Sermon preached on May 15, 2011 by Laurence W. Veinott. © Copyright 2011. All rights reserved. Other sermons can be found at http://www.cantonnewlife.org/.
Unless otherwise noted, quotations are from The Holy Bible: New International Version (NIV). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House.
J. Gresham Machen was one of the men who was instrumental in the formation of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He was a great New Testament scholar who taught first at Princeton Theological Seminary and then later at Westminster Theological Seminary. In his students days (in the early 1900's) he went to Marburg, Germany to study theology. One of his professors there was a man named Wilhelm Herrmann. Machen wrote about him in letters to his family. In a letter to his mother on October 24, 1905, he said of Herrmann, (J. Gresham Machen, by Ned B. Stonehouse, p. 106-107)
"Such an overpowering personality I think I almost never before encountered—overpowering in the sincerity of religious devotion."
A later letter to his father had these words about Herrmann,
"He speaks right to the heart; and I have been thrown into confusion by what he says—so much deeper is his devotion to Christ than anything I have known myself during the past few years. I don't know what to say at all as yet, for Herrmann's views are so revolutionary. But I am certain that he has found Christ; and I believe that he can show how others can find him—though, perhaps afterwards, in details, he may not be a safe guide."
Machen then wrote to his brother, Arly and said of Herrmann,
"I hope I may leave his classroom better morally and in every way than when I entered it. Herrmann affirms very little of that which I have been accustomed to regard as essential to Christianity; yet there is no doubt in my mind but that he is a Christian, and a Christian of a peculiarly earnest type. He is a Christian not because he follows Christ as a moral teacher; but because his trust in Christ is… unbounded. It is inspiring to see a man so completely centered in Christ…"
Who was this Herrmann? He was a Liberal theologian. He didn't believe great parts of the Bible. For Hermann, doctrine was a hindrance to the church's mission. He wasn't even certain that Jesus ever lived on earth—he thought it was probable, but that essentially that didn't matter. He didn't believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus as we do. According to Herrmann, that's not how Jesus saved us. He saw Jesus essentially as exemplary man—a great example to us.
Herrmann wasn't a Christian at all. Machen later came to see this and he wrote a book called, "Christianity and Liberalism" in which he exposed the emptiness and error of liberal theology. Herrmann had his doctrine wrong and that put him outside Christianity.
How important biblical doctrine is.
In 1 Timothy 4:16 the apostle Paul said to Timothy,
"Watch your life and doctrine closely.
Persevere in them, because if you do,
you will save both yourself and your hearers."
Now I don't want to say that doctrine is everything. It's not. We're going to see that in our next study as Jesus criticized the church at Ephesus for neglecting their first love. But because true faith has an object, Jesus Christ, and because faith is in Jesus—as He has been revealed in Scripture—correct doctrine is indispensable. There is an intellectual element in faith that is absolutely essential to faith. In John 20:31 John said about his account of Jesus actions,
"these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ,
the Son of God, and that by believing
you may have life in his name."
Faith has as its basis certain historical facts about Jesus. If someone gets enough doctrine wrong, or certain doctrines wrong, there is a point where it is clear that he is not a Christian. For example, in 1 John 4:2–3 the apostle John wrote,
"This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God:
Every spirit that acknowledges
that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God,
but every spirit that does not acknowledge
Jesus is not from God.
This is the spirit of the antichrist,
which you have heard is coming
and even now is already in the world."
So if someone denies the incarnation, he's not within the confines of Christianity. He's very clearly outside. He's not for Christ, he's against Christ. And that's true no matter how much he affirms his devotion to Jesus.
In Romans 10 the apostle Paul gives us two other essential elements of Christianity. He wrote, (Romans 10:9)
"if you confess with your mouth,
'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart
that God raised him from the dead,
you will be saved."
The implication is that if you deny those things, you will not be saved, you are not within the confines of Christianity. If you get certain doctrines wrong, you lose everything, you lose Christianity.
So doctrine is very important. We must be very concerned about getting in right. In our text we see that Jesus commended the church at Ephesus because they held on to the truth of the gospel. Jesus said to the church, (Revelation 2:2)
"I know… that you have tested those who claim
to be apostles but are not, and have found them false."
What this means for you is that
you are to be very concerned about correct doctrine.
The world today tells us that biblical doctrine is not important at all. In fact, it insists that you must not base your doctrine on the Bible, that the Bible is definitely not the Word of God. They will tell you that if you base your doctrine on the Bible you'll end up being narrow, judgmental, immoral and, at the end of it all, you'll end up being filled with hatred.
