Do You Work Wonders for the Dead? A Book Review of Depression: A Stubborn Darkness

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Introduction:

“Do you work wonders for the dead? Do the departed rise up to praise you? Selah… Are your wonders known in the darkness, or your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness? (ESV)”1 (Psalm 88:10, 12). This Psalm of the Sons of Korah captures the powerful emotions in the despair of the Christian who must travel through the dark paths and alleyways of depression. Does God remember? Is there love? Must I suffer on this lonely island of despair? Even the closing words of this beautiful psalm express these words of struggle and wrestling: “You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me; my companions have become darkness.” (Psalm 88:18)

Dr. Edward T. Welch writes about the difficult matter of depression in his book Depression: A Stubborn Darkness. He brings the expertise of years as a Christian counselor and as a teacher at Christian Counseling Educational Foundation (CCEF) to the table. He is also an example of a mature family man, with a wife and two daughters. In this book, he focuses on the spiritual aspect to depression, while recognizing and encouraging his readers to see that there may also be medical and other factors at play as well. As a Christian counsellor, he ensures that the good news of Jesus Christ will play a prominent role in the wreckage and brokenness of the mind. As such, that gospel does not only provide hope in the middle of physical brokenness, but also lays out the path of healing and transformation from sinful patterns of the mind and the heart.

Summary:

a. Introduction

In the introduction, Dr. Welch does three things: he explains the path, the feeling of depression, and gives some definitions and causes. He paints a positive picture of the one who suffers depression as a pilgrim following the call of God and even shares the example of Psalm 88 as a prayer which one might speak to God along the way. The feeling of depression is often described as “Hell,” as a place of abandonment. The images are full of darkness, pain, meaninglessness, lifelessness, numbness sometimes leading to thoughts of suicide. The preacher, Charles Spurgeon, wrestled with episodes of depression and once said: “I could weep by the hour like a child, and yet I knew not what I wept for.”2 Dr. Welch also explains the types of depression. From less severe to more severe they are described as: discontent, dysthmic disorder, situational depression, hopelessness, major depressive disorder, clinical depression.3 It is important for the Christian to describe his/her feelings. Depression should also be approached carefully, and while medication might be one aspect to the answer, Dr. Welch does not want this to become the only plan of attack.

b. Part One: Depression is Suffering

Depression is suffering and we see many cases of suffering in the Scriptures and in the world with various causes including ourselves, other people, our bodies, Satan, and even God’s will brings us through suffering (most of these causes are unknown at the time). Often God is challenged and questioned during this time of suffering, and the one suffering should recall the sufferings of Christ for an unworthy people as well as the goodness of God at the cross of Jesus Christ. And so the response to suffering (like the men of Psalm 88) should be to cry out to God, after all, this is what Jesus Christ also did on the cross. We can put the words of these Psalms in the mouth of Jesus on the cross (like Psalm 22). While depression turns inward, the Christian response is to call out to God and make war in Christ. This is done by realizing the lies of Satan and speaking the truth of forgiveness and life in Scripture. The depressed individual must remind himself/herself of the promises of God daily. In those promises the Christian finds purpose in glorifying God and loving Him and keeping His commandments. And so, while depression is calling for complete surrender, the Scriptures are calling the Christian to persevere through the battle.

c. Part Two: Listening to Depression

There is a necessary self-honesty as the Christian listens to what his/her depression is saying: where does what my depression is saying to me depart from the truth revealed in Scripture? Here, Dr. Welch works with the various causes for depression while recognizing also how the fall of Adam has affected our physical bodies and not just our spiritual health. He speaks about how a culture of decisions, individualism, self-indulgence, the idolatry of happiness, and entertainment/boredom affects us as Christians. He then discusses the natural inclinations of the heart: pride, autonomy, various lusts, covetousness. In his discussion of the unveiling of the heart, he talks about the wilderness of depression, and finding joy in Christ in the wilderness. In chapters 15-20 he responds to a number of issues that might factor into causes for depression: fear, anger, dashed hopes, failure and shame, guilt and legalism, and also death. In all this, he returns to the central comfort of the Christian life. Even in times when the Christian turns to suicidal thoughts, the only comfort is Jesus Christ (HC, LD 1).

d. Part Three: Other Help and Advice

Here, Dr. Welch first deals with the matter of medical treatments. This is important for those who might feel threatened by his spiritual-oriented approach. He does indeed recognize the person in his/her entirety, including body and soul. He remarks that antidepressants have helped many people but not all people. He then admits that it is unclear whether medication or counseling works better. He cautions about long-term use, side-effects, and thinking that medication is the answer. Obviously, this might be linked to other medical problems, so medical examinations are important. He follows this with some encouragement for how to help as a community: including thoughtfulness, seeking help, and working on a positive lifestyle (I.e. structure in exercise and sleep). He then lays out some strategies and suggests that people should expect to be surprised by the power of love.

e. Part Four: Hope and Joy: Thinking God’s Thoughts

In this final section, Dr. Welch encourages the reader to develop specific virtues as they press forward in hope and joy. He offers the example of a comedy, where Jesus really does triumph in the end, which then gives cause for humility in the face of suffering. This humility also comes accompanied by hope in the final return of Jesus Christ after His triumph at the cross and resurrection. This hope and humility is accompanied by gratitude for what God is doing even in the difficult situations of life. Finally, Dr. Welch concludes with a warm note of encouragement to the reader as he expresses his love and desire that the grace of God would be with readers in their suffering and as they assist others in their suffering.

Review:

I would highly recommend the work of Dr. Welch to Christians who are wrestling with the various degrees and causes of depression. He recognizes the person as body and soul rather than reducing the matter of depression to one issue. Not only is he deeply aware of the human condition, but he also has a grasp of the gospel and how that applies to the human condition. He expresses an awareness of the thoughts and doubts that those going through depression have to wrestle with. He shows a sensitivity to the trials of those suffering depression and provides goals and hope in the middle of the intense suffering of depression.

I appreciated Dr. Welch’s focus on helping people work through the spiritual questions at play. After all, he is not a psychiatrist or a doctor, but a Christian Counselor. One of my concerns with the modern movement against depression is that there is a tendency to think of it as purely physical. The classic analogy that I have heard from Christians is that depression is akin to a broken arm. While this comparison works in the sense that the brain and an arm are both physical, the brain is also affected by things such as stress and fear in a way that an arm is not affected by stress and fear. The point is not to make the Christian feel guilt and shame as a result of physical things such as a lack of iron in the blood or a thyroid that is malfunctioning, but to help the Christian be self-honest with other factors that may be at play in this depression.

While Dr. Welch talks briefly about antidepressants towards the end of the book, as well as other matters on how to deal with the physical side of depression, I would encourage those who read this book to read broadly. This could include articles on the Gospel Coalition and Desiring God websites, but also to find resources on antidepressants, psychotropic drugs, and other ways of dealing with depression. This could include talking with doctors and nurses where possible. I appreciate that Dr. Welch brings out the fact that people are both positively and negatively affected by antidepressants, and that in spite of either effect, he wants to help them deal with whatever spiritual matters are at play.

