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Refuting Theological Error

There is a profoundly important section titled, "On the Preaching of the Word," in The Directory for the Public Worship of God, in which we find a very short and very wise statement about the minister's responsibility to refute false teaching in the church. What is most captivating about the brief statement found therein is that it instructs concerning, first, the dangers of talking about false teaching, and, second, the necessity of refuting false teaching in the church. 

As the Divines unfolded their beliefs about how ministers should approach the aspect of refuting theological error in their preaching, they wrote:

In confutation of false doctrines, he [i.e. the minister] is neither to raise an old heresy from the grave, nor to mention a blasphemous opinion unnecessarily: but, if the people be in danger of an error, he is to confute it soundly, and endeavor to satisfy their judgments and consciences against all objections.

The rationale for this statement is dependent on understanding the nature of false teaching itself. In short, ideas can and often do have massive spiritual consequences. J. Gresham Machen made the important statement about the implications of false teachings and ideologies when he wrote:

False ideas are the greatest obstacles to the reception of the gospel...What is today a matter of academic speculation begins tomorrow to move armies and pull down empires. In that second stage, it has gone too far to be combated; the time to stop it was when it was still a matter of impassioned debate.1

Since beliefs inevitably have consequences on our lives and actions, the Divines first warn against our "raising an old heresy from the grave, nor to mention a blasphemous opinion unnecessarily." They do not say this to be necessarily or fearfully censorious, or to bury their heads in the sand rather than deal with difficult theological matters. Rather, they raise this warning because of the nature of false teaching. 

When I was a young Christian, a friend taught me that "whenever false teaching is taught in a nuanced fashion there is always the danger that some who hear it will be drawn into it." He went on to explain that this is true within the realm of relationships, as well. Whenever we start to enter into debate with those with whom we disagree we are in danger of becoming more like them--as well as becoming more susceptible to being influenced by their beliefs. It is not guaranteed that this will happen, but it is certainly a very real and ever present danger. Tragically, years after sharing this thought with me, my friend went on to embrace a sinful lifestyle due in part to the public discussions about, and approval of, that particular sin. Additionally, I have watched--with great heaviness of heart--as a minister of the Gospel walked away from Protestantism in the midst of engaging, on church court levels, with men who were being tried for holding to aberrant theological views on the sacraments and soteriology. Whether engagement with sacramentalist views were the cause of his departing from the truth or not, I cannot help but wonder what impact interacting with aberrant teaching had on this particular individual.

This danger must be highlighted within the realm of pastoral ministry in the church. There are some who thrive on debating theological issues. This can be harmful to the members of a church because some members already have misguided beliefs, and some have a very small knowledge of doctrine. In the case of the first group, introducing old heresies can encourage more confusion. I have, time and again, seen individuals start to dabble with heresy because they already had misguided beliefs based on their erroneous knowledge of Scripture. In the case of the latter group, introducing theological error--even in the name of "discernment"--can end in filling the minds of God's people with falsehood when they ought to be filling their minds with the truth. Far better to teach them the nuances of the truth of Scripture so that they will be able to discern falsehood when confronted with it. You don't study a counterfeit dollar bill to spot a counterfeit; you study the real dollar currency so that you will be better suited to spot the counterfeit.

Additionally, pastors may inadvertently encourage a hyper-critical spirit among church members. We have all seen churches that are full of theological "heresy-hunters." While I don't like to bandy about that term--since there is a "heresy spotting" and "heresy rejecting" to which all believers are called--the love of seeking out error can be a highly toxic thing. The Divines were certainly warning against these two dangers when they insisted that ministers should be slow to raise an old heresy, or an unnecessary blasphemous opinion, among the members of a church.

