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Archive for December 10th, 2007

“Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us…” Romans 12:6

Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit.
And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord.
And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all in all.”
1 Corinthians 12:4-6.
 

INTRODUCTION

In the twelfth chapter of Romans in considering the walk of believers as many members of one body in Christ, who walk by faith, ministering to one another in the assembly of the saints, Paul encourages them to walk in the will of God, in humility serving one another and preferring one another over themselves (Romans 12:10). In verse 6 he makes reference to the various gifts which God in grace gives to His people, that they, as different members of one body may be able to serve God and one another.

Elsewhere in the New Testament, especially in the First Epistle to the Corinthians, we also read of various gifts of the Spirit which were given to believers and practised in the churches. Some of these gifts were miraculous and some not so miraculous. In Romans 12 the concentration is upon prophecy, ministering, teaching, exhortation, rule and mercy. In 1 Corinthians however other, seemingly more miraculous, gifts such as tongues and healings are mention. We also read of various miracles being performed by the Apostles during the time of the early New Testament church.

Many today are fascinated by the miraculous and supernatural and many in Christendom are taken up with these accounts of miracles, signs, wonders and the gifts of the Spirit and desire to see such things repeated in the churches in our day. Indeed many would claim that it is only when such things are manifested in the church that the Spirit of God is truly working. They claim that such manifestations of the Spirit authenticate their ministry and churches and demonstrate the power of God at work.

But are these claims true? Is it true that such signs and wonders continue today? Do the miraculous gifts of the Spirit continue to be given and exercised in the church today? Do such things continue to the present day or did they cease with the passing away of the twelve apostles once the early New Testament church had been formed? Perhaps some gifts have ceased but others continue, and if so, which gifts continue to the present and in what form?

The New Testament describes several different gifts of the Spirit such as prophecy, tongues, healing gifts and so on (see 1 Corinthians 12). Let us consider this subject of the gifts of the Spirit and their continuation today, primarily with regard to the gift of prophecy. By considering this particular gift I believe we can also draw some conclusions regarding the continuance of the other gifts today.

THE INAUGURATION OF ISRAEL AND THE INAUGURATION OF THE NEW TESTAMENT CHURCH

‘Signs and wonders’ were used by God when Israel was brought out of Egypt, to mark their deliverance and the subsequent giving of the law, for the time until they crossed over the river Jordan. During this period of 40 years they were led by a pillar of cloud, and fire, there was water from the Rock, they were fed by manna from heaven. All were signs which ceased once the children of Israel crossed Jordan and for the hundreds of years following until the time of Christ (this can be seen from the fact that these signs were recorded in the books of Moses and only ever referenced elsewhere in the Bible as historical references to those times. Joshua 5:6-12 informs us of the cessation of the provision of manna. See also Nehemiah 9:9-21, Psalm 99:6-7, Psalm 105:23-45, Isaiah 48:21, Psalm 78:1-32, and John 6).

Likewise with the inauguration of the New Testament there were many signs and wonders demonstrated, and miraculous and special gifts of the Spirit given to mark a special time in the history of the church until the full canon of scripture was produced and their necessity ceased. This is much the same as happened in the time of Moses.

Also the children of Israel had these signs for 40 years. Such as manna from heaven by which they were fed. Likewise in the NT Christ rose from the dead and ascended around AD30. In AD70 the temple of Jerusalem was destroyed. A period of 40 years, during which the NT church was formed and the Gospel had gone out to the gentiles. During this time the people of God were fed on the ‘Bread of heaven’ by the preaching of the Apostles and by those who then prophesied by the Spirit declaring the truths of the Gospel of Christ as laid upon their memories by the Spirit until all the scripture had been set to paper, and gathered together, not long after.

PROPHECY PREFERRED OVER TONGUES

In 1 Corinthians Paul discusses the gifts of the Spirit and their use in the gatherings of the church. In 1 Corinthians 14 he shows how the gift of prophecy is to be preferred to the gift of tongues. Why? Because tongues were beneficial to those who spoke in them as led by the Spirit, and only to others if an interpreter existed. How often today are there truly interpreters of those who speak in tongues? I daresay some would say there are, but if there aren’t, as Paul says, those who speak in tongues would be better off being silent.

