Dr. Mark Dever began our conference program on Wednesday with a lecture outlining the mandate for Christians not to avoid controversy if the gospel is at stake. This is what he had to say in his message “Here We Stand.”
The Problem of Controversy
In July 1519, the famous Leipzig disputation between Johann Eck and Martin Luther was held in Germany. Luther had become convinced that the medieval church had been teaching some falsehoods in regards to the clarity of Scripture and other matters, and Eck took the counter position. After the debate, a written record of the exchange was sent to the theologians at the University of Paris, and they determined that Eck had won the debate. In response they also published ten theses:
1. The Scriptures are obscure.
2. The Scriptures can’t be used by themselves.
3. The Scriptures must be interpreted by masters, especially the masters at the University of Paris.
4. The church fathers are obscure.
5. The church fathers can’t be interpreted by themselves.
6. The church fathers must be interpreted by masters, especially the masters at the University of Paris.
7. The Four Books of Sentences by Peter Lombard (a medieval theology textbook) are obscure.
8. The Four Books of Sentences can’t be interpreted by themselves.
9. The Four Books of Sentences by Peter Lombard must be interpreted by masters, especially the masters at the University of Paris.
10. The masters of Paris are the sole judge of such matters and their declarations are clear.
This debate and its aftermath illustrate how controversy has long been a part of public religion, education, politics, and so forth. Yet controversy has never been popular. It is a constant object of mockery and scorn. Consider these quotes on controversy from figures in history:
Cicero: “When you have no basis for an argument, abuse the plaintiff
Richard Sibbes: “Fractions always breed factions”
Matthew Henry: “The worst thing we can bring to a religious controversy is angel.”
Jonathan Swift: “Argument is the worst sort of conversation.”
Jonathan Edwards: “Christianity cannot flourish in a time of strife and contention among its professors.”
John Wesley: “Point me out a better way than I have yet known, show me it so by plain proof of Scripture. May I not request of you farther not to give me hard names in order to bring me into the right way. Nay, perhaps if you are angry, so shall I be too and then there will be small hopes of finding the truth. If once anger arise, this smoke will so dim the eyes of my soul that I shall be able to see nothing clearly.
George Washington: Of all the animosities which have existed among mankind, those which are caused by a difference of sentiments in religion appear to be the most inveterate and distressing John Henry Newman: When men understand what each other men, they see for the most part that controversy is either superfluous or hopeless.”
D.L. Moody: I’ve never yet known the Spirit of God to work where the Lord’s people were divided.
J.C. Ryle: Nothing does so much harm to the cause of religion as the quarrels of Christians.
Oscar Wilde: I dislike arguments of any kind. They’re always vulgar and often convincing.”
Francis Schaeffer: “Beware of the habits we learn in controversy”
Albert Hubbard: “If you can’t answer a man’s argument, all is not lost, you can still call him vile names.”
On the other hand, when it comes to religion, only controversy motivates the press give the church any coverage. Recently, The Economist wrote about Calvinism in the Southern Baptist Convention and the stir it is causing. We read coverage in the media of the mainline Episcopalian and Presbyterian churches having their debates about homosexuality. Seeing all of this has led many conclude that religious debates are merely one self-interested faction fighting another, which is a conclusion that fits in well with the mood of our culture and its view of truth and power.
The Need for Controversy
But what are we to think? Are we to avoid controversy at all costs? After all, many pastors owe their jobs to avoiding controversy at all costs. But are religious matters ever worth fighting for?
Paul’s answer to this question in Galatians 1:1–10 is yes. Here we read strong words. They are not the kind of things you find in a book like The Positive Bible: From Genesis to Revelation edited by Ken Winston Caine. In the book of Galatians, Caine omits verses 3 through 10, for those verses aren’t positive; they don’t inspire, nurture, or heal.
But the Holy Spirit inspired the verses that Caine left out of his edition, and he did so for a reason. Some may think that Paul’s teaching ministry was generated by himself, but Paul is emphatic that this idea of self-generated ministry is false. His commission was from God. It was not from men, a committee, or one who was merely human who confronted Paul the representative of the Sanhedrin on the road to Damascus; rather, it was from Christ Himself. Moreover, he had not been sustained in his ministry by men, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father. His commission was divine, and his gospel was not merely one opinion on a plate of theological possibilities. He had a message from God about what God had done.
