"Oh to Grace how great a debtor
daily I'm constrained to be.
Let thy goodness, like a fetter
bind my wandering heart to Thee!"

Friday, October 19, 2007

Contending For Our All (when our all is at stake)

Here is an excerpt from the book "Contending For Our All" by John Piper. The entire book can be downloaded for free at http://www.desiringgod.org/

Controversy, Cowardice, and Pride

Some controversy is crucial for the sake of life-giving truth. Running from it is a sign of cowardice. But enjoying it is usually a sign of pride. Some necessary tasks are sad, and even victory isnot without tears—unless there is pride. The reason enjoying controversy is a sign of pride is that humility loves truth-based unity more than truth-based victory. Humility loves Christexalting exultation more than Christ-defending confrontation—even more than Christ-defending vindication. Humility delights to worship Christ in spirit and truth. If it must fight for worshipsustaining truth, it will, but that is not because the fight is pleasant. It’s not even because victory is pleasant. It’s because knowing and loving and proclaiming Christ for who he really is and what he really did is pleasant. Indeed knowing and loving the truth of Christ is not only pleasant now, it is the only path to everlasting life and joy. That’s why Athanasius (298-373), John Owen (1616-1683), and J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937) took so seriously the controversies of their time. It was not what they liked; but it was what love required—love for Christ and his church and his world.

Controversy Less Crucial, But Necessary

There are more immediately crucial tasks than controversy about the truth and meaning of the gospel. For example, it is more immediately crucial that we believe the gospel, and proclaim it to the unreached, and pray for power to attend the preaching of the gospel. But this is like saying that flying food to starving people is more immediately crucial than the science of aeronautics. True. But the food will not be flown to the needy if someone is not doing aeronautics. It is like saying that giving penicillin shots to children dying of fever is more immediately crucial than the work of biology and chemistry. True. But there would be no penicillin without such work.In every age there is a kind of person who tries to minimize the importance of truth-defining and truth-defending controversy by saying that prayer, worship, evangelism, missions, and dependence on the Holy Spirit are more important. Who has not heard such rejoinders to controversy: “Let’s stop arguing about the gospel and get out there and share it with a dying world.” Or: “Prayer is more powerful than argument.” Or: “We should rely on the Holy Spirit and not on our reasoning.” Or: “God wants to be worshiped, not discussed.” I love the passion for faith and prayer and evangelism and worship behind those statements. But when they are used to belittle gospel-defining, gospel-defending controversy they bite the hand that feeds them. Christ-exalting prayer will not survive in an atmosphere where the preservation and explanation and vindication of the teaching of the Bible about the prayer-hearing God are devalued. Evangelism and world missions must feed on the solid food of well-grounded, unambiguous, rich gospel truth in order to sustain courage and confidence in the face of afflictionsand false religions. And corporate worship will be diluted with cultural substitutes where the deep, clear, biblical contours if God’s glory are not seen and guarded from ever-encroaching error.It is not valid to contrast dependence on the Holy Spirit with the defense of his Word in controversy. The reason is that the Holy Spirit uses means—including the preaching and defending of the gospel. J. Gresham Machen put it like this:

It is perfectly true, of course, that argument alone is quite insufficient to make a man a Christian. You may argue with him from now until the end of the world; you may bring forth the most magnificent arguments—but all will be in vain unless there is one other thing: the mysterious, creative power of the Holy Spirit in the new birth. But because argument is insufficient, it does not follow that it is unnecessary. Sometimes it is used directly by the Holy Spirit to bring a man to Christ. But more frequently it isused indirectly.