 

But Paul emphasises the preference of prophecy over tongues. Why? Because prophecy is intelligible and is beneficial to the whole church who hears it. It presents ‘truth’, it edifies, the secrets of the heart are made manifest in those who hear (1 Corinthians 14:25). Much like preaching does today.

 

But Paul states that all things should be done in order and that those who prophesy should do so by two or three (1 Corinthians 14:29), and that the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets (1 Corinthians 14:32).

 

Why is this?

 

Well, at the time of the church at Corinth – the early church – the written New Testament didn’t fully exist. Certainly those believers in the churches had very little of it. Each church might have had a letter or two from the Apostles but not the full canon of scripture and certainly not in the possession of each believer. So people couldn’t ‘preach’ from the Bible. They had to do so from their memories of the truths of the Gospel which had been taught them by the Apostles, as they were led of the Spirit. This is described as ‘prophesying’. And to ensure that what people in the church stood up and said was truly that Gospel, of the Spirit, and not error, Paul encourages those who prophesy to do so in twos and threes so that each man could testify to the truth of what the other had said. Also what they said needed to be subject to the prophets, meaning to be subject to what others in the church prophesied/preached and also to what the Old Testament prophets had written, and what was written in what that church had of the New Testament writings.

 

So this ‘prophesying’ by the Spirit was really preaching of the Gospel in a day and age when men couldn’t preach that Gospel from the scriptures because of the lack of them (Some may think of the gift of prophecy as having more to do with foretelling of future events. Certainly there is that type of prophecy seen in the Bible, but the gift of prophecy mentioned in 1 Corinthians 14 is connected with teaching the truth. This can be seen from the fact that the gift of a prophet given to the church is listed in Ephesians 4:11-15 alongside other teaching roles such as pastors and teachers. All these roles were given for the edifying of the body of Christ, just as prophecy in 1 Corinthians 14 was given for edification – 1 Corinthians 14:3). So, owing to the lack of written scriptures those who prophesied were led by the Spirit to bring truths from their remembrance which they had received from the Apostles, but they needed others to corroborate what they said as being true to the Apostolic Gospel, true to what they had been taught by the Apostles, true to the scriptures which they did have. And when the New Testament was completed it would be seen to be true to that as a whole.

 

Since the establishment of the early church we now have the completed scriptures. These are widely available in the churches. Prophecy in the sense of 1 Corinthians 14 now continues as preaching without the need for two or three to preach in the same way in order to corroborate what is said. We can now compare what the preacher says with the Bible to see if he truly speaks of the Spirit, or is in error. Anything preached of the Spirit will accord with what is in the Bible and will not be a ‘new revelation’ outside of it.

 

Now that scripture is complete the necessity of special gifts of the Spirit, such as speaking in tongues and prophesying by the Spirit (without written down scripture), has gone. Prophesying continues in the form of preaching by the Spirit from the word of God. The Spirit ALWAYS prophesied in accordance with that word, at one time before it had been recorded, but now having been recorded still in accord with it. As it says in John 14:26 and John 15:26:

“But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.”

“But when the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, he shall testify of me:”

It is clear from these verses that those things the Spirit ‘brings to our remembrance’ are those things which testify of Christ which in our day are in accord with the scriptures – they aren’t extra revelations outside the scriptures.

In the early church the Holy Ghost brought all things to the remembrance of the people of God by means of causing men of God to prophesy in the meetings, two or three of them confirming that what was said was true. Now, the Bible being complete, preachers ‘prophesy’ by preaching from that written word of God according to how the Spirit leads them, but always according to that word, testifying of Christ.

So, during the time of the early church when the NT scriptures weren’t complete the Spirit would cause men to prophesy truths of the Gospel regarding Christ which had yet to be set down on paper, but which were being taught by the Apostles. However, once those truths were all recorded in scripture then the need for such ‘prophecy’ had gone, and all further prophecy/preaching would be in accord with the completed Bible. The Spirit is still involved in this but He confirms the truths in the Bible, He doesn’t add to them by further extra-Biblical ‘prophecies’.