Verses 3–5 tell us that the heart of this message is Jesus Christ, who was not merely killed by the Romans for political reasons, as many scholars are saying. His death was not just a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, nor was it simply a sad example of Roman severity. Some suggest this idea to ease tensions between some misguided Christians and the Jews they oppressed in Christ’s name, but they are ignoring the earliest written records of what Jesus understood himself to be doing. Christ gave himself, choosing to lay down his life to become a sacrifice. Why? It was to provide for the forgiveness of our sins. His death was for our lives — His righteousness for our sins — that is the heart of the gospel. This is what Christianity is all about; it is why we are holding this conference. We know that we have sinned against God and that in His mercy He will give us His righteousness and forgiveness when we repent and believe. By nature we are in bondage to our sins, and we are liable to His judgment because He is good and because none of us have lived a perfect life. Despite all this, He came to save us. We need to be set free from the penalty and power of our sins. Christ gave Himself to rescue us from condemnation.
Did Paul avoid controversy at all costs? No, he was willing to engage in it for the sake of the gospel. Let us learn from him what we are to think about gospel controversy in our day.
First, we see the Galatians’ confusion about the gospel. Normally, Paul says sweet things even to the most troubled churches, not to flatter his audience but to instill in them appreciation for God’s work in them. Yet this is not what we read in Galatians 1:6 He starts out with astonishment that people are perverting the gospel of Christ and that the Galatians are heeding them. The Galatians had identified themselves by Paul’s gospel, which had rescued them from evil, but they were turning away from it at the time of his writing. They had turned traitor (“quickly deserting” here is often rendered as “traitor” elsewhere) to the good news, shifting to another gospel.
But Paul does not view this desertion merely as the abandonment of a message but also as the desertion of the one who called them. It is not that they were merely shifting opinions or an abstract set of beliefs. They were turning to a different gospel that is no gospel at all, and a message that had no real substance. This is finally a desertion of God. The restored relationship with God Himself that is enjoyed only in the apostolic gospel was being rejected. They preferred separation from God to loyal fellowship with him. This was a disastrous exchange, and Paul wanted to prevent it with all the vigor the Spirit gave him.
Verse 7 shows us that people were confusing the Galatians by changing the gospel. To change the perfect gospel of Christ is to pervert it. What causes controversy in the church? It is the confusion of the gospel. John Stott says the Devil disturbs the church as much by error as by evil. When he cannot tempt Christians to do evil, he promotes doctrinal error. Sexual scandal, gossip, and more can harm the church, but teaching a false gospel kills the church at its very core. Its assumptions are erroneous and its material is unsound. If you really want to destroy a church, start teaching a different gospel. A church without the gospel is like a blind driver. A church confused by the gospel is worse than worthless; it is an elevator to hell. Confusing the gospel of Jesus Christ is no small matter, for the gospel is essential to the existence of the local church and to success in the mission God has given it both locally and globally.
Dr. R.C. Sproul in a old lecture once described an interchange between Martin Luther and one of his students after Luther had taught him about justification for the 20th time. The student asked why he needed to hear the doctrine of justification by faith alone again, and Luther said it was because we he did not learn it even after the 19th time. We are forgetful. Are you excited about what God was doing for you 6 months ago? Probably not. We forget. That is why the verb remember appears repeatedly in Deuteronomy and the Psalms. We must always preach the gospel clearly that it might be remembered. We must preserve its truth and not let it be subtly transformed in our preaching.
The True Gospel Versus a False Gospel
The question for us this morning is how was the false gospel in Galatia different from the biblical gospel?
1. It had a different conclusion or goal (vv. 7–10) — Paul has to choose either to be a servant of X or a servant of men. He can’t be both. He will be a God-pleaser or a man-pleaser. He cannot do both. The gospel belongs to God, not Paul. God directed the work of Christ. Paul had to please Him. Luther noted that true preaching will never please the world because it the world hates nothing more than hearing its wisdom condemned.
John Gill, a pious, educated man and theologian, was once told not to write against a person who was publishing error because he would lose the monetary support of the author. Gill said he was not afraid to be poor for the sake of the gospel. We will make different choices regarding the gospel if we are not afraid to be poor than if we fear impoverishment? The gospel is not for sale. There is no prize that is worth us putting the gospel up for sale. What Paul preaches is what we must adhere to. Are we willing to risk controversy and poverty for loyalty to the gospel? If we reject this message, we reject the one whose message it is.
2. It had a different direction (v. 6) — Those preaching the other gospels were to be condemned. Paul actually calls upon God to curse those who would lead others astray. We might think these words are not very Christlike, and this is somewhat understandable because we associate Jesus with love and mercy. As sinners how can we not love his mercy? But this is not the whole picture of Jesus. In Mark 9:42, Jesus said it is better to be thrown into the sea than to lead another one to sin. Judgment comes upon those who mislead others in matters of ultimate concern. This is why not many of should be teachers (James 3:1). Christian ministry is a serious matter. It requires that we give others the right direction. Those who teach a gospel other than that preached by the apostles lead people to a different place.