While he does make remarks on goals to make in the middle of depression, I believe that there could be more practical advice in the area of not just thought patterns, but also lifestyle. Sleep, eating and exercise patterns are all very important things to think about in the area of depression. In this area, good friends are important as well. Finding friends who avoid both flattery and who refrain from harsh criticism, are also necessary for a positive approach to self-honesty. Finding time to walk in nature and good company to fellowship with, do amazing things to lift a heavy heart. I have found a lot of practical advice in this area in the Book of Proverbs, and I would suggest Proverbs as a good place to start in Scripture in examining the matter of depression. It gives clarity for how to live life in the middle of the fog and those who are committed to following its path will find clarity even in the brokenness of the mind.

A Brief Thought on Psalm 88:

Reading Psalm 88 can provide biblical expression for the pain that a depressed person is feeling. It also lays out the path to cry out to God in the midst of suffering. But without interpreting it with Christ at the center, it can be hard to understand. Christ suffered everything and worse than what the depressed person is going through. On the cross, He really was forsaken by His father. When Jesus finds Himself alone and when the Father turns His face away, these words could describe His state of mind: “O LORD, why do you cast my soul away? Why do you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 88:14) But because He rose from the dead, we now know that the end experience of the Christian life is not the cross, but the resurrection of the dead.

Conclusion:

Depression: A Stubborn Darkness is an excellent book for Christians to read as they reflect on how the gospel applies to their suffering. It might be a long path ahead, with many twists and turns, through dark paths marshes which reek of death. But even during those times, we see an objective promise for the sufferer to cling to in Scripture. This promise is that the Great Shepherd will be with His faltering sheep: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” (Psalm 23:4) God is often at work in our darkest times, guiding us with His staff and disciplining us with His rod. This is the great comfort that Dr. Welch brings out in this book, and it is a comfort that every man and woman can experience.

1 All Bible references will be from ESV.org.

2 Edward T. Welch, Depression: A Stubborn Darkness (Greensboro: New Growth Press, 2004), 21.

3 Ibid., 28.

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Christian Blogging: Searching For Truth in a Culture of Rumours

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I was recently reading a post by Tim Challies on blogging that got me thinking about the value of the personal blog. How can a personal blog be a positive force in all the untruths spoken online?

Words are dangerous. The tongue has the power to encourage and to break apart. The Apostle James compares it to a bit in the mouth of a horse and the small rudder that pilots a ship. It can set a forest ablaze, it is set on fire by Hell, it is a restless evil, it is full of deadly poison. It will bless the Lord one day and the curse its brethren the next day.

Words are also powerful for healing. In Eph. 1:13 we learn that when we heard the Word of the Gospel, we believed. In Acts 1:8, we are called to witness to the truth that Jesus is alive. The Christian is called to pray (Eph. 6:18), to encourage one another and build each other up (I Thess. 5:11). Of course, a call to Biblical wisdom in public discourse is abundant in the book of Proverbs. The one who speaks must first be listening and reading and learning (Prov. 18:13). With much other godly advice and wisdom, a word spoken must be fitly spoken (Prov. 25:11). Even reproof is permitted, but it must be done in wisdom: “Like a gold ring or an ornament of gold is a wise reprover to a listening ear.” (Prov. 25:12)

A blog can be a powerful mode of communication because people can ‘share’, ‘like’, and ‘comment’. In many cases, personal blogs will not be read widely. But even then, we must use the power of the words that God has given us in service of Jesus Christ and the truth. And so, as a powerful tool of communication that can be used for good or evil, the Christian is called to use it for good. The Christian is called to use all of his/her communication in life for good.

The blog is not an authoritative means of discourse, although it can be, depending on the capability and commission of the person blogging. Blogging provides the student of life an opportunity to learn how to engage in public discourse. How do I communicate in a way that will effectively communicate this new thing that I learned? How do I utilize my education for the good of society? How do I communicate in a way that will make society a better place and not a worse one?

We live in a world where rumours start and are spread rapidly through the internet. We live in a world that is polarized and angry. We live in a world where everyone has something to say and yet nothing to say. Our government’s response to this is to bring the media under their control. But all that this does is make the media into their own image.

And so the goal for anyone engaged in public discourse is to be a truth-teller. Of course, that truth should be accompanied by love. And that speaking of the truth should be reasonable and willing to engage with arguments. A Christian blogger should “By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.” (James 3:13) He should be in full combat with the earthly, demonic and unspiritual wisdom that comes from below. Instead he should be full of the wisdom that comes from above: “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” (James 3:17-18).

Of course, a truth-teller must also not be self-deceived: “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” (James 1:22) And so the goal of being a Christian in public discourse is always to be challenging ourselves with objective truth and reality. Whether the target of your studies is science, history, education, theology etc, the goal is that we are always asking questions and learning more. A king is inquisitive, a king is always learning more: “It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out.” (Prov. 25:2)

I appreciate the encouragement of Tim Challies in promoting the personal blog. He writes: “And as I think about the future of Christian blogging, this is one of my foremost concerns—that as bloggers migrate away from personal blogs to instead submit their content to ministry sites, we are giving away the ability to say what we want to say, when we want to say it, and how we want to say it. We are also diminishing the training ground in which we grow in our ability to express ourselves with greater skill.” Again the personal blog is not necessarily authoritative, the blog holds a very conversational role in public discourse, but is a great place to sharpen your talents in public communication and search for truth.


Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

 

The Church and the Racism Debate

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Although the topic of racism is far more popular south of the border, matters of racism are discussed in Canada as well. Questions about racism cross the web through blogging, online magazines, and discussion groups. In such a cultural moment, many Christians begin to look for churches that are actively engaged in what is often called “social justice.” And as everything has a cultural term to describe it, many of these churches are described as ‘woke churches’. Google Dictionary defines ‘woke’ as “alert to injustice in society, especially racism.”

I argue against the use of the term ‘racism’ because it stems from Darwinian science of evolution. Instead we may talk about ethnic groups, nations, or families of the world. We all come from Adam and are affected by his sin, the world was divided even further at Babel, and the Church is the project of the Holy Spirit to reunite the nations/families of the earth in Jesus Christ and in Him alone. As a result of this, skin colour doesn’t matter. Being found in Christ does matter. All those who have been baptized have put on Christ (Gal. 3:27). This means that external divisions are broken down (Gal. 3:28). If we belong to Christ, then we are of the same family of the earth, re-united in Christ (Gal. 3:29).

I prefer to distance myself from a cutesy terms like ‘woke’. Some might describe me as a white, male, Christian, young, straight, with viewpoints that largely fall in the sphere of what might be described as “conservative”. To some this may seem strange in that for the first 18 years of my life I grew up in communities where I was a visible minority in both New York City and Toronto. My neighbours had backgrounds from China, India, Italy, the West Indies, etc. My family was one of two Northern European families on the entire street. There were many immigrants from the provinces of Gujarat and Punjab (in India) in the immediate area. From there I spent four school years in Idaho and a year in Grande Prairie (AB) which are both quite Northern European in background. And then I landed back in Hamilton (ON), which again, is a multi-ethnic area. My love for Christ and His Word means that I must be clear that I am a Christian first and foremost.

