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      The Danger in Calling Unbelievers "Christians"
      (B.B. Warfield)

      Sunday, October 28, 2007


      Not only is it a breaking of God's 9th commandment to call people who are unrepentant unbelievers led by their own lusts "Believers in the Lord Jesus Christ and lovers of Him", but it also leads to much confusion. Here B.B. Warfield shares why, warns strongly against it, shares the consequences of letting the true meaning of words be tarnished, and the glory of affirming the true definitions of words:

      ...[Now days, unfortunately,] men who have ceased to think of the work of Christ in terms of purchasing, and to whom the whole conception of His giving His life for us as a ransom, or of His pouring out His blood as a price paid for our sins,...feel little difficulty...in still speaking of Him as our Redeemer, and of His work as a Redemption, and of the Christianity which He founded as a Redemptive Religion. The ideas connected with purchase are not so inseparably attached to these terms in their instinctive thought that the linguistic feeling is intolerably shocked by the employment of them with no implication of this set of ideas. Such an evacuation of these great words, the vehicles thus far of the fundamental Christian confession, of their whole content as such, is now actually going on about us. And the time may be looked forward to in the near future when the words "Redeemer," "redemption," and "redeem" shall have ceased altogether to convey the ideas which it has been thus far their whole function in our religious terminology to convey.

      ...You see, that what we are doing today as we look out upon our current religious modes of speech, is assisting at the death bed of a word. It is sad to witness the death of any worthy thing, even of a worthy word. And worthy words do die, like any other worthy thing--if we do not take good care of them. How many worthy words have already died under our very eyes, because we did not take care of them! Tennyson calls our attention to one of them. "The grand old name of gentleman," he sings, "defamed by every charlatan, and soil'd with all ignoble use." If you persist in calling people who are not gentlemen by the name of gentleman, you do not make them gentlemen by so calling them, but you end by making the word gentleman mean that kind of people. The religious terrain is full of the graves of good words which have died from lack of care--they stand as close in it as do the graves today in the flats of Flanders or among the hills of northern France. And these good words are still dying all around us. There is that good word "Evangelical." It is certainly moribund, if not already dead. Nobody any longer seems to know what it means. Even our Dictionaries no longer know. Certainly there never was a more blundering, floundering attempt ever made to define a word than The Standard Dictionary's attempt to define this word; and the Century's Dictionary does little better. Adolf Harnack begins one of his essays with some paragraphs animadverting on the varied and confused senses in which the word "Evangelical" is used in Germany. But he betrays no understanding whatever of the real source of a great part of this confusion. It is that the official name of the Protestant Church in a large part of Germany is "The Evangelical Church." When this name was first acquired by that church it had a perfectly defined meaning, and described the church as that kind of a church. But having been once identified with that church, it has drifted with it into the bog. The habit of calling "Evangelical" everything which was from time to time characteristic of that church or which any strong party in that church wished to make characteristic of it--has ended in robbing the term of all meaning. Along a somewhat different pathway we have arrived at the same state of affairs in America. Does anybody in the world know what "Evangelical" means, in our current religious speech?

      The other day, a professedly evangelical pastor, serving a church which is certainly committed by its formularies to an evangelical confession, having occasion to report in one of our newspapers on a religious meeting composed practically entirely of Unitarians and Jews, remarked with enthusiasm upon the deeply "evangelical" character of its spirit and utterances.

      But we need not stop with "Evangelical." Take an even greater word. Does the word "Christianity" any longer bear a definite meaning? Men are debating on all sides of us what Christianity really is. Auguste Sabatier makes it out to be just altruism; Josiah Royce identifies it with the sentiment of loyalty; D. C. Macintosh explains it as nothing but morality. We hear of Christianity without dogma, Christianity without miracle, Christianity without Christ. Since, however, Christianity is a historical religion, an undogmatic Christianity would be an absurdity; since it is through and through a supernatural religion, a non-miraculous Christianity would be a contradiction;...Christless Christianity would be--well, let us say lamely (but with a lameness which has perhaps its own emphasis), a misnomer. People who set upon calling unchristian things Christian are simply washing all meaning out of the name. If everything that is called Christianity in these days is Christianity, then there is no such thing as Christianity. A name applied indiscriminately to everything, designates nothing.

      The words "Redeem," "Redemption," "Redeemer" are going the same way. When we use these terms in so comprehensive a sense--we are following Kaftan's phraseology--that we understand by "Redemption" whatever benefit we suppose ourselves to receive through Christ,--no matter what we happen to think that benefit is--and call Him "Redeemer" merely in order to express the fact that we somehow or other relate this benefit to Him--no matter how loosely or unessentially--we have simply evacuated the terms of all meaning, and would do better to wipe them out of our vocabulary. Yet this is precisely how modern Liberalism uses these terms. Sabatier, who reduces Christianity to mere altruism, Royce who explains it in terms of loyalty, Macintosh who sees in it only morality--all still speak of it as a "Redemptive Religion," and all are perfectly willing to call Jesus still by the title of "Redeemer,"--although some of them at least are quite free to allow that He seems to them quite unessential to Christianity, and Christianity would remain all that it is, and just as truly a "Redemptive Religion," even though He had never existed.

      I think you will agree with me that it is a sad thing to see words like these die like this. And I hope you will determine that, God helping you, you will not let them die thus, if any care on your part can preserve them in life and vigor. But the dying of the words is not the saddest thing which we see here. The saddest thing is the dying out of the hearts of men of the things for which the words stand. As ministers of Christ it will be your function to keep the things alive. If you can do that, the words which express the things will take care of themselves. Either they will abide in vigor; or other good words and true will press in to take the place left vacant by them. The real thing for you to settle in your minds, therefore, is whether Christ is truly a Redeemer to you, and whether you find an actual Redemption in Him,--or are you ready to deny the Master that bought you, and to count His blood an unholy thing? Do you realize that Christ is your Ransomer and has actually shed His blood for you as your ransom? Do you realize that your salvation has been bought, bought at a tremendous price, at the price of nothing less precious than blood, and that the blood of Christ, the Holy One of God? Or, go a step further: do you realize that this Christ who has thus shed His blood for you is Himself your God? So the Scriptures teach:

      The blood of God outpoured upon the tree!

      So reads the Book. O mind, receive the thought,

      Nor helpless murmur thou hast vainly sought

      Thought-room within thee for such mystery.

      Thou foolish mindling! Do'st thou hope to see

      Undazed, untottering, all that God hath wrought?

      Before His mighty "shall," thy little "ought"

      Be shamed to silence and humility!

      Come mindling, I will show thee what 'twere meet

      That thou shouldst shrink from marvelling, and flee

      As unbelievable,--nay, wonderingly,

      With dazed, but still with faithful praises, greet:

      Draw near and listen to this sweetest sweet,--

      Thy God, O mindling, shed His blood for thee!

      - B.B. Warfield

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