Every Thumb's Width

Eagerness vs. Necessity

As a preacher it is a regular occurrence for me to hear criticism. Actually, I am amazed that I don’t get more disapproving comments from my teaching, and am quite thankful to God that He has permitted so much positive fruit. But still there are occurrences of strong disagreement or subtle challenges to the content or approach of any given message.

Perhaps one of the most common “suggestions” that a preacher gets is to “focus on what we agree on” and stop focusing on disagreements. We are told to concentrate on things we have in common. We are advised to “stop majoring on the minors.” And certainly, at all costs, we should not negatively attack those who disagree.

But consider Jude’s response to such ideas (verse 3):

Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.

The word “contend” may be defined as “to struggle on behalf of,” “to fight for,” “to exert intense effort on behalf of.” It is the conscious application of one’s powers for the achievement of a goal.

And in this case, the goal, the reason, the aim of our struggle is “the faith.” We fight for God’s revelation. We contend for God’s doctrine. We struggle to protect God’s message. The church is “the pillar and support of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15), and without the truth–we cannot be free (John 8:32).

Consider the following thoughts from J. Gresham Machen, a New Testament scholar who taught at Princeton Seminary and who founded Westminster Theological Seminary. He wrote the following on June 17, 1932 in London:

“Men tell us that our preaching should be positive and not negative, that we can preach the truth without attacking error. But if we follow that advice we shall have to close our Bible and desert its teachings. The New Testament is a polemic book almost from beginning to end.”

He illustrated his point with this story:

“Some years ago I was in a company of teachers of the Bible in the colleges and other educational institutions of America. One of the most eminent theological professors in the country made an address. In it he admitted that there are unfortunate controversies about doctrine in the Epistles of Paul; but, said he in effect, the real essence of Paul’s teaching is found in the hymn to Christian love in the thirteenth chapter or I Corinthians; and we can avoid controversy today, if we will only devote the chief attention to that inspiring hymn.”

Machen continued,

“In reply, I am bound to say that the example was singularly ill-chosen. That hymn to Christian love is in the midst of a great polemic passage; it would never have been written if Paul had been opposed to controversy with error in the Church. It was because his soul was stirred within him by a wrong use of the spiritual gifts that he was able to write that glorious hymn. So it is always in the Church. Every really great Christian utterance, it may almost be said, is born in controversy. It is when men have felt compelled to take a stand against error that they have risen to the really great heights in the celebration of truth.”

(J. Gresham Machen, “Christian Scholarship and the Defense of the New Testament,” in What is Christianity, 132-133)

I must admit, I am very eager to talk about our common salvation. I would love the harmony and sweet fellowship of dialogue with those who hold fast the faithful word (1 Corinthians 15:2). But however enthusiastic I may be to be “agreeable,” it is sometimes necessary to point out on what we disagree. A true shepherd will identify wrong teaching and teachers (Titus 1:9), and guard the flock from savage wolves (Acts 20:28-30). We are promised that “in the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions. It is these who cause divisions” (Jude 18-19).

So remember, whether we enjoy controversy or disagreements over truth or not, it is our responsibility to fight for the faith. It is necessary!