The Christian Faith in the Modern World

Topic: Revelation Type: Book Author: J. Gresham Machen 

Chapter 7


If the Bible is really the Word of God, as we have said it is, the question arises what it actually means in our lives to take the Bible in that way.

I want to talk to you for a little while about that question now.

The answer to the question ought not to be so very difficult, however difficult some of the implications of the answer may turn out to be. If we take the Bible as the Word of God, then the Bible becomes our standard of truth and of life. When we are asked whether we can support any kind of message or can engage in any course of conduct, what we do is simply to compare that message or that course of conduct with the Bible. If it agrees with the Bible, we can support it or follow it; if it does not agree with the Bible, we cannot support it or follow it no matter what we may be told by other authorities to do.

I really think it is very important that that should be perfectly clear. We are living at a time when a very serious difference of opinion has appeared in the Church. The first question in dealing with any difference of opinion is the question what standard of judgment is to be applied to the question at issue. Unless people can agree about that preliminary question it is not likely that they will agree about anything else.

Suppose I have an engagement with a business man in Philadelphia in the summer time. The engagement is for eleven o’clock. I come in from the country and appear at the office promptly at eleven. But when I get there, I find the man with whom I have the engagement considerably perturbed. "What do you mean," he says, "by keeping me and these other gentlemen waiting in this way? The engagement was for eleven o’clock, and it is now exactly twelve. You are exactly an hour late." I then reply in kind. "You surprise me," I say; "in fact I should really hesitate to characterize the impropriety of your words. My watch says exactly eleven o’clock, and I would back my watch against any cheap office clock in the whole city of Philadelphia." Then, after we have disputed about the matter vigorously for a good while, I discover that Philadelphia is on daylight saving time. You see, we could not come to any agreement because we were applying different standards to the question under dispute.

It is somewhat that way with the difference of opinion in the Church. There, too, the disputing parties cannot come to an agreement because they are operating with different standards. In one very important particular, however, our illustration of daylight saving time and standard time does not apply to the situation in the Church. In the case of my imaginary dispute with that business man, both parties to the dispute could be right, because it did not make any particular difference which of the two standards should be applied. It did not make any very great difference whether we should go on daylight saving time or on standard time, just so we were both of us perfectly clear as to which was being used. But in the case of the situation in the Church both parties to the dispute are laying claim to the same thing–namely, truth. Therefore, they cannot both be right. In this case, the standard that is sought is not just some arbitrary method of dividing up the day, but it is a standard of truth, and truth is not relative but absolute.

However, the illustration does at least show that if two parties to any dispute are to understand each other—to say nothing of coming to an agreement—the first question they must discuss is the question what standard is to be used. Certainly that principle applies in fullest measure to the difference of opinion in the Church. Here we find perfectly earnest and sincere people differing from each other in the sharpest possible way. What one holds to be true the other holds to be false; what one holds to be wise and beneficent the other holds to be destructive. Discussion between the contending parties sometimes seems only to make matters worse; it sometimes seems only to lead to greater irritation and greater confusion. The reason for this unfortunate state of affairs—at least one important reason for it—is perfectly plain. It is found in the fact that the contending parties do not see clearly that the real ground of their difference of opinion is that they have totally different standards of truth and of life.

I have already said what our standard is. It is the Bible. When we are deciding whether we can support any propaganda or engage in any course of conduct, we simply ask whether that propaganda or that course of conduct agrees with the Bible.

I think I can best explain what it means to take the Bible thus as one’s standard of truth and of life if I set this standard over against some of the other standards that are being proposed today.

Many persons, for example, are taking human experience as their standard. They are saying that they will adhere to that kind of religion which works the best, which shows itself to be the best in actual practice.

I remember that some years ago I preached a baccalaureate sermon at a college. When I got through, a member of the graduating class asked me what I thought of a certain religious movement, which it is entirely aside from our present point for me to name. I intimated that I could not support it. In reply he told me that he for his part thought it was the most "vital" thing in the religious world today. That young man and I did not get very far in our discussion because we were applying different standards. He was applying the standard of experience; I was applying the standard of the Bible.

That young man favored the religious movement that we were discussing because it was "vital." Well, in one sense noxious weeds in a garden are vital. They often grow up more rapidly than the flowers. But the careful gardener is inclined to pull them up. So also we refuse to make mere rapidity of growth or enthusiasm of adherents the criterion by which any religious movement shall be judged. Instead, we test every movement by the Bible. If it agrees with the Bible, we approve it; if it disagrees with the Bible we oppose it, no matter what external successes it may attain and no matter even what apparent graces it may seem to our superficial human judgment to induce here and there in its adherents. Those apparent graces, we are sure, will, if the movement is contrary to the Bible, never stand the test to which they will be subjected at the judgment seat of God. God does not contradict His own Word.

