On the first Monday of September I posted some advice from John Gresham Machen on the use of theological terminology in sermons. In that same volume of addresses, God Transcendent, Machen also has something to say about the danger of false teachers within the church. This is an issue I tackled a number of weeks ago in the middle of August in The Enemy Within from the letters of 2 Peter and Jude. However, Machen is so strong on this issue that I thought it was worth revisiting.
Distinction equals Power
Machen begins his address with this justifiable concern: ‘If the sharp distinction is ever broken down between the church and the world, then the power of the church is gone’ (pg. 104). Being distinct gives the church power; or put another way, being different gives the church credence. After all this is what Jesus, Paul and Peter all call for:
…let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven (Mt. 5:16).
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you…Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness and patience (Col. 3:5, 12).
Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honourable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation (1 Peter 2:12).
If this distinction disappears, then so does the authority the church have in proclaiming the message of the gospel; transformation in Christ cannot be preached by people who have not changed. The difficultly, according to Machen, is that diluting the church is one of Satan’s great tactics. Machen contends:
It is a great principle, and there never has been a time in all the centuries of Christian history when it has not had to be taken to heart. The really serious attack upon Christianity has not been the attack carried by fire and sword, by the threat of bonds or death, but it has been the more subtle attack that has been masked by friendly words; it has been not the attack from without but the attack from within. The enemy has done his deadliest work when he has come with words of love and compromise and peace. And how persistent the attack has been! Never in the centuries of the church’s life has it been altogether relaxed; always there has been the deadly chemical process, by which, if it had been unchecked, the precious salt would have been merged with the insipidity of the world, and would have been thenceforth good for nothing but to be cast out and to be trodden under foot of men. (pg. 104)
In the name of ecumenicalism, compromise, peace and unification Satan has planted his ticking time bombs in the church. As they go off one by one the church’s testimony, reputation and credence crumbles little by little.
The source of this problem, Machen argues, is a lackadaisical approach to church membership:
At such a time, what should be done by those who love Christ? I think, my friends, that they should at least face the facts; I do not believe that they should bury their heads like ostriches in the sand; I do not think that they should soothe themselves with the minutes of the General Assembly or the reports of the Boards or the imposing rows of figures which the church papers contain. Last week it was reported that the churches of America increased their membership by 690,000. Are you encouraged by these figures? I for my part am not encouraged a bit. I have indeed my own grounds for encouragement, especially those which are found in the great and precious promises of God. But these figures have no place among them. How many of these 690,000 names do you think are really written in the Lamb’s book of life? A small proportion, I fear. Church membership today often means nothing more, as has well been said, then a vague admiration for the moral character of Jesus; the church in countless communities is little more than a Rotary Club. One day, as I was walking through a neighbouring city, I saw, not an altar with an inscription to an unknown god, but something that filled me with far more sorrow than that could have done. I saw a church with a large sign on it, which read somewhat like this: ‘Not a member? Come in and help us make this a better community.’ Truly we have wandered far from the day when entrance into the church involved confession of faith in Christ as the Saviour from sin. (pg. 113-114)
This fascination with numbers, which is as fashionable today as it seems to have been then, opens up the church to great dangers. How? By allowing people to join who may not be truly regenerate, just to bolster the books.
What is the remedy? In what ways can we protect the church and its witness?
What are you going to do, my brothers, in this great time of crisis? What a time it is to be sure! What a time of glorious opportunity! Will you stand with the world, will you shrink from controversy, will you witness for Christ only where witnessing costs nothing, will you pass through these stirring days without coming to any real decision? Or will you learn the lesson of Christian history; will you penetrate, by your study and your meditation, beneath the surface; will you recognise that in which prides itself on being modern an enemy that is as old as the hills; will you hope, and pray, not for a mere continuance of what now is, but for a rediscovery of the gospel that can make all things new; will you have recourse to the charter of Christian liberty in the Word of God? God grant that some of you may do that! God grant that some of you, even though you be not now decided, may come to say, as you go forth into the world: ‘It is hard in these days to be a Christian; the adversaries are strong; I am weak; but they Word is true and thy Spirit will be with me; here I am, Lord, send me.’ (pg. 115)
We, leaders and members of churches, are the answer. However, that is only true if we do not shrink from controversy, ensure we do not overlook error and stand firmly on God’s Word.