I believe that the Church is called, not to be ruled by cultural moments and fads and fashions, but by the Word of God. Because of the diversity of the area, I grew up in a local church that has leaders with backgrounds primarily in India and in the Netherlands. The membership in the church has backgrounds from India to Pakistan to Nigeria to Holland. I grew up knowing a number of pastors with Dutch last names, but also last names of origin from India and Guyana. One of my first internships was with Pastor Ramkissoon and Pastor Beukema. But the guiding principle for such leadership in the Church is not inclusivism or multiculturalism, but standards for biblical leadership that are laid out in the Word of God. Jesus is Lord and His Word is authoritative.

Churches of European and various other ethnic backgrounds should be self-aware of how ethnocentrism is perceived within our highly polarized society. We should also be aware that Christ has called us to bring the gospel to all nations (Matt. 28:19-20). That being said, the goal of the church is not to be multiethnic, but to worship God. Peace between ethnic groups then, only comes at the cross of Jesus Christ. The hostility between us and God has been killed at the cross of Jesus Christ (Eph. 2:16), and now we share in the same commonwealth and promises of the gospel (Eph. 2:12-13).

What standards must I abide by in the war on injustice? Injustice has been perpetrated, that cannot be denied. But we should remember that this problem in history should not be reduced to a matter of skin colour, since the Irish were treated very poorly also through slavery in the history of the United States. We must not respond to injustice with injustice. We must remember the promise of the just rule of Christ in Psalm 72. But we must remember that this justice is defined by the Word of God, not by the class warfare of Marx. We must be aware of our own bias, but then we should place our biases under the light of Scripture before we turn to the next fad and fashion in our cultural moments.

Identity politics are confusing. Conferences won’t do much to end racism. Learn your theology of justice from Moses, not from Marx. Invite the immigrant and/or the refugee down the street over for dinner. Use the coffee shops in the neighborhood. Give your neighbor a ride to church on Sunday and then a ride to the employment office down the street during the week if they are still struggling to find work. Learn about their culture, rather than pretending you know everything because you took a ‘woke’ university course. Just be you and let them be themselves. If you are going to make a joke about ethnicity, laugh the hardest at yourself. Be a positive force in society by sharing the gospel and promoting righteousness, and not by picking a side just because somebody is a minority. If you are a Christian, your identity is hidden with God in Christ (Col. 3:3).

The best advice at our cultural moment is straight out of Ecclesiastes 12:13. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.


Photo by Henry Be on Unsplash

Favourite Blogs-Podcasts

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I enjoy some good blogs out there.

  • The Theopolis blog from various authors on various points of theology and culture.
  • I read Doug Wilson’s blog, blog and mablog working with matters of cultural engagement.
  • I read Tim Challies’ blog dealing with Christian living and doctrine.
  • The website of Kuyperian commentary has a lot of good material on theology and politics.
  • The Desiring God website and the Gospel Coalition website often have good material on theology and culture.
  • The Calvinist International website is excellent on historical theology.
  • George Harrell writes a history blog, called A Shot Glass of History: Delivering a Strong Dose of Historical Rethinking.
  • James Zekveld writes a hermeneutics blog, called Respondeo: Reflections on Interpretation and Education.

Podcasting is the new thing on the market, and there are some good ones to listen to while driving to work or school:

  • Kevin Swanson does some good work in his podcast on Generations Radio.
  • The guys at Crosspolitic also have a lot of good things going for them on the topics of religion and politics.
  • If you go to Crosspolitic make sure to listen to Matt Williams and his business podcast under the title “How to Build a Tent”.
  • Ezra Institute puts out excellent material on Christ and Culture here.
  • Sermon Audio is always a good place to listen to solid sermons.

I am sure that I have forgotten a few. Fill in the gaps.

 

 

A Summary of Christianity & Liberalism by J. Gresham Machen

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Machen rarely calls out particular names in this book. On page 10, he makes reference to Mr. H. G. Wells in writing “Outline of History.” In this book, he maintains theological objectivity by focusing on ideas being promoted in the church at large. It also was not Machen’s aim to be in conflict a particular denomination. Instead, his target is what he refers to as the “Liberal Church” which he regards as another church. It is interesting that in his section on Christian doctrine, Machen even writes positively concerning the Roman Catholic Church: “The Church of Rome may represent a perversion of the Christian religion; but naturalistic liberalism is not Christianity at all.”1

In introducing this work, Machen opens up with an appeal to the necessity of controversy in the sphere of religion. He begins with definitions of both liberalism and naturalism. Liberalism and modernism are also partners. He uses the full term “modern naturalistic liberalism.” ‘Liberal’ refers to the open-mindedness of the position, which as he points out, is only used by the friends of liberals. Liberalism is an attack on the Christian faith while using traditional terminology. It comes accompanied by naturalism which focuses on the processes of nature as opposed to “the entrance of the creative power of God.”2 This modern naturalistic liberalism is characterized by a questioning of historical claims. It is also characterized by the promotion of modern scientific methods which are then regarded as separate from religion. He argues that two lines of criticism can be promoted against this modern naturalistic liberalism: first, that it is un-Christian; second, that it is unscientific.3 He proves these two lines of criticism in various ways throughout the book. It should be stated that one of his primary critiques of his opponents is their disregard for history. After all, science is done in history, and so the two studies should not be divorced from one another. Above all, his goal in this book is not only to show what Christianity is not but also what Christianity is.4

In the following chapter on doctrine, Machen begins by arguing that this debate over liberalism is no longer an intellectual debate but that it has entered the Sunday School class as well. Liberals will argue first that teaching is unimportant in the Church because Christian creeds are always changing anyways. And so liberals say that even though their teachings are different than historical Christianity, they are essentially the same as Christianity. Second, they argue that Christianity is about life, not doctrine. Third, they promote a toleration of other doctrines. Fourth, they first try to appeal to Paul and then to Jesus to prove their points. And last, Machen considers the carelessness to theological difference in liberalism. Machen points out the skepticism of the first comment. The second is internally incoherent because to say that “Christianity is a life” is a doctrinal statement. The third is related to the fifth and Machen distinguishes between recognizing error while still accepting someone as Christian as opposed to tolerating differences as if they don’t matter. Machen proves from the life and doctrine of both Jesus and Paul the incoherence of appealing to them to diminish the importance of doctrine.

Machen then turns to the issue of how liberals and Christians view the topic of “God and Man.” With regards to God, liberalism says that it is unnecessary to have a conception of God. This of course, messes with the divinity of Jesus, because without a conception of God, to say that “Jesus is God” is meaningless. He then mentions that liberalism speaks of the fatherhood of God, but its meaning is hard to discern. Similarly, in reference to man, liberalism struggles with the meaning of sin. Machen responds to their claims by pushing the importance of the doctrine of God and man again, and pushing the claims of Scripture itself. In the fog of liberal definitions, he speaks with clarity and conciseness.

