Prof. Decker is professor of Practical Theology in the Protestant Reformed Seminary. *Seminary Commencement, June 14, 2001, First Protestant Reformed Church, Grand Rapids. Graduate: Angus Stewart.
Polemics may be defined as “the art or science of defending the truth which has as its object the refutation of errors.” Polemics is a bad word among the churches of these days.
Toleration is the good word! We ought to tolerate differing views and doctrines because no one has a corner on the truth. Evangelicals can even get together with Roman Catholics. What is much worse is the fact that much of the church tolerates the world religions. In the past the so-called good elements in Islam, Hinduism, and the others were ascribed to God’s so-called common grace.Now we’re told that the world religions are on a par with Christianity. These religions are merely different paths to the same God and heaven. Error and heresy are forgotten words among the churches. And, as regards Christian living, nothing is considered sin anymore.
Polemics, I submit to you, is a good word, a very good word indeed! It is so because it refers to a necessary, significant aspect of the minister’s calling! This is evident from the emphasis on it in Scripture. InMatthew 24:24, Jesus speaks of false Christs and false prophets arising in the New Testament era. These shall show great signs and wonders, so great, that, if it were possible, they would deceive the very elect! False prophets plagued the church all through the Old Testament era, Balaam being the prime example. And there is the warning against false teachers in II Peter 2:1-9 and its parallel in Jude.¹
This biblical emphasis is reflected in the Formula of Subscription, the Church Order, and the Form of Ordination of Ministers used in the Protestant Reformed Churches. All of these point to the minister’s calling, not only to refute and contradict errors, but also to exert themselves in keeping the church free from such errors.
It is this aspect of the minister’s calling we wish to examine a bit tonight. Yes, we do so with brother Stewart in mind. Not because we fear he will not engage in polemics in his ministry, but to encourage him in this necessary aspect of the minister’s task. And we do so for the benefit of the churches represented here tonight! Should the churches fail in this aspect of their calling, they will gradually, but inevitably, grow weak doctrinally and spiritually, until finally they lose altogether the marks of the true church of Jesus Christ.
It is necessary for the minister to engage in polemics because of the presence of false teachers in the church. They are always present! That’s the apostle’s argument in II Peter 2. There were false prophets in the Old Testament. All through the Old Testament era there were false prophets in distinction from true prophets. Never was there a time when the Old Testament church was free from these false prophets. And, just as there were these false prophets in the Old Testament, there will be false teachers among you of the New Testament era. Peter doesn’t write, if you happen to encounter false teachers be warned. Rather he writes, these shall be among you! It’s inevitable; they will always be there.
And these are false teachers! These false teachers are not ignorantly in error. They are not to be regarded as sincere Christians who just don’t know any better. The Bible calls them “ungodly men,”² “enemies of the cross of Christ, whose god is their belly.”³ They are enemies of the faith and of God and His Christ and His Spirit of Truth and His church. The nature of these teachers is false. They oppose and deny the truth of the Word of God. They speak deliberate falsehoods. They are lying, deceitful men who aim to lead the people of God astray and thus destroy the church.
Further evidence of their false nature is the fact that they are motivated by covetousness. With feigned words they intend to make merchandise of God’s people. In plain words they are out to make money off their followers. Lots of it! And I don’t have to tell you there are many false teachers doing just that these days.
These false teachers introduce damnable heresies. Literally, they bring in “heresies of destruction,” hence they are damnable. These heresies are the very opposite of the truth. Heresies weaken the saints. Sooner or later, but inevitably, they destroy the church! The truth, on the other hand, edifies, strengthens, sanctifies the church.
The damnable heresies are legion these days. Among them are the denial of inspiration/infallibility of Scripture and, therefore, its absolute authority; the denial of the historicity of Genesis 1-11 (the passage contains myths or it can be properly understood only under a “framework hypothesis”); the denial of sovereign, double predestination; the denial of limited atonement (universalism is taught or, at the very least, it is said, that God desires that all be saved); the command, call, and particular promise of the gospel is replaced with a well-meant offer of the gospel; preaching as the chief means of grace and the essence of Reformed, biblical worship is denied. And the list could be made much longer.
The worst of it all is that these false teachers even deny the Lord that bought them! This cannot mean that at one point they were actually bought by the blood of Jesus and saved in Him, but then later became false teachers and thus fell away. What it does mean is this, that outwardly they profess to be not only children of God bought with the blood of Jesus, but pastors and teachers in the church, while in actual fact, by their damnable heresies they deny the Lord that bought them.
This is one reason, the main one, why these teachers are so terribly dangerous and wicked. It does not matter which aspect of the truth they deny, because every heresy is a denial of God and His Christ and His Holy Spirit of Truth. One cannot lay his finger on a single passage of Scripture without touching God! Deny Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, e.g., and one denies the Creator God and His Christ by whom and for whom all things were made and the Holy Spirit who inspired that sacred record of the origins of the heavens and the earth and all that is in them.These false teachers pose an extremely dangerous threat to the church on at least two counts.
Their mode of operation is secret! They “privily bring in damnable heresies.”4 This is the way they operate. They are never out in the open. If they were open and honest, their damnable heresies would be easily discerned and the false teachers could be quickly put out of the church. So they operate secretly. They mix in just enough truth to make the error sound and look like the truth! They use “feigned words.” They forge or shape their words to make them look like the truth, while in fact they are lies! They are words intended to deceive the church. Ephesians 4 says they use the “sleight of men, cunning craftiness, by which they lie in wait to deceive!” Thus they are able, as Jude puts it, “to creep into the church unawares.”