3. The false gospel in Galatia had a different content (vv. 6–9). It is not good news for those lost in their sins if we add to or take away from what God has done in Christ Jesus. Thus, we see the importance of the gospel that has particular claims and contents. We cannot get away from doctrine unless we want to get away from the gospel. Preachers can’t choose whether to preach doctrine or not. We are not called to preach our own doctrine; we will either preach God’s doctrine or something that detracts from it. The gospel is made up of propositions. It is not simply a feeling, encounter, or relationship, though it entails all these things in its fullness. The gospel itself is none of these things; it is good news about what the events of Christ’s life and ministry mean.
The gospel to which the Galatians were to be faithful was the gospel Paul preached to them, and it was the gospel Paul preached that the Galatians accepted (v. 6). Together, both Paul and the Galatians were involved in the Galatians becoming Christians. Paul preached to them and they had received the good news.
Those who preach another gospel are to be condemned. This is true today. If Dever or Sproul or Lawson are to preach a false gospel, they must be condemned. We do not want ever to preach a false gospel. Respect for the messengers should never exceed respect for the message!
Verse 8 shows that it is not some petty personal rivalry that motivates him to condemn the false teachers, for Paul prays for the same condemnation on himself if he ever would change the gospel. In John 17:20, Jesus prayed for all His disciples and all of us who would believe through their message. It is the message that is key. Faith comes by hearing the message of Christ, which is what the Galatian false teachers were compromising. The apostolic message of the cross is what the Holy Spirit uses to call His people. It is not true simply because it comes from a supernatural messenger. The supernatural realm includes angelic beings in revolt against God. Satan masquerades as an angel of light. If Satan is able to masquerade as such, he can even hide behind the mask of a preacher.
That the message is free of error does not imply that Paul is sinless. He is not the center of truth, that center is the inerrant message of the gospel. Only the gospel Paul taught is the true gospel because it is the gospel of God, the one originally given to the apostles. Teachers who deny the gospel are false teachers. Paul was rightly prepared to lay down niceness and engage in controversy for the truth of the gospel. There are some pastors and laypeople who need a stronger backbone because they are unwilling to engage in controversy for the sake of the gospel.
Paul’s message implies necessarily that there is a congregational responsibility to discern the truth. Paul did not write to the masters of Paris but to ordinary laypeople. And these believers may not have been believers for all that long. This is one of Paul’s earliest letters, and he assumed that even these young Christians would be able to judge their teachers’ teaching. He assumed they were competent to discern the true gospel. This assumes that the basic gospel is clear to true Christians. Therefore, if an angel calling himself Moroni comes with something different than the New Testament, we are to reject it by the authority of the Word of God itself. Do we have confidence to sit in judgment on the teachings of supernatural beings? Yes, if they contradict the teaching of Scripture. If a bishop comes claiming to be Peter’s successor and teaches a false gospel, what do we do? We reject him by the authority of the Word of God even if councils say otherwise. We do not need Latin or specialized theological training to understand the biblical gospel. In fact, we all have the responsibility to discern and understand the main points of the gospel.
Does Controversy Yield Bad Fruit?
Is it true, as Roman Catholicism says, that Christianity has been fractured into thousands of different pieces? Though there may be many denominations, those that tend to believe the Bible as God’s Word share a remarkable agreement on the same, essential gospel. The church will prevail against the gate of hell, and so to the Roman Catholic’s charge that there has been hopeless fracturing of the church due to Protestant controversies, we say no. We do not need the Roman bishop to tell us the gospel. A charismatic Christian, a Lutheran layman, an evangelical Presbyterian, and a Baptist missionary who all believe in the Word of God will sit down next to the unbeliever and give that person the same basic gospel. That we are not united to theologically liberal denominations is no big deal because they are not part of the church.
Now I’m not saying that there is no important difference in our distinctions. Nevertheless, it is the gospel that is shared around the world that unites believers, and nothing else.
Theological controversy may be unpleasant but necessary. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said that “the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” Luther stood against the medieval theologian Desiderius Erasmus early on when he said, “I take no delight in assertions.” Luther responded that “it is not the mark of a Christian mind to take no delight in assertions; on the contrary, a man must delight in assertions or he will be no Christian.” It is our responsibility to believe the assertions of the gospel for ourselves and to teach them to others even if doing so causes others to think ill about us. This has been true throughout all generations of the church, from the early church fathers and their stand in the controversies about the nature of Christ to the Reformers who stood for the recovery of the gospel in the Protestant Reformation to the founders of the missionary movement who went into all the world despite the naysayers around them to the men who stood for biblical inerrancy and wrote the Chicago Statement. We enjoy the fruits of these men and others who were willing to engage in controversy for the gospel. Can we do anything less? Here we must stand, so help us God, Amen!