Scripture and the Church

J. Gresham Machen: In the Midst of Controversy, We Must Rise to Great Heights in Celebration of the Truth

By Dr. Paul M. Elliott
"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."

From the TeachingtheWord Bible Knowledgebase


"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."

We live in a time of the spread of the false "social justice gospel" in many so-called evangelical churches. Pastors, church leaders, and religious academics cooperate in the spread of the evil philosophies of radical environmentalism, Critical Theory, Intersectionality and the LGBTQ agenda. They join their liberal counterparts in spreading the lie that it is the mission of the church to make man "better" by supposedly making his present life more "just".

Although they may give lip service to it, they have no serious intention of preaching the authentic Gospel of salvation from the wrath to come. With few and precious exceptions, much of today's church tramples underfoot the One whose justice matters - the Sovereign Creator of the Universe, Jesus Christ who now sits on the throne of glory and will come again in righteous judgment.

While growing numbers in so-called evangelicalism are activists in these sinful causes,  many other pastors, church leaders, and academics keep silent or engage in other forms of compromise with these evils simply to avoid controversy. They refuse to tell their congregations and students the truth that a life-and-death crisis is upon the church - because they either do not recognize the crisis themselves, or they choose to ignore it.

Some of them say that their cover-up - and that is the accurate term for it - is motivated by a desire to maintain peace and unity in the church. But keeping God's people in ignorance of the evil, un-Biblical, soul-damning nature of present-day movements undermines the doctrinal purity of the church without which true peace and unity cannot exist. Some mistakenly believe that "good churchmanship" requires them to keep silent in the face of evil. That only plays into the hands of liberals who stand ready to manipulate such inaction to further their ends.

These evils within the visible church are not new. The great stalwart Dr. J. Gresham Machen addressed these and several related points in remarks to the Bible League of Great Britain in 1932, when similar crises raged in the church. I quote him at length because his statement is so very pertinent to the present crisis:

In the first place, [our defense of the faith] should be directed not only against the opponents outside the church but also against the opponents within. The opponents of Holy Scripture do not become less dangerous, but they become far more dangerous, when they are within ecclesiastical walls.

At that point, I am well aware that widespread objection arises at the present time. Let us above all, men say, have no controversy in the church; let us forget our small theological differences and all repeat together Paul's hymn to Christian love. As I listen to such pleas, my Christian friends, I think I can detect in them rather plainly the voice of Satan. That voice is heard, sometimes, on the lips of good and truly Christian men, as at Caesarea Philippi it was heard on the lips of the greatest of the Twelve. But Satan's voice it is, all the same.

Sometimes it comes to us in rather deceptive ways.

I remember, for example, what was said in my hearing on one occasion..."If you go heresy-hunting for the sin in your own wicked hearts," said the speaker, as nearly as I can remember his words, "you will have no time for heresy-hunting for the heretics outside."

Thus did temptation come through the mouth of a well-meaning man. The "heretics," to use the term that was used by that speaker, are, with their helpers, the indifferentists, in control of the church within the bounds of which that utterance was made.... A man hardly needs to "hunt" them very long if he is to oppose them. All that he needs to do is to be faithful to the Lord Jesus Christ, and his opposition to those men will follow soon enough.

But is it true, as this speaker seemed to imply, that there is a conflict between faithfulness to Christ in the ecclesiastical world and the cultivation of holiness in one's own inner life? My friends, it is not true, but false.

A man cannot successfully go heresy-hunting against the sin in his own life if he is willing to deny his Lord in the presence of the enemies outside. The two battles are intimately connected. A man cannot fight successfully in one unless he fights also in the other.

Again, we are told that our theological differences will disappear if we will just get down on our knees together in prayer. Well, I can only say about that kind of prayer, which is indifferent to the question whether the gospel is true or false, that it is not Christian prayer; it is bowing down in the house of Rimmon.[1] God save us from it!...

Again, men say that instead of engaging in controversy in the church, we ought to pray to God for a revival; instead of polemics, we ought to have evangelism. Well, what kind of revival do you think that will be? What sort of evangelism is it that is indifferent to the question, "What evangel is it that is to be preached?" Not a revival in the New Testament sense, not the evangelism that Paul meant when he said, "Woe is unto me, if I preach not the Gospel."

No, my friends, there can be no true evangelism which makes common cause with the enemies of the cross of Christ. Souls will hardly be saved unless the evangelists can say with Paul: "If we or an angel from heaven preach any other gospel than that which we preached unto you, let him be accursed!"

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.

But men tell us that instead of engaging in controversy about doctrine, we ought to seek the power of the living Holy Spirit.... A man can hardly receive the power of the Holy Spirit if he seeks to evade the question whether the blessed Book that the Spirit has given us is true or false.

Again, 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. 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 of 1 Corinthians, and we can avoid controversy today if we will only devote the chief attention to that inspiring hymn.

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.[2]

Dear friends, may we rise to such heights in this evil day. Each of us must do our part. May we never shrink from controversy when the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ are at stake. "Certain men have crept in unnoticed, who long ago were marked out for this condemnation, ungodly men, who turn the grace of our God into lewdness and deny the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ" (Jude 6). But let us also clearly recognize that ultimately

...we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having girded your waist with truth, having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; above all, taking the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God; praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints (Ephesians 6:12-18).


1. Rimmon was the Syrian god of storms. See 2 Kings 5:18.

2. J. Gresham Machen, "The Defense of the Faith" in J. Gresham Machen: Selected Shorter Writings, D. G. Hart, editor (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing Company, 2004), 146-149.


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