Moderator's Address from Rev David Blunt
Contending for the Faith Today
Rev. David Blunt
“Beloved, when I gave all diligence to write unto you of the common salvation, it was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.” (Jude 3)
Biblical Christianity has always faced opposition, and it always will. There is a simple reason for this. It is from God and it is the truth. Man, because of his sin, hates God and prefers the lie. As Jude shows us in his epistle, opposition to the truth is also found within the church, and is evident in departures from biblical teaching, whether in doctrine or in life. These departures tend towards apostasy, or a falling away from the faith, and it is only by the power of God that genuine believers are preserved from such a calamity.
Jude warned of ungodly men who had crept into the church and were turning the grace of God into “lasciviousness” (v.4). They had persuaded themselves that the gospel gave them a licence to sin, when the grace of God teaches us that, “denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly” in this world (Titus 2:11-12). They were guilty of spiritual lawlessness and were “denying the only Lord God, and our Lord Jesus Christ”. It was nothing new. Jude mentions Cain, Balaam and Korah as examples of apostasy. He says that such were “before of old ordained to this condemnation”: God left them to themselves, that by their sins they might bring upon themselves His just sentence of eternal punishment.
It is always grievous when professing Christians and Christian churches depart from scriptural teaching. Yet the Bible shows us that God has a purpose in this. In Corinth there were serious divisions in doctrine, worship and practice, but Paul said: “there must be also heresies [or ‘schisms’] among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you.” (1 Corinthians 11:19). The divisions arising in the church are a means by which the Lord purges it and maintains a testimony to the truth. So the Puritan Thomas Manton could say: “Here is comfort to those that regard the affairs of Sion; all the confusion and troubles that are in the church are ordered by a wise God; he will being some good issue out of them, some glory to his name, wherein the saints rejoice as much as in their own welfare; some good to the church.”
We are thankful that in the mercy of God not all defections end in apostasy. Yet can we discern the signs of the times (Matthew 16:3)? For years there has been a falling away from biblical Christianity in our land, and it is only increasing. What good can the Lord bring to His church out of it? He will make His people more exercised about the truth and concerned for His cause. Before he took up his solemn subject, Jude exhorted his brethren to contend for the faith. It is one way in which believers are kept from falling away. The same call goes out to us today, for we also need to hear it. What is involved in contending for the faith?
1. The Faith which is to be Contended for
This is where we must begin – yet not everyone does. Paul said of the Jews that they had “a zeal of God”, but it was “not according to knowledge” (Romans 10:2). The same thing is seen in some churches today. There is a lot of enthusiasm and activity, but doctrine is kept to a minimum, being viewed as a hindrance. That sort of contending is of little use. While knowledge without zeal is unlikely to accomplish much, a zeal without “the faith of God’s elect” and “the truth which is after godliness” (Titus 1:1) will achieve nothing. When God’s Word is received with meekness and mixed with faith in our hearts, God’s Spirit will make us zealous for all that it teaches. The faith for which we are to contend is:
(i) A Scriptural Faith
Jude writes of the faith which was “once delivered unto the saints”. It was delivered to the church in the Holy Scriptures, which were given by divine inspiration. The text of Scripture has been preserved in the usage of the church by God’s special care and providence. We must not be like the liberals, denying parts of the Bible to be authentic; nor must we be like Rome and the cults, adding to the Bible the Apocrypha or other uninspired books. The sixty-six books from Genesis to Revelation, being infallible and inerrant, are the only rule for our faith and life. When we sit under preaching, we are to be like the Bereans listening to Paul and Silas; they “received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so” (Acts 17:11). The Bible is the touchstone by which everything in religion is to be judged. It is the manual of our beliefs and duties and the guardian of our liberties.
