Illustration: J. G. Machen
Are We Taking Error Seriously?
Scripture and history tell us that the destruction of men’s best interests is brought about by the reception of error. When churches embrace a lie rather than God’s truth there is an inevitable spiritual and moral decline. R L Dabney wrote towards the end of the 19th century: “While German scholarship has been busy with its labours it has suffered almost a whole nation to lapse into a semi-heathenish condition.” In the same era C H Spurgeon concluded: “Modern criticism, like modern theology, is like the sirocco that blasts and burns, it is without dew or suction, it proves itself to be unblest of God and unblessing to men.” What can be said of the situation today?
Where We Are Today
1) No place for truth
There was a day when men believed that there was such a thing as objective truth and believed that the truth could be stated in propositions, using human language and comprehensible to human minds. A sea-change has taken place in Western intellectual life. It is now argued that we can no longer speak of objective truth. Truth and falsehood have been replaced by what is ‘true for me’ or ‘true for you’. This has infiltrated the church, as has been shown in David Wells’ book No Place For Truth, a work which charts the demise of evangelical theology in the United States. He said: “The emptiness of evangelical faith without theology echoes the emptiness of modern life.”
2) No fear of error
How can we profess to love God without loving His truth? Truth is the revelation of His nature, character and works. Horatius Bonar warned in his day against “The spirit of the age which makes light of error, as if it were not sin. Even some who call themselves Christians, have lost their dread of error, and are hurrying on from opinion to opinion, exulting in their freedom from old fetters and trammels, reckoning themselves peculiarly honest and unprejudiced. Alas for truth in such a case! How can it be reached? Alas for the love of truth! How can it exist where there is no fear of error?”
3) No exercise of discipline
Ministers and elders can hold the most outrageous views today and no action is taken against them. Trials for heresy seem to have become a thing of the past. We are living in a day when such matters have ceased to concern the evangelical church. Professor Thomas C Oden has said: “The very thought about asking about heresy has itself become the new heresy. The archheresiarch is the one who hints that some distinction might be needed between truth and falsehood, between right and wrong.”
What We Must Do
1) We must be intolerant of a false gospel
Paul was intolerant of a false gospel. He said of those who were perverting the gospel in the churches of Galatia: “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.” (Gal. 1:8) Commenting on this, J Gresham Machen said: “Surely Paul ought to have made common cause with teachers who were so nearly in agreement with him; surely he ought to have applied to them the great principle of Christian unity. As a matter of fact, however, Paul did nothing of the kind; and only because he (and others) did nothing of the kind does the Christian church exist today.” It is interesting to see how Paul made a distinction in the case of the church at Philippi, where some were preaching Christ from wrong motives: “Notwithstanding every way, whether in pretence or in truth, Christ is preached; and I therein do rejoice, yea, and will rejoice.” (Phil 1:18)
Professor John Murray said: “We too readily become the victims of a charity (love) that denies the exclusiveness of the Gospel, the charity that assumes that decent respectable friendly people are not heirs of damnation. If we are governed by that charity it is because we have not been captivated by the love of Christ. And if we are inclined to lend some sympathy to that charity it is because our love to Christ has been waxing cold and has not been fanned by Christ’s love to us.”
2) We must separate from false teachers
An indication of the way the heretics were viewed in the past is illustrated in a story about the apostle John. The early church father, Polycarp, a disciple of the apostle, tells of an incident where John abruptly left the public baths at Ephesus when he heard that a false teacher named Cerinthus had entered. John reportedly said, “Let us flee, lest the baths fall in with Cerinthus; the enemy of the truth is within.” Why did the gentle Apostle of Love react so vehemently against Cerinthus? Because Cerinthus denied the humanity of the Lord Jesus Christ.
A distinction has to be drawn between acceptance of, and fellowship with, genuine Christians who may be mistaken and misled in their beliefs and extending the same to the appointed leaders of the churches. This applies to the Arminianism which prevails in so many churches today. In The Forgotten Spurgeon Iain Murray writes: “Arminianism obscures the glory which belongs solely to the free grace of God and is therefore an error sufficiently serious for there to be no room for compromising. We may have fellowship with those who are under the influence of those errors but in the standards and teaching of the church there can be no wavering on the issue.”
There is a solemn word from Francis Schaeffer: “Let us never forget that we who stand in the historic stream of Christianity really believe that false doctrine, at those critical points where false doctrine is heresy, is not a small thing. If we do not make clear by word and practice our position for truth as truth and against false doctrine, we are building a wall between the next generation and the gospel. And twenty years from now, men will point their finger back at us and say of us, this is the result of the flow of history.”
3) We must recover the Church as the pillar and foundation of the truth
We need to recover the doctrine of the Church. Reformed theology has always emphasized the centrality of the visible Church with its ministry, sacraments and government. This concept has been seriously undermined in recent years. We have a freelance type of Christianity which pays scant attention to church order and government. Church membership is not taken seriously. With all the concentrated effort to recover Reformed theology in the last fifty years it has not worked through to the reformation of the church. The church confesses the truth that God has given to her through the inspired Word of God. It is in this core of confession that the church’s identity is preserved across the ages. Without this knowledge, it is bereft of what defines the church as the people of God. Without the church on the New Testament pattern you cannot have the guarding of the truth from generation to generation.
In the great battle for orthodoxy in the early 20th century in America, J Gresham Machen appeared as the champion defender of the faith. He had to counter liberalism. He made it abundantly clear that what lay behind the problem was doctrinal indifferentism in the church. It is, as Carl Trueman says, “that attitude which regards the individual’s or the church’s experience of Christ as essentially separable from, more important than, or even opposed to, a clear understanding of His Person and work.” Dr Trueman in speaking of the stance taken by Machen emphasizes the importance of the doctrine penetrating from the pulpit to the pew: “The history of the church is peppered with examples of churches which enjoyed powerful faithful preaching for many years and yet which all but collapsed into doctrinal apathy and even heresy on the retirement or the death of their minister.”
When will we learn from history?