Reprinted from the Presbyterian Guardian, June 15, 1956
The month of June is the twentieth anniversary of the organization of the denomination now known as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. On the evening of May 23, members of Philadelphia area congregations of this denomination gathered at Calvary Church, Glenside, for an anniversary service. We are glad to be able to bring our readers the address delivered on this occasion. As it appears in print it is much longer than the articles we usually carry. But in view of the special circumstances, we have decided to present the entire address in this issue.
The Rev. Robert S. Marsden, who delivered the address, is one of the charter members of the denomination. Following the church's organization in 1936 he served as pastor of Calvary Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Middletown, Pennsylvania, until called in 1938 to be general secretary of the committees on home and foreign missions. He filled this position for about ten years, and since 1948 has served as executive secretary of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.
The text of the address is based on a tape recording, with slight modification at points for the purposes of publication.
A number of weeks ago, a professor in a church-related college asked his class in religion the question, When was the Christian religion founded? A number of answers were suggested in the class, and finally, the story goes, an Orthodox Presbyterian youth supplied the reply: "In the garden of Eden."
With that proper concept of the church one might well hesitate to speak on an occasion which is supposed to be an anniversary of the church. I am a little bit timid about referring to this occasion as the two hundred fiftieth anniversary of Presbyterianism in this country even, and certainly as the twentieth anniversary of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
For the question, When did Presbyterianism begin, might very well be answered, "In the garden of Eden." For Adam and Eve were certainly consistent theists, and in that they were orthodox Presbyterians.
But we do have the significant dates of 1706 and 1936 to deal with tonight, and it is safe to say that if the events which occurred on those dates had not occurred (or events quite similar to them), we who are Orthodox Presbyterians in 1956 should hardly be here.
Now 1706 seems a long while ago. Actually, it isn't so long ago. And 1936, I suppose, seems a long while ago to some of you here who may not have been born then. But 250 years is a very short time in history. For instance, it was only 250 years during the first eight generations of the kings of England after William the Conqueror. Eight generations doesn't sound very long. And 250 years ago was only the very beginning of the Revolutionary period in this country. For Benjamin Franklin was born, perhaps to the day, two months before the first Presbytery was founded in Philadelphia, in 1706.
The history of Presbyterianism cannot not begin to be understood if we suppose that Presbyterianism in this country, and Orthodox Presbyterianism, even, in this country were founded on those dates. Rather, we must think of the dates of 1706 and 1936 as milestones along the way of Presbyterianism. But, if I may change the figure just a little bit, I should rather think of them as monuments in the battle of the Lord. I live not very far from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and I have tramped over that battlefield. And I have seen the markers—granite many of them—standing marking the positions of the battle during those three dreadful days. I should like to think of 1936 and 1706 as monuments in the constant and never-ending battle for the gospel.
Now I realize that this is not supposed to be a sermon, but I suppose the address should be based upon the Word of God, and it seemed to me that the most appropriate text to center our thoughts about was those words of the apostle Paul recorded in the first chapter of his epistle to the Philippians, the 17th verse: "I am set for the defense of the gospel."
That word "set" is used in the sense of "appointed." It is the word that is used in the second chapter of Luke, where we are told that Jesus Christ was set for the falling and rising of many in Israel. He was appointed for that purpose. And my thesis is that the church in every age is appointed for the defense of the gospel, and that every milestone in its history is a monument upon the battlefield, which is the entire course of church history. The church's life is one long war from which there will be no discharge until what the apostle calls "the day of Christ." And I insist that you cannot understand the history of the church unless you recognize that.
So let us see, in the first place, the past monuments to the defense of the gospel. All the significant milestones in the history of the church are marked by battles in the great war for the defense of the gospel.
Let's illustrate this point of view. Last Sunday morning, as I turned on the radio, I heard these words; "Today is Pentecost Sunday and Christians are aware of this because they know that on this day the church was born." This, to be sure, is a false conception of Pentecost, but I wouldn't be surprised, if that idea were promoted long enough, that the Christian church would begin to celebrate the birth of the church in something of the same manner that it has come in the past hundred years or so to celebrate the birth of Christ.