Last year we celebrated the five hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. That mighty work of God had notable human instruments, but the chief instrument was undoubtedly the Holy Scriptures. When the Lord raised up the reformers, He sent them first to His Word to study it for themselves and to be transformed by it. Once they had been persuaded of the fundamental truth of justification by faith alone in Christ alone, He sent them forth to contend with Rome. They translated the Bible and circulated it, and in its light the people could see the falsehoods of the Romish system, and appreciate what a fearful bondage it is. Luther famously said, notwithstanding his own extraordinary efforts: “I did nothing: the Word did it all.”
(ii) A Creedal Faith
The church has found it necessary to state her beliefs in a formal way in creeds. Our own Church has a rich heritage here. In common with the wider church of Christ, we accept the ecumenical or universal creeds of the early Christian centuries and the biblical truths they contain. These creeds proclaim in a general way the doctrines of the Trinity, creation, the Person and work of Christ, the forgiveness of sins, the general resurrection and the final judgment. These are vital doctrines, some of them settled only after much conflict. Yet Roman Catholicism is able to affirm them too. These doctrines may be adequate for the being of the church, but they are not sufficient for her well-being. More truth is required for that.
At the Reformation the biblical teaching on salvation was fully worked out, with its emphasis on divine grace. Doctrinal statements were drawn up wherever the Reformed faith was embraced, but the most comprehensive summaries did not appear until the Westminster Assembly met, with commissioners from the Church of Scotland present. The ‘Westminster Standards’ deal not only with doctrine but also with the worship, discipline and government of the church. The American theologian B.B. Warfield referred to them as “the most thoroughly thought out and most carefully guarded statement ever penned of the elements of evangelical religion”. They are our priceless inheritance, our bond of union and our manifesto to the world.
(iii) A Personal Faith
We may have the Scriptures in a faithful translation, and the best of creeds, but only those who have personally experienced the power of the truth in their souls will fight for the faith. We need the doctrines of grace and the grace of the doctrines. The Anglican Augustus Toplady said that he did not believe the doctrinal standards of the Church of England because he subscribed them, but he subscribed them because he believed them. That is the right way round: the head and the heart going before the hand. If the order is reversed the result is likely to be a hypocritical faith, devoid of spiritual life and fruit. Formalism has weakened churches and wasted them spiritually, whatever their numbers may have been. The Psalmist said, “I believed, therefore have I spoken” (Psalm 116:10). He was followed in this by the apostles, “having the same spirit of faith” (2 Corinthians 4:13). We must emulate them and the godly who came after them.
2. Who are to Contend for this Faith
The church is “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15), bearing witness to the authenticity of the Bible and making its contents known. When the church proclaims the truth, and lives it out thoroughly and consistently, she is “terrible as an army with banners” (Song of Solomon 6:10). We note that Jude addressed his Epistle to the Lord’s people in general: it means that every Christian is to contend for the faith. All are soldiers of Christ, clad with spiritual armour and bearing weapons which are mighty through God. Some are at the front of the battle, others serve elsewhere in the ranks. How are we to fulfil our duty?
Our subscription to the Westminster Confession is an unqualified one. We subscribe to the whole doctrine contained in it, as the confession of our own faith. We pledge ourselves to adhere to that doctrine, and to assert, maintain and defend it. We do likewise with the worship, government and discipline of the Church as it is set out in other documents. It is a great responsibility. We must seek grace to pay what we have vowed (Ecclesiastes 5:4-5). Oh that we could say what the great Minister of the church said: “I have preached righteousness in the great congregation: lo, I have not refrained my lips, O Lord, thou knowest. I have not hid thy righteousness within my heart; I have declared thy faithfulness and thy salvation: I have not concealed thy lovingkindness and thy truth from the great congregation.” (Psalm 40:9-10)
There are ministers who have a full church but preach an empty gospel. It is better to preach a full gospel to an empty (or near-empty) church, as may be the lot of some men. God is glorified in that. Christ is exalted, His people are fed and sinners are shown the way of life. Our calling is to be faithful to the Lord and His Word. That is one reason why we have our own Seminary. Paul wrote to Timothy: “And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also.” (2 Timothy 2:2) There is a sort of relay there: Paul, then Timothy, then faithful men, then others. The baton of the gospel must be passed from one generation of ministers to another. Ministers may be gifted, but if they do not run the race with patience, stay in the right lane and keep a firm hold of the baton, it is no good. And if the baton is eventually dropped, it is fatal for any church.