In a day when most professing believers would be more than happy to emphasize the first half of the statement about heresy in the Directory, it is important for us to understand the significance of what they say in the latter part. There are three parts to what is said about confuting error in the church. The first is that it is incumbent on the minister(s) of the church to refute error "if the people be in danger of an error." The shepherds are appointed by God to feed the sheep, to go after them when they stray and to guard them against all dangers that threaten to harm them. Certainly, if theological error is creeping into our churches or denominations, we must confute it out of love for, and protection of, the sheep. Years ago, when theological error started creeping into some of our Reformed denominations, prominent voices were insinuating that we have Mormonism, atheism, Islam, paganism, etc. to deal with--attacking Christians from outside the church--and that we should not be squabbling over theological nuances within. While this sounds pious, it actually does not stand the test of what the Apostle Paul demonstrated in Galatia with the Judaizers who were coming into the church stealthily. In fact, it has been said that we wouldn't have a New Testament if it weren't for all the internal theological and moral errors that needed to be refuted.Out of love for God and the truth of the Gospel, as well as for the salvation His people, ministers are called to refute error.

The second thing that the Divines noted was that the minister is "to confute [false doctrine] soundly." There should be an appropriate force with which error is confuted. The intensity of the confutation must fit the doctrinal error being propagated. This takes great wisdom. It is possible for a minister to tackle a theological error that surfaces in the church, but not to do it with the intensity with which it ought to be confuted. If justification by faith alone, the nature of soteriology, the necessity of holiness in the Christian life, the Person and work of Christ, the Trinity, etc. are under attack, the minister must confute these with the strongest intensity and with the most comprehensive treatment. If the error be some thing of lesser significance, it should be confuted with less intensity and perhaps less comprehensiveness.

The third thing that the Divines say is that the minister is to "endeavor to satisfy their [i.e. the congregants] judgments and consciences against all objections." We have all seen or heard of ministers who give the sense that, when they are seeking to refute error, they just want people to agree with their warnings without doing the hard work of studying theological nuances and taking the time to walk their people through the issues involved with care and patience. It will be impossible to satisfy all the judgments and consciences of all involved against all objections; nevertheless, that should be the goal and desire of the minister. This means that ministers should not simply parrot a criticism of a theological error. Too many have heard a respected professor, theologian or pastor raise warnings about a pressing theological danger only to go and parrot what they have heard. When objections fall within the "razor's edge" of the erroneous doctrines, such ministers fail to satisfy the consciences of their hearers against all objections. We must (with prayerful caution) engage with first sources and with specialized volumes that take on the oftentimes highly academic and theologically nuanced errors that arise so that we will be prepared to "endeavor to satisfy their [i.e. the congregants] judgments and consciences against all objections."

One final warning needs to be raised. The minister must guard his own heart and mind from theological error as well. We do this by keeping ourselves in the Scriptures and in the love of God. We do this by putting sin to death in our lives. We do this by crying out to God to keep us from falling. Somehow, many convince themselves that drugs, sexual immorality, etc.--but not reading theological error--will most certainly have a negative effect on them. Ideas have consequences. All theological error originates from the evil one. He is more cunningly skillful than we could ever know at leading people astray through academic and highly nuanced theological error. As is true with every other danger that we face, when we come to study theological error we must remember the words of the Apostle Paul: "Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall."

1. J. Gresham Machen, "Christianity and Culture," Princeton Theological Review 11 (1913)
Ressourcement: retrieving our past for present faithfulness
--true history in The Letter to Diognetus

Imperial Rome, especially in the first two hundred years of its existence, was "obsessed with time" and its place in the flow of history.[1] This obsession with time was linked to a deep reverence for the past and a conviction that if something was true it was old. What was new must perforce be false.[2] The Roman world also housed a deeply violent, hate-filled culture, from its bloody gladiatorial shows in the arena to its regular use of crucifixion and child exposure to solve socio-political problems on the macro and micro levels. Yet, it was in this world, which took history ever so seriously but was starved for love, that the Christian Faith providentially first made its appearance. To be sure, Christian monotheism stood out in a world of polytheism--the Roman universe was a place filled with deities, from the Olympian gods to various lesser deities that inhabited the very hearths and doors of Roman homes and the glades and streams of their countryside--but so then did Judaism. What made Christianity differ even from Judaism in this world of Roman hegemony was its insistence on the path of love--"violence is not an attribute of God" is the way one early Christian put it [3] --and that this love was primarily manifest in the life and death of the historical personage Jesus of Nazareth. The confession that Jesus was crucified under the Roman procurator of Judaea Pontius Pilate consequently turns out to be of deep significance when it comes to the profoundly historical nature of Christianity.[4] Christianity thus answered two very important questions posed by its surrounding culture: "What is our place in history?" and "Where is love to be found? In this first essay in this series on early Christian ressourcement, we look at the Letter to Diognetus' answer to the first question. Our next essay will examine the reply to the second question. 

