For today’s Christians nothing is more foolish and sinful than to wish wistfully that it were yesterday. Those were the good old times; the times in which it was supposedly quite easy to be a Christian, because the world wasn’t quite as bad and could be held farther away from the church than now. Not only is this vain and unrealistic reasoning. It is clearly wicked. The Cod and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, whose all-encompassing providence we acknowledge to be our strength and song has placed us in the world today. But such a conviction seems so little to control the patterns of our conversation and conduct.
Frequently we complain that the world, and therefore also the church which lives in today’s world, is beyond all hope. All we seem to see and talk about is sin. In our myopic preoccupation with immediate experiences and their impact on the lives of ourselves and our children we shut out the sunshine of the Christian gospel. In theory we may still make some of its startling affirmations, especially when we sing the songs of salvation in church. But it may be questioned whether we really believe what we say. We seem to have only the backward look which wastes its energies on comparing our times with those of our fathers and grandfathers. We, as someone has aptly commented, “always seem to be walking backward into the future.”
That this is thoroughly unbiblical, in fact, pessimistically and persistently pagan, needs little demonstration.
We profess to believe that in Christ God has conquered all his and our enemies by the death and resurrection and ascension of our Lord. This was the triumphant tone of the witness of the apostles. In his Pentecost sermon Peter announced to the puzzled multitude, “For David ascended not into the heavens, but he saith himself, ‘The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand, till I make thine enemies the footstool of thy feet: Let all the house of Israel therefore know assuredly, that God hath made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom ye crucified” (Acts 2:34–36). Of that same crucified and glorified Savior Paul said, “Having despoiled the principalities and the powers, he made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it” (Col. 2:15). By such declarations they urged believers to face the world and all the problems which it posed for the church in true Christian confidence.
This is far removed from any trust in self or in organization or in historical development. It is trust in our Lord alone. to whom has been given all authority in heaven and on earth. It is trust in him as he urges his disciples to remember that they are of more value than many sparrows. It is trust in him who gives indubitable assurance that the gates of hell shall not prevail against his church.
Too many Christians in our day seem to be swayed in their reactions to what is happening in church and world by a pessimism which obscures the sovereign Lordship of Jesus Christ. They fail to set the “facts” of man’s day-by-day situations in the framework of the faith. This, too, is the sin of unbelief. And where such pessimism holds God’s children in its icy grip, the glorious gospel that Christ has given himself for his church “that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify unto himself a people for his own possession, zealous of good works,” is being perverted.
The teaching that Christ has redeemed and is continually gathering, defending and preserving for himself a church chosen to eternal life is an integral part of the Christian faith. These are unshakeable certainties which must control our preaching and practice as believers.
Also this conviction, so clearly rooted in the Scriptures, can however be distorted. This is done whenever we so completely identify the true church of Christ with the church as we see and experience it in our earthly existence, that we ignore a very real dimension of the Biblical doctrine of the church. Scripture also speaks emphatically of a great and growing apostasy. This takes place not in the world which lives in complete estrangement from the saving gospel of God; it manifests itself within what the Bible itself calls church. This is repeatedly pointed up as part of the Old Testament revelation concerning God’s dealings with Israel. This is announced by Jesus and the apostles throughout the New Testament record as a painful reality which will involve the life and labor of his redeemed people throughout the new day. This is the mystery of unbelief. And it will cut into and through the church as we see and experience it with greater intensity as the centuries pass.
So fearful will this be, that Christ himself raises the question whether faith shall be found at the time of his return. So intense and all-embracing will be the persecution which attacks true believers that “except those days be shortened, no flesh would have been saved.”
Here, then, is the tension in which the people of God as true church are daily involved. Not only from without but especially from inside of what is called church will difficulties and dangers to consistent Christian faith and practice arise. All this is especially bound up in the New Testament witness with the possibility and prevalence of false teaching. “For there shall arise false Christs and false prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders; so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect” (Matt. 24:24).