Having disposed of the Christian conception of a sovereign God and the fact of sin, the Bible also is under attack. Here, Machen is not only concerned with defending the historical account of Scripture, but also its necessity for us living today. In particular, he responds to the attack on plenary inspiration by those who want to depict it as a mechanical process. He responds by arguing for the individuality of the Biblical writers. He also realizes that many who deny the doctrine of plenary inspiration are true Christians because they still accept the Bible “as a true message on which Christianity depends.”5 As such, they are not liberals. Modern liberalism rejects not only plenary inspiration, but they also attack Scripture’s authority by bringing up questions about the historical Jesus, etc. Thus, Machen’s challenge is that they base Christianity not on the Bible, but on their own feelings and intellect.

Machen then writes a large chapter on the topic of Christ. He affirms the Christian teaching that Jesus is no mere teacher, but as a Saviour in whom men can trust. But the liberal teacher regards Jesus “as an example for faith, not the object of faith.”6 In their studies of the historic Jesus, they claim that his Messianic consciousness arose late in life. But Machen claims that the liberals find themselves in a quandary when it comes to the lack of consciousness of sin in Jesus and more importantly the fact that he is continually dealing with the problem of sin. This then creates a massive difference between the experience of Jesus and our experience. Machen claims: “Jesus is an example, moreover, not merely for the relations of man to man but also for the relation of man to God.”7 In order to approach Jesus as a Christian we must not simply see Him as an exemplary man, but as supernatural. This does not deny His humanity, but it means He is the Saviour of the world. Of course, the teachings of Paul also lead us to this view of Jesus Christ. This means that we must also defend the miracles of Jesus against the claims of scientific naturalism: “Without the miracles we should have a teacher; with the miracles we have a Saviour.”8 But liberalism rejects miracles, and thus they reject the divinity of Christ and the sovereignty of God in nature. Machen then poses the question: “Shall we accept the Jesus of the New Testament as our Saviour, or shall we reject Him with the liberal Church?”9 Machen then deals with the problem of honesty among liberal preachers. They might still say “Jesus is God” but they mean something different by the term “God”. Thus that man is lying when he uses this phrase in front of old-fashioned Christians. In the end, we must reject the liberal Jesus as a manufactured figment of the imagination, and not as the Jesus who is the Christ and the Son of the Living God.

Machen summarizes: “Liberalism finds salvation (so far as it is willing to speak at all of ‘salvation’) in man; Christianity finds it in an act of God.”10 When we have considered all the above – Jesus as Saviour, the problem of sin, the truth of Scripture, the sovereignty of God – the reader can imagine where liberalism and Christianity diverge at this point. Machen challenges liberal doctrine on the atonement, and then defends its necessity. Because of their minimizing of the atonement, they then attack the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ on the cross. But the biggest problem that liberals have with the cross and salvation is that it is dependent on history, and they lack confidence in the authentic history of Scripture. Christianity is “dependent upon history.”11 Without the cross, there is no good news, because then there is no way to deal with sin. Thus, the liberals seek to create an entirely inoffensive gospel that negates sin and the necessity of the cross in dealing with sin. Liberal preachers get sick of an angry God. But the Bible speaks of this fact. As opposed to the soft God of modern liberals, Christianity holds to a God who is alive and sovereign. And so we must see that “at the beginning of every Christian life, there stands, not a process, but a definite act of God.”12 Again, Christianity and liberalism diverge at the topic of faith: Christianity is based on faith, liberalism is based on legalism. While liberalism pits spiritual religion against ceremonialism, Paul pits God’s free grace against human merit.13 Machen then responds to the issue of social gospel and responds with the fact that the Christian gospel first deals with the problem of sin rather than dealing with the problems in society first. He focuses on the fact that Christianity focuses on the act of God in history while liberalism tells men to be good.

In this final section, Machen explains the liberal and Christian conception of Church. Here he contrasts the importance of social institutions in liberalism and the social institution of the Church. The Church is the only place where we experience true brotherhood. While the liberals erase creed, Machen maintains that human society can only be truly built by redeemed men and that central institution is the Church. Here he gets into matters of trying to remove liberalism from the church. Even though they don’t hold to a creed, real Christianity does hold to a creed. He then focuses on challenging pastors and makes a clear distinction to really hold the teachers in the church to account. He then challenges those who seek the ministry in order to promote their liberalism. He urges preachers to speak the Word with power and concludes with a call to unity with integrity.


This is part of a paper that I wrote on Christianity & Liberalism for Church History class at CRTs.



1 Machen, 52.

2 Ibid., 2.

3 Ibid., 7.

4 Ibid., 16.

5 Ibid., 75.

6 Ibid., 84.

7 Ibid., 93.

8 Ibid., 104.

9 Ibid., 109.

10 Ibid., 117.

11 Ibid., 121.

12 Ibid., 140.

13 Ibid., 144.

Some Ethical and Pastoral Thoughts on Masturbation

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It is hard to find an explicit reference to masturbation within Scripture. Joel Hesch offers a few good points: “The Bible doesn’t mention arson, child abuse, drug-trafficking, forgery, pornography, or vandalism either. Does that give you free reign to sell cocaine on the corner or demolish your hotel room when you’re on vacation?”1 We agree with Jason DeRouchie’s conclusion: “I believe that anyone who masturbates outside the marriage bed sins and insults God’s glory in Christ.”2 We plan to explain this point and why men and women should turn from sin and shame and take the path of Christian virtue. This virtue begins with an encounter with the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ.

Here we define masturbation from Merriam-Webster’s dictionary: “erotic stimulation especially of one’s own genital organs commonly resulting in orgasm and achieved by manual or other bodily contact exclusive of sexual intercourse, by instrumental manipulation, occasionally by sexual fantasies, or by various combinations of these agencies.”3 The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines masturbation: “By masturbation is to be understood the deliberate stimulation of the genital organs in order to derive sexual pleasure.”4 This is a very broad definition, but it focuses on the stimulation of the organs by something including the internal thoughts of the mind. Essentially, it defines masturbation as linked to sexual arousal.

Planned Parenthood openly condones the act of masturbation, and even encourages it: “Masturbating is totally normal and totally healthy. Most people don’t talk about it, but almost everybody does it.”5 Their basic ethical principle is: well, everybody does it anyways, and then they leave it up to a personal decision. The decision to masturbate is essentially up to the person to decide. They base their ethics on relativistic ethics. And as Christians we seek to find different foundations for our ethical system.

The Deontological Problem Behind Masturbation:

We already mentioned that the Scriptures do not explicitly condemn masturbation itself. But a deontological principle can be drawn from Scripture’s condemnation of lust (Matt. 5:28, 2 Tim. 2:22, I John 2:16, Prov. 6:25, Gal. 5:16, James 1:14-15). Deontological ethics “are principle-based systems, in which actions are intrinsically right or wrong, dependent on adherence to the relevant moral principles or values.”6

Planned Parenthood encourages us to have sympathy for all those who think masturbation is dirty. They feel people have been unnecessarily shamed. According to Scripture, we believe that bodily functions are natural. Adam had semen in the Garden of Eden, and he and Eve had sexual relations. There is no reason to believe that they didn’t have the ability to orgasm. He wonders in her beauty, and she in his strength, and then they seek to fulfil God’s mandate to fill the earth and subdue it. But at the very root of His identity, Adam was a son of God.

