Part 2: The Prevailing Confusion Over This Commission

by Pastor Cornelius R. Stam

Print This Article

(The following is the latest installment in our series of articles drawn from Pastor Stam’s book, Our Great Commission, What Is It? Since this book never appeared as a series in the Searchlight, many of even our long-time readers may not be familiar with these selections.)


There are few, if any, major Bible subjects on which all of the denominations and sects of Christendom are agreed. There is one, however, on which almost all of them agree.

The vast majority of fundamentalists, neo-evangelicals, modernists and Roman Catholics, along with practically all of the cults, agree that the so-called “great commission,” containing our Lord’s parting commands to His eleven apostles, contains God’s program for the Church today. Or, to be more specific: Most “Christians,” nominal or genuine, believe that our Lord, during the forty days between His resurrection and ascension, instructed His apostles concerning His program for the Church today, and they all call these instructions “the great commission,” or “His parting commands,” or “our marching orders.”

It is not all as simple as that, however, for especially among fundamentalists, those who study their Bibles most, there has been sharp disagreement as to precisely which of our Lord’s commands, given between His resurrection and ascension, apply to the Church today: which of them in particular constitute the “great commission.”

In each one of the four records of our Lord’s earthly ministry and in the Book of Acts we have written accounts of some of these instructions, but does the term “great commission” properly apply to all of these or only to certain of them? This has by no means been agreed upon.

In the records of the various parts of our Lord’s commission there are certain commands or instructions which thinking Bible students have for years found wholly incompatible with the great truths later revealed in the epistles of Paul. And so it came about that most of the great fundamentalist Bible teachers of the past generation concluded that only some of our Lord’s parting words constitute our “great commission,” but they never could agree as to which ones applied. This is the legacy they have left to the present generation as far as the so-called “great commission” is concerned. There is little agreement; only confusion and division, where this subject is concerned.

It is sad indeed that at this late date God’s people, and even their spiritual leaders, remain in disagreement on so important a subject as to what God would have us do and teach. This is written in the year 1974 A.D., and still the Church does not know what its great commission is! This is because the so-called “great commission” is so rarely examined and expounded. Rather it is mentioned, referred to, and phrases from the record taken out of context as topics for sermons!

Most Christian people have heard their pastors or evangelists speak on Matthew’s “Go” and “lo, I am with you,” on Mark’s “all the world” and “every creature,” on Luke’s “ye are witnesses” and the Acts’ “ye shall receive power after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you.” But how many have ever heard our Lord’s parting words thoroughly and thoughtfully expounded? When have their leaders ever conducted Bible studies on the commission which they so stoutly defend as their own?

If pastors and Bible teachers faithfully studied and explained these important commands of our Lord in detail, they would soon find that it is difficult, yes, impossible to reconcile them with the epistles of Paul unless we recognize a change in dispensation with the raising up of Paul, God’s appointed apostle of grace. Surely the legalism of Matthew’s account, the baptism for salvation and the miraculous demonstrations of Mark’s, the “Jerusalem first” of Luke and the Acts, and the apostolic forgiveness of sins of John’s record are not compatible with the glorious truths later set forth in the Pauline epistles.

What the spiritual leaders of the past generation taught us about the commission to the eleven, must inescapably affect the teachings of our generation. This is the place, then, to back up a generation, as it were, and put the writings of the “fathers” to the test. We do this first as we enlarge upon our writings of thirty years ago in our booklet, This Is That. In this booklet we dealt with the deep confusion over the so-called “great commission” among the great—truly great—Bible teachers of that day. As we note this confusion we should not lose sight of the fact that they were giants, spiritually, where many other subjects were concerned.

Dr. H. A. Ironside, long dubbed “The Archbishop of Fundamentalism,” held that the Church’s commission is found in Matthew 28:18-20 and that to deny this is Bullingerism. In one example of his strong feelings about this he wrote, with reference to the passage in Matthew 28:

“People who have never investigated Bullingerism and its kindred systems will hardly believe me when I say that even the Great Commission upon which the Church has acted for 1900 years, and which is still our authority for worldwide missions, is, according to these teachers, a commission with which we have nothing whatever to do; that it has no reference to the Church at all….Yet such is actually their teaching” (Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth, P. 17).

Apparently, though, our dear brother was so intent on going after the “Bullingerites” that he forgot that many of his colleagues, including Mr. J. N. Darby, the founder of the Plymouth Brethren (with whom Dr. Ironside was for many years associated) emphatically denied that the Matthew commission is ours. We quote here from Darby and several others among Dr. Ironside’s colleagues.

