What to Do When Truth and Unity Collide
I hate disunity. There is nothing more soul killing than being at odds with the very people with whom I ought to have the most profound unity. I hate it. That’s probably why Ephesians 2 is one of my favorite chapters of the Bible.[AM1] Christ himself has made peace through the blood of the cross. He is himself our peace “and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility” (2:14). He has created the church to be one—not dozens or hundreds—his one body reconciled through his blood shed for his church on the cross (2:15–16).
As much as we long for unity, however, Satan is hell-bent on destroying that unity. He does this by disturbing the gospel, by insinuating corruptions into the message. This is the entire history of the church in a nutshell: one [AM2]challenge to the gospel after another.
By Heresies Oppressed
In 1866, one stalwart Anglican vicar, Samuel Stone, ministering in the baddest part of town in London, planted his flag for the church’s unity on the authority of the Bible. John Colenso, an Anglican bishop in Africa, had begun teaching that the Bible contained truth but was not the infallible, inerrant, God-breathed revelation of the redemptive purpose of God in Christ. This was too much for gospel-loving Stone.
Though he was an unimportant, nobody vicar, serving in an unprestigious part of London, he did what he could. He wrote a hymn, “The Church’s One Foundation.” Stone knew his Bible and he knew when and where to plant his flag. He knew that when men tamper with the meaning of the Bible, they will soon enough be tampering with its central figure, Jesus Christ. Stone knew that without Jesus there could be no salvation for sinners in his flock—and he cared deeply about his flock.
The story is told that Stone came upon several young toughs trying to hurt a little girl in his congregation.[AM3] Stone, who had been a championship athlete in his university days, rolled up the sleeves of his clerical robe and punched the stuffing out of the boys. In another fashion, Stone rolled up his poetic sleeves and wrote a hymn to inflict blows on the Enemy of the gospel and his minions. But the hymn is not finally controversy centered; it is a glorious celebration of the unity of the invisible church: “Elect from every nation, yet one o’er all the earth.” By the enemies of the gospel the beleaguered church he so much loved was “sore oppressed, by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed.” Not only did Stone know there was a serious problem, he knew the solution, “Yet saints their watch are keeping.”
Pastors equipping their flocks to keep watch, to be vigilant in the pew, to search the Scripture as they listen is the only solution. Knowledge of the Bible’s message as codified in confessions of faith is the great bulwark protecting the unity of what the church believes and preaches.
The Justifiable Slap
There truly is a war on, and the church must never lay down its arms when the gospel is under attack. The Enemy does not want us to realize that it’s a counterfeit of unity that gives the Enemy a place at the table. This side of the church’s heavenly rest, enemies of the gospel will [AM4]insist on a place at the table, all in the name of unity, but it’s a cheap charade of unity. Where there is a discrepancy between the visible unity of the church and the truth of the gospel, the church must always find its unity, not around the name of a denomination or an individual minister, but around the pure doctrine of the gospel.
Though there are sad examples of churches splitting over paint colors, many of the church’s divisions down through the centuries have been the result of faithful pastors and theologians holding the gospel line against the encroaching error of the enemies of the gospel. It is in the heat of these controversies that the church’s greatest creeds and confessions have been forged. Without men standing for the unity of the truth, rolling up their sleeves and entering the fray of controversy, there would be no pure gospel message left.
One particular gospel-destroying challenge to the church’s unity was confronted by the Council of Nicaea in the fourth century. This disturber of unity wasn’t [AM5]the color of the carpet. Ministers were denying the deity of Christ.
According to tradition (or legend), St. Nicholas got worked up listening to Arius blaspheme Jesus, saying that Christ is not the Son of God, the only Savior of sinners. Fed up with the blasphemy, St. Nicholas rose to his feet and slapped Arius across the mouth.
Indiscreet as that may have been, out of the heat and blows of that conflict came the glorious credo, the Nicene Creed: “I believe . . . in one Lord Jesus Christ . . . God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.” Where would the church be without this confession? Where would the unity of the gospel be without this glorious truth?
Why does this matter? For Reformer Ulrich Zwingli it mattered because there is no salvation outside the atoning sacrifice and imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ. “Who seeks or points out another door errs,” wrote Zwingli, “yes, he is a murderer of souls and a thief.” Put it like that, and a slap on the mouth doesn’t sound so out of place after all.
Unity of Truth
Historically, men who champion the drift away from the confession are often the same ones who are quick to declare all who disagree with them as schismatics disturbing the unity of the church. But doesn’t it seem more logical that the divisive ones are those who want their individual interpretations, their pages of criticisms of the confession, to become the new articles of faith?
Loyalty to an individual (1 Cor. 1:12–13), to a celebrity preacher or a particularly learned one, may prove to be more of a setup for unity faking than for real oneness. Like artificial additives in your favorite meal, artificial unity is never good for the genuine unity of the body. Loyalty to an individual, sooner or later, erodes the church’s larger unity around the pure doctrine of the gospel summarized in a confession of faith.