When Adam and Eve fell into sin and therefore acted in unbelief and pride, this confused their sexuality. There were sexual consequences to their sin. One of these consequences was misaligned desire. Lust became an issue. Both Adam and Eve proceeded to cover their nakedness with leaves. Sexual sin and various forms of sexual deviancy became part of the life of God’s people in the Old Testament. In Exodus 20, God commands His people not to commit adultery, and throughout the first 5 books God lays out principles for the sexual purity for His people. When Jesus preaches from the mountain in Matthew 5, He explains the true extent of God’s command in Exodus 20. Jesus says even he who looks at a woman lustfully commits adultery. In Matthew 5:28, lust is equated with adultery.

We argue against Planned Parenthood.  The primary reason people feel shame in masturbation is not because the human body or sexual fluids are dirty or that sex is dirty in and of itself. Sometimes orgasms happen at night without any thoughts or dreams, and this can even be healthy for the body. Men and women feel shame when they masturbate because they know that they fall short of the glory of God. In their hearts they had an illicit partnership with another woman (or man). This is why Joel Hesch asks men about their thoughts in the days previous to masturbation.7 He points out that lust can be fought, even in a sexualized culture where women “hit on” men.8 The problem with masturbation goes much deeper than masturbation itself: the problem is ultimately lust. Jesus’ prohibition of lust means that masturbation is highly problematic in biblical deontological ethics.

Joel Hesch also draws a strong link to God’s explicit prohibition of coveting. Masturbation is a sinful acting out on the sinful desires within, and a man or a woman will act on these desires by seeking the “peace of mind” that they think comes from an orgasm.9 “Failing to believe God is good and failing to trust him with your life can lead to a perceived need for fantasy or the release of masturbation.”10 Masturbation often acts out on the desire for what is not yours.

But to fight lust, we must move past deontology to virtues. Fighting lust is more than mere actions, in fact it is primarily a way of thinking and being.  Therefore, we must consider virtue ethics as well.

Masturbation in Virtue Ethics

A virtue ethic is defined by Scott Rae: “Virtue theory, which is also called aretaic ethics (from the Greek arete, “virtue”), holds that morality is more than simply doing the right thing.”11 In this section we want to focus on patterns of thought connected to masturbation. Most importantly we want to understand how these patterns of thought and life can be reformed by the power of the Holy Spirit.

a. Selflessness

We defend and encourage the virtue of selflessness both within and outside of marriage, based on the principle of the love that Christ has for His Church. The Apostle Paul draws from the creation ordinance of marriage to speak about the love between Christ and His Church. He then draws application for this intimate relationship between a man and his wife: “‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.” (Eph. 5:31-33).

The willful act of masturbation intent on arousing sexual desire outside of the marriage bed, is an act of solo sex. Whether inside or outside of marriage, it does not reflect the submission or love between Christ and His Church. A man deciding to masturbate is effectively saying that Christ doesn’t need to love His Church. A woman deciding to masturbate is effectively saying that the Church doesn’t need the love of Christ. The individual only sees himself or herself in a vacuum, they don’t recognize the need for two to become one flesh, and the glory of the union of marriage.

b. Self-control and Patience

1 Thessalonians 4:3–7 “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness.”

God desires our sanctification. This means that we must increase in holiness. Holiness means abstaining from sexual immorality. But holiness goes a step further. It means controlling your own body in holiness and honour. It means not giving into urges like the lust of the Gentiles who don’t know God. This principle has massive implications for the discussion of masturbation.

When a Christian believes in the Name of Jesus Christ and is saved, then he or she is given the gift of the Holy Spirit. But even with the Spirit, Christians don’t live in a state of perfection yet. But when they have the Holy Spirit, the Spirit begins to produce the Fruits of the Spirit (Gal 5). One could call them the ‘virtues’ of the Spirit. These are the virtues in the heart of a man, each of which urge him towards godliness, or away from sinfulness, which would include the act of masturbation. Two fruits of the Holy Spirit are important for our purposes here: self-control and patience. Others are important too, but these two are the most applicable.

Christians are called to ‘control’ their bodies. Self-control is the development of an ability to control urges and desires. This could mean that an angry man controls his urge to lash out in anger. He doesn’t need to lash out in anger for cathartic release, and that anger only fuels more anger anyway. Someone who eats too much might learn to control their appetite. Self-control in sexuality is to control the mechanical urge to create arousal outside of the marriage bed. It means controlling the urge to masturbate.

Self-control in masturbation also involves the virtue of patience. Singles are called to patiently wait for the union of marriage (i.e. Song of Solomon). As Solomon’s bride says to young women (which applies to young men as well) in Song of Songs 8:4: “I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, that you not stir up or awaken love until it pleases.” Masturbation with the hope of orgasm is a potential way to stir up or awaken love before it is meant to be awoken. Married couples should exhibit this patience within the marriage: “Love is patient” (I Cor. 13:4).

Ultimately, masturbation is a sin because 99.5% of the time it is conducted in the passion of lust. It does not reflect the virtues men and women are called to cultivate in their lives. A person who masturbates regularly is under the control of lust. This is why masturbation is so tied up with shame. But the virtues of patience and self-control provide a better way to wrestle with the passions that so exemplify our sinful nature. The only way to cultivate patience and self-control is through the power of the Holy Spirit.  When we fight sin, then, we rely on the internal work of the Holy Spirit to cultivate these virtues from the inside. At the same time, we look to the forgiving blood of Christ; who not only forgives our sexual sins but our sinful sexual desires as well. And fight we must.

Consequential Utilitarian Ethics

“Utilitarianism is what is known as a teleological system (taken from the Greek word telos, which means “end,” “goal”), in which the morality of an act is determined by the end result.”12 Of course, this does not give the why for morality, but it does offer a warning. Neither does it really give the primary motivation for doing what’s right. We would argue that Proverbs is more about virtues, but Solomon warns his son about consequences: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death” (Proverbs 14:12).

Bill Smith writes:

As idolatrous man gives himself over to idolatry, he is given over by God to dishonoring his body in male-female sexual relationships. As this becomes the normal course of life, God eventually gives man over to “dishonorable passions.” These dishonorable passions are same-sex sexual passions; women exchanging the Creator’s design for sexual relations in order to be with women, and men inflamed in their passions toward one another doing that which is shameful with other men. These are unions that are fruitless by design. They are unions of death; death to individuals and death to society.13

Lust goes primarily against the virtue of love. Thus, when lust takes root, it begins to squeeze love out. Lust sets up an idol – such as sexual pleasure – and begins to squeeze out honorable passions with dishonorable passions. We must realize that either sin is growing, or holiness is growing. There is no status quo of no growth. There is no neutral ground. A lazy man or woman is not fighting against lust and is instead giving in by masturbating.

