Kept From The Hour – By Gerald Stanton

Chapter 8

The Partial-Rapture Theory

The fourth chapter of II Timothy is a favorite portion of the Word of God with any minister of the Gospel who takes seriously his high calling.  Those who would lead men into a knowledge of the Lord are solemnly charged to “preach the word,” the direct implication being that they are to be occupied primarily with a positive declaration of the Scriptures of God.  However, when error arises in the church, the minister must also stand ready to “reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine.”  In order that the believers might “henceforth be no more children … carried about with every wind of doctrine.” (Eph. 4:14), he must speak the truth in love, and when the need arises, “exhort and rebuke with all authority”(Titus 2:15).  Only so doing will purity of doctrine and order in the churches be maintained.

Since an important part of the presentation of truth consists of a rebuke and correction of error, and since one line of interpretation is not fully established until at least the principle tenets of opposing schemes have been refuted, it is now necessary to turn from the more positive approach to an examination of the three alternate theories concerning the time of the rapture.  It is sincerely hoped that truth will be spoken with love, remembering that all these with whom a difference of opinion is found are brethren in Christ, not a few being faithful preachers of the saving grace of God.  When the need arises to mention by name individuals with whom the author differs, it must be remembered that this work is in no sense an attack upon their person.  It is the doctrinal position, and not the personality, that is in view.  The sincerity of these men is not disputed, but when their views permeate the Church and rend the unity of the body of Christ, it is high time to take a stand for the truth which includes the vigorous denunciation of error.

Under consideration in this chapter is the view that only zealous Christians, faithful to the Lord and watching for His return, will be caught up before the Tribulation.  Weaker brethren, who are not actively waiting for Christ, or who, because of the manner of their lives, are not counted as overcomers, will be forced to go through part or all of its purifying fires.  This “partial-rapture” theory attempts to distinguish between devout Christians and worldly Christians who neither are ready nor are anticipating the call of the Bridegroom.  Adherents include G. H. Pember, J. A. Seiss, D. M. Panton, and many other great and good men.  They contend that all believers “go home on the same train,” but no “all on the first section.”  Some, like Bengel, hold that there will be a series of raptures, believers being caught up as they become ready.  Illustrative of the partial rapture view in general are the words of Hubbard:

Are you, reader, among the lukewarm whom the Lord will spew out of His mouth to pass through the tribulation, or the loyal who are faithfully performing the tasks and utilizing the privileges of grace, thus showing yourself “worthy to escape it?” …  The great tribulation is the chastening fires, over which the Lord sits as the refiner of silver, watching, guarding these imperfect, unfit, unworthy but loved ones, until the dross has been purged and they are ready to reign with Him and to “offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness” (Mal. 3:3).[1]

Such a view has been adopted by a small minority of the Church on the basis of verses which seem to condition rapture on “readiness.”  I John 2:28 states that some will be ashamed before Christ at His coming.  Hebrews 9:28 seems to imply that Christ will appear only to those who “look for him.”  Philippians 3:11 and I Corinthians 9:27 seem to imply that Paul wondered at his own status at the time of the resurrection.  Luke 21:36, taken by itself, seems to imply that only the worthy will escape the Tribulation.  Do these verses justify belief in a partial rapture?  There are some major objections to such a conclusion.

The partial rapture theory conditions the privilege of rapture upon human works, and as such is a co-mingling of legalism with grace.  It must never be forgotten that salvation stems from the death of Christ, the merits of which are applied to the sinner by God’s grace and not in answer to human works or supposed worthiness (Eph. 2:8, 9).  Moreover, the Christian is to live under the same grace principle:  “Sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace” (Rom. 6:14).  The grace of God not only “bringeth salvation,” but also teaches us to “live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present world” (Titus 2:11, 12).  Grace, not fear of the Tribulation, is the motive and the power for right conduct.  Paul writes the Galatians:  “Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?” (Gal. 3:3).