Some will always become [AM6]enamored with new ideas, with new discoveries that lead to new ways of reading books of the Bible, with reconciling the Bible with science or modern psychology, and then they will set to work recasting the confession of faith in the image of the latest discoveries. The [AM7]Enemy wants this to flourish, so he will help to shape the argument in ways conducive to his object of corrupting and disturbing gospel unity. With careful handling from behind the scenes, the argument will proceed with the enticing wording [AM8]of preferring a biblical theology to a systematic theology.[AM9]
A convincing-sounding assertion. Who doesn’t want to come down on the side of biblical theology? Though it seems to be an effective construction for taking the high ground in the discussion, there’s a nagging problem. Men who use this argument are more than hinting that they no longer think biblical and confessional theology agree. Bear-baiting the confession and the Bible may be evidence that a minister no longer really believes the system of theology he once vowed he believed.
Here’s how this may sound. In one minister’s preaching, the doctrine of imputed righteousness was so increasingly absent that an elder finally asked him if he still believed the doctrine. “Well, imputation is not a biblical term,” he replied. “I want a biblical theology, not a systematic one.”[AM10] Presumably many ministers who might make this kind of argument will, nevertheless, still believe in and use the word Trinity, which is also not a biblical term but one used in systematic theology. Wouldn’t it make sense to go all the way and stop using the word Trinity? The selective application of this argument may reveal that, at the end of the day, what is at issue is not simply a preference for biblical language over confessional. Rhetoric can work well as a smokescreen. [AM11][DB12]
The gospel has been handed down to us in words, words that have been carefully defined and codified in our confessions of faith. When the plain meaning of those words gets toyed with, there’s probably a reason. Saints keeping watch will sit up and listen when they hear this kind of doublespeak. Judging from the Enemy’s schemes, the gospel is likely in the crosshairs. Hence, it is only “by being vigilant in our confession, [that] we can protect the church’s unity.”
A Stream with No Banks
One ruinous counterfeit being substituted for the pure doctrine of the gospel and eroding unity may sound particularly appealing to families with kids. “Covenant faithfulness is the way to salvation, for the ‘doers of the law will be justified’ at the final judgment.”[AM13] As with all error, there is a miniscule kernel of truth here (a stopped clock is right twice a day). However appealing it may sound, point to our covenant faithfulness rather than to the steadfast faithfulness of the Savior, and all that remains is a counterfeit of the gospel. An attempt to swallow this kernel will [AM14]demand a theological Heimlich maneuver to prevent death by choking.
Ministers who say these things to their congregations hasten to tack on that this faithfulness is all done in union with Christ. Then they hasten back to what seems to have become the main thing. I’m inclined to think that when we hear confusing messages like this, we’ve just heard the fine print. However vigorous the large-print affirmations of orthodoxy are, as with politicians and journalists, [AM15]it’s the fine print that reveals what someone really believes.
Although a message of salvation by covenant faithfulness erodes grace[AM16], advocates of this latest version of law-creep insist that their teaching is in the broad stream of the reformational confession of faith to which they still claim to ascribe. But to say that the way to salvation is by any degree of law-keeping faithfulness is nothing short of a reinvention of justification in the bland image of works righteousness—Rome without the bells and smells. If the banks of the confessional stream were this wide, we’d be looking at another worldwide flood, a confession with no boundaries at all.
Though I may be accused of being too meat-headed to grasp the intricate theological nuances, there’s one nuance I do understand: what a message like this produces in the flock. It will nudge hearers back into the default mode of looking to their “covenant faithfulness,” to their performance, to their obedience for their acceptance before God. Any teaching that does this will inevitably diminish in our minds and hearts the glories of the finished work of Christ in our place and will proportionately lessen our love and gratitude to Jesus for all that he has fully accomplished for us.
Favorite Sound Bites
Men who teach that “covenant faithfulness is the way to salvation” may also be ones who scour the literature of church history to unearth sound bites that appear to support their shifting ideas. Lifted out of context, these will then be used in an effort to normalize their aberrant views. For example, they may prefer to cite, and attribute to Augustine, the oft-quoted line, “Pray like everything depends on God. Work like everything depends on you.” These kinds of historical sound bites pair nicely with isolated Bible sound bites such as “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). And the hands are dusted and the discussion is over, as if the Bible and Augustine need no context and have nothing more to say on the topic.
Meanwhile, others attribute to Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits and mastermind of a movement designed to stamp out Reformation Christianity, the curiously similar admonition, “Use human means as though divine ones didn’t exist, and divine means as though there were no human ones.” Good luck trying to find the original source on either of these, but in your search you will discover, as I did, that these variously attributed lines are also favorites among some Mormons, even some Muslims—strange theological bedfellows, indeed.
I’m bewildered and saddened by ministers whose favorite quotations—whether from the Bible or church history—seem calculated to invite confusion about justification as a one-time act of God. The flock is in grave danger when its ministers discover a man-centered sounding nugget and then use it as authority to normalize their theological shift and to convince their flocks that their adjustments ought to be accepted as new articles of faith—grave danger, indeed.