In the days of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt actual manna from heaven was miraculously provided to feed the people. This ceased after they crossed Jordan, and the people were then fed on normal bread and food, physically. In the days of the early church there were miraculous signs and gifts given until the scriptures were complete. We feed on the “bread of heaven”, Christ, as typified by manna (see John 6). In the early church that spiritual food, that bread, came by the preaching of the Apostles and also by prophesying by the Spirit. We are now fed by preaching from the written word of God, now that it is complete.

For the children of Israel the type, the shadow, of manna during their 40 years of pilgrimmage was also their physical food. After that time they then ate normal food. They didn’t stop eating, but how their food was provided was changed, the administration of food changed. Likewise the way in which ‘spiritual food’ is provided in the New Testament age started off as being by Apostolic preaching and also by prophesying by the Spirit until the scriptures were complete, but now continues as preaching from the word of God. It is still feeding on the Bread of Heaven, but the way in which that is administered is now by preaching from the word, not by prophesying ‘apart’ from the word (1 Corinthians 12:4-6). Hence, whilst the Spirit’s gift of prophesying continues to this day the form of that prophesying has changed – it is now the preaching of the word of God from the scriptures. Yet it must be emphasised that it is by the Spirit that the scriptures are preached from – we are no less reliant upon the Spirit and His revelation of God’s truth than those in the early church were. Indeed, without the Spirit’s leading into truth the Bible remains a closed book to men, they simply cannot understand it except the Spirit opens it up to them (see 1 Corinthians 2:7-16).

THE INNER WORK OF THE SPIRIT CONTRASTED WITH THAT WHICH IS OUTWARD

Manna, the pillar of fire, the pillar of cloud, and water from the rock were all ‘miraculous’ signs and provisions which God used during Israel’s 40 year pilgrimage after being delivered from Egypt. In terms of what they represent they show forth the Lord’s presence amongst the people, His guidance of them and His feeding and watering them. But God only used the outwardly miraculous for a relatively short time (Of course these signs also have other spiritual significance too – manna typifying Christ, the Bread of heaven, the water from the Rock also pointing to Christ, in fact they all point to Christ in one way or another – but nevertheless they also had an immediate relevance to Israel through what they provided – guidance, feeding, watering).

Again, with the inauguration of the early NT Church similar miraculous signs and gifts of the Spirit were evidenced. Various ‘signs and wonders’ like miraculous healings by the Apostles were performed which showed the Lord’s presence in a powerful outward way to demonstrably show God’s work in the bringing in and establishing of the NT church. Likewise gifts of the Spirit such as prophecy and tongues were used to guide, edify and feed the people. There is a similarity here between these ‘gifts’ and the signs mentioned from the Old Testament.

Once the New Testament Church was established and the scriptures completed, the need for such ‘outward’ manifestations of the Spirit’s work had gone and God continued from that time forth to work by the Spirit in a more inward way through the preaching of the Gospel, leading to the resultant New Birth by the Spirit, the ‘baptism’ of the Spirit. This is no less miraculous a work but it is inward, not an outward thing. Such preaching results in men who are dead in trespasses and sins being quickened unto life by the Spirit, given new hearts and receiving the gift of faith to believe and rest in the finished work of salvation for sinners wrought out by Jesus Christ at the cross by His death. This is a powerful work of the Spirit but one which is essentially inward – within man – not outward.

Yet outward things appeal to men in the flesh. People like to see ‘miracles’. Seeing ‘miracles’ with the eye doesn’t require faith. They demonstrate the supernatural and provide proof of it, but don’t require faith to believe in the supernatural. But Christians walk by faith not by sight. Faith believes in things that can’t be seen with the natural eye, things which are ‘hidden’ (Hebrews 11:1). God uses outwardly miraculous signs at such times in history which indicate a great event in the work of God, such as the deliverance of Israel from Egypt, and the start of the NT church both during the life of Christ and shortly after under the Apostolic ministry. This was to demonstrate to all who looked on, including unbelievers that God was at work in a particularly significant way (ie. Christ had come in the flesh!). But once this had been shown, and testimony to it recorded in the scriptures, then God continued to work by His Spirit in the more ‘hidden’ realm of men’s hearts.