The Letter to Diognetus: an introduction

Without a doubt, one of the best of the various early Christian attempts to respond to such questions raised by Imperial Roman culture is The Letter to Diognetus. Transmitted to the modern world via a sole manuscript discovered in a fish-shop in Constantinople by the Italian Renaissance scholar Thomas d'Arezzo in 1436, the identity of its author is unknown.[5]  From the Greek text of this tract, though, it is clear that the author had had a superb education in the Greek language.[6] As to who is Diognetus, this is also not known with any degree of certainty. The letter should probably be dated to the last quarter of the second century.[7] 

However, what is very clear is why the letter was written. It seeks to provide answers to three general questions about the Christian Faith, two of which, regarding history and love, have already been alluded to: why has Christianity only recently appeared in the world and why do Christians love one another the way they do? The third question is more general: who is the God in whom Christians so believe that they patently reject the pagan gods, are very evidently not Jewish and are not at all afraid of dying for their faith in this God?[8]

True history

The classic Roman view of history that justified Roman imperialism had been expressed by the poet Virgil (70-19BC) in The Aeneid, his epic retelling of the story of Troy. Regarding the Romans, "that toga-clad people" who were "the masters of all in existence," Virgil had Jupiter, the king of the gods, state:

For these I set no limits, world or time,
But make the gift of empire without end[9]

Over against this explanation of the meaning of history, Christianity offered the reality of what took place in the incarnate Son of God during the prefecture of Pontius Pilate in Judaea. The writer of the letter to Diognetus introduced this remarkable fact by first noting that the Christian concept of God is not the product of human thought or mere philosophical reflection. 
As I said before, it is not an earthly discovery that has been passed on to them [i.e. Christians]. That which they think it worthwhile to guard so carefully is not a result of mortal thinking, nor is what has been entrusted to them a stewardship of merely human mysteries. On the contrary, the Almighty himself, the Creator of the universe and the invisible God, has from heaven planted the Truth, even the holy and incomprehensible Word, among men and fixed it firmly in their hearts [10]
Christian truth is rooted in God's revelation of himself through the incarnation of his Son in space and time. God has not, the author wrote, 
sent to humanity some servant, angel or ruler... Rather, [he has sent] the very Designer and Maker of the universe, by whom he made the heavens and confined the seas within their bounds; ...from whom the sun is assigned the limits of its daily course and whom the moon obeys when he bids her to shine by night, and whom the stars obey as they follow the course of the moon. He is the One by whom all things have been set in order, determined, and placed in subjection--both the heavens and things in the heavens, the earth and things on the earth, the sea and the things in the sea, fire, air, abyss, the things in the heights and those in the depths and the realm between. Such was the One God sent to them. ...In gentleness and meekness he sent him, as a King sending his son who is a king. He sent him as God, he sent him as [man] to men, he sent him as Saviour [11]
Christianity, then, is ultimately not a human attempt to find God; rather, it is founded on God's revelation of himself, and that in a person, his Son. Although the name of Jesus is not mentioned in this passage or even in the treatise as a whole,[12] there is no doubt that this is the person of whom the author here writes so eloquently. The Son clearly does not belong to the order of creation. The Son's dominion over the entirety of nature, and by implication his deity, is trumpeted forth. Who is this One whom God has sent to reveal himself? Well, he is "a Son." He is sent by God "as God." As L.B. Radford has commented: "He is God so truly that His coming can be described as the coming of God."[13] And he is "the Savior": our salvation is grounded in the historicity of the Incarnation and the purpose of that historical reality--the death of Christ for sinners.