This is why Athanasius, John Owen, and J. Gresham Machen engaged their minds and hearts and lives in the Christ-defining and Christ-defending controversies of their day. It was not because the Holy Spirit and prayer were inadequate. It was because the Holy Spirit works through the Word preached and explained and defended. It was because biblical prayer aims not just at the heart of the person who needs persuading, but also at the persuader. The Holy Spirit makes a biblical argument compelling in the mouth of the teacher and in the heart of the student. And Athanasius, Owen, and Machen believed that what they were contending for was of infinite worth. It was indeed not a distraction from the work of love. It was love—love to Christ, his church, and his world. Controversy When “Our All” Is at Stake In Athanasius’s lifelong battle for the deity of Christ against theArians, who said that Christ was created, Athanasius said, “Considering that this struggle is for our all . . . let us also make it our earnest care and aim to guard what we have received.” When all is at stake, it is worth contending. This is what love does. Machen, in his twentieth-century American situation, put it like this: “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.” When you believe that soul-saving truth (our all) is at stake in a controversy, running away is not only cowardly but cruel. These men never ran. John Owen, the greatest Puritan intellect, took up more controversies than Machen and Athanasius combined, but was driven by an even more manifest love for Christ. Not that he loved Christ more (only God can know that); but he articulated the battle for communion with Christ more explicitly than they. For Owen, virtually every confrontation with error was for the sake of the contemplation of Christ. Communion with Christ was his constant theme and goal. He held the view that such contemplation and communion were only possible by means of true views of Christ. Truth about Christ was necessary for communion with Christ. Therefore all controversy in the defense of this truth was forthe sake of worship. What soul that hath any acquaintance with these things falls not down with reverence and astonishment? How glorious is he that is the Beloved of our souls! . . . When . . . our life, our peace, our joy, our inheritance, our eternity, our all, lies herein, shall not the thoughts of it always dwell in our hearts, always refresh and delight our souls? As with Athanasius, Owen said that “our all” is at stake in contending for the truth of Christ. Then he brings the battle intothe closest connection with the blessing of communion with God. Even in the battle, not just after it, we must commune with God. “When we have communion with God in the doctrine we contend for—then shall we be garrisoned by the grace of God against all the assaults of men.” The aim of contending for Christ is also essential to the means. If we do not delight in Christ through the truth that we defend, our defense is not for the sake of the preciousness of Christ. The end and the means of Christ-exalting controversy is worship.

A Mistaken Notion About Controversy and Church Vitality

There is a mistaken notion about the relationship between the health of the church and the presence of controversy. For example, some say that spiritual awakening and power and growth will not come to the church of Christ until church leaders lay aside doctrinal differences and come together in prayer. Indeed there should be much corporate prayer for God’s mercy on us. And indeed there are some doctrinal differences that should not be elevated to a place of prominence. Machen explained his own passion for doctrine with this caution: “We do not mean, in insisting upon the doctrinal basis of Christianity, that all points of doctrine are equally important. It is perfectly possible for Christian fellowship to be maintained despite differences of opinion.” But there is a historical and biblical error in the assumptionthat the church will not grow and prosper in times of controversy. Machen said, as we saw above, that church history and Scripture teach the value of right controversy. This is important to see, because if we do not see it, we will yield to the massive pragmatic pressure of our time to minimize doctrine. We will cave in to the pressure that a truth-driven ministry cannot be a people-loving, soul-saving, church-reviving, justice-advancing, missions-mobilizing, worship-intensifying, Christ-exalting ministry. But, in fact, it is truth—biblical truth, doctrinal truth— that gives foundation and duration to all these things.

Like a refiner’s fire, intense theological debate has resulted in clarified belief, common vision, and invigorated ministry. J. Gresham Machen came to the same conclusion as he lookedover the history of the church and the nature of Christ’s mission in the world:

Every true revival is born in controversy, and leads to more controversy. That has been true ever since our Lord said that he came not to bring peace upon the earth but a sword. And do you know what I think will happen when God sends a new reformation upon the church? We cannot tell when that blessed day will come. But when the blessed day does come, I think we can say at least one result that it will bring. We shall hear nothing on that day about the evils of controversy in the church. All that will be swept away as with a mighty flood. A man who is on fire with a message never talks in that wretched, feeble way, but proclaims the truth joyously and fearlessly, in the presence of every high thing that is lifted up against the gospel of Christ.

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