What was it that within a few days transformed a band of mourners into the spiritual conquerors of the world? It was not the memoirs of Jesus’ life; it was not the inspirational which came from past contact with him. But it was the message, “He is risen.” That message alone gave the disciples a living Savior, and it alone can give us a living Savior today. We shall never have vital contact with Jesus if we attend to His person and neglect the message for it is the message which makes him ours. J. Gresham Machen
I give you this charge: Preach the Word ; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage — with great patience and careful instruction. 2 Tim 4:1-2
Richard Rogers, a 16th century preacher of Wethersfield, Essex, was riding one day with the local lord of the manor. The lord had been needling Rogers about his ‘precision’ ways and finally asked him why he was so precise? He answered, “O sir, I serve a precise God.”
Our God is a God of truth and truth is by nature sharp. It cuts. It divides. There is truth and there is everything else that is false. God is true and His Word is truth. [John 17:17] The Bible, God’s Word, is “living and active; sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” [Heb 4:12] The scriptures cut through the fuzzy thinking of sinful man and confronts him with the hard and unbending steel of precision. The enemy we fight and the environment over which he rules is characterized by lies and deception. He hates the truth and will do anything to soften the message and dull the blade.
He does not restrict his operations to the world. His most effective strategy is to subtly rob the church of its most effective weapon, the gospel of Christ. One way he does this is to influence Pastors to treat the scriptures in a shabby and shallow way, serving up snacks instead of banquets of God’s truth. The other way he does this is by pressuring the leaders of the church to accommodate the message to the spirit of the age. Those things that are objectionable and offensive or out of tune with the music of the age are modified or ignored and even rejected. In both cases, blade of truth is blunted.
Thankfully, in every age, God raises up men and women who not only love God’s truth but are willing to stand against the tide of compromise, sacrificing careers, and even laying down their lives to keep the truth sharp. They are prophets, like A. W. Tozer. It was said that hearing him speak was like standing in front of a blast furnace. He preached the truth and gave it straight, without cute illustrations or video projections. For sure he was controversial. He once claimed that he had preached himself off of every convention platform in the land. He didn’t care. He loved God’s hard truth more than he loved popularity with soft men. I believe that the weakness of the church today can be traced to a tragic lack of such God-entranced prophets in her pulpits.
J. Gresham Machen was another one of those prophets. His calling was carried out not so much in a pulpit but with a pen. His commitment to the beliefs of historic Christianity put him on a collision course with modernizing trends within the church. What made these innovation so dangerous, was that they were couched in traditional language. Christ was venerated, love was prioritized, the Bible was referenced and Christian experience affirmed. But what was not so evident, and what Machen confronted in his writings, was the change in definitions and the shading of meanings that was behind the modernist’s professions. They claimed to be Christian and worked within Christian organizations, but according to Gresham, they were not Christian because their roots were not grounded in the essentials of the faith. Their message had the shape of the sword but it was dull and could not cut its way through butter.
You see, Christianity is not just a way of life. It was founded and is grounded on a message. It is not based upon experience, feelings or programs, but is based upon facts. Without the facts, Christianity could not exist. The Church was birthed by an event, a miraculous work of God in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Ideals and hopes of sincere men simply do not adequately explain the birth and spread of the faith, which was confronted by hostile and powerful forces. The message was crucial and of first importance. Paul summed it up like this: “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve.” [1 Cor 15:3-5] The Gospel preached did the work of separating the believer from non-believer. It drew some into everlasting joy and repelled others into everlasting judgment. The truth remains just as sharp today and no amount of massaging the message will increase its power.
Last week I attended a large, successful church. The church is presently going through a sermon series that seems to be a packaged deal. There is a large professionally done banner across the front. We are given a bulletin that is a miniature of the banner. And, the message is preceded by a clever and entertaining video that introduces the particular theme for the morning. The speaker sat at a table with his notes, a bottle of water and was equipped with a lot of good one liners. It was a good presentation of biblical data and the congregation seemed to be satisfied with the morsels they received. I was not!