That same use of experience as the standard of truth and of life underlies what I believe has been called somewhere "the great inquiry racket." There has arisen in recent years a perfect craze for questionnaires on the subject of religion, "open forums," and "inquiries" of various kinds. The thing has become one of the major nuisances of the day. When one contemplates the unscientific character of many of these enterprises and their begging of the real underlying questions, one is tempted to dismiss them as being unworthy of consideration. Many of them are not really inquiries at all, but are merely agencies carrying on propaganda through the particular device of question begging questionnaires. The people who conduct them are of course honest. They are trying to get at the truth: but, the trouble is, they are so completely out of sympathy with the Christian religion that when they formulate their questionnaires they do not know how even to give a Christian man the opportunity of casting his vote or of giving expression to his convictions.

But absurdly unscientific and question begging though many of these inquiries and questionnaires are, a serious purpose, even though it be a mistaken purpose, does, I think, underlie them. The purpose underlying them is, I think, that through an examination of various types of religion we may arrive, by a process of comparison and elimination, at that type of religion which is best adapted to the age in which we are living and which therefore is the type of religion which it is thought we ought to adopt. Those who engage in these inquiries and questionnaires, or at any rate many of those who engage in them, are making human experience the standard of truth and of life.

That standard is quite different from the standard to which we hold. These persons are advocating a "managed currency" in religion, whereas we are on the gold standard. Our standard is not a flexible standard. Far from holding that what is true today becomes false tomorrow according to the shifting needs of human life, we find our standard both of truth and of conduct in the Bible, which we hold to be not a product of human experience but the Word of God.

So we reject the first alternative view that we are considering in the present little talk. We reject experience as our standard.

In the second place, we reject, as our standard, what is wrongly called "the teaching of Jesus" or "the teaching of Christ." At that point I am particularly anxious not to be misunderstood. I certainly hold that the real teaching of Jesus is all completely true. I hold that everything that Jesus said in the sphere of fact is true and that His commands are all completely valid. But my point is that those who make the teaching of Jesus their authority, as distinguished from the Bible, are not really holding to the teaching of Jesus at all. We have seen how clearly Jesus testified to the authority of the Bible. How then, if you reject the authority of the Bible, can you possibly claim to be true to Jesus’ teaching?

What is the underlying notion of those who make what they call the teaching of Jesus their authority, instead of the Bible? I am afraid that question is not hard to answer. It is the notion that Jesus was primarily a teacher, that we honor Him because by His word and by His example He taught us how to practice the same type of religion as that which He practiced. Jesus, according to this way of thinking, was the founder of Christianity because He was the first Christian. Other men honor Buddha or Confucius as the great teacher and example; we, say the men of this way of thinking, are Christians because we take Jesus, as distinguished from Buddha or Confucius, as our teacher and example.

That notion is of course radically contrary to the Bible, but it is also radically contrary to the real Jesus’ own teaching. Jesus, according to the Bible and according to His own teaching, came, as has well been observed, not primarily to say something, but to do something. He came not just to teach us true general principles of religion and ethics, but to redeem us from sin by His death upon the cross.

His teaching is indeed very precious. How wonderfully precious it is, my friends! But its preciousness is altogether lost when it is separated from the rest of the Bible. We miss the very heart and core and substance of it if we take it out of its organic connection with that grand sweep of supernatural revelation that runs through the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, and if we separate it from that mighty saving work which culminated in the Cross and resurrection of Christ.

Thus we reject this notion that the teaching of Jesus as distinguished from the Bible is the seat of authority. It is profoundly dishonoring to the teaching of Jesus itself. It degrades Jesus to the level of a mere religious teacher, the founder of one of the world’s religions.

I am inclined to think that most of those who begin by saying that the teaching of Jesus is their authority are, if they reflect about the matter, obliged to modify their position. Jesus obviously said many things which they do not regard as true. But if Jesus said many things that are untrue, how can His teaching be authoritative?

Well, a great many of these men respond, with more or less clearness, that it is not the teaching of Jesus as such—or, as they would put it, not the "letter" of His teaching—but the underlying "spirit" of His teaching which they regard as authoritative.

That brings us to the third of the alternatives to the authority of the Bible which we are now passing under review. It is the alternative of those who say that their authority is "the spirit of Jesus."

