in the church during this period of redemptive history?

Another question arises from Gaffin’s helpful case that Pentecost belongs to the historia salutis: namely, related to the difference, if any, that comes in relation to the ordo salutis compared to believers who lived prior to the Incarnation and Pentecost. This question is a necessary point to consider because the recent increase of Baptist reflection on the covenants and the unity of redemptive history has focused on the Spirit’s indwelling as the difference between Old and New Testament soteriology. In this respect, and to some degree in relation to the emphatic concern to preclude Pentecostal conclusions, this book could have used some slight updating as it seems to focus on matters that may be somewhat out of date in most recent discourse. That certainly does not diminish its value for what it does contribute, but leaves some important matters unclarified. It would have been a significant help to see Gaffin think Pentecost’s redemptive-historical shift all the way down to its specific applications for more precise systematic theological questions. This point in no way suggests that Gaffin’s answers to these questions would be deficient, just that it would have been most helpful to get to read those answers.1

Part two, which concerns the theology of the Pauline letters, likewise emphasizes Paul’s contributions to understanding the shifts in redemptive history that accompany Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. This section too, then, focuses on eschatology—namely, the inbreaking of the last days through Christ’s humiliation and exaltation. The survey of the history of interpretation for Paul’s letters is particularly helpful regarding the higher critical period, showing Gaffin’s familiarity with a host of literature, available only in the European languages when he would have been originally preparing this course, with which modern readers of Paul must in some way or other reckon. After framing the investigation of Paul’s letters in terms of the history of interpretation and the overall eschatological structure of his thought, the bulk of part two focuses on the significance of Christ’s resurrection for redemptive history and for the Christian life. The chapters here probe deeply into how Christ’s resurrection should reorient the way we think about eschatology, redemptive history, and salvation.

I am aware that readers of the Heidelblog will be especially interested in this book’s treatment of the doctrine of justification. Gaffin has made controversial claims about justification in his earlier published writings, particularly concerning an application of our already-not yet eschatology to justification itself, leaving some aspects of it to be completed in the future. Although valuing his emphasis on eschatology and his thoroughgoing amillennialism, I have disagreed with Gaffin on this point, especially his interpretation of Romans 2. Two points must be noted here: 1) This post is a review of a particular book, not an engagement with everything Gaffin has ever written, and 2) nonetheless I believe that there was a demonstrable shift in Gaffin’s thought on the ordo salutis in his 2016 essay “The Work of Christ Applied.”2

The second point may be worth elaborating. Whereas Gaffin had formerly criticized the notion of fixed relationships between Christ’s benefits within a truly ordered ordo salutis, this essay contains more resolute statements concerning a logical order. For example, he contended that the blessings of the ordo salutis “are not received as an arbitrary or chaotic mix but in a set pattern with fixed connections among them,” which prevents “misrepresenting individual aspects or acts and so distorting the work of Christ applied as a whole.”3 In another instance, Gaffin also affirmed the priority of the legal aspects of salvation:

While these two [forensic and renovative] aspects are inseparable, the judicial aspect has an essential and decisive priority. Because his [Christ’s] obedience unto death is the requisite judicial ground for his resurrection, his becoming the life-giving Spirit presupposes his being justified in the Spirit, not the reverse.4

It is possible that this suggested shift in Gaffin’s thought on the ordo salutis occurred while he edited the English translation of Geerhardus Vos’ Reformed Dogmatics, an invaluable contribution. Vos took positions that remarkably resemble Gaffin’s most recent arguments. For instance: “The subjective application of the salvation obtained by Christ does not occur at once or arbitrarily.” Rather, “there are a multiplicity of relationships and conditions to which all the operations of grace have a certain connection.”5 This point has bearing on how we must review In the Fullness of Time.

With this sort of potential shift in view, there is no point in loading Gaffin’s most recent work with claims this particular book does not detail. In this respect, the book does not contain any extensive or detailed discussion of justification or exposition of Romans 2. The statements it does make cohere with the suggested shift in thought. Some important sections are likely worth recording here:

With an eye to ongoing and often heightened discussions of the doctrine of justification today, the New Testament, particularly Paul, clearly spells out how individual sinners are justified—solely by faith and solely on the basis of Christ’s righteousness imputed to them.6

Justification includes the imputation to faith (that is, to those who believe) of the righteousness of Christ as the basis for justification that entitles to eschatological life in the Spirit (Rom 4:5, in light of 5:18–19; Gal 3:1–14).7 [Note how this argument’s force excludes any potential future justification with an assessment of our works as constitutive of our right to enter heaven.]

That is, justification is fully dependent upon and given its abiding validity by the coming of the Son in the fullness of time (Gal 4:4). The God who justifies the sinner is the God who justifies in union with Christ (see Gal 5:4) by what has been effected in his death and resurrection.8

For Paul, justification and sanctification are inseparable. They are not to be confused, but they are inseparable. They are not to be confused, particularly when sanctification is in view as an ongoing process over time in the life of the Christian. In that case, justification is the absolute necessary and settled precondition for sanctification (though not its source or cause, as some argue).9

The last quote in particular lines up with Gaffin’s 2016 essay, affirming a truly ordered ordo salutis. We might debate the precise meaning and implications of the rejection of justification as sanctification’s source and cause, but since Gaffin does not spell out this exact statement’s significance, his emphasis seems to be on justification coming fully before sanctification in our reception of Christ’s benefits. I realize that some strident fans of all of Gaffin’s writings may dispute whether I am accurate in perceiving a shift in his theology, but I hope they recognize that my ultimate purpose here is to state that I—and I personally consider myself attuned to this issue and the debates and literature surrounding it—have not found anything objectionable, even for those of us who have significant disagreement with how we have seen him express himself in the past, about what Gaffin says in his discussions of justification proper in this book.