Underlying the entire life in grace is the fact that the Christian possesses no merit in himself, nothing at all which might possibly fit him for the presence of God.  Nor is such merit necessary, for the work of Christ on Calvary is a finished redemption (John 17:4; 19:30), sufficient to make even His enemies a new creation, unblamable in His sight (II Cor. 5:17; Col. 1:20-22).  Even the present continuation of salvation depends, not on us, but on His resurrection life (Rom. 5:10), while its consummation likewise rests upon Christ’s work rather than upon man’s faithfulness (Phil. 3:20, 21).  The salvation spoken of in I Thessalonians 5:9, 10 is a future deliverance, referring to the believer’s change and translation at the Lord’s coming.

Adding human responsibility to the grace principle in any aspect of salvation borders dangerously upon the Galatian heresy of attempting to live under law, while in reality, having entered into life by grace alone.

The last chapter of the story of salvation is to be written by the pen of unmerited grace, as truly as the first.  When Jesus comes to save us out of this world, and to save our bodies from their present condition, it will not be because of His grace and our merit; nor, the grace of God and our faithfulness; nor the grace of God and our watchfulness.  It is pure, unmixed grace that brought salvation in the past (Titus 2:11), and it is the same unmixed, unmerited grace that will bring salvation in the future (I Peter 1:5, 13).[2]

D. M. Panton himself conditioned readiness for the coming of Christ upon “spiritual maturity,” by comparing believers to wheat, ripening gradually for the harvest:

Earth-removal depends, for the servant of God, on spiritual maturity, as exactly and as inevitably as harvesting is dated, not by the farmer, but by the grain….  Wheat which never ripens would be a blasted field; for the Church of God cannot be a blighted crop; sooner or later, all mature, all are reaped, all are gathered into the Heavenly Garner.[3]

But if translation depends upon spiritual maturity, on readiness, or upon “watching,” it then becomes necessary to ask:  Just how ready must the believer be?  What degree of spiritual maturity will God require?  What degree of perfection must the believer attain before he is assured a place in the rapture?  Must his watching be an eager expectancy or merely a general attitude of heart?  Needless to say, these questions are not answered by the proponents of this theory.  In fact, one is made to wonder who shall enter heaven at all when Christ comes for His own, for, on the basis of Philippians 3, Pember writes that Paul, “devoted as he was to his Master … had as yet no absolute certainty of attaining to the First Resurrection.”[4]

His aim was to be numbered with those blessed and holy ones who shall have part in the First Resurrection (Rev. xx.6).  But we must note, that he had, at the time, no certain assurance that he would compass the desire of his heart….  Just before his death, however, it was graciously revealed to him that he was one of the approved….  But, at the time when he was writing to the Philippians, he could not speak with such confidence.[5]

If spiritual maturity be the condition of translation at the rapture of the saints, and if the Apostle Paul himself had “no certain assurance” of attaining to the first resurrection, who then will be worthy?  All those who hold the partial rapture theory assume that they are among the “ready,”[6] but if rapture is so conditioned upon personal merit, who else would dare make such a claim?  Is it not more desirable, and far more Scriptural, to rest solely upon the grace and the goodness of God for a place in the host of translated saints, rather than on the doubtful merit of human faithfulness?

Marsh relates the following experience:

Some years since, I was talking with our beloved and esteemed brother, Dr. Neatby, about the subject before us, and I asked him, “Doctor, do you expect to be saved from the great tribulation on the ground of your personal holiness, moral fitness, or watchfulness?”  He replied in his characteristic way, “I am quite sure that if I am saved from the great tribulation by virtue of any personal fitness, I shall go through it.”  Yes, and so says every one who knows anything of his own unworthiness, and his own unfitness as seen in the light of the holiness of God.  Grace, grace, grace, and grace alone must  be the basis of our being in the glory with Christ.[7]

It is commendable that the adherents of the partial-rapture theory do stress holy living, and it is most certainly true that the expectation of Christ’s return is a purifying hope (I John 3:3), but this in no wise warrants mingling human works with divine grace as the grounds of resurrection privilege.  None were more carnal than the Corinthian Christians, but they were, none-the-less, part of the temple of God (I Cor. 3:16; 6:19).  To them, Paul wrote of the coming of Christ:  “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed” (I Cor. 15:51).  Had the words of the Gospel song been written in their day, the Corinthian believers would surely have joined in singing:

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;

How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed!