But if Pentecost was not the birth of the church—and it was not—it was certainly a milestone in the great battle between the forces of God and the forces of Satan, and it was a great victory for the Lord.
If we accept the traditional figure of 64 AD as the time of the writing of the epistle to the Philippians, we find Paul in prison at that time for the defense of the gospel. Now he didn't have to go to prison. He could, as a modern preacher might well have done, have preached "positively," and then he would never have gotten in any trouble at all. But he used the most amazing psychology. The poor fellow apparently didn't know any better. For he introduced a most controversial subject, his appointment as a missionary to the Gentiles, before an angry Jewish mob. And introducing such a controversial subject assured his indictment and his arraignment. And so 64 AD became a year of crisis in the Christian church with the incarceration of the great apostle and the leader of the church. And it was a time in which the church and the apostle could not but be set for the defense of the gospel.
The year 325 was, of course, a milestone in the history of the church, for it was the year in which the great Trinitarian controversy was formally settled at the Council of Nicaea in favor of Athanasius. It determined whether there would be any real continuity between the church preceding that date and the church following that date. If the controversy had been settled in favor of Arius, to be sure a church of some sort might formally have continued its life, but it would have been an entirely different church, and that date is certainly a monument in the defense of the gospel.
In 1517 we mark the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. If the issues of the Reformation had not been brought to the fore, Christianity would have perished from the earth, although a church bearing the name of Christian might have persisted and plagued the earth for centuries to come.
And, as we shall see, if the issues of 1706 had not been met by the organization of a presbytery, religious freedom might well have perished from this continent for many years to come, as it had well nigh perished from the continent of Europe. And if the issues of 1936 had not been brought to the fore, then the church calling itself Presbyterian might well have developed into an even more powerful monopoly to oppress the people of God.
But whether the years 1706 and 1936 rank with these greater dates cannot accurately yet be determined. The movements begun in these years may yet prove to have been abortive. Who could have predicted that a little band of seven ministers gathered in Philadelphia in March 1706 (the precise date of their gathering we do not know, since the first leaf of the ledger has irreparably been lost), who could have imagined that that little band would be the manifestation of a great movement that would exert a powerful influence in the life of the nation and in the life of the world?
Francis Makemie was the first moderator, and he, Samuel Davies, Jeddiah Andrews—he was the pastor of the church in Philadelphia, a church which I venture to guess was no larger than the Gethsemane Church, or the Mediator Church or the Knox Church of our day, he was one of the seven—John Hampton, George McNish, John Wilson and Nathaniel Taylor—they comprised the first meeting of the Presbytery. They were very much like the ministers of our own presbytery. They were not exceptional men, and while their names to be sure have a very distinctly British flavor, much more so than the names of the present presbyters in the Presbytery of Philadelphia, perhaps the only real difference is that there were two Johns among them, and I suppose that if we picked any seven of the present presbyters in the Presbytery of Philadelphia you would find two Roberts instead of two Johns.
But the new organization was born for the defense of the gospel. It wasn't just that seven ministers decided, "Well, wouldn't it be a nice thing if we could have a presbytery." That isn't what happened at all. Their very life was threatened by the increasing zeal and activity of the Society for the Propagation the Gospel which had been organized a few years before among the Anglicans. Its earliest missionaries had made a determined effort to bring all the dissenters into conformity with the Anglican church, and they had begun a vigorous campaign to secure the establishment of Anglicanism in all the colonies, as it had been established already in the colony of Virginia. In this they had very powerful support, including the able Lord Cornbury, who was then governor of the province of New York.
Shortly after the presbytery meeting, Makemie and Hampton went to Long Island to conduct a preaching mission. There they were arrested at the instance of Cornbury very early in 1707, for preaching the gospel without a license. They remained in prison two full months, Trinterud tells us, before they were released on a writ of habeas corpus just in time to come to the second meeting of presbytery which was held on March 22, 1707. Makemie was actually tried in June of that year, and—does that sound familiar?—though he was acquitted by the jury, he was assessed cost of the trial. The cost of the trial was 83 pounds, seven shillings, sixpence, which at that time was just about a year's salary of a minister of the gospel. He was acquitted all right, but Lord Cornbury saw that he was punished in a very effective way.