Joel Hesch tells the story of a man whose pastor gave him the permission to masturbate since his wife would only have sex with him every 3 months – the qualifier was that he had to think about his wife when he was masturbating. With sadness in his eyes, this man told Joel Hesch that he should have never started. Masturbation only fueled his desire for sex, it compounded his lust.14

Willingly giving in to masturbation is tantamount to acceptance of the sin. If sin is not fought through the battle for new virtues such as self-control and patience and true love, then it will metastasize like cancer. It will grow bigger. It will search for a new rush, a new thrill. It will see a pretty woman, made in the image of God, as an object to unclothe and release sexual desires with. Rape in the mind, if not reversed by the power of the Holy Spirit, ends in a rape culture.15 It will begin to make a man feel dead to the touch of his wife or a wife feel dead to the touch of her husband.

Natural Law/Human Flourishing

The secular psychologist Jordan Peterson asks the question of young people whether they stand up straighter and feel proud of themselves for masturbating. He then states that deciding to masturbate is the admission that you are a second-rate player.16 Another secular psychology website permits masturbation, but they recognize the close link between pornography, masturbation, and compulsive sex addiction. They even go so far to connect this to the importance of human relationships over pornography and masturbation.17 Compulsive sex addiction and therapy are one of the battles of our day. Winston T. Smith from Christian Counselling Educational Foundation takes a similar approach to human flourishing when he emphasizes the beauty of human relationships over the selfishness of masturbation.18

We have already grounded our ethical reasoning in creation ordinances and in the path of following Christ. We have seen that human flourishing in sexuality is found within God’s creation ordinance of marriage. Solomon also says in the book of Proverbs: “Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD and turn away from evil. It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones.” (Prov. 3:7-8) There are also good consequences to making good decisions. There is healing in the path of wisdom.

Coming to Grips With the Grace of God

We can imagine numerous scenarios where serious Christian individuals, or couples are already fallen, taken up in the sins of pornography or masturbation. Ethics must be understood in the context of Jesus’ work, otherwise every one of us is damned to Hell. There are a million situations of sin and shame and guilt including pasts of sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, legalism, and cheap grace. There are many young men and women, Christian or not, neck-deep in porn habits, masturbation, and sex outside of marriage.

We emphasize strongly that no sin is beyond Christ’s healing.  Even if the conscience is numbed your conscience to the weight of sin, the Christian can still go to Christ. Rev. Lane Keister states: “There is only one way to deal with this kind of guilty feeling: take it all to the cross, to Jesus. Burdens are lifted at Calvary, as the hymn says.”1 As the Apostle Paul states in 2 Corinthians 5:14–15: “For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.”

Another important emphasis is the excessive guilt many people carry. In legalist cultures, where sexuality is a ‘do not touch’ topic, sexuality itself becomes a source of guilt.2 But we must emphasize that sexuality was created by God in the Garden of Eden. There are natural functions for male and female genitalia, which are pure and holy. The Song of Solomon, for example, is a celebration of the beauty in sexual relations. Christians are permitted, nay, obliged to rejoice in this. Even more important the Scripture gives a much larger picture of love than the area of sexuality. Marriage is even more glorious in its sense of companionship, support, including in areas of emotional and spiritual connection.

For example, a boy or a man should not feel guilty for a desire for marriage. Proverbs 18:22 says: “He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the LORD.” It is a noble thing to seek a wife, contrary to the raunchy comments of young men on this issue, or the unnecessary exhortations of older men.

We read in Titus 2:11-12 “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age,” Those who seek this way of living should pray earnestly for these fruits of the Holy Spirit, and to fight for them in the power of the Holy Spirit. Once again, as the author of Proverbs 2:3–5 urges his son: “yes, if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, then you will understand the fear of the LORD and find the knowledge of God.” Of course, this prayer includes action as well. As Jesus says in Mark 9:43: “And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.”

In the fight, we also recognize that it is not always good to focus exclusively on the fight. Rather we should pursue new, pure desires. First, we pursue Jesus Christ that we may know the power of His resurrection and share in His sufferings (Phil. 3:10). We pursue something wholesome (like a good wife). While a little broader, this passage from Philippians can also be applied within sexuality.

Philippians 4:8–9 “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”

Scripture depicts the life of true flourishing. Jesus is the ultimate good that we aim for.  When our loves are “rightly ordered” towards the telos of our first Love, then we also begin to find the good of human flourishing. Psalm 128 describes the Christian family gathered around the dinner table, as a true picture of fellowship.  We can love the goodness of sexuality within marriage, and the goodness of sexuality outside of marriage. The Christian can love his or her body in a wholesome way. Christians can delight in the goodness within God’s created world, and delight in serving Him and others within that world. There are good works of literature and theology, good cigars, sports like hockey and rugby, and rich whiskey. There are women who fear God and men who serve Him. And because of the work of the Holy Spirit, life (including sexuality) is possible to enjoy before the face of a holy God.


I wrote this section of the paper in a larger paper on pornography-masturbation. If you have any feedback on where I go wrong, I always appreciate good feedback. In Christ, Nathan Zekveld


1 Lane Keister, “What you do with your guilt,” Green Baggins, https://greenbaggins.wordpress.com/2018/02/07/what-do-you-do-with-your-guilt/ (Accessed March 31, 2018).

2 Keister, “What you do with you guilt.”

1 Joel Hesch, Proven Men: A Proven Path to Sexual Integrity: Straightforward help with issues of lust, Pornography, Masturbation or other forms, (Lynchburg: Proven Men Ministries, 2013), pg. 201.

2 Jason DeDouchie, “If your right hand causes you to sin,” Desiring God, https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/if-your-right-hand-causes-you-to-sin (Accessed March 31, 2018).

3 Merriam-Webster Dictionary, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/masturbation (Accessed March 31, 2018).

4 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed., (1997), n 2352. https://www.kofc.org/en/catechism/index.html#.

5 Planned Parenthood, “Masturbation” Planned Parenthood https://www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/teens/sex/masturbation (Accessed March 31, 2018).

6 Rae, 77.

7 Hesch, 204.

8 Hesch, 205.

9 Hesch, 206.

10 Hesch, 207.

11 Rae, 91.

12 Rae, 72.

13 Bill Smith, “The Maturation of Sin,” Kuyperian Commentary, http://kuyperian.com/the-maturation-of-sin/#more-14686 (Accessed March 31, 2018).

14 Hesch, 207-208.

15 Hesch, 204.

16 Jordan Peterson, “The link between Birth Control, Pornography, and Masturbation,” YouTube Video 3:10, published October 3, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tIXw5lqLwZY.

17 Alexandra Katehakis, “Is Masturbation Bad for You,” PsychCentral, https://psychcentral.com/blog/is-masturbation-bad-for-you/ (Accessed April 2, 2018).

18 Winston T. Smith, It’s all about me: the problem with masturbation, (Greensboro: New Growth Press, 2009)

Biblical Reasons for Prayer Groups

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In Reformed Churches, we have the practice of praying in public/corporate worship. Typically, our practice looks like the pattern laid out in Scripture, in that one individual prays to God before the assembly. We see David pray to God before the assembly when the men and women dedicate their gold for the building of the Temple (I Chron. 29:10-19). We see Solomon pray for the dedication of the Temple, standing before the people (I K 8:22-61). Ezra publicly confesses the sin of the people in intermarrying with unbelievers in Ezra 9. We have built our practice of public prayer in public worship on texts like these. Of course, we also find a rationale within the old testament for praying form prayers together in public worship. But that argument is for another day.

