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      True Definitions: One of the Believer's Greatest Allies
      (J. Gresham Machen)

      Tuesday, January 8, 2008

      Religion, it is held, is an ineffable experi-
      ence; the intellectual expression of it can be symbolical
      merely; the most various opinions in the religious
      sphere are compatible with a fundamental unity of life ;
      theology may vary and yet religion may remain the

      Obviously this temper of mind is hostile to precise
      definitions. Indeed nothing makes a man more unpop-
      ular in the controversies of the present day than an
      insistence upon definition of terms. Anything, it
      seems, may be forgiven more readily than that. Men
      discourse very eloquently today upon such subjects as
      God, religion, Christianity, atonement, redemption,
      faith; but are greatly incensed when they are asked to
      tell in simple language what they mean by these terms.
      They do not like to have the flow of their eloquence
      checked by so vulgar a thing as a definition. And so
      they will probably be incensed by the question which
      forms the title of these lectures; in the midst of elo-
      quent celebrations of faith usually faith contrasted
      with knowledge it seems disconcerting to be asked
      what faith is.

      This anti-intellectual tendency in the modern world
      is no trifling thing; it has its roots deep in the entire
      philosophical development of modern times. ... Thus the
      relinquishment of theology in the interests
      of non-doctrinal religion really involves the relinquish-
      ment of Christianity in the interests of a skepticism than
      which a more complete could scarcely be conceived. But
      another contrast has an equally baleful effect upon the
      life of the present day. It is the contrast between
      knowledge and faith; and the consideration of that con-
      trast takes us into the heart of our present subject. That
      contrast, as we shall see, ignores an essential element in
      faith; and what is called faith after the substraction of
      that element is not faith at all. As a matter of fact all
      true faith involves an intellectual element; all faith in-
      volves knowledge and issues in knowledge.

      The exhibition of that fact will form a considerable
      part of the discussion that follows. It will not, indeed,
      form all of it; since the discussion will not be merely
      polemic; but after all the only way to get a clear idea
      of what a thing is, is to place it in contrast with what
      it is not; all definition involves exclusion. We shall
      endeavor, therefore, by comparison of opposing views,
      as well as by exhibition of our own, to arrive at an
      answer to the question, "What is Faith?" If that
      question were rightly answered, the Church, we believe,
      would soon emerge from its present perplexities and
      would go forth with a new joy to the conquest of the

      There are those who shrink from a consideration of
      these great questions of principle; there are those who
      decry controversy, and believe that the Church should
      return to its former policy of politely ignoring or taking
      for granted the central things of the Christian faith.
      But with such persons I, for my part, cannot possibly
      bring myself to agree. The period of apparent har-
      mony in which the Church in America found itself
      a few years ago was, I believe, a period of the deadliest
      peril; loyalty to Church organizations was being substi-
      tuted for loyalty to Christ; Church leaders who never
      even mentioned the centre of the gospel in their preach-
      ing were in undisputed charge of the resources of the
      Church; at Jboard meetings or in the councils of the
      Church, it was considered bad form even to mention,
      at least in any definite and intelligible way, the Cross of
      Christ. A polite paganism, in other words, with reli-
      ance upon human resources, was being quietly and peace-
      fully substituted for the heroism of devotion to the

      In the face of such a condition, there were some men
      whose hearts were touched; the Lord Jesus had died for
      them upon the cross, and the least they could do, they
      thought, was to be faithful to Him; they could not
      continue to support, by their gifts and by their efforts,
      anything that was hostile to His gospel; and they were
      compelled, therefore, in the face of all opposition, to
      raise the question what it is that the Church is in the
      world to do.

      God grant that question may never be silenced until
      it is answered aright 1 Let us not fear the opposition
      of men; every great movement in the Church from Paul
      down to modern times has been criticized on the ground
      that it promoted censoriousness and intolerance and dis-
      puting. Of course the gospel of Christ, in a world of
      sin and doubt, will cause disputing; and if it does not
      cause disputing and arouse bitter opposition, that is a
      fairly sure sign that it is not being faithfully pro-
      claimed. As for me, I believe that a great opportunity
      has been opened to Christian people by the "contro-
      versy" that is so much decried. Conventions have been
      broken down; men are trying to penetrate beneath pious
      words to the thing that these words designate; it is
      becoming increasingly necessary for a man to choose
      whether he will stand with Christ or against Him. Such
      a condition, I for my part believe, has been brought
      about by the Spirit of God; already there has been gen-
      uine spiritual advance. It has been signally manifested
      at the institution which I have the honor to serve. The
      morale of our theological student body during the past
      years had been becoming rather low; there was marked
      indifference to the central things of the faith; and re-
      ligious experience was of the most superficial kind. But
      during the academic year, 1924-1925, there has been
      something like an awakening. Youth has begun to think
      for itself; the evil of compromising associations has
      been discovered; Christian heroism in the face of opposi-
      tion has come again to its rights; a new interest has been
      aroused in the historical and philosophical questions that underly the Christian religion; true and independent convictions have been formed. Controversy, in other words, has resulted in a striking intellectual and spiritual advance. Some of us discern in all this the work of the Spirit of God. And God grant that His fire be not quenched! God save us from any smoothing over of these questions in the interests of a hollow pleasantness; God grant that great questions of principle may never rest until they are settled right! It is out of such times of questioning that great revivals come. God grant that it may be so today! Controversy of the right sort is good; for out of such controversy,
      as Church history and Scripture alike teach, there
      comes the salvation of souls.

