Fighting For the Truth

Fighting For the Truth

The Apostle Paul exhorted his disciple Timothy to “fight the good fight of faith” (I Tim. 6:12a). Central to this “fight of faith” was defending the truth against those who “teach a different doctrine” and do not “agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness” (I Tim. 6:3). In some of his last written words before his execution in Rome, Paul strongly urged Timothy to “preach the Word; be ready, in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (II Timothy 4:2-4).

Since Paul’s day, God’s Word has been under continuous assault. Each generation has witnessed the emergence of false doctrine. Sprinkled throughout church history are controversies concerned with the Trinity, the nature of Christ, the inspiration of Scripture, and justification, to name but a few. Likewise, our own generation has experienced the murky waters of theological mendacity. Thankfully, God raises up soldiers from His army in every age to defend orthodoxy. In the twentieth century one high-ranking man in the battle for truth was J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937). Machen is best known for his founding of Westminster Theological Seminary in 1922 and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 1933.

One of Machen’s most well-known books is entitled, Christianity and Liberalism, first published in 1923 in response to the rising and insidious liberalism within the mainline Presbyterian Church. In this timeless volume, Machen firmly establishes the importance of sound doctrine in the Christian Church. He makes the case that without dogma or propositional / objective truth Christianity ceases to be Christianity, becoming a façade for something else entirely. Just because a group organizes itself under the banner of Christ does not make it de facto a Christian Church. Indeed, as we have been learning over the past few weeks in our study of the Gospel of Luke, being a Christian entails much more than having sentimental feelings about the life and example of Jesus Christ. On the contrary, being a Christian means that a person believes, by grace through faith, particular propositional truths about Jesus, and in light of those truths gives all for the sake of Christ and His gospel (c.f. Mark 8:31-38). The point is, there is no Christianity without an adherence and submission to sound doctrine revealed in the Word of God. Christianity is not a make-it-up-as-you-go religion. It is grounded in objective truth and not subjective feelings.

Early twentieth-century liberals within the mainline churches, not least the Presbyterian Church (USA), sought to divorce the Christian faith from its own doctrine, making it more palatable and inclusive. Doctrines such as the virgin birth, the uniqueness of Christ as Savior, the substitutionary atonement, the resurrection, the necessity of repentance and faith, and the final judgment were being questioned and, in some cases, totally discarded. “It is possible to have Christianity without doctrine,” they said, “a devotion to Jesus without authoritative truth.” In addition, some asserted that Christ’s very existence is not even necessary for Christianity to flourish, so long as the spirit of love that flows from the idea of Jesus captures hearts and transforms lives. Huh? Exposing these wrongheaded, subjective, unbiblical views, Machen wrote:

It never occurred to Paul that a gospel might be true for one man and not for another; the blight and pragmatism had never fallen upon his soul. Paul was convinced of the objective truth of the gospel message, and devotion to that truth was the great passion of his life. Christianity for Paul was not only a life, but also a doctrine, and logically the doctrine came first.
(Christianity and Liberalism, 23).

Christianity is, and always has been, founded upon propositional truth–– sound doctrine. The very title of Christian, given to first century believers, inherently reflects the fact that they held to a set of beliefs –– a confession –– made up of irreducible facts revealed in Scripture concerning the nature and ministry of Christ. Many gave their lives to preach and defend such truth … many still do.

Mainline churches, of course, have almost completely abandoned the idea that Christianity must be defined by authoritative truth, as revealed in Scripture. The decision made by the PCUSA’s General Assembly in recent years to give presbyteries the freedom to ordain homosexuals and perform so-called same-sex weddings underscores this point. Of course, the mainline Episcopalian and Methodist Churches have made similar decisions. What began as a tinkering with the truth in Machen’s time has turned into an acceptance of open deviant lifestyles amongst both laity and clergy. A weak and low view of Scripture always manifests profoundly negative repercussions. Sadly, it is not only the emboldened liberal wing of the church which has forsaken a high view of Scripture.

Paul’s message to Timothy before he died was “preach the Word; in season and out of season” and not “do whatever it takes to grow the church.” Even so, pragmatism, not truth, seems to be the driving force in today’s “conservative” evangelical churches. Indeed, in many “Bible believing” churches one can attend services for weeks without hearing a substantial reading of Scripture or a careful exegesis of a text. This is no exaggeration. Many members of these “conservative” evangelical congregations are kept in perpetual spiritual immaturity because of the deficiency of teaching. Here is the irony: While many Bible-believing churches frown upon the unbiblical decisions of the mainline Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Methodists, they themselves do very little to promote true Christian doctrine.

It does not take a professor of liturgics to recognize the dearth of Scripture in many of today’s evangelical worship services. For example, not long ago I examined bulletins from one of the largest and most influential churches in my previous community, and services are conducted in the following manner: Welcome / Singing … a lot / more singing by a soloist / prayer / more singing by choir / message (no text or title listed) / Altar call with singing / Offertory prayer / offering with song / presentation of new members / Song of benediction. If there is a Scripture reading at all it is a brief one right before the sermon, rarely referenced thereafter. Does this order of worship reflect a confidence in the life-transforming power of the Word of God? To add to the irony, in the bulletin, just below the order of worship, rests a statement or confession about the Bible. The confession states:

This is my Bible. It is God’s inerrant Word. It is my greatest treasure. It is living and powerful and sharper than any two edged sword. It is God talking to me personally. I will therefore listen to it carefully and obey it fully.

If this is what this church believes, then we must beg the question: Why isn’t the order of worship saturated with Scripture? What happened to the old emphasis on the sufficiency of God’s Word? Music and programs to meet felt needs are no replacement for the public reading and careful preaching and teaching of the Word of God (I Tim. 4:13; II Tim. 4:1-5). Suffice it to say, both liberals and evangelicals seem to be on the same shaky footing when it comes to the place of God’s Word (doctrine) in the life of the Church. Neither group, in practice, makes it central.

Machen, in his book Christianity and Liberalism, helpfully identifies a significant problem in his day as well as in ours. The problem stemmed from people thinking that authentic, biblical Christianity may flourish without the faithful propagation of doctrine set forth in Scripture. Minimizing or removing doctrine from worship and practice will eventually make a church staunchly liberal or entertainment-driven and moralistic (or both). Therefore, Christ Church, may we be blood earnest in the fight of faith, defending and propagating the truth of God’s inerrant, infallible, sufficient, and authoritative Word.

Pastor Jon