The danger is always present that we shift this possibility to some far distant day. The temptation is strong to deceive ourselves into supposing that it can’t really happen to and among us today. Whenever we drift in our thinking in this direction, we become guilty again of arguing rather from what we regard as the “facts” of our historical situation than from the plain teachings of God’s Word. Herein we would be wiser than our God. And in so doing we fail to warn ourselves and others against the very real possibility of apostasy.
This is one of the most vexing questions for all who would declare and live by “the full counsel of God.” On the one hand, we must announce the glorious victory in Christ which is ours. On the other hand, we must urge a serious recognition of all that which in a very real sense stands in the way of entering into and enjoying that victory which Christ has obtained for his people through his death, resurrection and ascension to the Father’s right hand.
These unshakeable certainties constitute the heart of the Christian gospel. We are not only to talk about them. We are to be inwardly controlled by them in all our speaking and teaching and defending of the faith once-for-all delivered to the saints. This will not only make our message “relevant,” to use a much overworked term, for those who are outside of the church. It will demonstrate how “relevant” the true proclamation and defense of the faith is for the church itself. Only then can we grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. The church in every age, including our own, must come to a deeper and richer understanding both of what the gospel is and of why and how the gospel is God’s triumphant answer to man in his need. Thus the defense of the faith against any and all forms of opposition is integrally related to its positive witness. We can ill afford to do without polemics in our time.
Here the Bible itself points the way. It speaks unwearyingly about the stubborn realities of sin in all its manifestations among the sons of men. There are principalities and powers, world-rulers of this darkness and spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. These infect and infest all of life. Because of man’s refusal to live by God’s way in Christ Jesus, these continue to work in such a way that they seem to be victorious also in our own day.
Their presence and power must be taken seriously. To dismiss lightly or refuse to talk about the appaling reality of man’s subjection of himself to the flesh, the world and the devil is irresponsible, especially on the part of any Christian preacher. Any assumption that all is going to end well anyway and that, therefore, the church may take her ease in these critical days is fatal. Scripture insists that we have ever with us, also today, the foes of true godliness and therefore the foes which stand in the way of a true experience of our victory in Christ—personal sins, social injustices, false doctrine, churches which lose their first love or compromise with the spirit of the age, profane babblings and oppositions of the knowledge (science) which is falsely so called. Never may these be our companions and colleagues. To join hands with them in any form is a betrayal of Christ and his cause. Ours are times which call for a militant Christianity. We may not allow a false tolerance, which sits lightly on the truth of God, to throw sand into our eyes so that we refuse to discern and describe the foe rightly. And in this warfare—for such the Bible does not hesitate to call the existential situation of God’s people in this present world—we must be willing to suffer ridicule and rejection, distress and misunderstanding and a large measure of persecution for Christ’s sake.
But precisely because it is the battle “for Christ’s sake,” our mood must be tested and tempered by the Lord himself. On this score we so often seem to go wrong.
Much can and should be said at this point. We shall make only two observations.
In all our opposition to sin in its multifarious manifestations we are commanded to love—to love God, his truth, his church, his people, his world, even his and our enemies who seem to constitute for us so large a part of the environment in which God commands us to live and who tempt us to be pessimistic about today and tomorrow. Such love when it truly seeks to reflect God’s love in Christ for us will make us strong. Because “it beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things,” it prohibits us from judging motives which in the nature of the case are known to the great Searcher of hearts alone. It also provides us with “the wisdom that is from above (which ) is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without variance, without hypocrisy” (Jas. 3;17). Only it will enable us to speak as God would have us speak.
But then our speaking will also be triumphant both in its message and in its mood.
