Several months ago, the teens at church asked three questions during Sunday School as the teacher covered 2 Thessalonians 2, and I wrote up a brief response to augment the teacher’s answers. These were their questions:
- Was Old Testament salvation by faith, or by works?
- Did the Holy Spirit indwell believers in the Old Testament?
- Will the Holy Spirit indwell believers during the Tribulation?
I love both letters to the Thessalonians. I especially love 2 Thessalonians 2, because it gives such a clear skeleton outline of eschatology. Here’s what I wrote to them …
In order to answer these, and to understand why these questions even came up in 2 Thessalonians 2:6, you need to read the passage. It’s probably the clearest chronological account of what will happen in the end-times. Read it and see for yourself!
Paul was reassuring the Christians in Thessalonica that they shouldn’t pay attention to silly and ridiculous teachings about the end-times. Even back then, people were running around concocting all kinds of weird speculations about the end of days! So, Paul wanted to set them straight (2 Thess 2:1-2). Here is the order of events the passage gives us:
1: Jesus won’t come back and judge the world until the great rebellion against God comes first (2 Thess 2:4).
Specifically, a “man of lawlessness” will come onto the world stage. This man will be a “son of destruction.” The “lawlessness” and “destruction” are characteristics of this man; he epitomizes lawlessness and rebellion against God and he destroys all that’s good and holy. Jesus won’t come back until this guy appears first.
2: This evil guy will “oppose and exalt himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God,” (2 Thess 2:4).
This man will have a reverse Messiah complex; He’s Jesus’ counterpart from the “dark side,” so to speak. In short, this man is the Antichrist.
3: Paul reminds the Thessalonians that he already told them this, when he was with them (2 Thess 2:5). Why are they getting so confused!?
It’s clear that people have always wanted to know about the end-times, and teachers have always had to preach and teach about it!
4: Something is restraining this evil man from appearing now, “so that he may be revealed in his time,” (2 Thess 2:6). And “he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way,” (2 Thess 2:7).
What is this restraint? What or who can possibly restrain the forces and cultural conditions necessary for people around the world to want and accept what the Antichrist will be offering? Bear in mind that the Antichrist will be offering a world system opposed to God; in fact, he’ll offer himself as a secular alternative to God. There’s something in our culture, right now, that’s “holding back” or “restraining” people from embracing this alternative. What could it possibly be?
It’s likely the Holy Spirit.
But, what means is the Spirit using to restrain the world culture from accepting a wholehearted secularism? It seems natural He’s using people’s consciences, God-honoring laws and social mores, and more. There are cultural pockets in this world that have embraced secularism – especially in the West. But, there are many more that haven’t.
If we’re right about the Holy Spirit being the “restrainer,” then what does it mean that He’ll eventually be “out of the way?” It seems to mean that the Spirit will stop restraining evil in the world, the doors will open, and a flood of wickedness and secularism will drown the entire world – to a much greater extent than it does right now. Then the cultural conditions and secular mindsets will be in place to accept a world system explicitly predicated on hatred and opposition to the Christian God.
Pretend you’re holding a door closed, while someone is trying to push his way through from the other side. After a while, you step away from the door and let the person crash through into the room. The Holy Spirit is the one holding the door. The Antichrist and his philosophy are trying to push through. One day, the Spirit will simply step aside and let him come in.
5: The Antichrist will be revealed, and Jesus will return (Rev 19) and kill him (2 Thess 2:8).
6: The Antichrist is a tool of Satan, who seduces people to a secular world system “because they refused to love the truth and so be saved,” (2 Thess 2:9-10).
In fact, because they don’t love Him, God will even send them a delusion so they’ll believe the Antichrist, when he comes (2 Thess 2:11-12).
So, now that we’ve got that out of the way, here are the answers to the three original questions:
Was Old Testament salvation by faith, or by works?
It was by faith. The idea of “having faith” or to “believe the Gospel” means to put trust or allegiance in Jesus and His message. It doesn’t mean a mental leap into the dark, or deliberately believing something you know can’t be true. Read Galatians 3-4, where Paul answers the question directly. The idea that the Old Covenant saints were saved by works is a legacy of a bad form of Bible interpretation. The Scofield Reference Bible was perhaps the best-selling study Bible of the 20th century. Unfortunately, it suggested that Old Covenant believers were saved by works, and New Covenant believers were saved by grace.1 This is wrong. For the truth, see especially Jesus’ interpretation of the Mosaic Law (Mk 12:28-32), where He taught the essence of the law was obedience based on love for Him.
The Scofield study Bible, and one strand of the theological system that accompanied it, has influenced countless Christians to believe false things about Old Covenant life and practice. I think the original Scofield bible notes are dangerous.
If a believer in any age really loves God, she’ll prove it by actions. Those actions will look a bit different, depending on when you’re alive. Abraham didn’t have the Mosaic law, so his form of loving obedience looked a bit different than David’s. Likewise, our life looks a bit different than Ezekiel’s. But, at the heart of all of it is this fact – if you love God, you’ll keep His commandments. It’s always been that way.
Did the Holy Spirit indwell believers in the Old Testament?
Yes; why wouldn’t He? See the oodles of passages which talk about people “circumcising” their hearts (Deut 10:16; 30:6; Jer 4:4, etc.). What does it mean to “circumcise your heart?” It’s clearly figurative:
- just as external circumcision is an external mark that shows a boy belongs to God’s covenant family
- internal circumcision is an internal mark on your heart to show that you belong to God’s family
Can you make your heart belong to God? Of course not; God has to do something to your heart and mind first! In essence, “circumcise your heart” means “you must be born again!” It means spiritual birth. You have spiritual birth by believing in God’s promises about the Messiah.
Will the Holy Spirit indwell believers during the Tribulation?
Yes, why wouldn’t He?2 This is only a valid question if you assume 2 Thessalonians 2:6 means the Holy Spirit leaves this world and goes back to heaven to hang out. This is wrong, and that means this question is based on a bad assumption.
1 1917 Scofield note at Gen 12:1: “Grace had prepared a deliverer (Moses), provided a sacrifice for the guilty, and by divine power brought them out of bondage Ex 19:4 but at Sinai they exchanged grace for law.”
Note at John 1:17: “[Grace] is, therefore, constantly set in contrast to law, under which God demands righteousness from man, as, under grace, he gives righteousness to man Ro 3:21; 8:4; Phm 1:25. Law is connected with Moses and works; grace with Christ and faith Joh 1:17; Ro 10:4-10. Law blesses the good; grace saves the bad Ex 19:5; Eph 2:1-9. Law demands that blessings be earned; grace is a free gift De 28:1-6; Eph 2:8; Ro 4:4-5. As a dispensation, grace begins with the death and resurrection of Christ Ro 3:24-26; 4:24-25. The point of testing is no longer legal obedience as the condition of salvation, but acceptance or rejection of Christ, with good works as a fruit of salvation.”
2 See especially Rolland McCune, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, 3 vols. (Detroit: DBTS, 2009), 2:267-289. No, I didn’t give the poor teenagers this footnote …