Thro’ many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;

‘Tis grace hath bro’t me safe thus far,
and grace will lead me home.

The partial-rapture theory confuses the Biblical doctrine of rewards.  Hubbard declares “that to escape the great tribulation and be able to stand before the Son of Man, are not unconditioned gifts of love or grace, but rewards and privileges for those who are accounted worthy of them.”[8]  A contributor to The Dawn magazine writes:  “We believe that the frequent exhortations in the Scriptures to watch, to be faithful, to be ready for Christ’s coming, to live Spirit-filled lives, all suggest that translation is a reward.”[9]

No one will deny that the Bible promises a reward to him who runs well the Christian race (I Cor. 9:24, 25) and adorns the walls of his life with gold, silver, and precious stones (I Cor. 3:11-15).  When one is saved, the Lord asks that person to live for Him, and it is typical of His grace that He should reward him for doing what normally should be expected in a redeemed life.  But it must be emphatically denied that the privilege of translation is in itself a reward for godly living.  According to II Corinthians 5:10, the time of reward is not at the translation of the saints, but when they stand before what is generally knows as the Bema Seat of Christ.  “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad.”  In that day, the believer’s works must stand the test of fire (I Cor. 3:13), not the test of translation.  It is highly significant, also, that among the rewards which are promised believers there are five crowns:  the crown of life (Rev. 2:10; James 1:12), the crown of rejoicing (I Thess. 2:19; Phil. 4:1), the incorruptible crown (I Cor. 9:25), the crown of glory (I Peter 5:4), and the crown of righteousness (II Tim. 4:8).  Paul wrote concerning this last crown:

Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing.

Other crowns designated for  those who have served well and suffered much for Christ, but the crown of righteousness is especially designated as the reward for those who have loved His appearing.  Partial-rapturists are entirely right in anticipating rewards for the virtues the enumerate, but in the clear light of Scripture they are entirely wrong in saying that the privilege of translation is itself that reward.  God has designated how and when He will reward His saints, and it seems advisable not to tamper with that program.

A partial rapture implies a partial resurrection.  In considering the merits of the partial-rapture viewpoint, some attention must be given to the many generations of Christians whose bodies sleep in death.  According to the Bible, at the rapture the dead in Christ rise first; living believers are then translated and together they meet the Lord in the air.  (I Thess. 4:16, 17).  But, if the rapture experience is selective for those who live, it would seem that justice and equity must demand that the resurrection of believers from the dead be selective also.  Not all of these were, in life, counted among the overcomers, nor did they all cultivate the upward look.  If the lives of the living are to be surveyed to determine who shall be purged by fiery Tribulation and who shall enter with joy into the presence of the Lord, then there must be among the dead some selection made to determine who shall merit prior resurrection.

Such, however, is not the case, for Paul writes plainly that “we shall all be changed,” when “the dead shall be raised incorruptible” (I Cor. 15:51, 52).  All those which “sleep in Jesus” will God bring with Him (I Thess. 4:14).  The only qualification for these who are to rise first is that they be “in Christ” (I Thess. 4:16).  Since, then, it is futile to argue that only a choice group from among the Christian dead will be in the rapture, is it any the less futile to argue that the contrasting group of living believers who will be caught up will be a small, select company chosen on the basis of their works?  God does not deal capriciously with His people.  The only designation for either group is that they be “in Christ.”

