Doctrine and Life

I realize that my article last week on the Old Side-New Side and Old School-New School divisions were difficult for many people to follow. This week I am going to simplify the subject matter and I hope most everyone will understand. 

In the eighteenth century, there was a great debate that took place over the matter of a revival called the Great Awakening. Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, Gilbert Tennent, and Samuel Blair were the primary leaders of that revival in Colonial America. Christianity had become dead, cold, and formal—at best. In Great Britain, George Whitefield had an amazing conversion and began preaching a new (but old) doctrine called justification by faith. It was shocking to the ears of people in England. They had long been accustomed to hear moralistic sermons which taught them to be good and God would receive them into His kingdom. But, what did Whitefield preach? Here is a specimen from a sermon on ‘Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian’:

An almost Christian is one of the most hurtful creatures in the world. He is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He is one of the false prophets of whom our Lord bids us beware, who would persuade men that the way to heaven is broader than it really is, and thereby enter not into the kingdom of God themselves, and those that are entering in they hinder. These, these are the men who turn the world into a luke-warm Laodicean spirit; who hang out false lights, and so shipwreck unthinking benighted souls in their voyage to the haven where they would be. (Arnold Dallimore, George Whitefield, I, 120).   

Sermons like that by Whitefield, Edwards, Tennent, Blair, and others were not calculated to win friends and influence people. The critics soon came out in large numbers. Scores of ministers on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean seemingly rose up with one united voice to try to shout down these revival preachers. All kinds of accusations were falsely presented against them. In fact, it was very much like the kind of persecution that the Apostle Paul faced from the Greeks and Romans and Jews wherever he traveled. That is one reason why Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones often said that the Great Awakening was his favorite period of church history next to the time of the apostles. It was a revival of true Christianity. Thus, the Presbyterian Church in Colonial America split into two groups on the basis of either their support for or their opposition to the Great Awakening. Dallimore’s biography of Whitefield was one of the first books I read after God converted me, so I have always been on the side of that revival. And that, in my humble opinion, is the only place where those who are true lovers of the gospel can be and should be. The gospel was twisted and marred by the opponents of the Great Awakening, but it was preached fully and faithfully by the supporters of it. Scriptural revival and evangelism are where the church must always be. In the darkest of times, the true church must lift up the light of Christ to the world. Our message is not social justice or good works. Our message is the necessity of the new birth and the atonement of Christ and saving faith.

The second controversy the following century was over doctrine. The questions were these: Do we have to be so strict on doctrine? Or, can we just permit a little bit of error here or there? Those are good questions. We could turn them around this way: Is a little bit of poison in my water really all that harmful? Do I have to be so meticulous about pure water? I imagine if you went into a restaurant and the waiter informed you that a little bit of poison had been spilled in the drinking water that you would not drink that water. I suspect you would immediately leave that restaurant. I also suspect that if you went to Montezuma you would not drink the water there, either. I could be wrong on all my assumptions, but that is what I suspect, nonetheless. 

So, here is what happened that led to the second split of the Presbyterian Church in the nineteenth century into two groups; those who were strictly orthodox and those who were heterodox, which means they gave great latitude to various opinions. The roots of the second split were in the eighteenth century. Gilbert Tennent, who had preached that great sermon ‘The Dangers of an Unconverted Ministry’, came under a lot of personal criticism and persecution over his sermon for which he was not prepared. He eventually withered under that criticism and began to try to re-unite the friends and the opponents of the Great Awakening which was accomplished in 1758, seventeen years after their split. The reunited denomination was the opposite of a marriage made in heaven and the ink was hardly dry on the reunion documents before the two groups began to fight once again. Those divisions led the Presbyterian Church into greater and greater degrees of liberalism. By 1838, the denomination was once again hopelessly divided over the nature of the true gospel. Albert Barnes was a chief opponent of the truth and the gospel. Charles G. Finney devised what was called ‘new measures’ of bringing people to Christ. He called people to make a rational decision for Christ without any true change of heart in too many instances. It was what was called ‘decisional regeneration.’ Now, there were some very good revival ministers during that period—especially, Asahel Nettleton and Daniel Baker—who did not agree with the ‘new measures.’ (Daniel Baker, by the way, is an ancestor of our own Al Baker). But most of the evangelism of that period was contrary to sound doctrine. Thus, there were those faithful ministers and theologians who pushed back against the erosion of sound doctrine. The true church was on the side of evangelism that is based on sound doctrine and opposed to all the modifications of the truth. The Scripture certainly leaves some matters as adiaphora—matters of conscience. Yet, the Scripture never leaves doctrine to the whims of the church or individual ministers. The Bible gives us the standard and we must follow it strictly. 

Now, these two controversies are connected both in doctrine and practice. Both the supporters of the Great Awakening in the eighteenth century and the supporters of sound doctrine in the nineteenth century agreed on the same things. They both believed in sound doctrine and they both believed in Scriptural evangelism. I once heard a reformed seminary professor say that the church needs a balance both of those who are strictly orthodox and of those who are loose on orthodoxy. I think he was floundering for a way to understand things, but he badly missed the mark. That would be like saying that the church needs a balance of both the pure water of life and water that has been diluted with poison. That is nonsense. That position is wrong. The church does not need less truth. Nor does the church need a mixture of truth and error. The church needs all the truth of God’s Word and the church needs more evangelism. The church needs both doctrine and evangelism, both truth and Scriptural revival. That is the position that Vanguard Presbytery holds in our official statements and the vows we have all officers must sign. If we fall short of that ideal, it is through our weaknesses—not through our commitments.  

Dewey Roberts, Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, FL    Please send any donations to Vanguard Presbytery, PO Box 1862, Destin, FL 32540.  

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