Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints. Jude 3
In the sphere of religion, as in other spheres, the things about which men are agreed are apt to be the things that are least worth holding; the really important things are the things about which men will fight. J. Gresham Machen
God is truth. His Word is truth. He has revealed to us His Person. He does not change. What we think or what we want will not alter who He is. Truth by its very nature is divisive. All other theories are wrong and those who hold them are losers. Many prefer religious feelings to precise doctrine. They reason that doctrine is divisive and what we really need is to stop splitting hairs about content and to start holding hands with those who share our sentiment. Precise doctrine and bold assertions are seen as unnecessary impediments to the unity and joy of the Church.
That was the argument Erasmus used against Martin Luther in one of the battles that helped shape the Protestant Reformation. Apparently, for Erasmus, the issues were not as clear or as dear as they were for Luther. He criticized Luther for engaging in battles over controversial issues. To avoid that possibility, he did not make assertions. Luther countered with this defense: “Take away assertions and you take away Christianity.” According to Luther, making assertions meant, “Staunchly holding your ground, stating your position, confessing it, defending it unvanquished.”
Truth mattered to Luther for Christianity was true. Indifferentism or passivism when it came to God’s Word was not an option because neither glorified the God of truth. Jesus Christ was revealed in history. Who he was and what he said are clearly defined in Scripture. Jesus was precisely true and although we don’t know all of his infinite perfections, God revealed to us what he deemed necessary for our good and his glory. Theology leads to doxology.
Both Luther and Machen fought against deadly diseases that threatened the health and holiness of Christ’s Church. In the 16th century, Luther sought to restore a living faith that had been smothered under the weight of dead ceremonialism. In the early 20th century, Machen fought to expose and extract a subtle faith-debilitating disease that invaded the church in the form modernism.
The early 1900’s brought unimaginable changes to the American culture. Technology and Science revolutionized not only the way Americans lived but the way they thought. This new “modern” world carried with it hostility toward Christianity. It had three negative impulses: 1] A suspicion of anything old or in the past. What was new was assumed to be more valued than what was old; 2] A skepticism toward the category of truth, substituting “useful” for truth. What mattered most was not was something true but did it work; and, 3] A denial of the supernatural. What really mattered was what we could prove by the senses through scientific exploration.
The modernists or liberals in the church, attempted to come to grips with the changes in the culture. They asked, “How could Christianity still have influence in such a radical, new environment?” They concluded that they had to adjust. Consequently, they might still hold to the confessions of the past but gave new meanings to the terms. They used religious concepts only if they served to advance Christianity at a particular time and place. And, they discarded the supernatural. For them, the virgin birth, the incarnation and the resurrection were no longer religious “facts” but were religious “symbols.”
What was appalling to Machen was that these ministers chose to stay within the Presbyterian Church claiming that they were still orthodox Christians. What made their claim so hard to counteract was that they still used the same language as traditional orthodoxy. They believed in Christ. They believed in the Bible. They believed in love. They just gave different meanings to those terms. Christ was the highest example and our model, not our Divine Savior. The Bible was an inspired book but not the inerrant revelation of God to man. Love was the spirit that all men should have toward the brotherhood of mankind, not the love that sent forth God’s Son to die for the sins of the elect.
This kind of indifferentism hated precision in doctrine. Machen wrote,
This temper of mind is hostile to precise definitions. Indeed nothing makes a man more unpopular in the controversies of the present day than an insistence upon definition of terms….Men discourse very eloquently upon subjects as God, religion, Christianity, atonement, redemption, faith; but are greatly incensed when asked to tell in simple language what they mean by these terms.
To show how important correct doctrine was, Machen pointed to the example of Paul. While in jail for preaching the gospel, he told of some who preached Christ “out of envy and rivalry….supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains.” [Phil 1:15, 17] But, Paul rejoiced, because even though their hearts were wrong the gospel they preached was right.
But, if we go over to Galatians, we see just the opposite reaction from Paul. There were men there too, who were preaching the “gospel,” but they added one requirement to the Gospel, “circumcision.” To them Paul did not hold back: “Let them be eternally condemned!” What was the difference? The first group had the gospel right even if their attitudes were wrong. The second group added one requirement to the Gospel. Just one sentence made a huge difference to Paul. The content of the Gospel was sacred. Correct doctrine brought freedom.
Faulty doctrine, even one false word, brought slavery. [Galatians 1-2] Machen fought for precise affirmations in the Presbyterian Church. He called for the leaders to expel the liberal members for, in fact, they were not just another kind of Christianity but another kind of religion. He was accused of being a divider and a contentious man. In time, he was removed from the church he loved. But, he did what he had to do. He possessed the same spirit Paul expressed when he penned, “Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.” [Gal 1:10]
For Paul, Luther and Machen, insisting upon correct content in our doctrine and practice was as an essential characteristic of a servant of Christ. Don’t be misled by those who say precise doctrine does not matter. Christ-dishonoring language is still permeating the church of our day. Doctrine does matter. Content does matter. Truth does matter. The salvation of the lost, the freedom of the believers and the glory of Christ is at stake. It is those who hold fast to the truth that is found in the Bible that will be the freedom fighters of our day. May you be one of those freedom fighters.
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