In our position as seminary professors, it is our responsibility to read as many of the church magazines and seminary journals as possible. We take that responsibility seriously, subscribing to (or having exchange relationships with) nearly one hundred different publications. The churches have mandated us to “expound to (the students) the mysteries of the faith; caution them in regard to the errors and heresies of the old, but especially of the new day . . .” (Form for the Installation of Professor of Theology; emphasis mine). So we read as much as we can.
The lack of militancy—fighting words—in these publications, generally, is sad. Then, there are the conferences, springing up by the dozens from this and that independent ministry or academy, which are notable if only for their general lack of willingness to engage false teachings. It is a generalization, to be sure, but the church today does not want to “contend [earnestly!] for the faith,” as Jude urged the church in his day to do.
A few happy exceptions I find, but mostly in Calvinistic Baptist circles. Men like John F. McArthur and Albert Mohler often have the courage to take on false teaching. And last month the worthwhile TableTalk magazine had a special issue on “Controversy.” But very few Reformed have such mettle. Even in the Protestant Reformed Churches, where most have been taught the urgency of using the sword of the Spirit, there are some who express what one man said to me early in my ministry: “If you take care of the positive, you won’t need to be negative.”
He did not want fighting words in the pulpit.
The unwillingness of a man, or a church, to fight is a fatal weakness. To fight is to survive. Not to fight is to surrender to an enemy intending to destroy the church. The antichristian forces will quickly swallow up a denomination unwilling to wage war. What is true for us personally is also true for churches: the devil goes about as a roaring lion seeking which one he may devour. But very few are willing to battle. Many will battle certain kinds of immorality—homosexuality or abortion—realizing that to allow these will quickly lead to ruin. But few are willing to contend against sins of false gods, false worship, false doctrine, and Sabbath desecration—sins against the first table of the law. Churches must always be willing to fight if they would survive.
I understand someone’s disgust for war if the only war he has seen is ungodly fighting. I will address that also—improper motives, methods, goals, attitudes. These tempt even the most spiritual church members to shrink from battle—even important battles. But we will resist such a temptation, with the keen—albeit sometimes painful—realization that the church must fight if she will survive. Abhorrence of war, an aversion to fight, even an unenthusiastic response to a call to arms—these will bring a church into the lion’s mouth.
A Call to Arms
Polemics is the activity of exposing, opposing, resisting, and ultimately (by the power and grace of God) destroying error—error of teaching or error of conduct. Polemics does battle with God’s enemies in the world, against the antichristian forces that are hell-bent on destroying God’s cause in the world. Polemics takes aim at antichristian propaganda that lures confessing Christians out of the true church into the false. Polemics is the activity of real combat with false gospels that dishonor Christ the King.
Positively, polemics has as its purpose the defense of the precious truth of God, the “faith once delivered to the saints.” Contend earnestly for the faith, Jude says. Of course, against the lie is implied. But Jude makes clear that the beautiful, comforting, God-honoring, true faith is the object to be kept in view. For the faith. More on that, later, too.
God has always called His people to engage in battle. One almost gets the impression that Adam’s first day of married life was hardly ended before the enemy came to ruin them. As a result, God indicated the proper stance for the church when He “put enmity” (where “put” literally, is set, appointed, even constituted) between the two spiritually opposite branches of the human race—descendants of Eve and descendants of the Serpent. The stance is warfare. The official declaration of war was God’s. From that point the church embarked on an age-long campaign against what challenges God and His cause. No armistice has been signed.
If the Old Testament teaches anything it teaches the militancy of the church. Israel was organized, upon leaving Egypt, in a military structure. Their lives were defined by battle. The weary saints did get a little glimpse of the final goal of battle when Solomon reigned in peace over the subdued nations. But even that typical peace lasted hardly a generation. The Old Testament prophets’ commission was to lift up their voices like trumpets (Is. 58:1) and warn the people from their vantage as “lookouts.” Fight, fight, fight.
To deny that the New Testament church likewise is to be militant is to deny the unity of the testaments—which makes it a happy inconsistency (to us Reformed) that it is the Calvinistic Baptists whose militancy is often exemplary.
But the New Testament Scripture itself is clear regarding our call to be polemical in writing and preaching. It is always surprising to me that modern scholars can appeal to Jesus’ peace making statements but overlook His strongly militant actions and words. Others have said it before me, but if Jesus returned today and engaged in the same kind of ministry He had in His first coming, the church world would crucify Him again—not only for His steadfast refusal to feed the masses and heal all the sick, but for His refusal to make earthly peace, on their terms.