PROPHETIC GUIDANCE CONTRASTED WITH THE SPIRIT’S TEACHING GIFT OF PROPHECY

I have emphasised the nature of the gift of prophecy described in 1 Corinthians 14 as being that of teaching. Some may question whether all prophecy is of that nature and would claim that we read of various examples of prophecy in the New Testament, such as in the book of Acts, which are of a predictive nature – a foretelling of events. For example in Acts 21:10-11 we read of the prophet Agabus approaching Paul and warning him not to go to Jerusalem because the Jews there would persecute him.

It is true that such ‘prophecies’ occurred in the New Testament. However these sorts of prophecies are not what are described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 14 as being related to the Spirit’s gift of prophecy. The context is very different and they also don’t fall into the pattern laid down by Paul in that chapter.

 

By stating that 1 Corinthians 14 describes a form of prophecy which is primarily of a preaching and teaching nature I am not saying that this was the only form of prophecy there was in the NT . It is true that there are several instances of prophecy throughout the NT which are evidently of a predictive nature. During the Early Church days there were indeed prophets who prophesied by the Spirit in a predictive way and there were also those who prophesied in the gathering of the assembly by the Spirit to teach the Gospel of Christ to the church. These are two different forms of prophecy, both by the Spirit, which occurred during that time.

 

Most of the examples we may find of ‘foretelling prophecies’ in Acts however are simply occurrences of the Lord guiding people in specific ways, either through dreams, or by the Spirit. The Spirit’s leading of Philip to approach the chariot of the Ethiopian eunuch for example isn’t prophecy, but a leading of the Spirit. Likewise the angel appearing to Cornelius, or the Lord speaking to Paul in visions. Other examples are those of specific prophets with a message from the Lord, for instance Agabus. However none of these examples are taken from gatherings of the church during a meeting where two or three prophets stand up in turn and prophesy and where the people ‘learn’ by these prophecies and are edified, exhorted and comforted. It could be argued that Agabus might have delivered his prophecy regarding the famine in such a context but that really isn’t clear from the text. So none of these examples really fit with what Paul is encouraging in the gathering of the assembly in 1 Corinthians 14.

 

What Paul is dealing with in 1 Corinthians especially in chapters 10-15 is the Body of Christ and how that is built up. It is no coincidence that the subject of the gifts of the Spirit such as tongues and prophecy is dealt with in the very same epistle written to a church which had fallen into such outward, fleshly, corruption where fornication and other sins went on unchecked, where the Lord’s Supper was abused etc. etc. This was a church obsessed with outward fleshly things. And therefore also obsessed with those ‘spiritual’ things which had outward, supernatural, manifestations. The Corinthians thought it the height of spirituality to speak in tongues or to give prophetic revelations.

 

But Paul deals with this obsession with the outward not by outrightly forbidding the use of tongues or prophecy, but by gently guiding the church towards that which is best; that which will really build up the church. And that, ultimately is the Gospel of Christ. So we see a progression from chapter 12 where the Body and its members are described, through an emphasis on love in chapter 13 (the gift which if prevalent would ultimately overcome all the failings in the church), through prophecy being much preferred to tongues in chapter 14 (Why? Because by it the church is edified, encouraged and comforted because it is built up in the Gospel of Christ – it ‘learns’ by it), through to chapter 15 where Paul again discusses the Gospel and how the church should “keep in memory what I preached unto you” 15:2. This leads on to the truths of the coming resurrection of the dead.