Now, before I say what I am going to say, let me first admit, that, 1] I tend to be critical [and all my friends said, “Amen.”]; 2] I am probably influenced by not being able to preach the Word myself [I miss that privilege immensely.]; and, 3] I am old. [Whatever that means.] With that confessed, let me also say that I am also hungry. I can do without the video, the banners, and the jokes, but I cannot exist one day without the truth. I don’t care if it is given in a monologue that is read from a document. I want God’s truth, dug out by a Godly man or woman who love his Word and who have a passion to see Jesus honored in the mind and hearts of his people.
Recently, we all were saddened to hear of the death of David Wilkerson in a car crash in Texas. I remember the first time I heard him speak. It was while I was a college student at our denominational school. He spoke on Sunday morning at what has been called the “headquarters church” of my denomination. Many of the denomination’s leaders made this church their home. The sanctuary was packed to hear this young upstart who had been used by God in such an extraordinary way among the gangs of New York. But, few were prepared for what they heard that Sunday. In a monotone, without jokes or video, David read his whole 45 minute sermon. It cut us up and our church for its backsliding and compromising ways. I heard later that it ruffled a lot of feathers of the head roosters, but it was the truth and it was what we needed to hear and heed.
I think it was C. S. Lewis who said that he wanted the gospel presented in the same way he took his whiskey: straight. I think I agree. We need to hear that God is love but that he is also angry. His wrath is being poured out right now on all ungodliness and wickedness, including our own cherished brand. [Romans 1:18] We need to hear in clear words that we are all sinners and that if we persist in our unbelief, we will receive our just wages, death. [Romans 6:23] We need to hear that God is more concerned with our eternal holiness than he is with our momentary happiness. [1 Peter 1:16-16] We need to hear that following Jesus will not protect us from the pains of this life and may very well lead us into the “valley of the shadow of death;” but he will be there with us, which is all we really need. We need to hear that life is not about me but about Him, and as crazy as it may sound to our self-centered ears, life’s greatest satisfaction is only found when we leave all to follow Him. [Luke 9:23-24] And we need to hear it straight!
To give it straight, we need pastors who are prophets; who are less concerned about being hilarious in their pulpits and more concerned with being meticulous in their studies. We need God’s truth, dug out with great care and prayer. We need to hear it presented with all its sharp edges, exactly how it was intended when it was first inspired by the Holy Spirit. I am afraid that many of our preachers have been duped into thinking that the Gospel is in some way boring and that it needs our gimmicks and our games to make it attractive and effective to the modern day attendee. How bizarre is that? The problem here is not with our audience but with the hearts of our leaders. They no longer trust in the power of the message.
It is the truth, heard and held fast, that sets men free. [John 8:31-32] And, that life-giving soul-transforming truth is preserved in a book, the Word of God. Machen gave this counsel for those who had ceased to rely on That Book:
Let it not be said that dependence upon a book is a dead or an artificial think. The Reformation of the sixteenth century was founded upon the authority of the Bible, yet it set the world aflame. Dependence upon the word of man would be slavish, but dependence upon God’s Word is life. Dark and gloomy would be the world, if we were left to our own devices, and had no blessed Word of God. The Bible, to the Christians is not a burdensome law, but the very Magna Charta of Christian liberty.
When will our church leaders learn that the power of Christianity is in direct proportion to its contrast with the culture in which it ministers? There is nothing like the Gospel! There is nothing like our Lord! There is nothing like our salvation! There is nothing like the Word of God! The power of Christianity is in the message, not in our methods. Sure the truth hurts, but it also heals. Sure, the message will be rejected by some and hated by others, but it is just what they need to hear most. Sure, some may go down the street to a church that offers more exciting and titillating services. But, it is only the meat of the Word, carved out with precision and delivered with passion, that will truly satisfy the people of God.
Let us pray for our preachers. Pray that they will be prophets who can say, “Thus saith the Lord.” Pray that they will give it to us straight, saturated with prayer and served in the power of the Spirit. Let us pray for ourselves, that we will put away our baby bottles and pick up our forks and knives so that when we come to church we are prepared to banquet upon the life-giving meat of God’s Word. Let us encourage our leaders with our hunger for the Word and our love for Jesus. Who knows what will happen in our part of the world. We may see a new Reformation spurred on by a new wave of the Word of God. If, in the sovereignty of God, it doesn’t happen in our nation; if it doesn’t happen in our church, may it surely happen in our hearts. God, raise up an army of prophets who will give us your truth- straight!
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