There are other problems involved.  As it has been seen, the partial-rapture theory teaches that many of God’s people must pass through the fires of the Great Tribulation to purge their dross and make them fit for the presence of Christ.  This is exactly the same, in principle, as the Roman doctrine of purgatory, except that this “protestant purgatory” would be on earth, and before death.  Allis comments on this point:

The doctrine of a partial rapture practically necessitates the acceptance of the Romish doctrine of purgatory.  For it must be admitted that many Christians have died, to all appearances, in the imperfect state which we are told will characterize those who at the rapture are left on earth to be purified by the great tribulation.  So, unless it is to be held that in the very article of death they have or will have endured purifying or chastening sufferings equivalent to those which will be endured by those who are left behind at the time of the rapture, the argument that these latter need to pass through the tribulation falls to the ground, unless the doctrine of purgatory is accepted.  There is no warrant for such teachings.  The dying thief was in all probability a very imperfect and a very ignorant believer.  But the Lord said to him, “Today thou shalt be with me in paradise.”[10]

Since “watching” is said to be one of the main requirements for early rapture, what then of the many Christians who have never been taught to look for Christ’s appearing?  As Waugh remarks:

There have been long periods when the Maranatha watchword was scarcely ever mentioned in the churches.  There are multitudes of Christians in the world today who have never been taught on the subject, and who know next to nothing about it.  Others have only heard it ridiculed or caricatured by ignorance, and the idea of this being the true hope of the Church has never once occurred to them.  Will their loving Lord punish their ignorance, and any unwatchful or worldly spirit to which it may lead, in such a special manner as this?  Is this the only inconsistency that will exclude Christians from the blessedness of the Rapture, and expose them to the awful perils of “the great tribulation” that will follow it?  I have not so learned Christ or His word.[11]

The partial-rapture theory is contrary to I Thessalonians 4:13-18, the primary passage on the rapture of the Church, in a number of particulars.  Paul does not say that those who are to be caught up will be “we who are watching,” or “we who are overcomers,” but “we which are alive and remain” – clearly designating the whole body of living believers.  So also, it is not the “dead who watched” that arise first, but the entire body of “dead in Christ,”  Nor do the living saints, even those of “spiritual maturity,” have any precedence over the dead in Christ.  Even more important, this is a message of encouragement and comfort (v. 18), whereas, if the majority of the Church were in dread danger of entering the Tribulation, the apostle might better have written, “Wherefore warn one another with these words.”  Indeed, rather than being a message of comfort, the news of Christ’s return would be to the majority of the Church a message of alarm.  Far better to be dead at His coming and enter immediately into the presence of the Lord, unless it be admitted that the resurrection of the dead is partial also.  But such a view, as it has been seen, cannot be tolerated.

A partial rapture discredits the vital Pauline doctrine of the unity of the body of Christ.  Since the Scriptures are so explicit at this point (Eph. 2:14-3:6; 4:1-6, 12-16; Col. 3:11, 15, etc.), here is an objection of no mean proportions.  Yet it is true that if only certain believers are caught up, while some go through part of the Tribulation and others are not raised until the end, or even until the Great White Throne, the important truth of the body of Christ as an organic unity is set aside.  It is said that Pember was forced by the very logic of his position to claim that the body of Christ was not the whole Church at all, but just those who were surrendered to God.

The Scriptures set forth the vital relationships which the true Church sustains to the Lord Jesus Christ in seven metaphors, or comparisons, which illustrate the dependence of believers upon their Saviour and their vital union with Him.[12]

(1)             Christ is the Shepherd, and we are the sheep of His pasture (John 10:1-18).

(2)             Christ is the Vine; we are the branches, joined to the vine and expected to bear fruit (John 15:1-8).

(3)             We are stones in the building of God, of which Christ is the Chief Cornerstone (Matt. 16:18; Eph. 2:19-22; I Pet. 2:5; Heb. 3:6).