(ii) Elders and Deacons
All the church’s office-bearers should have a good grasp of the gospel. An elder should be “holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught”, and deacons should be “holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience” (Titus 1:9; 1 Timothy 3:9). Paul also told Titus that an elder should be “able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers”. The ‘gainsayers’ in Crete were false teachers who wanted to intrude the ceremonial law into the gospel of Christ. They would not submit to the church’s discipline. They were great talkers but very deceptive, undermining the faith of the Lord’s people. The welfare of the church was at stake, and their mouths had to be stopped. The elders could only do that with sound doctrine.
Wisely our Church requires its elders and deacons, as well as its ministers, to own the whole doctrine of the Confession. When all who have a responsibility for the spiritual and temporal good of the church are committed to her standards, it is more likely that the church will be kept in “the old paths, where is the good way” (Jeremiah 6:16).
(iii) Members of the Church
We should be holding the truth aloft as our banner (Psalm 60:4), but our lives ought to contend for the faith before our lips. Peter says: “sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear” (1 Peter 3:15). That is the most effective testimony and the best form of evangelism. As the English Puritan William Gurnall wrote: “The Christian’s life should put his minister’s sermon in print; he should preach that mystery every day to the eyes of his neighbours, which the minister preacheth once or twice a week to their ears.”
There are some believers who, through old age and infirmity, are confined to their own homes, and may wonder how they can contend for the faith. The answer is that no one can take from them the gift of prayer, which God gives to each of His own. As the nineteenth century Free Church minister Charles Ross said: "Secret wrestlers with God are an unspeakably precious treasure; and it is just in proportion as we have these amongst us that the Church has real power with God." Eternity alone will tell what the Lord wrought in answer to the pleas of His praying people, unknown by the world and perhaps unnoticed by the church.
3. Where We are to Contend for this Faith
There are two obvious spheres for our contending, and one less obvious.
(i) In the Church
The New Testament provides examples of departures from the faith. John warns against those who deny the incarnation of Christ (1 John 4:1-3). Paul warns against those who pervert the gospel, giving the works of the law a place in justification (Galatians 1:6-7; 3:1-5). Peter warns against those who scoff at the second coming of Christ (2 Peter 3:3-4). Such departures must be checked right at the start. How does a church apostatise? It first tolerates a little error, then accepts gross error, until finally, under the judgment of God, it becomes oblivious to error altogether.
The apostle Paul predicted a great “falling away” within the visible church which would reveal “the man of sin”, who “as God sitteth in the temple of God, shewing himself that he is God” (2 Thessalonians 2:3-4). This is the papacy. Why have so many fallen for its blasphemous claims, and why are people in Protestant churches beguiled by the papacy today? The answer is, “they received not the love of the truth” (v.10). We must love the truth: those who do will speak up for it and stand apart for it if needed (2 Corinthians 6:17).
Of late there has been a marked decline in reverence for the things of God within church and nation. We are all guilty of this to some extent, letting things slip in our lives. Spiritual discernment has also waned. The two are closely connected, for “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10). Where there is no awe of God there will be no obedience to His Word or delight in His ways. Doctrine will be diluted so that no-one is offended, worship altered to please man, and discipline all but abandoned.
