On Being Positively Negative for the Gospel

Protestant and Reformed Christians in America have a peculiarly difficult task in the present day. While they are not suffering the sever persecution that their brothers and sisters, in nations extremely hostile to the Gospel, are undergoing, they are being tested in a way that most church goers in America do not want to admit. They are called to defend the truth of the Gospel in the midst of a society that is increasingly tolerant of every kind of false teaching and intolerant of every presentation of truth. This is, interestingly, the chief way that Satan attacked the first century church–through false teaching and false living.

One of the most common charges leveled against the Reformed Church is that we are to critical and too negative. We are told that we need to be less negative and critical, and that we need to be more winsome and positive in our presentation and defense of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is, of course, not an altogether unfounded charge. Reformed Christians, as well as Fundamentalist Christians, have many times been insensitive in the way they have interacted within the church and within the world. But this, I fear, is not the most pressing need of the Church in America. The most pressing need of the church is to rise up in defense of the Gospel in a way that is pleasing to our Lord.

We are constantly being told that unity is more important that arguing over doctrinal beliefs. This is true only if those doctrinal beliefs do not pervert the Gospel as it comes to us through the written and living Word of God. If theologians teach false doctrine that destroy the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture or pervert the Person and/or work of Christ, our Lord does not teach us to unite with them. In fact, the opposite is true. Ministers are to protect the sheep against false teachers who will, as Paul says in Acts 20, even rise up from among the church leadership. This demand for “unity for unity’s sake” is completely unbiblical. John Piper has recently pointed out the significance of James 3:15-17 in this regard. He explains that in those verses the wisdom that is from above is said to be first pure, then peaceable. Peace in the church cannot come unless purity of doctrine first be established.

It appears as though the postmodern mindset (not entirely unlike the modernist mindset) is fueling an ecumenical movement within the church–an ecumenical movement that makes the grounds of unity the acceptance of individuals with doctrinal differences at the expense of the truth of the Gospel. This is, in many respects not a new danger. This was a danger in the apostle Paul’s day. Interestingly, this call for tolerance and positivism was exactly what J. Gresham Machen was dealing with in the Presbyterian Church almost a century ago. Where did Machen turn to find biblical support of his defense of the faith? To Paul’s epistle to the Galatians, of course! In his Notes on Galatians, Machen sets down the following insights–insights as applicable today as in his own day:

  1. So far we have only dealt with two words in this epistle to the Galatians, the word “Paul” and the word “apostle.” What is the next word after these?

    It is a word that is now regarded as highly objectionable, a word that Paul, if he had been what modern men would have desired him to be, never would have used. It is the small but weighty word “not.” “Paul an apostle not from men, nor through a man, but…”

    That word “not,” we are constantly being told, ought to be put out of the Christians vocabulary. Our preaching we are told, ought to be positive and not negative; we ought to present the truth, but ought never to attack error; we ought to avoid controversy and always seek peace.

    With regard to such a program it may be said at least that if we hold to it we might just as well close up our New Testaments; for the New Testament is a controversial book almost from beginning to end. That is of course true with regard to the epistles of Paul. They, at least, are full of argument and controversy–no question, certainly, can be raised about that. Even the hymn to Christian love in the thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians is an integral part of a great controversial passage with regard to a false use of the spiritual gifts. That glorious hymn never would have been written if Paul had been adverse to controversy and had sought peace at any price. But the same thing is also true of the words of Jesus. They too–I think we can say it reverently–are full of controversy. He presented His righteousness sharply over against the other righteousness of the scribes and pharisees.

    That is simply in accordance with a fundamental law of the human mind. All definition is by way of exclusion. You cannot possibly say clearly what a thing is without contrasting it with what it is not. When that fundamental law is violated, we find nothing but a fog. Have you ever listened to this boasted non-confrontational preaching, this preaching that is positive and not negative, this teaching that tries to present truth without attacking error? What impression does it make upon your mind? We will tell you what impression it makes upon ours. It makes the impression of utter inanity…

    No, there is one word which every true Christian must learn to use. It is the word “not” or the word “no.” A Christian must certainly learn to say “no” in the field of conduct; there are some things that the world does, which he cannot do. But he must also learn to say “no” in the field of conviction. The world regards as foolishness the gospel upon which the Christian life is based, and the Christian who does not speak out against the denial of the gospel is certainly not faithful to his Lord. That is true with respect to the denials in the world at large, but it is even more obviously true of the denials within the visible church. There the obligation of bearing testimony, negatively as well as positively, is particularly strong…

    May God send us men who are not deceived, men who will respond to the forces of unbelief and compromise now so largely dominant in the visible church with a brave and unqualified “NO!” Paul was such a man in his day. He said “no” in the very first word of this epistle, after the bare name and title of the author; and that word gives the key to the whole epistle that follows. The epistle to the Galatians is a polemic, fighting epistle from beginning to end. What a fire it kindled at the time of the Reformation! May it kindle another fire in our day–not a fire that will destroy any fine or noble or Christian thing, but a fire of Christian love in hearts grown cold.1

1. J. Gresham Machen Notes on Galatians (Birmingham, Al: Solid Ground Books, 2006) pp. 6-8

3 Responses

  1. David Campbell

    Great post and well articulated. I would agree with you on, I guess all of your points. What I find is tragic amongst the Reformed Church and the Western Church as a whole is that we are not clear on what the gospel is. We tend to think of the gospel as a set of doctrines versus what it really is. There is a time for everything, but until we can become clear on what the gospel is, we are just chasing the wind. Keep up the good work.

  2. Nicholas T. Batzig


    I love the way Paul defines the Gospel in 1 Corinthians 15: “Christ died FOR our sins, according to the Scriptures, He was buried, and He rose again from the dead according to the Scriptures.” Sadly, the emphasis of the substitionary death of Christ is undergoing as rigerous an attack today as ever in the history of the church. We have public figures telling us that the idea of penal substitution (i.e. that Christ could be punished by the Father on account of my disobedience) is cosmic child abuse. Well, I for one am thankful that Christ was punished on accound of my sin because now I will live forever with the risen Lord Jesus! I am eternally thankful to God for imputing my sins to His Son and the righteousness of Christ to me. In the words of the hymn writer: “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus blood and righteousness.” “God made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” Praise the LORD.

  3. Joshua Rieger

    Great post! I’ve been teaching through Galatians the last couple months and I really love Machen’s book. It’s been very useful to read and he sure knows a lot of what we are dealing with in the current church setting, too.

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