The importance of the Old Testament

This discussion of the way in which God has revealed himself now opens the way for the author to provide an answer to the query about the antiquity of Christianity. As has been noted, it was axiomatic in Graeco-Roman antiquity that what was true was old and what was new was questionable and probably false. This raised an obvious problem for those seeking to convince men and women of the truth claims of Christianity, for Christianity took its rise from the appearance of Christ. The standard approach among second-century Christian apologists like Justin Martyr (c.100-c.165) or Theophilus of Antioch (fl. 170-190) was to refer to the history of salvation in the Old Testament that finds its fulfillment in Christian faith or engage in a typological exegesis of the Old Testament, which was then seen to foreshadow the coming of Christianity. In the light of these approaches, Christianity had a much better claim to antiquity than either Greek or Roman thought, neither of which were over a millennium old.

The Letter to Diognetus, however, takes neither of these approaches. This is probably due to the fact that earlier, in the sections dealing with Judaism, the author had taken a hard line against Judaism and accused it of engaging in worthless ritual.[14] There, the impression is given that Judaism was of no value at all, not even as a forerunner of Christianity. Thus, the author is forced to argue that God's design of sending his Son to redeem humanity was divulged at first to none but the Son. He waited until men and women had shown by their "unbridled passions,... pleasures and lusts" that they were both "unworthy of life" and  "incapable of entering into the kingdom of God by their own power." Then, at the opportune time, God sent forth his Son.[15]

As this argument stands, without any hint of the Old Testament period of preparation and the history prior to the Incarnation, it is an inadequate response to the query about Christianity's antiquity. A pagan respondent could easily ask for proof of these claims and, in the terms in which they have been given, none would be forthcoming. Although it is very evident that the author is not a Gnostic--he is completely committed to the importance of history--this seeming disinterest in the Old Testament was characteristic of the various Gnostic systems on the second-century religious landscape. This is an important reminder to us of the enormous value of the revelation of the Old Testament.

Michael A.G. Haykin is the Professor of Church History and Biblical Spirituality at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He has written widely on the Ancient Church and eighteenth-century Dissent


 [1] Anthony Grafton, "Dating history: The Renaissance and the reformation of chronology", Daedalus 132 (2003): 82.

[2] Stephen Benko, Pagan Rome and the Early Christians (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1984), 21-22; Wolfram Kinzig, "The Idea of Progress in the Early Church until the Age of Constantine" in Elizabeth A. Livingstone, ed., Studia Patristica (Louvain: Peeters Press, 1993), 24:123-125.

[3] Letter to Diognetus 7.4.

[4] See Giorgio Agamben, Pilate and Jesus, trans. Adam Kotsko (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015).

[5] For the history of the manuscript, see Henri Irénée Marrou, A Diognète (Sources chrétiennes, no. 33; Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1951), 5-10.

[6] For some speculation as to the identity of Diognetus, see the discussion of Avery Dulles, A History of Apologetics (New York: Corpus Instrumentorum/Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1971), 28-29. Recently Charles E. Hill has argued for Polycarp of Smyrna (69-155/156) as the author. See his From the Lost Teaching of Polycarp: Identifying Irenaeus' Apostolic Presbyter and the Author of Ad Diognetum (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2006). 

[7] For this dating, see Robert M. Grant, Greek Apologists of the Second Century (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1988), 178-179; Theofried Baumeister, "Zur Datierung der Schrift an Diognet", Vigiliae Christianae, 42 (1988): 105-111.

[8] Letter to Diognetus 1.

[9] The Aeneid 1, lines 281, 374-375.

[10] Letter to Diognetus 7.1-2. 

[11] Letter to Diognetus 7.2, 4.

[12] On this fact, see Marrou, A Diognète, 185-187.

[13] The Epistle to Diognetus (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1908), 39. 

[14] Letter to Diognetus 3-4.

[15] Letter to Diognetus 8.9-9.2.