Of course when they use the phrase "the spirit of Jesus," they do not mean at all what the Bible means by it. The Bible means by it the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the blessed Trinity. They, on the other hand, spell the word "spirit" with a small letter, not with a capital, and they mean by "the spirit of Jesus" simply the inner temper or quality of Jesus’ life. We are Christians, according to the advocates of this view, not because of any particular thing that Jesus did over nineteen hundred years ago, not even because we obey any particular commands that He uttered, but because we have caught the inner spirit or temper of His life. The spirit of His life has been handed down from generation to generation. It is a kind of contagion. One who has caught that spirit passes it on to another. To catch that spirit a man does not need to have any particular view about Jesus; indeed he does not even need to know that Jesus ever lived: all that he needs to do is to take into his life the peculiar spirit of Jesus’ life no matter how it is mediated to him, no matter from what particular Christian he receives it, no matter whether he knows that it is the spirit of Jesus or has ever heard of Jesus at all. So, we are told in accordance with this view, that if a missionary is not permitted to proclaim Christ by his words he may at least proclaim Him by his life; he may be a true missionary merely by "living Christ" as distinguished from preaching Christ; those who come into contact with him can catch from him "the spirit of Jesus" or "the spirit of Christ" even if he is not allowed to tell them anything about the Cross of Christ or about the God in whom Jesus believed. And if people, through such missionaries, have caught the spirit of Jesus, what more could possibly be desired?

Such, carried to its logical conclusion, is the view which makes "the spirit of Jesus," in distinction from the Bible, the test of truth and of life.

What is wrong with it from the Christian point of view? Many things, no doubt. But at the heart of what is wrong with it is this—that ignores the fact of sin. All that we need, say the advocates of it, is to catch the spirit of Jesus. If we catch the spirit of Jesus, we can live the life that Jesus lived and then all will be well. Very different is what the real Christian says. The real Christian knows that unlike Jesus he is of himself under the guilt and power of sin, subject to the just wrath of God, unable to do any good, without hope save as Jesus has redeemed him by His precious blood. Can we catch the spirit of Jesus in the manner that is so glibly regarded as possible by those who have never been convicted of sin? Ah, no. We know only too well that we were dead in trespasses and sins, and that only as we have been made alive by the mysterious act of the Spirit of God can we even begin to be true followers of the holy Jesus.

These two things are poles apart. I do nor think that there can be any clearness in our thinking so long as we confuse the one of them with the other. The man who thinks that all we need is to catch the spirit of Jesus and that we can catch that spirit without knowing what Jesus did for us on the cross and without the supernatural act of the Spirit of God in the new birth—that man takes Jesus as just a teacher and example. A Christian man, on the other hand, takes Jesus primarily as a Savior. Where is He presented to us as our Savior? The answer is, "In the whole Bible"; and that is the reason why the Bible is to us such a very precious book.

I have not time to speak at any length of other things which are being proposed as substitutes for the authority of the Bible. But before I leave you I do want to say just a word or two about one of these. It is the view that takes as the test of truth and of life the pronouncements and regulations of the Church.

Those who hold to this view as to the seat of authority do not usually deny the authority of the Bible in so many words. What they do is to say—by implication if not in words—that the Bible is interpreted authoritatively by the "living Church." "When a man becomes a minister or a member of a Church," they say in effect, "it is his duty to support the program of that church. He may think that it is contrary to the Bible; but never mind, it is not his business in this particular matter to think; he must submit his judgment to the judgment of the councils of his church; he must let them interpret the Bible for him and must make the message that he supports conform to their shifting votes."

In sharp distinction from that view, we make the Bible, and the Bible only the test of truth and of life. There is no living authority to interpret the Bible for us. We must read it every one for himself, and must ask God to help us as we read. A church that commands us to support any program on the authority of the decisions of the Church is usurping in the interests of fallible men an authority that belongs only to God.

But is it not a dangerous thing to reject other authorities in this fashion and submit ourselves unreservedly to the authority of this one Book? Yes, it is a very dangerous thing. It puts us sharply in conflict with the whole current of the age. But if it is a dangerous thing it is also a very blessed thing. It is a very blessed thing to hear the Word of the living God.

It is also a very blessed thing to proclaim that Word to others. Every Christian has the duty and the inestimable privilege of proclaiming it to others. But that duty and that privilege belong particularly to ministers.

What do you ministers do—if any of you are attending to me now—when you enter into your pulpits on Sunday mornings? Do you tell the people about your religious experiences; do you give them the benefit of your expert advice; do you express to them your views on the great questions of the day; do you make yourselves the promotion agents of some human organization? If these things are what you do, you may have very rich rewards, but there is one thing that you will miss. You may be great orators, but never will you be ministers of Jesus Christ. You may proclaim man’s word with marvelous eloquence, but never can you proclaim the Word of God.

Oh, may God send us ministers of another kind! God grant that you, my brothers, may be ministers of another kind! May God send us ministers who come forth into their pulpits from a secret place of meditation and prayer, who are servants of Christ and not servants of men, who be they ever so humble are ambassadors of the King, who, as they stand behind the open Bible and expound its blessed words, can truly and honestly say, with Micaiah the son of Imlah: As the Lord lives, what the Lord says unto me, that will I speak [1KI 22:14].

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This Page Last Updated: 12/07/98 A. Allison Lewis