The Truth of Apostolic Succession

Does the Bible have anything to say about apostolic succession?

It does, in fact, but in a different way than what some teach or believe regarding the term. In what is likely his last epistle, Paul writes to Timothy “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.” (2 Tim. 2:4.) There is succession, but of the gospel itself and of the body of doctrine taught by the apostles. The power and authority of this message do not come from ordination or office, but that the message is the gospel of God. Mark Dever writes, “The church is apostolic, and is to be apostolic because it is founded on and is faithful to the Word of God given through the apostles. From the apostles until the present day, the gospel that they preached has been handed down. There has been a succession of apostolic teaching based on the Word of God.”[1]

In every age, the gospel comes under siege from various fronts. In the post-apostolic era, some attacked the identity of the Lord Jesus as the eternal Son of God. The testimony of Scripture is that Jesus descends from David, according to the flesh, but also that he is Immanuel – God with us. This mystery of godliness – God manifest in the flesh, is a necessary part of the good deposit to pass on to the next generation.

Later, the idea that salvation is found in the Church rather than in the person of Christ undermined the truth of the gospel. In this same epistle, Paul has written that he knows whom he has believed, not what. Salvation is vested in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ, not in the Bride of Christ. These are but a couple of examples of how the gospel comes under siege, and often by those who claim to adhere to it.

In other words, threats to the gospel very often come from those who ought to know better. The gospel, if personified, could well say, “I was wounded in the house of my friends.”

It is imperative, then, that those who know the gospel and love the gospel, be about transmitting the gospel to those who will handle it with the care and reverence it requires. Paul counsels Timothy to pass on the good deposit he received. He should carefully and faithfully teach and instruct those of the next generation. Why is this essential? The current dangers to the gospel are two-fold. The first is a focus on the relevance of the gospel itself. Several years ago, I heard a youth pastor say that the number one thing he is pressured to be is relevant. This thinking assumes that the gospel needs some modification or some adjustment before it becomes relevant. But the message of mankind’s ruin and alienation from God, and the gospel as the power of God could scarcely be more relevant. We are the ones who need change, not the gospel. Teaching doctrine clearly will demonstrate how utterly relevant the gospel is for every age.

The second danger so prevalent now is the politicization of the gospel. The gospel becomes subservient to a program of social action, and in its crassest form, of achieving legislative goals. These things may or may accord with the New Testament, but they are temporal goals, rather than eternal. The goal of conformity to Christ may well be undermined by such concerns. To transliterate the word gospel from the original gives “evangel.” Evangelicals, then, are those who hold to the gospel. When evangelical comes instead to mean a voting block, it represents a failure to transmit the message, a failure to guard the good deposit. If we make the gospel about power and authority in this world, we have failed to adhere to the apostolic message.

Those who are in a position to teach, to pass on (and there are few who aren’t in some way able to teach others), bear a responsibility to teach sound doctrine, which is all the relevance anyone needs. This is the real succession that is apostolic: the faithful proclamation of God’s truth.


[1] Mark Dever, The Church: The Gospel Made Visible (Nashville, B&H Publishing Group, 2012), p. 18-19.

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