"I can drive no man to heaven or beat him into it with a club." So observed Luther on March 11th, 1522, in a sermon to Wittenberg parishioners. Though his point was rather obvious, Luther felt compelled to make it because in his absence from Wittenberg during the preceding ten months, certain persons had grown impatient with the progress of reformation in the city and had resorted to means of legal compulsion and/or violence to bring about the changes in doctrine and worship they desired.

Luther had, in fact, made the same point in a sermon to the same audience the preceding day. Having insisted in no uncertain terms upon the necessity of faith in Christ for salvation, from which faith love for God and others as well as pure worship necessarily springs, Luther emphasized in that earlier sermon that such faith itself properly springs from the proclamation of God's promises, not from the use of force: "I cannot, nor should I, force anyone to have faith." Indeed, the use of force is ultimately, in Luther's estimation, unnecessary and unfruitful for the successful expansion of God's kingdom, because the divine word of promise -- first as it is encountered in Scripture and then as it is proclaimed by God's ordained ministers -- accomplishes that very task. "The Word created heaven and earth and all things; the Word must do this thing [i.e., achieve the conversion of men], and not we poor sinners." For our part "we should give free course to the Word and not add our works" -- that is, our means of coercion -- "to it." "We should," that is, "preach the Word, but the results must be left solely to God's good pleasure."

Luther discovered a perfect example of the Word's ability to grow God's kingdom sans a baton or baseball bat in his own experience of the preceding years. "I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply taught, preached, and wrote God's Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends..., the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything."

It's questionable whether Luther retained his position on the exclusive prerogative of the Word to accomplish the growth of Christ's kingdom in later years. Increasingly alarmed over time by the extreme efforts of Anabaptists to implement their own version of a spiritual/civil kingdom by force (which means, thankfully, they never possessed in sufficient measure), Luther grew ever more tolerant of the use of reciprocal force to keep the Anabaptists in line, civilly and (perhaps) religiously. One could, maybe, argue that his position remained consistent, and that the force against the Anabaptists he eventually endorsed was purely towards the end of political restraint rather than religious uniformity.

Regardless, the willingness Luther showed even in the 1520s to see civil offenders repressed by military/legal means reminds us that his doctrine of the Word's power was specifically a theological point about how Christ's kingdom is sustained and increased, not a generic endorsement of persuasion vis-à-vis coercion in every conceivable context.  A strong hand is sometimes required to keep wayward citizens -- or, for that matter, wayward children -- in line. Only the Word, however, can produce genuine faith, hope, and love directed towards God within a man, woman, or child.

Luther found a biblical example of the Word's exclusive power to bring about renewal and reform in the Acts 17 account of Paul's missionary work in Athens. "When Paul came to Athens, a mighty city, he found in the temple many ancient altars, and he went from one to the other and looked at them all, but he did not kick down a single one of them with his foot. Rather he stood up in the middle of the market place and said they were nothing but idolatrous things and begged the people to forsake them; yet he did not destroy one of them by force. When the Word took hold of their hearts, they forsook them of their own accord."

Luther might, had he wished, have found a further illustration of his point in church history, from a consideration of how Christianity spread in its earliest centuries. The first three centuries of Christians spread the gospel exclusively by means of proclamation. Indeed, they had little choice. Because their newfound religion was deemed illegal, they were consistently marginalized from positions of political, social, or military influence, and were at least occasionally made the victims of intense persecution. They witnessed to the reality that God in Christ was reconciling the world to himself with their lips and, on occasion, with their lives. By the very nature of their situation, they were prevented from promoting Christ's kingdom by establishing "Christian" nations or by commandeering the legislative or judicial machinery of existing states. Significantly, it was the greatest period of growth the Christian church has ever experienced, even in the absence of the factor of Wittenberg beer.