And many follow their pernicious ways. Those pernicious ways are the fruit of their heresies. Those pernicious ways are ways of unbridled lust, outrageous, shameless wantonness, lasciviousness. False teaching, make no mistake about it, always yields the fruit of ungodly practices.
The pernicious ways are legion these days: Sabbath desecration; abandoning of the proper, biblical worship of the thrice holy God; the mad pursuit of pleasures of sin and of the money needed to buy those pleasures.
But those pernicious ways are especially the flagrant forms of the transgression of the seventh Commandment of God’s Law: fornication and adultery; pornography in books, magazines, movies, and on the Internet! Is this why so many of the churches are plagued with divorce and the remarriage of divorced people these days? Indeed! That and worse! For those pernicious ways now come to expression in homosexuality and lesbianism, the most flagrant expression of the reprobate mind possible, according to Romans 1.
Many follow them! Not a few, but many, the vast majority, while the true church remains but a tiny remnant, hated, scorned, persecuted. By reason of this the way of truth is evil spoken of, blasphemed. The way of biblical truth in which the true church of Christ worships and lives is blasphemed by the false teachers and the many who follow their pernicious ways.
If you, brother Stewart, are to engage in polemics you need to know God’s truth! Which means, of course, that you need carefully and prayerfully to study the Scriptures. Scripture testifies of itself, “All Scripture is given by the inspiration of God”5 ; and “holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.”6 Because Scripture is divinely inspired, it is profitable (useful) for doctrine, reproof, correction, instruction in righteousness…. Nothing else is profitable for doctrine. Scripture, therefore, is the absolute rule for the faith and life of the Christian.
This then is your calling as a minister of the Word: “Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth!”7 “Meditate upon these things; give thyself wholly to them.”8 When you leave the seminary, it is to spend a lifetime in the prayerful, faithful study of Holy Scripture. Only when you are faithful to this calling will you be able to know the truth and refute the errors of the false teachers. This is God’s armor, the sword of the Spirit. God’s Word is our only weapon and our only defense!
Second, in your study of the Scriptures you must be guided by the confessions of the church. The Three Forms of Unity summarize and set forth systematically the doctrines of Holy Scripture as these determine the life of the Christian in his pilgrimage! They are the work of the church of the past as she was led by the Holy Spirit to a proper understanding of the truth of Scripture, and that, too, as she was forced by false teachers to examine the Scriptures and refute the errors and expound the truth. Hence, if you are going to refute the heretical teachings of the false teachers you must immerse yourself in the confessions of the churches.
Third, you must prayerfully and carefully study the writings of the theologians and fathers of the church. A faithful minister reads deeply and widely so that he knows the struggles and battles of the church of the past. He continues to read and study the great dogmaticians and expositors of the Scriptures. Without this he will be unable to refute the multitude of errors which have always been and continue to be a threat to the church of Christ.
Finally and obviously, if you are going to refute them, you must know the errors of the false teachers! The people to whom we minister must not be of the world, but they are in the world, and because they cannot escape being in the world, they need to be warned of the false doctrines that abound and the sinful life-styles which flow from those damnable heresies. So you need to read the theological journals and a variety of religious and church magazines. You need to read the contemporary theologians too. You need a good grasp of what’s going on in the world.
And, yes, hear it once more: Make preaching your priority! Preaching remains the chief means of grace. And grace is the only power that will keep you and God’s people from being led away with the error of the wicked. Even this precious truth is under severe attack in our times. Preaching has fallen on very hard times. Do not let that deter you from preaching! Be didactic in your preaching! Be doctrinal! Develop the concepts of the text or Lord’s Day and thus lay out the doctrines of the Word of God. Say nothing more or less than what the text says, and then show the congregation in the clearest of terms how those doctrines determine how they are to live before God in their homes, in the church, in the work place, in school, and in their recreation.
While you are thus laying out the truth from God’s Word, be sharply polemical in your preaching. Tell the congregation how the truth is denied. Expose and refute the errors with the Scriptures. Do so both as regards the false doctrines and as regards the life and practice. Some will no doubt be critical of this kind of preaching. Do not be surprised at this. Do not be dismayed. Continue in this polemical preaching.
Therein lies God’s blessing for His precious church! Both II Peter 2 and Jude make clear that God will not allow these false teachers to destroy His church. He will swiftly bring them into judgment and damnation! They bring upon themselves swift destruction. God is just! Both passages make this abundantly clear. God spared not the angels who sinned, but cast them down to hell. God did not spare the old world but destroyed it with a flood. God turned Sodom and Gomorrah into ashes. God will surely and swiftly bring the false teachers into judgment as well.
And God will surely save His church. II Peter 2 makes this abundantly clear as well. God saved Noah by means of the flood. God delivered Lot from Sodom. God knows how to deliver the godly out of temptations and to reserve the unjust into the day of judgment to be punished. God will surely save His church. Remember, God will do that with the means He Himself has provided.
Be then, beloved brother, a faithful minister! Preach the Word in and out of season, reprove, rebuke, exhort with all long-suffering! That’s God’s charge to you!
4.II Peter 2:1.