We also have a strong tradition of private devotion. There are many, many prayers in Scripture which reflect a relationship between an individual and God. These include many of the Psalms, the prayer of Hannah (I Sam 2), and the prayer of Jonah (Jonah 2). In this matter of private devotion, Jesus Himself commanded His disciples to go into their closet and pray rather than showing of through putting personal piety on public display by praying on the street corner for all men to see (Matt. 6). I would suggest that public prayer is grounded in the close relationship with God that happens behind doors, otherwise, it is just show. In public prayer we learn from wise and godly leaders how to pray in private.

What might be termed as “popcorn prayers” or just simply praying together as prayer groups (taking turns praying) is something that is done less frequently in the Reformed circles that I spend time in. We might say “I will pray for you”, but it is less common to hear “let me pray with you.” Is there good reason for this discomfort? In the case of showing off piety, I understand the discomfort. But then we should be concerned about this showing off in all areas, including private prayer and public prayer. We are not to be like the Pharisees who pray on the street corner(Matt. 6:5-8). Instead our righteousness is to exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees (Matt. 5:20), and that can only happen when Jesus Christ gives us a new heart. With a new heart we can sit together in Christian fellowship and call out to God in prayer from the bottom of our hearts. In this way we spur one another on, not because one is better than another because of what we do, but because Jesus is Saviour and Lord. Bad examples do not negate the good, but only show themselves to be faulty examples that we should avoid. The question should be: how can we help one another, also in prayer?

There are many commands to pray in the New Testament. We are to devote ourselves to prayer (Col. 4:2), to pray continually (I Thess. 5:17), to confess our sins to each other and pray for each other (James 5:16), bring prayers for all people (I Tim. 2:1-2), to be faithful in prayer (Rom. 12:12), to watch and pray (Matt. 6:7), to pray for our persecutors (Matt. 5:44), to pray when someone is in trouble (James 5:13), to pray in the Spirit in all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests (Eph. 6:18), etc. Many of these examples could take place in a setting of Christians praying together such as when the believers pray together for boldness in Acts 4:23-31. We also see the Church come to pray over the sick (James 5:14-15). We are to spur one another on to love and good deeds (Heb. 10:24-25), how about spurring one another on to prayer? We can also encourage one another and build each other up by the act of praying together (I Thess. 5:11). Much more could be said.

At the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary, groups of students and a mentor will meet at the beginning of every week to pray with one another, for one another, and for issues in the church and the world. This is fitting as we seek to support and encourage one another in following Christ also in the act of prayer. As leader of the family is common for the father to pray, or he will ask his wife to pray. But it would be fitting for the father to ask various children to pray after him, or to do a form prayer as a family. A Christian youth group might do well to break off into groups to pray and encourage one another in prayer or to pray a form prayer together. The same could be said of other gatherings of believers outside of public worship.

In conclusion, Christians praying together is a beautiful expression of Christian fellowship and community, primarily as an act of fellowship with God. When we listen closely to what God is saying in His Word and respond by addressing our prayers to the Father in the Name of Jesus Christ and in the power of His Spirit, this prayer brings us together into the very presence of the Triune God. In His presence, we lose sight of one another, we lose sight of ourselves, and we find ourselves caught up in praising Him.

What is Liberalism in the Church?

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I am realizing that I am somewhat confused on what exactly a liberal is. And this confusion is not in regards to political liberalism. There is a difference between political liberalism and Church liberalism. This is from a young brain trying to process all the tribes in Christianity. References to liberalism are something that I have heard many times in my lifetime. It is a part of being part of North American Church culture.

I spent a lot of time with Baptist friends as well as Reformed friends in my younger years. I was well aware of what Christianity was as opposed to unbelief because I also had run into a huge variety of religious beliefs outside of Christianity including darker representations such as witches. My parents taught me faithfully and taught me to love the Church and the Reformed exposition of Scripture. So what were these liberal and conservative churches that were in the lingo of the United Reformed Churches? Was it primarily a doctrinal matter? Was it primarily a matter of practice? My Baptist friend was a conservative Christian, his parents also faithfully taught him the way of salvation and the authenticity of God’s Word. So what distinguished a Baptist Church from a Reformed Church other than infant baptism? And yes, I am a hardcore proponent of infant baptism. Infant baptism matters.

J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity & Liberalism has helped me to understand the whole conservative/liberal dilemma more. According to Machen, liberalism is a term used only by the friends of the liberals, because to those who contend with it, liberalism is a “narrow ignoring of many relevant facts.” Thus, a conservative should also be a liberal thinker, but not in the way that liberalism operated. Liberalism in the 1920s was impacted by modern trends of the day. Particularly by the propagation of science. This science was not “theistic” science because it was science done with a focus on natural processes. It was “naturalistic” science. It involved a denial of the hand of God working in nature. Essentially it was a type of scientism that was leading Christians to reject important Christian truths. I am working with Machen’s definition below:

Liberalism is movement within the church that is un-Christian and unscientific. It involves a questioning of a variety of core Christian doctrines such as the virgin birth, the divinity of Christ, the plenary inspiration of Scripture, the nature of sin, the sovereignty of God, the importance of doctrine, the hand of God in human salvation, etc.

I did not understand the full implications of this definition, although I knew that the debate between the United Reformed Churches and the Christian Reformed Churches had to do with the tolerance of a reading of the Bible that was challenging certain matters like women in office and matters of homosexuality. Many Biblical norms were beginning to be considered by some as culturally bound. The question became: well which principles are culturally bound and which are not? As such, the Word began to lose its authority. There were matters of Christianity & Liberalism at play there and there. How many years until we are engaged in similar debates again within our own “conservative” denominations?

At one time, I began to create a structure of more conservative and less conservative churches in my mind. But I was confused about whether to regard this in terms of practice or doctrine. And where. And how to be more Biblical as compared to conservative. And how sometimes very conservative churches could be hotbeds of liberalism. And then I went to New Saint Andrew’s College and had fellow students who were conservative with a different picture of liberalism in mind. I had heard people say that having one worship service on a Sunday was liberal. I had heard others say that if you don’t read Exodus 20:1-17 or its counterpart in Deuteronomy every Sunday morning in worship, then you are liberal. I had to wrap my mind around the various expressions of “conservative” Christianity in North America including the RPCNA, OPC, CanRC, CREC, ARP, PCA, and even “conservative” Anglicans. And I couldn’t really call any of them “liberal” even though many “conservative” churches down in the States come together for worship once a Sunday. And yet, that coming together  in worship is a beautiful and Biblical matter as well.