The early expansion of Christianity stands in marked contrast to the early expansion of Islam in this regard. From early on, Mohammed and his followers employed whatever military means they could muster to further the spread of their religion. Within a decade of Mohammed's death, Muslims had spread from their base in the Arabian Peninsula to conquer Palestine. Within little more than a century of Mohammed's death, Islam had conquered Syria, Persia, Northern Africa, and much of the Iberian Peninsula. All of this, of course, was by force, even if forced "conversions" as such grew thinner (being less politically expedient) the farther Islam stretched from its geographical home base. Such military accomplishments were remarkable, but not unprecedented (think, for example, of Alexander the Great), and thus no sure sign of divine favor. The rapid expansion of Christianity without means of force (indeed, in the presence of much persecution), by way of contrast, is remarkable, and arguably points to a providential kindness towards the doctrine championed by the earliest Christians.

Christians have rather often been a bit slow to learn the lesson that Luther, Scripture, and church history jointly teach us in this regard. The temptation to trust in force -- whether personal, financial, or political in kind -- for the expansion of Christ's kingdom, even when force is not actually employed, is constant. It is the flip-side of the temptation not to believe that God's Word can actually, in God's perfect timing, bring sinners into his Kingdom, or bring that Kingdom to its eschatological realization. One gauge of where our confidence for the success of the gospel actually lies might be the optimism/pessimism we feel over the outcome of political elections or particular pieces of government legislation. There is, of course, every reason to participate in political processes to bring about the best conceivable civil state for ourselves and our neighbors, believing and unbelieving alike. There is, equally, every reason not to get too worked up over either our successes or failures in such efforts; we are, after all, heirs of a kingdom which will not be achieved by political process, but will flourish through the proclamation of God's promise and the power of that proclamation to generate true (that is, justified, sanctified, and eventually glorified) citizens of the same.

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.

Christianity that cuts

It is sometimes difficult to work out exactly what people are doing when they open their Bibles and let their eyes pass over the pages of Scripture. An observer might surmise that one of the things that they are not doing is reading the words and assimilating the truth that is contained there. That conclusion would follow from the fact that there seems often to be a comprehensive and wilful failure to recognise that Christianity is an offensive religion, and offending people is the capital crime of the early 21st century Western world.

The problem with Christianity - the cause of the offence - is that it speaks very plainly and directly to sinners about their sin, their need of salvation and the only possible way of salvation. It tells men that they are neither good nor wise, and that therefore salvation is of the Lord. Such searching scrutiny of and honest counsel concerning the soul is not palatable to the natural man, whose "mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be" (Rom 8.7). And yet there seems to be a general resistance to the idea that Christianity must cut.

Among those who profess the name of Christ are multitudes who bend over backwards to avoid any hint that Christianity labels certain things as right and wrong, declares certain behaviour to be sin and identifies those who pursue it as sinners, condemns the unrepentant sinner to hell, demands allegiance to Christ crucified and to him only, declaring his to be the only name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved (Acts 4.12). Instead, we find a determination to avoid issues and individuals who might upset the applecart, preaching instead a spineless inclusivism that never makes a distinction, never draws a line, never takes a stand.

Even in healthy churches, there are believers who are mortified when sinners become angry and resentful under the preaching of the gospel, believers found backtracking - and perhaps urging others to do so - like a man who's just walked into a bull's field. There are parents who labour under the misapprehension that any confrontation of their children's sin will result in their rejection of Christ, and who therefore spend their lives avoiding the demands of the gospel in their homes. There are members who steadfastly militate against any form of church discipline because they cannot see how it can be loving to identify and address someone's sin. There are those who balk at the proclaiming of a single sovereign Saviour of mankind, who find calls to repent and believe harsh, who find any demand for whole-souled obedience and the pursuit of divine standards a little, well, demanding.