 

The point here is that Chapter 15 emphasises what Paul delivered to the church. The Gospel of Christ. That which declares Christ to be “the power of God, and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24). This is what should be in their ‘memory’. As 14:36 indicates, the word of God came to Corinth by Paul’s preaching, from God, it didn’t come out of them. What they should ‘prophesy’ in their meetings should be those truths, kept in their memory, which Paul taught them, which the Spirit then brings to mind in the prophets who would then speak as led by the Spirit in the meeting, by two or three. Paul “received” these truths from God and delivered them to the church at Corinth (15:3). Likewise their prophets should speak those things “revealed” to them (14:30) by the Spirit. The same truths that Paul had “received” of the Spirit and preached.

 

What truths are these? 1 Corinthians 15:3-11 tells us…

“… how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures;
And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures:

And that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve:
After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep.
After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles.
And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time.
For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.
But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.

Therefore whether it were I or they, so we preach, and so ye believed.”

Thus we are led full circle back to what Paul emphasises right at the start of the epistle in chapters 1-4: “But we preach Christ Crucified” 1:23. “For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified” 2:2. The focal point of the whole letter is “Christ Crucified”. The Gospel.

 

This is what the prophecy of chapter 14 regards – the Gospel of Christ. That is why Paul encourages its use. And in that sense it is still encouraged today because we preach and teach the same Gospel from the scriptures, by the Spirit.

 

However, as mentioned before, the more supernatural nature of prophecy along with other signs and wonders was required at the time of the Early Church for two main reasons:-

1. To demonstrate in power the formation of the Church, that Christ had come, died, and risen again, and that the Spirit was now given to God’s people in the church. Under the Apostolic doctrine the Church of Christ was established, as testified outwardly by such signs.

2. Prophecy by the Spirit was required in the absence of completed scriptures in order to build up the church in the doctrine of Christ. Once the scriptures were complete ‘prophecy’ continued as more normal preaching and teaching, from the scriptures as opened up by the Spirit. Such prophecy, such preaching is still very much a gift of the Spirit who ensures that the Gospel comes “not in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance” (1 Thessalonians 1:5), but this prophecy is entirely based upon the scriptures, not outside revelations.

Once the Early Church was established, and the scriptures completed, the necessity of the more direct, supernatural gifts of the Spirit, signs and wonders, had ceased, as they had in the days of Moses. The Spirit continues to work but now in the more hidden, inward realm of men’s hearts.We still have preaching in the church of the Gospel of Christ, but not ‘prophecy by the Spirit’. We also continue to be guided by God, by the Spirit, through various means, but not in the same way as the direct, supernatural prophecies seen in the NT (At least this is not the ‘norm’. It may have been seen in the Early Church, but it is no longer required to the same extent now as God guides His people primarily through the word of God and the preaching of that word by His Spirit).

OTHER GIFTS OF THE SPIRITOf course there are various kinds of gifts of the Spirit, various ‘charismata’ and prophecy is just one of them. For example we read in 1 Corinthians 12:4-12 …

“Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all in all. But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal. For to one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom; to another the word of knowledge by the same Spirit; To another faith by the same Spirit; to another the gifts of healing by the same Spirit; To another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits; to another divers kinds of tongues; to another the interpretation of tongues: But all these worketh that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he will. For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ.”

All these gifts of the Spirit ultimately have one purpose – the edification of the body of Christ. There is one body with many members and there are diversities of gifts given to those members, but all the gifts are given that the body might be edified, strengthed, built up in the knowledge and wisdom of God. It is in this light that we must consider these gifts and the way in which they are manifested and used in our day. Are the ‘gifts’ we see exhibited in some churches today truly being used for the edification of the body through the truth, by the proclamation of the word, by feeding the body upon Christ, or do they rather draw attention to man rather than Christ and excite the flesh rather than direct the gaze of faith towards the Saviour?I believe that any continuation of ‘prophecy’ today will be in accord with the written word of God, which is now complete, as there is no new revelation given today beyond the scriptures. That doesn’t mean that we can rule out the continuation of all gifts of the Spirit – not at all –  but it is clear that the more outward manifestations of gifts have served their purpose during the time of the Early NT Church. So the same principles set forward here regarding prophecy can also be related to other gifts of the Spirit such as healing for example. Yes, there is a gift of healing which continues to this day, but in keeping with the inward nature of the working of the Spirit upon the heart through the Gospel, which so characterises the ongoing work of the Spirit in our day, I believe that the gift of healing we see today is that which is edifying to the body of Christ. This is a gift of healing which comes through the preaching of “Christ Crucified” and which provides true healing for the souls of God’s people, which brings them to peace with God, which washes them clean from their sin, and which brings them into unity with their brethren. How often do we see disunity and wounds appearing between brethren? How wonderful then that God still provides the gift of healing to His people to heal those wounds and to strengthen the Body of Christ in the midst of its ongoing spiritual warfare with the many enemies which are set against it.