They'll tell you that the Bible is simply outdated, that much of it's teaching on morality, on marriage, on sexuality, on women's roles is wrong. It'll tell you that those teachings came from primitive societies and that it would be absolutely wrong for you to base your life choices on it. Some even go further and will tell you that if someone like me teaches biblical doctrine—that they're being immoral and, in some cases, guilty of fostering an attitude of hate.
You also have some who will tell you that biblical doctrine is opposed to the Spirit of God. They'll tell you that you shouldn't trust the Bible but we should be open to the leading of the Spirit. The Spirit will guide us and tell us what to do and what to believe, that you need to depend on our own feelings, your instincts, your intelligence, and the collective wisdom of our society to decide how to live your life.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The church at Ephesus tested those who claimed to be apostles and found them to be false. Jesus was pleased with them for doing that. The church at Ephesus evaluated the teaching of those who claimed to be apostles and compared it to God's revealed will, and found that their teaching was false.
They did what the Holy Spirit told us to do. In 1 John 4:1 the apostle John wrote,
"Dear friends, do not believe every spirit,
but test the spirits to see
whether they are from God,
because many false prophets
have gone out into the world."
Jesus doesn't elaborate on how the Ephesians tested the false apostles but it's clear from the context that they tested these false apostles by the doctrine they had received from the original apostles. For example, in the letter to the church in Sardis, Jesus said, (Revelation 3:3)
"Remember, therefore, what you have
received and heard; obey it, and repent."
They were to obey what they had received and heard. The early churches could test what any new teacher taught by comparing it, at first, with the oral teaching of an original apostle, and then, as time when on, with the written Word. We see the apostle Paul commending his oral teaching in 2 Timothy 1:13–14. He said to Timothy,
"What you heard from me,
keep as the pattern of sound teaching,
with faith and love in Christ Jesus.
Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—
guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us."
He then combined both the oral teaching with the Scriptures in the next two verses. He continued,
"But as for you, continue in what you have learned
and have become convinced of, because you know those
from whom you learned it, and how from infancy
you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make
you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus."
Paul's words in 2 Corinthians 11 about the false apostles at Corinth also show how teachers are to be judged according to the teaching of the original apostles. In 2 Corinthians 11:4 Paul wrote,
"For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other
than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit
from the one you received, or a different gospel from
the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough."
They put up with it when they shouldn't have. Those things alone—their different gospel and their different spirit—were enough to show the Ephesians that those so called 'super-apostles' were, in essence, false apostles.
The second thing that shows that the criteria the Ephesians used to judge the false apostles was the apostolic teaching is the fact that the things that Jesus criticized in the churches was exactly in line with the prohibitions written in the rest of the New Testament. Not holding to their first love, being lukewarm, indulging in sexual immorality, eating food sacrificed to idols, denying Jesus name—all of these things were wrong and sinful—as the New Testament Scripture makes abundantly clear.
The only reliable thing we have by which to judge things is the teaching of Scripture. The Ephesian church held fast to the truth of the gospel and Jesus commended them for it. It had tested those who claimed to be apostles and found them to be liars. They exposed false teachers for what they were. They did exactly what the apostle Paul had urged their leaders to do years before. As Paul was leaving Ephesus for the last time he said to the Ephesian elders, (Acts 20:28–31)
"Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which
Holy Spirit has made you overseers.
Be shepherds of the church of God,
which he bought with his own blood.
I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come
in among you and will not spare the flock.
Even from your own number men
will arise and distort the truth
in order to draw away disciples after them.
So be on your guard!
Remember that for three years I never stopped warning
each of you night and day with tears."
The church is to hold on to the truth of the gospel and not let it go. We get the gospel from the Scripture. As Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 3:16–17
"All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching,
rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,
so that the man of God may be
thoroughly equipped for every good work."
In the next chapter Paul wrote, (2 Timothy 4:1–4)
"In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus,
who will judge the living and the dead,
and in view of his appearing and his kingdom,
I give you this charge: Preach the Word;
be prepared in season and out of season;
correct, rebuke and encourage—
with great patience and careful instruction.
For the time will come when men
will not put up with sound doctrine.
Instead, to suit their own desires,
they will gather around them a great number of teachers
to say what their itching ears want to hear.
They will turn their ears away
from the truth and turn aside to myths."
The Word is the criteria we are to use to judge doctrine. The Reformation correctly rediscovered the Scriptural emphasis on sola scriptura— Scripture alone. At that time the prevailing Roman Catholic view was that revelation was a deposit entrusted to the church—of which Scripture is only a part. Tradition was also an important component of this revelation. The Reformers taught that while there is much to learn from Christian tradition, only the Bible had final authority. This is what the New Testament teaches.