But we need to open our Bibles and do more than let our eyes pass over the pages. We need to recognise that Christianity cuts. If yours is a Christianity that has no sharp edges, no distinctive flavours, then it is not the true Christianity of the Bible. Paul made clear that the gospel of a crucified Christ was "to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness" (1Cor 1.23). If your gospel does not cause the hackles of the self-righteous to rise and the lips of the worldly-wise to curl in a sneer then it is not the gospel of God, and will not prove the power of God to salvation. If your gospel does not declare a freeness in God's grace that makes the self-righteous feel that you are giving wicked men a licence to sin then it is not the gospel of the Bible. If your gospel does not call men to an obedience so complete and entire that you are despised as narrow and shrivelled (1Pt 4.4) then it is not the gospel of the Bible. If your gospel does not offer salvation to any wretched sinners who call upon the name of Jesus Christ, however great their sins, and however far and long they have wandered from the Lord, then it is not the gospel of the Bible. If your gospel does not proclaim that those same sinners rely entirely upon the saving and sanctifying grace of a sovereign Lord then it is not the gospel of the Bible. If your gospel does not entreat, demand, command, invite, and compel sinners to come in, then it is not the gospel of the Bible. If your gospel has no cutting edges it is not the gospel of the Bible.

This gospel, this truth, draws lines and dares any to erase them. What does your Jesus say? Mine says this:
Therefore whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven. Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man's enemies will be those of his own household. He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it. (Mt 10.32-39)
Of course, I am not saying that we have to be or ought to be offensive in ourselves. The gospel does that all by itself simply by being true. It cuts across the modern dogma that you cannot be dogmatic. It tramples on the idol of our self-sufficiency. But our task is simply to communicate the truth faithfully. The truth of God has a sharp edge and a distinctive flavour, and we must not and cannot afford to be ashamed of it. In almost every instance, sinners must be offended before they are converted.

If we blunt the edge and mask the flavour then our Christianity will not cut. It will not cut men to the heart because of their transgressions, whether they show it by their fury or their repentance, or perhaps their fury and then their repentance. It will not cut down the rearing pride of human goodness and human wisdom. It will not cut men out of the wild olive tree and graft them into the cultivated one. It will not cut off the fruitless branches, pruning the tree so that it bears good fruit. It will not cut off the right hand that causes you to sin or the right foot that walks into wickedness. It will not cut off words that are cutting, cruel, bitter, sapless, complaining and divisive. It will not cut the church out of the world and its appetites and pursuits, and make them holy to the Lord. It will not cut out the sheep from the goats. In short, it will not do the cutting work that is required if sinners are to be saved and the church to pursue its identity and activity in the world.

Many of us live in a place in which the only real sin is to hold to a Christianity that cuts. But lose that, and you lose a Christ who saves. If you have not felt the cut of Christianity, then you do not have Christ's Christianity. If you do now allow the cut of Christianity, then you will lose Christ's Christianity. Let us not avoid or be embarrassed by a Christianity that cuts. Let us not be ashamed of the gospel of God.

The nature of Christianity

What follows is a tract of penetrating honesty written by Archibald Alexander, found in Practical Truths (32-34) (Amazon US/UK, or a lovely edition here). The tract is entitled "Christianity in its nature aggressive," and Alexander is blunt in addressing - way ahead of the game - the foibles and follies of Christianity struggling to get to grips with postmodernity and its dogmas of relativism and pluralism (ironic that so many should so dogmatically assert the absence of dogma and so dogmatically assault those who disagree). You do not have to agree with the particular emphases of his last paragraph to find it bracing stuff.
In the charter which Christ gave to his disciples, who formed the first church under the new dispensation, the first command is one which requires action. "Go," says he. Every Christian must be on the alert. He has marching orders from the Captain of his salvation. He cannot sit down in ease and idleness, and yet be a Christian. As the father said to his son in the parable, "Go, work in my vineyard," so Christ says to every disciple; and it will not answer to say, "I go, sir," and yet refuse obedience. We must be doers of the word, and not mere hearers. We must be doers of the word, and not mere professors [those making a profession]. The command given by the risen Saviour is still in force, and as it was obligatory on all who heard it at first, so it is binding on all who hear it now. "Go."