This differs radically from speaking as if we claim to know all things. Pierre Berton in The Comfortable Pew asserts that while the church formerly insisted on the “absolute rightness” of all its positions, it today claims that “we cannot know.” To this Eugene Fairweather has made a most appropriate and pertinent response. “The mood of genuine Christian faith is neither ‘We know fully’ nor ‘We cannot know,’ but ‘We know in part.’ No classical theologian (and here we would add: no confessional statement true to Biblical Christianity) can be found who claims more for dogmas; the Christian can hardly claim less.” In making this statement, derived directly from the inspired teaching of -Paul, we must stress both parts of the affirmation. We know because God has been pleased in grace to reveal himself and his works in his Word clearly and sufficiently. Against all forms of existential irrationalism and agnosticism we may not say anything less. But we also know only in part. This is not simply because God has not been pleased to reveal everything about his dealings with the world. It is fully as much because in trying to understand His Word also for today we continue to be plagued by our own sinfulness and shortsightedness.
Therefore what we know must be proclaimed triumphantly.
We know, indeed, that the church is called to live and labor in a radically changing and confused and apostate world. But we know, too. that we may labor in this world with the full assurance that in Christ we have the victory which has overcome and shall overcome the world. This is the victory of his Word which shall prevail, and in that victory all who seek to be faithful to its testimony share.
That Word by the Spirit’s power speaks as relevantly .and reliably and irresistibly today as it did yesterday. when our fathers and grandfathers were alive, or in any of the past ages. It is God’s power unto salvation to everyone that believes. Thus that Word and it alone is to be proclaimed. That requires calling attention in depth to all forms of corrupting the gospel, whether in doctrine or in conduct, in a passionate concern to lead ourselves as well as others into closer fellowship with the victorious Christ. This is the optimism of Christian hope which never feels that it is put to shame in the battle for God’s truth. This is the proper mood in which to wage our spiritual warfare in these days in which the Lord wants us to live for him.
By now all of us are aware that churches in the United States and Canada, as throughout the whole world, are undergoing profound changes. Some of these appear on the surface. Many are much more subtle in their influence and thus produce their results more slowly. But the leaven is injected and at work. Therefore all committed Christians are called to discern whether that which is being introduced as both new and necessary is truly something of the leaven of the Christian gospel.
Nowhere is this task more difficult than in churches which want to be true to their Christian confessions.
Here we are compelled to face a built-in tension. On the one hand such churches urge that their historic creeds, which they rightly cherish, have sought faithfully to represent and reproduce the Word of God. Therefore any movement in the direction of changing or amplifying or questioning any part thereof is bound to meet resistance. Not a little of this resistance is warranted in the light of many of the cheap and indefensible accusations which have been leveled against the creeds. However, it is at times forgotten that the creeds do not exhaustively and for all time declare to us the fulness of God’s Word. Never may they, to use the words of the Belgic Confession, be regarded as “of equal value with those divine Scriptures” which alone are “most perfect and complete in all respects.” Not all movement in the direction of revising the confessional standards may be automatically condemned as contraband.
Tn the face of this tension the members of the church will have to learn to understand one another, both when the creeds are subjected to new and valid scrutiny in the light of Scripture and when the creeds even in their precise words and phrases are vigorously defended. This requires a degree of openness and honesty which is not easily attained, especially in seasons when the convictions by which many have lived so long are questioned and doubted and ridiculed.
How deeply such times of testing may cut into the life of a confessional church is indicated by what is taking place in the Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod). Long regarded as a fortress of strict confessional orthodoxy, this church has been experiencing in recent years sharp and even bitter controversy which has led to estrangement. Several ministers and congregations have felt themselves compelled to secede for the sake of the gospel.
What is at stake is set forth in a series of illuminating and instructive articles by a young theologian of that church, John Warwick Montgomery. These have appeared during the months of November and December in the Lutheran News. Having stated clearly the issues which are dividing the church and to a large degree alienating many of the leaders from the rank and file of the membership, he concludes the series by attempting to answer the question, “Why these changes which indicate a departure from the faith as formerly proclaimed?” What he writes is, of course, applicable in any direct sense only to his own church. Yet it may help us to understand what is going on in other Christian churches throughout the world to the extent that their situation somewhat parallels that of the Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod).