Is there the word of wisdom granted by the Spirit today? Yes, certainly. The word of knowledge? Yes. Faith? Most assuredly. Gifts of healing? Yes, but of an inward, spiritual nature to the edification and healing of the body of Christ. The working of miracles? Again, yes, in the inward sense, for it is true that the conversion of a sinner to new life in Christ Jesus under the power of the Gospel is indeed a miracle, and those sent to preach that Gospel can but stand by in awe and wonder at the mighty power of God in turning men from darkness to light. The discernment of spirits? Yes, indeed, this gift continues today for we must “test the spirits” and as we now have a completed canon of scripture we can also compare what men say with what is recorded in Holy Writ. What of tongues and the interpretation thereof? Well, as has been previously stated Paul encouraged prophecy over and above the use of tongues and both gifts ultimately are a means of conveying the truth of the Gospel for the edification of the Body of Christ. This continues today through the preaching of the word as recorded in scripture.But what of the outwardly miraculous? Well as has been already mentioned such things occurred at the inauguration of the New Testament church. The church having been established under the Apostolic ministry and testified by such outward demonstrations of God’s power has no longer any need for such outward manifestations of the Spirit’s work. The Spirit’s work is to testify of Christ, inwardly to the hearts of men, and this He continues to do today under the preaching of the Gospel. A ministry no less miraculous than that seen in the apostles’ days but one which concerns the revelation of truth to the eye of faith rather than the sight of men in the flesh.

CONCLUSIONS

In summary then if it could be shown that the manna given to Israel continued to be given from that time until the coming of Christ, or that Israel continued to be led by a pillar of cloud by day or of fire by night, then a precedent for the continuance in an outward, miraculous, sense of such gifts as prophesying (for example in the manner of Spirit-inspired revelations apart from the Bible) would be found. But I don’t believe that that precedence can be shown, and therefore we can conclude that such outward gifts, signs and wonders ceased after the Early Church had been brought in under the Apostles, as prefigured by Israel of old. This seems only right too, considering that the bringing in of the New Testament church under the Apostles was of such great importance. Furthermore a survey of the history of the church from Apostolic times up to the present demonstrates that this indeed has been the case.

May the Lord be pleased to give us that gift of the discerning of spirits in these days of much confusion that we might know what is truly of the Spirit of God and what is not. May we also recognise that there are diversities of gifts and differences of administration (for example between today and apostolic times) but nevertheless “the same Lord” (1 Corinthians 12:4-6). May we be given faith to follow the Lord Jesus Christ as revealed by the Spirit in the Gospel of Christ, as recorded in the scriptures, and to seek that real, true, inward reality of the working of the Spirit in contrast to that false, outward, counterfeit religion which seems to be so popular in our day and which appeals to the flesh which is fascinated by the unusual, the supernatural, the superficial and the spectacular. May we be found amongst those who walk by faith, not by sight, seeking an heavenly country, not an earthly, who walk as pilgrims and strangers in this present evil world. May we run the race before us looking unto Jesus the Author and Finisher of Faith. May we be amongst those who have found that the power of God rests not in the outwardly miraculous but in the “Gospel of Christ” (Romans 1:16). And may all glory be given to the Lord Jesus Christ, of whom the Spirit was sent to testify and to honour, through the proclamation of that very Gospel, which was, and is, the power of God unto salvation.

Amen.     

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