(4)             Christ is our High Priest, and we are a kingdom of priests engaged in the services of sacrifice (Rom. 12:1), worship (Heb. 13:15), and intercession (I Tim. 2:1; Heb. 10:19-22; I Pet. 2:5-9).

(5)             Christ is the Last Adam, and we are the new creation (I Cor. 15:22, 45; II Cor. 5:17; Eph. 2:10, 15).

(6)             Christ is the Bridegroom, and we are His bride (Rom. 7:4; II Cor. 11:2; Eph. 5:25-33; Rev. 19:7, 8).

(7)             Christ is the Head, and we are the members of the “body of Christ” (I Cor. 12:13; 12:27; Eph. 5:30; Col. 1:18).

These relationships (it hardly needs to be added) are true of every believer in Christ, and are theirs, not by virtue of good works, but solely because of the infinite goodness and the sovereign grace of God.  Any theory which discredits one or more of these relationships finds itself in the position of disputing the Word of God.

According to John 14:1-3, Christ has gone to prepare a place for us, for it is His will that “where I am, there ye may be also.”  When these words were first spoken, Christ had just finished rebuking Peter, foretelling his defection (John 13:36-38), yet there was no hint given that Peter might be excluded from the rapture privilege.  According to I Corinthians 12:12, 13, all Christians are members of one body through the baptism of the Holy Spirit.  According to Ephesians 5:25-27, Christ shall present to Himself a glorious Church, without spot or wrinkle or blemish.  He sanctifies and cleanses it by the washing of the water of the Word, not by fiery trial and Tribulation.  From Ephesians 2:4-7, it is seen that, positionally, the Church is already sitting together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus with a standing before God as perfect as though its members had never sinned.  These key verses all indicate that there will be no rending of the body of Christ when He comes for His own.  Revelation 19:7-9 and 21:9 reveal the bride of Christ, the Lamb’s wife, arrayed in the fine linen of God’s righteousness, joined to Christ at the marriage supper of the Lamb.

A partial rapture can hardly be made to fit the joy and the dignity of that glad day, but comes perilously close to offering to the Lord Jesus Christ a dismembered body and a partial bride.  Surely the bride of Christ, born of the Spirit, washed in precious blood, made perfect by His righteousness, and espoused to Christ as a pure virgin, needs not to be plunged into earth’s worst hour as the preliminary of her wedding feast and hour of greatest glory!  None, in themselves, are worthy of salvation, or rapture, or a place in the body and bride of Christ, but in Him, all who believe have been made worthy.  Even as we are caught up, “we shall all be changed,” all earthly dross being purged away as we behold His face in righteousness.  Weak and sinful in this life, but in the ages to come, put on display before all the universe as a trophy of “the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:7).

Partial-rapturists accommodate Scriptures to suit their theory.  Although the sincerity of their Scripture interpretations is not questioned, many of the verses appealed to must be unnaturally forced before they can be made to support their viewpoint.

Matthew 24:42 gives the command:  “Watch therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come.”  Similar is the exhortation of Luke 21:36:  “Watch ye therefore, and pray always, that ye may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass.”  Comparable is the parable of Mark 13:34-37.  But the primary reference in these passages is not to the Church at all, but to Israel in the Tribulation (Matt. 24:29-30).  Christian watchfulness is based on verses such as I Thessalonians 5:6 and Titus 2:13, and these say nothing about being accounted worthy to escape.

I Corinthians 15:23 – “Every man in his own order” – has been used to bolster their position.  However, although τάγμα, “order,” means a band, as of soldiers, and implies that there will be a certain “order of succession”[13] in the resurrection of all the righteous dead since Adam, there is no hint here that the Church will form more than one of those “bands.”  The resurrection of the Church will be one of the successive stages which make up the total resurrection of the righteous (see pp. 240-241).  The resurrection of Christ secures that of His people, even as the “firstfruits” are the guarantee of the completed harvest, but this does not intimate that the Church herself will be divided.