Mr. Darby: “The accomplishment of the commission here in Matthew has been interrupted…for the present it has, in fact, given place to a heavenly commission, and the Church of God” (Collected Writings, P. 327).

Dr. James M. Gray: “This is the Kingdom Commission…not the Christian Commission” (Christian Workers’ Commentary, P. 313).

Dr. I. M. Haldeman: “We must call this the Kingdom Commission” (The Commission, P. 14).

Dr. Arno C. Gaebelein: “This is the Kingdom Commission” (Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 2, P. 323).

Dr. Wm. L. Pettingill: “This we would call the `Kingdom Commission’….It would be a strange thing to find the Church’s commission in the Kingdom Gospel” (Bible Questions Answered, Pp. 106,107).

Dr. I. M. Haldeman believed that our commission is to be found in Mark 16:15-18. How he would thunder the words: “`He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved.’ What God hath joined together let not man put asunder.”

But strangely, Dr. Haldeman did not believe that the miraculous signs of Verses 17,18 are included in God’s program for today! You could not join Dr. Haldeman’s Church (New York’s First Baptist) without water baptism, but if you spoke with tongues or sought to work miracles you would be—and some were—excommunicated! Yet these were part of the same commission, yes, the same specific record of the commission (Mark 16:15-18). Pastor J. C. O’Hair once wrote to Dr. Haldeman, asking whether he was not putting asunder what God had joined together, by thus separating Mark 16:15,16 from Verses 17,18. Pastor O’Hair never received a reply.

Dr. Gaebelein held a still different view. Luke, he said, was the Gentile gospel—presumably because it was written to Theophilus (Luke 1:3). However, everything about Luke’s gospel is Jewish, not Gentile. Luke’s record opens with the baby Jesus in the arms of a Jewish mother and of the aged Simeon, also a Jew (Luke 2:28), and it closes with our Lord in the arms of Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin (Luke 23:50-53).

Dr. William L. Pettingill, however, believed that Ironside, Haldeman, Gaebelein and those who stood with them were all wrong. Pettingill taught that the Church’s commission is to be found in Acts 1:8, basically because in the Book of Acts we have baptism “in the name of the Lord Jesus,” which he concluded to be the proper “formula” for our day. However, he never explained, to this writer’s knowledge, why the “formula” in Acts is different from that in Matthew. Dr. Haldeman was so sharply opposed to Dr. Pettingill’s view that we know of one family who, having been baptized in Dr. Pettingill’s church in Baltimore, had to be baptized all over again to join the First Baptist Church of New York City, where Dr. Haldeman was pastor.

But what about the record in John 20:21-23? Did not our Lord say here: “Even so send I you”? Yet this record of the commission was strangely overlooked and barely referred to by the brethren mentioned above and, indeed, by most fundamentalist Bible teachers from their day on. The reason? Those closing words, which the Church of Rome so strongly emphasizes: “Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained” (John 20:21-23).

Some Protestant theologians have sought to explain, really explain away, the simple statement made by our Lord here, but their arguments against Rome’s position have been as weak as cotton thread, for the simple reason that in this case Rome has always been able to point back to the Scriptures with the reply: “But this is what it says.” This is always a strong argument and, in this case, a difficult one for Bible-believing Christians to gainsay. (Rome’s position, however, has been answered, simply and completely, by the application of dispensational truth. See the author’s booklets: Apostolic Authority of the Twelve and Paul, the Masterbuilder.)

Surely it should be seen from the above that not only has Christendom in general been confused over the so-called “great commission,” but our greatest Bible teachers of the past generation have been as thoroughly confused, or at least as hopelessly divided. And if this is so of that generation, what shall we say of this! The only difference, probably, is that the leaders of our day have been so greatly influenced by the new evangelicalism that they avoid specifics, only referring to the commission in a general way as something we should all obey. There is great urgency, but little specific information in their repeated calls to carry out the “great commission” in this generation.

If we would find a Scriptural solution to this important problem, then, let us begin by humbly acknowledging that the Church has not given a clear, united testimony to the world. Indeed, how can we obey our “marching orders” if we are not sure what they are? “For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?” (I Cor. 14:8).


If we hold, as most Christian believers do, that the epistles of Paul apply to the Church of this dispensation, but also believe that our Lord’s parting instructions, between His resurrection and ascension, comprise our commission for today, we are indeed in trouble.

Thus it came about that great, truly great, fundamentalist Bible teachers were forced to choose individual records of the so-called “great commission” as binding in this dispensation, in accordance with the amount of difficulty they experienced in harmonizing the various commands with God’s Word through Paul. This has naturally contributed much to the deepening confusion among sincere believers today.