(ii) In the World
In our own country the state is fast becoming an enemy of Christ’s church, when it ought to be caring for it. Civil government is ordained by God “for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well” (1 Peter 2:14), but that is now being reversed in practice. Immorality of various kinds is condoned by the law and those who contend for righteousness are penalised, and efforts made to silence them. We can agree with Calvin when he said, “It is bad to live under a prince who permits nothing, but much worse to live under one who permits everything.” Yet for the health of our society and the good of men’s souls, we must be a voice to government on behalf of biblical beliefs and morals. They are the true ‘British values’.
Sadly we find the state tolerating false religions in our land, as though they were equal to the Protestant Reformed religion established by law. Many argue that a Christian state should permit places of worship to the followers of other religions, believing that ‘freedom of religion’ means that they have a ‘right’ to them. But governments cannot bestow rights where God has not. If the worship practised by non-Christian religions must be tolerated, then logically whatever else these religions require of their followers must be tolerated too. If mosques are allowed then halal and sharia will have to be allowed. When such a position is adopted any idea of objective truth is set aside. The state ceases to be Christian in character and becomes secular. Some view ‘liberty of conscience’ as a reason to permit false religions to be practised. While our Confession says that “God alone is lord of the conscience” (WCF 20:2), it does not have in mind any god or any belief. It is referring to the God who has spoken in Scripture, whose Word is binding upon all.
(iii) In our Hearts
This is the key to everything. We must contend for the faith in our own hearts, where unbelief often lurks. It is in the heart that the drift and the backsliding begin. Do we believe the Word of God with our whole heart? Are we careful to avoid grieving the Holy Spirit? Like Israel in the wilderness, we can be guilty of doubting God and His promises: our faith needs to be stirred up through the hearing of the Word and prayer. The exhortations and examples of Scripture are intended to keep us from the danger of meeting the Bridegroom with an empty lamp. As the English preacher Octavius Winslow said: “Rather let us endure any self-denial, hardship, scorn, persecution or loss, yea, death itself, than deny the Lord Jesus, crucifying Him afresh, and putting Him to an open shame by turning from our solemn profession of faith and love.”
4. How We are to Contend for this Faith
Contending suggests a combat. The church, under her mighty Head, is engaged in an age-long spiritual war, wrestling against the powers of darkness. The devil, who is “a liar, and the father of it” (John 8:44), is always seeking to corrupt the faith of the church and weaken her witness in the world. Jude says that believers are to contend for the faith “earnestly”. That implies a vigour in our preaching, speaking, writing and witnessing. Our contending should be:
(i) With Conviction
The one thing we are not supposed to have any certainty about today is the one thing we need to be certain about: religion. To have dogmatic religious beliefs is regarded by most people as sheer arrogance. It is assumed that the only reasonable view to have on matters of religion is to be agnostic about them, and it is reckoned that if Christians were truly humble individuals then they would admit that they cannot be sure of what they believe! In our contending for the faith we gladly acknowledge that everything we stand for flows from our conviction that the Bible is God’s special revelation to man and is the truth. It is the measure by which all religious claims (and claims against religion) are to be judged.
As ministers we have disowned “all Popish, Arian, Socinian, Arminian, Erastian, and other doctrines, tenets, and opinions whatsoever” that are contrary to and inconsistent with our Confession of Faith. In contending for the faith, we are bound to contend against error. That is not popular today, when the call is to be ‘positive’. People want novelty rather than orthodoxy. Feelings are regarded as more authentic than doctrines. Yet a belief in the truth will always produce an abhorrence of error. We see it in the Psalmist: “Through thy precepts I get understanding: therefore I hate every false way.” (Psalm 119:104).
(ii) With Boldness
Contending for the faith is never easy, but our conscience tells us that we cannot condone what is unbiblical and sinful. In such situations conflict is not only advisable but essential. We must be willing to follow Christ as He guides us by the infallible Scriptures. That sometimes means going forth to Him “without the camp, bearing his reproach” (Hebrews 13:13). Yet it is better to be among the few that are with Christ than the many that are without Him. When tempted to compromise our beliefs we should remember the words of the godly Samuel Rutherford: “Give not an hair-breadth of truth away; for it is not yours, but God’s.”