Hebrew 9:28: “. . . unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time without sin unto salvation,” has also been made to condition rapture upon “looking for Christ.”  The writer is speaking of three appearings of Christ on behalf of the saints.  In this instance, instead of using the term “believer,” or “church,” he utilizes a descriptive phrase for the whole body of Christ which reflects the normal, natural attitude of God’s people, distinguishing them from those who have not appropriate the benefits of the first coming.  There is no thought here of a second group of believers, those who “do not look for Him.”  It is true that many will be ashamed at His coming (I John 2:28) and will lose the crown of righteousness, but being “ashamed” does not mean that they will be left behind when the others are caught up.  Likewise, no one is bidden, in Philippians 3:20, to look for the Saviour.  It is said that Christians do look, for such an attitude is the normal sequel to conversion, in spite of the fact that many do not attain unto it.

Philippians 3:11: “If by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead,” has been made to imply that even Paul expressed some doubts as to his right to a place in the rapture.  The answer to this proposal lies in the context.  Paul has been reviewing his past life as Saul, the enemy of the early church and persecutor of Jesus Christ.  Now he states his highest spiritual aspirations as the servant of Christ, but in words which reflect true humility in the light of his former unworthiness, and also the urgent need of self-watchfulness lest he stumble and be disapproved (I Cor. 9:27).  Again, it needs to be asked, “If Paul was not sure of his place in the resurrection, who then can be?”  Yet Pember writes of this heavenly calling:

Paul unmistakably affirms that these high privileges are a prize and not a gift, and are accessible only by the gate of the First Resurrection – a gate through which, after all his sacrifices and labours and sufferings for Christ, he was not yet absolutely sure that he would be permitted to pass.[14]

Though some may sincerely believe that the rapture will be selective, and that the Great Tribulation is to be “the purifying, fitting fires for those who, though believing in Christ, remain carnal and babes,”[15] the vast majority of God’s people will see clearly that when the body of Christ is finally complete, then Christ will come for His own.  That coming will unite the body with its resurrected Head, and will be a time of union rather than a time of rending within the body.  They will remember the words: “He that hath this hope in him purified himself, even as he is pure” (I John 3:3) and will not permit the words to be distorted to read: “He that remembereth this threat.”  In spite of their many imperfections and their utter failure to love His appearing as they should, they will retain their confidence that the blessed hope is their hope.  With joy, and without fear, they will join in the expectation of Denham Smith, who wrote:

And this I shall find, for such is His mind,
He’ll not be in glory and leave me behind.

[1] W. H. Hubbard, Does the Church Go Through the Great Tribulation? pp. 18, 22.
[2] H. P. Barker, “A Partial Rapture,” Prophetic Digest, February 1952, pp. 229, 230.
[3] D. M. Panton, “The Removal of the Church from the Earth,” The Dawn, December 15, 1927, p. 393.
[4] G. H. Pember, The Great Prophecies of the Centuries, p. 211.
[5] Ibid., p. 210.
[6] As one has well said:  “Partial rapturists expect to be taken up in ‘bunches,’ but I have never met one yet who did not expect to be taken up in the first ‘bunch.’”
[7] F. E. Marsh, Will the Church or Any Part of It Go Through the Great Tribulation?, p. 30.
[8] Hubbard, op. cit., p. 25.
[9] Ira E. David, “Translation: When Does It Occur?” The Dawn, Nov. 15, 1935, pp. 358, 359.
[10] Oswald T. Allis, Prophecy and the Church, pp. 221, 222.
[11] T. Waugh, When Jesus Comes, pp. 108, 109.
[12] L. S. Chafer, Systematic Theology, IV, 54-143, gives a complete and heart-warming analysis of these relationships.
[13] Charles Hodge, An Exposition of the First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 326.
[14] Pember, op. cit., pp. 211, 212.
[15] Hubbard, op. cit., p. 37.