As we have seen, Dr. Ironside declared that our commission is to be found in Matthew 28:18-20, but Drs. Gray, Gaebelein, Haldeman and Pettingill, along with Mr. Wm. R. Newell and many others, realized immediately that this would bind believers hand and foot with the law of Moses, for our Lord distinctly commanded the apostles that in going to “all nations” they should “teach them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you,” and this would inescapably include obedience to the law of Moses for, not only was our Lord Himself under the law (Gal. 4:4), but He commanded His disciples to “observe and do” whatever the scribes and Pharisees directed them to do because these leaders in Israel occupied “Moses’ seat.”

Similarly, Dr. Haldeman chose Mark 16:15-18 as the Church’s marching orders, but other great Bible teachers rightly objected that our Lord here taught baptism “for the remission of sins” and miraculous signs as the evidences of sins remitted. They correctly concluded that in the light of the Pauline epistles this could not be God’s program for our day.

It has been said that when some theologians are “persecuted” in one Scripture passage they “flee to another”! And it appears that this is just what Dr. Haldeman did. To prove that miraculous demonstrations are not in God’s order for today he appealed to the Pauline epistles, but he did not do this where water baptism was concerned for, despite the wording of the passage, he believed that this was in order as a testimony to salvation.

A pastor once said to this writer: “Brother Stam, I believe that Mark 16:16 applies to our day, but I don’t teach baptism for the remission of sins!” We replied: “If you believe that Mark 16:16 is binding today you should preach baptism for the remission of sins, for that is what Mark 16:16 commands.”

Dr. Gaebelein, as noted above, chose the record in Luke 24:46-48 as our commission, but the phrases “repentance and remission of sins” and “beginning at Jerusalem,” rightly convinced other leading teachers that this passage, like that in Matthew, is related to the kingdom reign of Christ, which will, of course, be established at Jerusalem.

Dr. Pettingill chose the record in Acts 1:8, but this passage too has the apostles beginning at Jerusalem.

As to John 20:21-23, almost all fundamentalist Bible teachers have agreed that this is not the commission for the Church today, but the Church of Rome surely has Protestants “over the ropes” on this one!


How foolish and wrong it is for any of us to use “snatch-grab methods,” as Pastor O’Hair called them, in ascertaining our Lord’s will for us! What right have we to choose some particular segment or segments of our Lord’s instructions to the eleven in the forty days between His resurrection and ascension, and to apply only these to ourselves or to the Church today?

Nothing could be clearer than the fact that our Lord “showed Himself alive after His passion by many infallible proofs, being seen of them forty days and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3). In those forty days, then, one person, our Lord, spoke to eleven men, and gave them instructions as to the program they were to carry out after His ascension. In every single case it is crystal clear that these commands were not directed to others, who were to live at some future date, but to the apostles, who were to commence to carry them out after His departure, when the Holy Spirit had endued them with power.

This is emphasized by the phraseology found in all five records: Matthew 28:19, “Go ye,” Mark 16:15, “Go ye,” Luke 24:48, “Ye are witnesses,” John 20:21, “So send I you,” and Acts 1:8, “Ye shall be witnesses.” How preposterous, then, to argue, as so many hard-pressed theologians have done, that one or more segments of the commission are to be carried out by another generation at a later time! By what rule of hermeneutics or logic have we the right to exclude from the interpretation of these commands the very ones to whom our Lord gave them?

Some, agreeing with the above, have concluded that the commission as a whole, then, must be for our obedience, but this too is impossible in the light of the Pauline epistles. Indeed, the Lord has rendered it impossible to obey any of the segments of the so-called “great commission,” as we shall presently see.

Probably the fundamental reason why so many people conclude that the commission to the eleven is for our obedience is because they have heard it said so often! Repeatedly pastors and evangelists and Bible teachers have referred to the Lord’s parting instructions as “His parting words to us,” “our marching orders,” “our commission” and “the great commission,” as if our Lord never gave any other. But all this is grossly incorrect and unscriptural. These were not our Lord’s last words. He spoke again from heaven to and through the Apostle Paul and gave to him a greater, far greater, commission than that which He had given to the eleven.

Before dealing with this greater commission, however, we can, perhaps, best see that the so-called “great commission” is not for our obedience if we carefully examine all the segments of it—all of them, in Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and the Acts—and note precisely what this commission does and what it does not say.

You can receive More Minutes With the Bible every week in your email inbox. This list features longer articles, including both original content and articles that have appeared in the Berean Searchlight.