Our forefathers were forthright on error. John Knox said: “As for your Roman kirk, as it is now corrupted, and the authority thereof, whereon stands the hope of your victory, I no more doubt but that it is the synagogue of Satan, and the head thereof, called the pope, to be that man of sin, of whom the apostle speaks.” The Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon said three centuries later: “There never was a day when Protestantism seemed to tremble more in the scales than now that a fierce effort is making to restore the Romish antichrist to his ancient seat. We greatly want a bold voice and a strong hand to preach and publish the old gospel for which martyrs bled and confessors died.” How we need that now, when some who have signed the Westminster Confession speak of the Pope and his servants in favourable, even brotherly, terms.
(iii) With Love
False doctrine is deadly, as is sin of any kind. Yet those who sound the alarm and urge corrective action are labelled as ‘troublemakers’. It seems that ‘love’ requires us to tolerate every view, however unbiblical. That is not the way of Christ. When the Lord was among people who were searching for the truth His compassion was very evident and He dealt with them gently. But when He was confronted by religious hypocrites and false teachers He responded with righteous anger, exposing their errors from the Scriptures.
If we are like Christ, our aim will not be to score points or win debates, but, “speaking the truth in love”, to see God’s kingdom advance everywhere. When John said to Christ, “Master, we saw one casting out devils in thy name; and we forbad him, because he followeth not with us”, the Lord gave this answer: “Forbid him not: for he that is not against us is for us.” (Luke 9:49-50) Calvin says on this: “If the disciples had not been more devoted to their own glory than anxious and desirous to promote the glory of their Master, they would not have been offended when they saw that glory heightened and enlarged in another direction.”
When there are strong differences of opinion between sincere believers on some issues, we must ensure that we manifest a gracious humility and an “unfeigned love of the brethren” (1 Peter 1:22). We must always keep things in perspective. In the eighteenth century John Willison and Ralph Erskine crossed swords as ministers, Erskine joining the Secession Church, while Willison remained in the Established Church. When Willison was on his deathbed Erskine came to comfort him. A woman who was present tried to restart their quarrel, saying to Erskine, “There will be no secession in heaven”. The two ministers smiled, and Willison nodded as Erskine replied, “Madam, in heaven there will be a complete secession – from sin and sorrow”.
5. Why We are to Contend for this Faith
We should contend for the faith because it is true, but there are other motives which we may mention.
(i) The Honour of God
This means nothing to the world, but as believers we should have a burning sense of injustice that God is dishonoured by His moral creatures, and want to see that injustice ended. We hear the scorn and the blasphemy of so many, and we say with Paul, “let God be true, but every man a liar” (Romans 3:4). God has set about recovering His honour, by taking out of the nations a people for His Name, who will show forth His praise. In them He reveals the glory of His grace. Their desire is to further His glory by spreading the gospel which has been blessed to their own souls. “The Lord gave the word: great was the company of those that published it.” (Psalm 68:11) We are to labour at this task in the light of the coming Day of Judgment, when God will vindicate Himself and the mouths of the ungodly will be stopped forever.
(ii) The Glory of Christ
The Bible teaches that men do not honour God unless they give equal honour to Christ (John 5:23). By that measure Islam is one with modernism. Liberal theology denies the true divinity of Christ and His penal substitutionary atonement. Islam claims to revere Jesus as a prophet, but it denies that He is the Son of God and that He died on the cross. That robs the Saviour of His glory and rips the heart out of Christianity. Jesus Christ is the only and necessary Mediator between God and men. As our Prophet, He takes away our ignorance, making God’s will known to us. As our Priest, He removes our guilt and reconciles us to God. As our King, He ends our bondage to sin and reigns in our hearts. The thought of what we owe to Christ should move us to fight for His honour in this world. May the Lord make us like the remnant in Pergamos, of whom He could say: “thou holdest fast my name, and hast not denied my faith” (Revelation 2:13).