Jesus’ disciples understood Him. So each New Testament writer makes clear Jesus’ call to engage in hostilities. None better than Paul: “I have fought the good fight.” But Jude was not a whit behind: “Earnestly contend for the faith!” John, the “apostle of love,” warned: Some are “liars” (, etc.); others are “blind” (v. 11); and there are many “antichrists” (v. 18). Some “deceive” ( ); others are “children of the devil” ( ); and “many false prophets have gone out into the world.” At issue for John in these warnings was not only morality (“committing sin” ) but also doctrine (“denying the Father and the Son” ), or “truth” ( ). At the end of the New Testament canon, Jesus commended the congregation at Ephesus for deposing “apostles” who taught lies ( ); and then rebuked Pergamos who, even though they “held fast Jesus’ name,” tolerated false teachers ( ).
Now, Reformed churches have always followed this instruction by demanding, officially, of their leaders that they be militant. Which means that if a believer today does not want a militant pastor, he does not belong in a Reformed church. Yes, he belongs in a Reformed church. But if he does not want polemics from his pastor and seminary, he does not fully understand the Reformed faith. And because this article about polemics must be properly polemical, this paragraph does not intend to belittle or drive him away, but beseeches him in the spirit of Jesus Christ to learn Christ’s way of proper militancy, or balanced polemics.
What makes the fight worth fighting?
Most helpful may be to see what we sometimes are inclined to overlook—the third commandment of the ten, and the first petition of the Lord’s Prayer, both of which deal with God’s name. Taking God’s name in vain is so much more comprehensive than we might realize, if only we remember what God’s name is! Follow carefully, here. Go deeply into this truth for a moment. Let the explanation of the Heidelberg Catechism sink in as to the meaning of God’s name, and its connection to doctrine and truth:
Which is the first petition? Answer. “Hallowed be thy name”; that is, grant us, first, rightly to know Thee, and to sanctify, glorify, and praise Thee in all Thy works, in which Thy power, wisdom, goodness, justice, mercy, and truth are clearly displayed; and further also, that we may so order and direct our whole lives, our thoughts, words, and actions, that Thy name may never be blasphemed, but rather honored and praised on our account.
Hallowing God’s name involves first that we know Him in all His works, in which works very specific attributes of God are revealed: “power, wisdom, goodness, justice, mercy, and truth.” This is doctrine, sound doctrine. Thus, when false teachers, for example, deny God’s power in creation according to Genesis, contradict His wisdom in sovereignly governing the worlds, challenge His goodness in putting a crook in my lot, or gainsay His justice in punishing sin in Jesus Christ, they are taking His name in vain. God’s precious name is not only the titles He gave Himself, like Jehovah, Elohim, and Lord, but all His works and attributes that reveal to us who and what He is. His works in creation, providence, and salvation, and all His attributes—are His name. His precious name is to be defended by the church! God’s name (His reputation!) is at stake.
Take a concordance, just with the book of Psalms, to see the significance of God’s name. Begin with thinking deeply about, God’s name, and creation.
This also explains what the prophet Malachi meant in chapter two. A faithful area pastor gave two fine chapel speeches here at seminary the last two weeks and reminded us of this truth in Malachi. The calling of the priests and Levites—teachers all—was to “give glory to his name,” to “be afraid before his name” (). How did the priests and Levites honor God’s name? By having “the law of truth . . . in [their] mouth.” “Iniquity” was not to be found in their lips. “For the priest’s lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek the law at his mouth” ( ). God’s name is knowledge of Him, it is His truth.
Battling for the truth, with fighting words, is battling for the name of God. Love for God’s name motivates us to engage in polemics.
Knowing this about God’s name also helps us to see why our Reformed fathers taught that profaning God’s name is “so heinous a sin” that “there is no sin greater or more provoking to God than” that (Lord’s Day 36).
Who will join us in fighting for God’s name? The faith once delivered to the saints! Who is willing to take up the sword against false teachings that “get His name wrong,” against an ungodly life, against everything antagonistic to the Christian (Reformed) faith? Who will be “earnest” in this battle? Who is willing to “endure hardness” as a good soldier of Jesus Christ for the sake of God’s name and truth?
Words—God’s words—overthrow error. Words—fighting words—put the devil to flight. Words—militant words, sharp as swords—destroy the false teacher who would devour our sons and daughters in the university. Words—fighting words.
Who wants to go to battle? That question truly requires pondering. Really, who asks to be put in the fray? Something in my sinful nature resists battle, but something of God’s new creation in me resists it, too, because it longs for Solomon’s peace, when “my God hath given me rest on every side, so that there is neither adversary nor evil occurrent” (). Even King David—most valiant warrior for God’s name—said, “I am for peace.”
Until that day when God gives us peace in the new heavens and the new earth, where righteousness lives and rules, we will fight for God’s name.
Prince of Peace, come quickly!
. . . to be continued.