      It is with such an ultimate aim that we consider the
      question, "What is Faith?" A more "practical" ques-
      tion could hardly be conceived. The preacher says:
      "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shall be
      saved." But how can a man possibly act on that
      suggestion, unless he knows what it is to believe. It
      was at that point that the "doctrinal" preaching of a
      former generation was far more practical than the "prac-
      tical" preaching of the present day. I shall never forget
      the pastor of the church in which I grew up. He was
      a good preacher in many ways, but his most marked
      characteristic was the plainness and definiteness with
      which he told the people what a man should do to be
      saved. The preachers of the present time allude to the
      importance of becoming a Christian, but they seldom
      seem to make the matter the subject of express exposi-
      tion ; they leave the people with a vague impression to
      the effect that being a Christian is a good thing, but this
      impression is difficult to translate into action because def-
      inite directions are absent. These preachers speak about
      faith, but they do not tell what faith is.

      It is to help in some small way to supply this lack
      that the present little book has been written. If the
      way of salvation is faith, it does seem to be highly im-
      portant to tell people who want to be saved just what
      faith means. If a preacher cannot do that, he can
      hardly be a true evangelist. ...

      Such clearness, however, is, unfortunately, in many
      quarters conspicuous by its absence; there are many who
      by a sort of spiritual indolence or at least timorousness
      seek to conceal the issue both from themselves and from
      others. It is evident that they have a sentimental at-
      tachment to Jesus; it is evident that they love Him;
      why then should they try to decide whether such
      attachment is or is not what is designated by the
      New Testament and by the historic Church as "faith"?
      "Surely," men say, "it is better to let sleeping dogs
      He; surely it is better not to mar the peace of the
      Church by too careful an effort at definition of terms.
      If those who are called 'Liberals' in the Church will
      only consent to employ traditional language, if they
      will only avoid offending friend as well as foe by the
      unpardonable ecclesiastical sin of plainness of speech,
      all will be well, and the work of the Church can go
      satisfactorily on as though there were no division of
      opinion at all."

      Many are the ways in which such a policy is com-
      mended to our favor; plausible indeed are the methods
      by which Satan seeks to commend an untruth; often the
      Tempter speaks through the lips of sincere and good
      men. "Let us alone," some devout pastors say, "we
      are preaching the gospel; we are bringing men and wo-
      men into the. Church; we have no time for doctrinal
      controversy; let us above all have peace." Or else it is
      the greatness and beneficence of the work of the organ-
      ized Church which catches the imagination and inspires
      the cry of "peace and work." "Let us sink our doc-
      trinal differences," it is urged, "and go on with our
      work; let us quit defending Christianity and proceed to
      propagate it; whatever be our theological differences let
      us conquer the world for Christ."

      Plausible words these are, and uttered sometimes
      no doubt, by truly Christian men. For such men we
      have full sympathy; their eyes are closed; they have no
      inkling of the facts; they have no notion how serious is
      the issue that faces the Church. But for us, and for all
      who are aware of what is really going on, the policy of
      "peace and work," the policy of concealment and pallia-
      tion, would be the deadliest of sins. The Church is
      placed before a serious choice ; it must decide whether it
      will merely try to trust God as Jesus trusted Him, or
      whether it will continue to put its trust in Jesus Him-
      self. Upon that choice depends the question which of
      two mutually exclusive religions is to be maintained.
      One of the two is the redemptive religion known as
      Christianity; the other is a religion of optimistic confi-
      dence in human nature, which at almost every conceiv-
      able point is the reverse of Christian belief. We must
      decide which of the two we shall choose. But above
      all things let us choose with our eyes open; and when
      we have chosen let us put our whole souls into the
      propagation of what we believe. If Christ is the object
      of faith, as He is held by the New Testament to be, then
      let us proclaim Him not only in our pulpits but by all
      our activity in the Church. There is nothing more un-
      reasonable than to preach the gospel with our lips and
      then combat the gospel through the funds that we con-
      tribute to agencies and boards or through the votes that
      we cast in Church councils and courts.

      It is the encouragement of such inconsistency that
      places the most serious ethical stain upon Modernism
      in evangelical churches today. It is not a stain which
      appears merely in weaknesses and inconsistencies of in-
      dividual men for such failings we have the greatest
      possible sympathy, being keenly conscious of worse
      moral failures in ourselves than can be found in other
      men but it is a stain that is inherent in the settled
      policy of a great party in the Church. Concealment of
      the issue, the attempt to slur over a mighty change as
      though full continuity were being preserved, the double
      use of traditional language, the acceptance on false pre-
      tences of the support of old-fashioned evangelical men
      and women who have no inkling of what is really being
      done with their contributions or with their votes these
      are things that would convince us, even prior to his-
      torical or theological investigation^ that there is some-
      thing radically wrong with the Modernist movement
      of the present day. "By their fruits ye shall know
      them," said our Lord, and judged by that ethical stan-
      dard the present movement will not stand the test.
      There are, indeed, exceptions to the particular fault
      upon which we are now insisting,...
      for which we have the very highest possible respect
      but the chief outward successes of Modernism
      have been won by the wrong methods of which we
      speak. A true Reformation would be characterized by
      just what is missing in the Modernism of the present
      day; it would be characterized above all by an heroic
      honesty which for the sake of principle would push all
      consideration of consequences aside.

      - J. Gresham Machen
      (From the book What is Faith? [1925])

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