(iii) The Good of Sinners
When the church is silent about the truth, no one benefits. No one profits from untruth, least of all the ungodly. Is the gospel offensive, as many today tell us that it is? Only because of man’s sin, which is highlighted by the sufferings and death of the Son of God at Calvary. We cannot let “the offence of the cross” (Galatians 5:11) deter us from preaching and bearing witness to Christ. Men’s feelings are not more sacred or important than the gospel. We may be told that we are narrow-minded and judgmental, but the Lord who looks upon our hearts knows that it is not so. We simply have a loving burden for the lost who are on their way to hell. How much better that our fellow men bow before Christ now, freely and willingly by His grace, confessing their sin and finding mercy, than that they do so by constraint at the Last Day!
Three things should characterise us as we contend for the faith today:
First, we should be thankful for the past. We owe so much, under God, to those who contended for the faith before us. We are here today as Christians, because of those who first brought the gospel to our heathen shores. We are here today as Reformed Christians, because of those who laboured to give us the Bible in our own language and proclaimed the truth of justification by faith alone. We are here today as Presbyterian and Reformed Christians, because of those who fought against Popery and Prelacy and in some cases laid down their lives for the faith. But does Scotland remember these deliverances? And does she remember her covenant with her mighty Deliverer? Sadly no. Forgetfulness is the mother of apostasy and by now we find that Christ is “as a stranger in the land” (Jeremiah 14:8).
Second, we should be steadfast in the present. We need to maintain a hold on the doctrines of the faith and on the Saviour Himself (2 Timothy 1:13). The more believers are conformed to Christ, and consecrated to His service, the more they will experience opposition. As the Bible translator John Wycliffe said: “How much higher the hill is, so much is the wind there greater; so, how much higher the life is, so much the stronger is the temptation of the enemy.” We are to serve our own generation by the will of God (Acts 13:36), yet battles fought and won now will benefit the church in future generations. It does not matter what becomes of our own name. We are content to know that we are victorious through the cross of Christ.
Third, we should be hopeful about the future. The prospect for the church is a bright one. There are seasons when things appear to go against the church, and at such times believers need the confidence of Hezekiah: “with us is the Lord our God to help us, and to fight our battles” (2 Chronicles 32:8). The glorious outcome of the church’s contending through the centuries is seen in the Psalms: “All the ends of the world shall remember and turn unto the Lord: and all the kindreds of the nations shall worship before thee.” (Psalm 22:27) It is seen in Isaiah’s prophecy: “And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it.” (Isaiah 2:2) It is seen finally in the book of Revelation: “And the seventh angel sounded; and there were great voices in heaven, saying, The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever.” (Revelation 11:15)
In 1835 the Presbyterian theologian Samuel Miller preached a sermon at the Annual Meeting of the American Board for Foreign Missions. Its title was ‘The Earth Filled with the Glory of the Lord’. Miller said: “I cannot tell you precisely when this happy period shall arrive; but I can tell you, on authority not to be questioned, that, at the appointed time, this earth, so long the abode of sin and sorrow, shall be restored from its desolations, and made to bloom like ‘the garden of the Lord.’ I can tell you, that her Almighty King will yet, notwithstanding every unfavourable appearance, make Zion beautiful through his own comeliness put upon her; that he will yet cause her righteousness to go forth as brightness, and her salvation as a lamp that burneth.” Does that seem impossible to us? Let us remember the words of the seventeenth century Scottish preacher Andrew Gray: “The promises are never nearer their performance, than when we think they are farthest off from it.”
At a critical time in Israel’s history Moses challenged God’s people: “Who is on the Lord’s side?” (Exodus 32:26). That question needs to be asked of the church in our land now, when many Christians are compromising. May we as a Church be faithful to Christ, whatever the cost may be.