How much worse when men misuse Scriptural proof texts to cast doubt on the freeness of gospel grace. Shakespeare must have observed this strategy among some of the clergy in his day:[AM17]
What damned error but some sober brow
Will bless it and approve it with a text[?]
What’s more, the Bard knew that even
The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.
An evil soul producing holy witness
Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,
A goodly apple rotten at the heart.
O what a goodly outside falsehood hath.
Making large-print affirmations of doctrinal orthodoxy will always sound goodly on the outside; that’s what they’re meant to do. But what a preacher believes is always in the fine print, and we can be sure the fine print will always be backed up with a proof text.
Blessing confessional errors with proof texts never promotes the doctrinal unity of the church. Rather, these deviations and methods create a “perpetual guerrilla warfare within the church,” waged to lend credibility to the latest confessional departure.
Unity about Forgiveness
An example of a corruption of the gospel insinuating itself into conservative Christianity that I referenced earlier is such a torpedo to the gospel that it requires further consideration here. “Justification—whatever else it is—is the forgiveness of sins. It is perfectly obvious that there is such a thing as temporary forgiveness because the Bible says there is. . . . Temporary forgiveness is a biblical datum.” [AM18]It takes little imagination to hear ministers in post-Reformation Amsterdam or Geneva saying similar things about justification.
However confidently asserted, this twenty-first-century minister’s statement that the Bible teaches temporary forgiveness is not shared by a single reformational confession of faith. I doubt Luther would have thought a doctrine of temporary forgiveness was anything like entering the gates of paradise, as he referred to his conversion. Imagine Luther’s glee at the discovery: “At last, I get it. Whatever else justification is, it is forgiveness, but only temporary forgiveness. O the joy! My burden is lifted—sort of, at least for the moment.” Temporary forgiveness would be more like having your head smashed in the gates of paradise as they clanged shut.
Or imagine a hymn of praise to God about temporary forgiveness. The cry of the five bleeding wounds of the Savior in Charles Wesley’s hymn would [AM19]sound more like this: “‘Sort of forgive,’ they cry, ‘sort of forgive,’ they cry; ‘Maybe not let that sort of ransomed sinner die.’” I can’t imagine a doctrine of temporary forgiveness warming anyone’s heart to praise.
Not only does it make for ridiculously bad hymn poetry, such a declaration is devastating to the central doctrine of justification by faith alone; if justification is about forgiveness of sins and the Bible teaches that you can be justified and have forgiveness of sins—and then lose or forfeit it—the entire structure of reformational theology crumbles.
It is precisely here that the confessional standards help Christians in every generation to continue to believe what the Bible teaches and what the wisdom of our theological forebears taught and believed about the gospel. In the Westminster Confession of Faith there is zero room for temporary forgiveness, a justification that can be had and then forfeited. “God did, from all eternity, decree to justify the elect, and Christ did, in the fullness of time, die for their sins and rise again for their justification. . . . God doth continue to forgive the sins of those that are justified”[AM20] (WCF 11.4–5, emphasis mine).
All the persuasive rhetoric to the contrary, what is a confessional datum on the irrevocability of forgiveness is so because it is a biblical datum: [AM21]“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). The entire gospel depends on the faithfulness of God to do what he promised. It is the character of God himself that is at stake. God is unchangeable and so are his gifts. If forgiveness is changeable, then God himself is changeable. The central doctrine of justification is about something the immutable God has ordained and already accomplished, as Puritan Stephen Charnock so richly elucidates:
What comfort would it be to pray to a God that, like the chameleon, changed colors every day, every moment? The immutability of God is a strong ground of consolation, and encourages hope and confidence. While we have Him for our God, we have His immutability, as well as any other perfection of His nature. Let us also desire those things which are nearest to Him in this perfection: the righteousness of Christ that shall never wear out; and the grace of the Spirit, that shall never burn out.
The ground of all comfort and confidence for sinners is that the immutable God justifies sinners based on the righteousness of his Son. He forgives my sins based on zero fitness in me, and he continues to forgive them based on zero fitness in me. He freely justifies sinners, as the Westminster divines put it, “for Christ’s sake alone. . . . Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and His righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification” (WCF 11.1–2). The apostle Paul declares without equivocation that “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Rom. 11:29). Whatever else that means, it clearly has to mean that the justifying gift of forgiveness of sins is irrevocable too. In fact, “God does continue to forgive the sins of those that are justified.”
I, for one, am counting precisely on this fact: the permanence and irrevocability of the forgiveness of my sins in the good news of Jesus Christ. Tamper with forgiveness and all that remains is abysmally bad news.
Confessing Our Unity
Whether from the various faces of law-creep or from the enervating error of temporary forgiveness, “by being vigilant in our confession of faith we can protect the unity that the Spirit has given us.”