In my travels through Reformed Churches, I have often heard the statement that all the differences don’t matter. That could potentially be a statement of liberalism. But the differences do matter, maybe just not in the way that we make them matter. Infant baptism matters big time. But is it a matter of Christianity & Liberalism? Yes, many liberals say it doesn’t matter. But we can still be co-beligerents with Reformed Baptists when we consider all the deviant forms of Christianity in North America that are attacking integral points of Christian doctrine.

The goal of the church is never compromise. In fact, we should fight compromise with all our might. Instead, the goal of the church is further maturity in Jesus Christ (Eph. 4:13). There will always be different practices, and many of those practices will be bad and un-Biblical and they should be regarded as such. When seeing them, ministers should rebuke with all authority (II Tim. 4:2, Titus 2:15). But we should be ready to give a hit and take a hit when we realize that we also have not been faithful at all times. Repentance is part of the path to renewal. We must always go back to the Word of God in structuring church life and worship. The Word of God is the objective standard. The practice of the Church throughout history in submission to the Word of God is a good place to go to learn faithfulness.

There is a diversity in practice as we recognize in seeking unity through projects such as NAPARC (North American Presbyterian and Reformed Committee). Truth is not relative and so we cannot say that there will be a diversity of doctrine, this is indeed a major problem of liberalism. But because we recognize sin and its effects on the mind, we also must humbly work together alongside Christians with whom we disagree as we speak the truth in love and grow into our one head, that is Christ (Eph. 4:15). Of course, one aspect of this unity project is: “so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.” (Eph. 4:14) The goal is to live by sound doctrine and so give glory to God. The path there is speaking the truth in love.


Getting a Vision From the Old Guys

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Why do the old, dead theologians matter? Doesn’t theology get out-dated? Do the reasons for why churches like the Orthodox Presbyterian and United Reformed began still matter? Do these things matter for the brick-layer and the accountant in the congregation to know? As I have been reading the works of J. Gresham Machen, I have been alerted to a concern that we are drifting from our moorings. It is a good question to think about: why do I go to the church that I go to? More importantly, why do I even go to church? Does theological debate matter in the 21st century? Does it matter that young men and women should read Luther and Bavinck and Schilder and Machen and Augustine? Should certain Bible-believing denominations be uniting? On what basis? Or does that just make life a headache and contribute to the further splintering of the church? What are we grounded in? Where are we going?

I have heard comments about losing a Canadian Reformed identity and I have heard comments about the need for a United Reformed identity. The PCAs in Canada have their own concerns. I have heard comments about Dutch identity and other national identities. My point isn’t to consider church order here. And yes, it matters. My point isn’t to consider confessions. And yes, what your confession is matters a lot. I want to take a look at the work of J. Gresham Machen on Christianity & Liberalism and consider how this should impact our thought today. I want to think about this in the perspective of the fact that we tend to go back and forth between liberalism and tribalism in Reformed and Presbyterian churches. Liberalism looses our groundings in historic Christianity and tribalism treats a certain set of practices and rules within Christianity as the only historic Christianity.

Machen was a Presbyterian pastor who lived from 1881 to 1937. His parents were strong Christian people and encouraged him in his faith as he also studied for a time under the liberal scholars of Germany. He spoke against the liberal unions in the Church of the 1920s and firmly advocated for a Christianity that was historical rather than being tainted by the secular findings of naturalistic science. He was intent on defending historic Christianity as opposed to a 20th century doctrine that was not clear and in fact murky and confused and even un-Christian. After he was forced out of his Presbyterian denomination, he began a denomination that would eventually become the Orthodox Presbyterian Churches.

Machen’s classic work on Christianity & Liberalism has helped me to take courage in preparation for the ministry in the face of the continual splintering of the North American Church, intricate debates over church order, and a growing disinterest in sound doctrine and Biblical principle among my generation. It can be discouraging to watch men fight over little details when there are so many lost men and women in our communities and cities and when the church is already so splintered. In Christianity & Liberalism, Machen spells out an undivided gospel for the world and he is willing to fight for it. It is a gospel as wide as Christianity itself and takes a deep concern that true and historic Christianity be defended, promoted, and advanced until the second coming of Christ when He comes to judge the living and the dead.

Machen has left a legacy of great theology but many accuse him of being cantakerous and divisive. Yet, if we study his theological project, he wasn’t picking fights about whether to use the organ or piano in worship. This has almost nothing to do with liberal Christianity. Your church is not necessarily liberal if it has only one service a Sunday, for example (although it could be). He was fighting against a movement in the church that was un-Christian: one that was denying the virgin birth, miracles, and departing from a belief in the divinity of Christ. It is fascinating that he even writes with regards to Roman Catholicism and liberalism: “The Church of Rome may represent a perversion of the Christian religion; but naturalistic liberalism is not Christianity at all.” His defense of the integrity of the Word of God was at the center of the struggle. Polity and confessions organized themselves around the centrality of this Word of God. Polity and confessions mattered as we can see in the integrity of the Orthodox Presbyterian Churches, but the authenticity and historicity of the Word of God and the fact that it laid out timeless principles for human life was the hill that he was going to die on. These principles applied to everything from gender, to state, to family, to worship.

Even his opponent in the mission board controversy in the Presbyterian Church, Pearl S. Buck, wrote at the time of his death:

We have lost a man whom our times can ill spare, a man who had convictions which were real to him and who fought for those convictions and held to them through every change in time and human thought. There was power in him which was positive in its very negations. He was worth a hundred of his fellows who, as princes of the church, occupy easy places and play their church politics and trim their sails to every wind, who in their smug observance of the convictions of life and religion offend all honest and searching spirits. No forthright mind can live among them, neither the honest sceptic nor the honest dogmatist. I wish Dr. Machen had lived to go on fighting them.

Many of Machen’s “warrior children” became a cantakerous and divisive breed. Machen himself was but a man and may have been too conflict-oriented. Regardless of his faults, God used his faults to respond to a major deviation in Christianity. I believe that we would do well to consider the vision of this man of faith. He was fierce in defending doctrine, but this was channeled in the direction of challenging false teaching. He had a vision for missions and for the church in North America. He did not fall into the trap of fundamentalism, but he still recognized that they shared a common gospel. He could still fight by their side even though many held to errors concerning the end times. He still responded to errors such as premillenialism. But his vision was for a historic Christianity, a death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that really happened. 

Have we lost this vision? Are we ready to defend this vision? Are we ready to give up our tribalism and count all as loss to follow Jesus Christ? Are we ready to give up the easy believism of the modern day church and give up all to follow Jesus Christ? What is our vision? How will we prepare for the years ahead and to defend the Church of Jesus Christ in the 21st century? Are we ready to join the men of faith, who lived by faith, and pursued the promises of God in Jesus Christ?

Machen concludes his work on Christianity and liberalism:

Is there no place where two or three can gather in Jesus’ name, to forget for the moment all those things that divide nation from nation and race from race, to forget human pride, to forget the passions of war, to forget the puzzling problems of industrial strife, and to unite in overflowing gratitude at the foot of the Cross? If there be such a place, then that is the house of God and that the gate of heaven. And from under the threshold of that house will go forth a river that will revive the weary world.

“Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.” (I Cor. 16:13-14)

 

On the Abolition of Woman and the Shelter of the Cross