The preceding importantly frames how to assess what Gaffin does treat at length in In the Fullness of Time concerning applied soteriology, namely sanctification. Gaffin’s overall point here is to tie our experience of sanctification to our reception of Christ’s resurrection life. Now that we are made new creations, we are free from not only sin’s penalty but also its power. Although repeated and forcefully pushing against a moralistic distortion of Paul’s use of the imperative for ethical exhortation, which Gaffin demonstrates was grounded in Paul’s use of the indicative concerning the objective salvation we have received in Christ, Gaffin’s emphatic concern was clearly antinomianism. He repeatedly critiqued those who emphasize the imperfection of our sanctification in this life and the limited nature of success in Christian living we might expect to obtain.

As with the discussion of Pentecost, the reservation is not so much with what Gaffin explicitly argued so much as the questions left in its wake. Depending on who and what issues are in mind, there is no problem in pressing against those who de-emphasize the reality of sanctification. In my own present context, many British evangelical churches seem to think of sanctification primarily as learning how to do evangelistic studies rather than having any sort of thorough notion of renovated character. So, one question really does concern what specific issue was targeted, which could have been helped had this book been more rigorously footnoted or slightly updated from when the transcribed lectures were delivered—which I believe was in the midst of controversies over Tullian Tchividjian, who has now been defrocked on moral grounds. Again, it would have been helpful to see Gaffin think this issue all the way to the bottom.

Likewise, it would have been helpful to see Gaffin include an extended discussion of justification, simply because it would emphasize how the arguments that are presently in the book should not be applied to that doctrine but only to sanctification. The emphasis on Christ’s resurrection as fueling the renovative aspects of the ordo salutis could potentially suggest that the resurrection is really about our sanctification, leaving justification as a sort of needed but quickly set aside prerequisite, especially if a given reader is inclined to read Gaffin more critically than sympathetically. A more extensive discussion of justification could easily prevent that. Further, Gaffin has demonstrated powerful insight into how Christ’s resurrection is the basis of our sanctification, making me think that his explanation of how it grounds the forensic aspects of salvation would have been equally helpful.

Gaffin’s most recent book is a searching exploration of how to apply New Testament eschatology to the unfolding sweep of redemptive history, particularly regarding how the ascended Christ has ushered in the end of the ages by pouring out his Spirit on his church. There are many observations about the principle shifts in redemptive history that will prompt reflection for some time to come, hopefully thinking through those more specific systematic implications in order to round out Gaffin’s biblico-theological insights.

© Harrison Perkins. All Rights Reserved.


1. This issue is noted, directing readers to Gaffin’s other writings, in Fullness of Time, 157 n24.

2. Richard B. Gaffin Jr., “The Work of Christ Applied,” in Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain (eds.), Christian Dogmatics: Reformed Theology for the Church Catholic (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016), 268–90.

3. Gaffin, “Work of Christ Applied,” 270.

4. Gaffin, “Work of Christ Applied,” 278–79.

5. Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, 5 vols. (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014–16), 4:1–2.

6. Gaffin, Fullness of Time, 170.

7. Gaffin, Fullness of Time, 220.

8. Gaffin, Fullness of Time, 275.

9. Gaffin, Fullness of Time, 395 (emphasis added).



  1. Thank you for the review. What I have read by Gaffin indicated the only future aspect of justification is the public acquittal of what is true now. We will never be more justified than the moment when one trusts in Christ. But that justification we have received by faith will no longer be by faith in heaven, but will be a reality by sight in our public aquittal at the judgment and confimed in glorification. That was Gaffin’s point in his article Justification and Eschatology in the book Justified in Christ. I am unaware of his view on Romans 2.

  2. Grateful for news of this publication and the review – summary of its content and matters arising from the same.
    Is there any mention/discussion of Regeneration in connection with the arrival of “the new age” in Gaffin’s book? Surely, it is significant and has a bearing on how Justification and Sanctification are to be correlated.

    • There is some discussion but the emphasis is on outlining new life, so regeneration has a direct line to sanctification. The stress is on renewal. I’m fully behind the importance of renewal as we walk toward greater holiness. But the formulation of “resurrection life” that encompasses regeneration and sanctification as the real bits of the new age drive my comments that justification can seem like a side issue with this presentation. The new age, in this work, is renovating with a side glance at the judicial rather than having a full place for both. I think the shifts in thought I noted make room to correct this but not all the threads have been fully integrated

  3. Does this mean that there is no distinction drawn between regeneration which is a completed act and renewal which is its consequent process?

    • I’m sure that Gaffin affirms the distinction between regeneration and sanctification (although the issue of so-called definitive sanctification quickly looms into the background as to how it affects this issue). The stress upon historia salutis over ordo salutis, however, precludes nailing down the specific doctrinal entailments of the historical features. The book focuses on the redemptive historical shift where the new age breaks into this one. The new age is then the age of renewal, which I’m sure includes regeneration and sanctification. But the specific relationship between them and how they connect to justification and the changes in redemptive history in terms of whether OT saints experienced renewal is not detailed.

      Disclaimer: I submitted the review in June, and my copy of the book is traversing the Atlantic on a boat. So, I’m going from memory and not able to look up the points again at the moment.

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