But what are we to do? "Proselyte." Make disciples. Convert to Christianity. The very word "proselyte" will frighten some people. No heresy in their view is so great as sectarism. But Christianity is so intolerant, that it will bear no other religion; it seeks to overthrow every other system. If it would have admitted the claims of other religions, it would have escaped persecution. But no; it denounced every other system and mode of worship as hateful to God, and destructive to the soul. And it made every disciple a proselyter. And every one now, whether male or female, bond or free, Jew or Greek, who professes Christianity, takes upon himself or herself the obligation to convert others to Christianity.

Consider the extent of the field in which we are called to labor. "Go into all the world." "Go, teach," make disciples of, "all nations." And when converted, let the new proselytes not be ashamed to avow their allegiance to the King of Zion, by assuming his badge. Let them be baptized into the name of the HOLY TRINITY. Now they are in the school of Christ, and must be carefully taught all his commandments.

Here is a great work, requiring the coöperation of all who are already initiated. The greatest charity in the world is the communication of divine truth to the ignorant. Must all preach the word? Yes, in a certain sense, and according to their ability, and in observance of due order. All may teach. All Christians are bound to teach - the parent his children, the master his servants, the schoolmaster his scholars, the citizen his more ignorant neighbours, the colporteur [carrier of books and other literature] the families he visits with books and tracts, the pastor his flock, and the missionary the unconverted Jew and heathen. Here is work enough for all, and all may labor in their appropriate sphere; but all must labor: the duty is incumbent on them, and the obligation cannot be evaded.

The time seems to be coming, predicted by Daniel, when "many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased." What a change within the last half century! Then there were no Bible societies, no tract societies, no Sunday-schools, no colporteurs, no Protestant missionaries. There is, indeed, another time predicted, when there shall be no need for one to say to his neighbour, "Know the Lord; for all shall know him from the least to the greatest." Then the work will be completed; but O, how much teaching must there be before the hundreds of millions of souls now ignorant, shall be so instructed as that none shall need further teaching. But perhaps the prophecy does not mean that none shall need farther instruction, but farther admonition - not that all shall have learned enough, but all will be fully disposed to learn. Blessed time! teaching will be then an easy as well as a delightful business.

This past Lord's Day evening, our church saw the ordination of Rev. Gabriel Fluher.  Gabe is a recent graduate of Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and has been a most outstanding intern at our church for the last few years.  We have called him to our pastoral staff primarily to minister to our youth.  I had the enormous privilege of preaching Romans 1:16, the same passage James Montgomery Boice preached at my ordination (which says something about what I think of Gabe).

Ordination services are important, and I'd like to note a few reasons why I love them:

The Christian calendar practiced by most evangelicals today is extremely illuminating.  What it shows is our generally weak appreciation for the fullness of Christ's saving work.  Two big holidays occupy our minds completely: Christmas and Easter.  So we focus on the birth, death, and resurrection of our Lord.  So far as it goes, that is perfectly wholesome.  But what a huge event Pentecost is in the life of the Christian church (not to mention the Ascension)!  There can be little doubt that while most of our churches faithfully observe Mother's Day thsi coming Lord's Day, most will completely ignore our Lord's great redemptive-historical gift of the outpoured Holy Spirit.

Here Am I


With apologies to Isaiah and Dick Cheney, I have emerged from my undisclosed location to offer my first post. Unlike my companions on this website, I am an utter novice at this. I read Wendell Berry, live next to Amish, and even drink milk from glass bottles. All of which is to say that the world of technology has passed me by. But I now consider myself a chastened, nay reformed, Luddite. Here's why:

Chris Brown.

Chris is a former student of mine who now serves as a missionary in the jungles of Peru. It's not that convenient for Chris to go to a bookstore or go to a library to stock up on books. He does, however, have the internet. Chris told me in an email, after he saw that I'm joining this blog, that he finds reformation21 edifying. Trueman, edifying? I'll let Chris's momentary lapse of judgment slide for now, but I will think of Chris as I post. I won't be all serious edification, in a didactic sense. After all, isn't the kingdom of God thinking, worshiping, eating and drinking, and even laughing together whether we're in the jungles of Peru or in undisclosed locations somewhere in Lancaster?