“The answer is in many ways sociological,” so Dr. Montgomery writes. “The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod is an immigrant church, and the standard pattern among immigrant churches is to remain walled off from the new society by language and tradition for a time, and then for a younger generation to react violently to its past and to seek to identify completely—generally to over-identify—with the new environment. During the first century of existence, Missouri isolated herself in many ways from American religious life. To a certain extent this was fortunate, since American theology was passing through successive stages of heresy: subjectivistic revivalism, the economic religiosity of big business and the self-made man, and the Modernism of the Fosdick era. In other respects, Missouri’s isolation was anything but desirable. (Do we not all have true stories in our bag such as this one told me by one of my Springfield Seminary students? His grandfather had nearly been excommunicated for religious ‘Unionism’ because he played checkers in the Y.M.C.A.!)
“When the theologians of the present generation woke up to their Church’s in-grown condition, they reacted violently to it. They set their faces resolutely against their past—and the more of a past they had, the more violent, generally, was the reaction…Both the good and the bad suffer in a sociological reaction; Synod has become more ‘relevant’ in American life; but this has happened at a time theologically when to embrace ecumenical Lutheranism (to say nothing of mainline non-Lutheran theologies) is to court disaster: the disaster of dialectic Neo-Orthodoxy, subjectivistic Existentialism, and now the humanistic, universalistic ‘secular Christianity’ typified by the death-of-God movement…
“How tragic, if, at this key juncture in our Synodical history, we allow ourselves, in the legitimate quest for maximum cultural and theological relevance, to discard the very treasure of God’s Word which He has permitted us to retain while so many churches have pursued the mirage of other gospels! Our greatest need today is for more maturity among our theologians; the maturity to see real sociological blind-spots in our past, yes; but the even greater maturity not to discard the scriptural remedy for our ailments in the course of treating them.”
The professor would, of course, urge that the sociological by no means explains everything. But it does say something. And this something every one in the church does well to remember when trying to assess what is happening in our time.
For a long time we have been told that the man-in-the-street rejects the Christian gospel, because he cannot understand it. The remedy prescribed is a complete revolution of our vocabulary. We are told not to’ use any longer the old tired terminology of Scripture and the creeds. We need to use a new language while retaining the “meaning” of the old.
Now this isn’t going to be easy. In fact, it is an impossible assignment. Words, in spite of whatever linguistic changes may take place, happen to have meaning, and quite specific meaning at that. Thus by completely revolutionizing church language (or Biblical, for that matter), we are going to change the message.
This is a warning which has been repeatedly sounded. Yet many a sophisticated preacher, whether old or young, has refused to take heed. Perhaps they will pause to reflect, if they have read the stinging ridicule of sociological “jargon” which Time magazine offered in its issue of December 30 (p. 14, 15). The “translation” of Psalm 23 into the language of today’s boulevards found there is much to the point. Without a completely new dictionary it is meaningless. In much the same fashion and for similar purpose Scripture is being “translated” into the language of today’s back-alleys as, for example, in Carl F. Burke’s God is for Real, Man! What all who eagerly embrace such experiments forget is the Biblical insistence not on a new vocabulary but on a new heart. “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness unto him; and he cannot know them, because they are spiritually judged” (I Cor. 2:14). This is what all who seek to bring the gospel in our day must remember.
The argument for retaining the very words of Holy Scripture is appropriately summarized by seminarian Jacob Heerema in the recent issue of Stromata, student publication of Calvin Seminary. Among other things he writes, ‘1t is the role of the prophet to interpret God’s Word. This docs not point in the direction of rewriting, in spite of the flood of ‘current’ versions of Scripture which every bookseller eagerly welcomes. Although the task of translating will always be with us, and stands as a legitimate enterprise, it is the burden of a prophet to interpret that Word to God’s children. I maintain that it is incorrect to submit God’s Word to the-norm of man’s words about the Word. I decry the surrender of that leader who in his attempt to be childlike becomes childish.
“Scripture is man’s glossary of religious language. We ought not hesitate to speak of God analogically, recognizing both the paltriness (the gap) and the grandeur (the bridge) inherent in the human situation. We do not have to apologize for the language of Scripture. For God has spoken in human language, and so we must speak.”
– PETER Y. DE JONG