Many today deny that. We need to be watchful about that. You are to test your teachers according to their doctrine, not on their professed loyalty to Jesus Christ.
One of the great characteristics of our age is the doublespeak of those who are attacking biblical Christianity.
This past week the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., (not the PCA) the largest Presbyterian denomination in our country, approved a change to their church constitution. The change eliminated the following statements about the requirements for ordination,
"Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church. Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman (W-4.9001), or chastity in singleness. Persons refusing to repent of any self-acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin shall not be ordained and/or installed as deacons, elders or ministers of the Word and Sacrament."
They took that out and in its place, put,
"Standards for ordained service reflect the church's desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life."
On its own, the replacement sounds good. There's nothing in it to criticize except the fact that it's too vague. But when you realize what they're taking out, you see the doublespeak at once. Although the document detailing the change paid lip service to Scripture by saying that governing bodies shall be 'guided by Scripture', yet the change they made showed that they have no intention of being guided by Scripture. What the proponents of the change want is for gays to be allowed to be ordained. The change permits that. In spite of their proclaiming that they want to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life—the one thing they don't want to do is to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life. In defense of the change, executives of the church wrote,
"as Presbyterians, we believe that the only way we will find God's will for the church is by seeking it together — worshipping, praying, thinking and serving alongside one another. We are neighbors and colleagues, friends and family. Most importantly, we are all children of God, saved and taught by Jesus Christ, and filled with the Holy Spirit."
Did you notice something missing there? They spoke about the only way for them to find God's will—and there was no mention of God's Word, of the Bible! In other words, in seeking God's will they, very purposefully, turned their back on God's revelation.
How do you find God's will— from God's Word. That's a clear message of the Bible. In Isaiah 8:20 the prophet proclaimed,
"To the law and to the testimony!
If they do not speak according to this word,
they have no light of dawn."
Make sure you judge your teachers, not on how vigorously they profess their love for Jesus—but on what they teach, on their doctrine.
Now there are three applications I want to make from this.
First, you Christians you are always to test your teachers.
You Christians should be like the Bereans that Luke commended in Acts 17:11. He wrote,
"Now the Bereans were of
more noble character than the Thessalonians,
for they received the message
with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures
every day to see if what Paul said was true."
You are to be constantly evaluating my preaching to see if it's biblical. You are to be constantly evaluating the Christian books you read to see if they're biblical. You need to do this because your eternal fate depends on it. You can't let your guard down for a minute.
Test your teaches by the Word of God. As Paul said to the Galatians in Galatians 1:6–9,
"I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one
who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning
to a different gospel— which is really no gospel at all.
Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion
and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ.
But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach
a gospel other than the one we preached to you,
let him be eternally condemned!
As we have already said, so now I say again:
If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what
you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!"
Secondly, this means that
you are to have a exceedingly high regard for the Word of God.
Your attitude to the Word of God should be like that of Jesus. I'm constantly impressed and reproved by Jesus' attitude toward the Old Testament Scriptures. When He was tempted by the devil He met every temptation with a quote from the Old Testament Scriptures, 'It is written…'. In Matthew 5:18–19 He said,
"I tell you the truth,
until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter,
not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear
from the Law until everything is accomplished."
And in Luke 16:31, in the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man, he had Abraham say, to the rich man, in response to his request to send Lazarus to warn his brothers so that they would not come to that horrible place,
"If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they
will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead."
How we should be standing on the firm foundation of God's Word. Christians, believe it, trust it, rely on it. It is your one sure guide.
Thirdly, for you are not Christians, it is obvious that you are not evaluating things by the criteria of God's Word.
Be aware that this will lead you to destruction.
You're putting your mind, your intellect about God's revelation. The problem with that is that your mind has been affected by sin. It is not an infallible guide. Many unbeliever's minds tell them that the cross of Jesus Christ is foolishness and so they refuse to go to Him. That's going to destroy them.
Nor can you go by what society tells you. The standards of societies change over time. Some societies said that slavery was all right and people accepted it. Our society says that abortion is okay and people accept it. Some ancient societies accepted child sacrifice. Some societies accepted cannibalism. Some societies have accepted racism and genocide. Some have accepted that it's okay for a man to have multiple wives.
Are you so arrogant to think that our society has gotten in right and that you'll be okay as long as you accept what our society tells you? Are you that foolish? If you throw the Bible out, you're throwing out God's will for mankind and you're left with no sure anchor. You'll be lost. Go to Jesus. Find life in Him. He's your only hope.