The Presbytery of Philadelphia was born in 1706. It was born for the defense of the gospel, and immediately after its inception it was called upon to defend the gospel, even by a prison sentence.
But if we cannot yet determine that full significance of 1706, how much less can we assess the significance of 1936 in the history of the Christian church? Will the little meeting of less than 150 elders, ministers and laymen gathered that hot Thursday afternoon in the New Century Club of Philadelphia on June 11—will that little meeting go down in history with a permanent monument in the battle for the defense of the gospel?
It was a dramatic moment that afternoon. The auditorium was not crowded. But when the chairman got up to read the enabling act one could have heard a pin drop. As I look over the congregation tonight I see a number of you here who were there at that time. And we heard the chairman say:
In order to continue what we believe to be the true spiritual succession of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., which we hold to have been abandoned by the recent organization of that body, and to make clear to all the world that we have no connection with the organization bearing that name, we, a company of ministers and ruling elders, having been removed from that organization in contravention as we believe of its constitution, or having severed our connection with this organization, or hereby solemnly declaring that we do sever our connection with it, or coming as ministers or ruling elders of other ecclesiastical bodies holding the Reformed faith, do hereby associate ourselves together with all Christian people who do and will adhere to us, in a body to be known and styled as the Presbyterian Church of America. We, a company of ministers and ruling elders, do hereby in our own name, in the name of those who have adhered to us, and by the warrant and authority of the Lord Jesus Christ, constitute ourselves a General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of America.
And as Dr. Machen took the moderator's chair, maintaining the dignity of that office even amidst the unpretentious surroundings, there was in his face and in the hearts of us all a mark of the solemnity of the occasion. We trusted that in the power of God we were entering upon a new phase of history, set for the defense of the gospel. And we trusted that a new monument was being erected to mark a major battle in the war—a war declared by God himself and recorded as early as the third chapter of the book of Genesis, a war to be fought throughout the entire age, to a successful conclusion in the Day of Christ. It was a Gideon's band indeed. Its weapons were not carnal but spiritual to the pulling down of the strongholds of Satan. Its confidence was not the arm of flesh, but in the arm of Jehovah of Hosts. The battle was not just a battle to maintain the pride of tradition, or to establish a name for anyone, but to uphold the banner of the gospel of Christ before a lost and dying world which should be called upon to accept that faith.
There were set in motion the immediate events of history which bring us here tonight to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of this denomination. None could predict what that history would be. There were all sorts of views, from the most pessimistic to the most sanguine. The latter saw churches established all over the country, by the dozens and by the hundreds, with people coming out of apostate organizations in large numbers. Our enemies saw the church dying before it was born. A recent writer in the Presbyterian Church has told us that we had but the zeal of despair. Our enemies had much more reasonableness for their prediction if they looked only at the outward aspects of a movement which resulted in the feeble actions of June 11, 1936.
That movement had been begun some years before. It had had a good deal of popular support within the Presbyterian Church in the early days of its inception. I'm only guessing, but I think that perhaps as many as a quarter of the people within that Church had at least some tacit interest in what we stood for. But every time anything decisive was done, the band was cut in half, until by the time the enabling act was adopted that Thursday afternoon only a Gideon's band was left. And then within six months Dr. Machen was taken from us. And some of our enemies openly rejoiced and actually praised their god that he who had troubled Israel had been silenced. But whether there should come great and easy success or slow and painful struggle, the important point for the present consideration is that there can be no denying that the new organization was born of the need for an instrument that would be set for the defense of the gospel.
The gospel was seriously and immediately threatened. The organization which until that time had been the vehicle of grace for the proclamation of the gospel had grievously, deliberately and persistently departed from the truth which it was organized in 1706 to proclaim and defend. In the minds of many of us it had ceased to be a church, for it had ceased to possess at least two of the essential marks of the church: the gospel could no longer be preached in it in its purity, and government and worship and discipline could no longer be exercised in accordance with the revealed will of God. The word of man was placed on a par with the Word of God, and the ordinances of man were given precedence over the ordinances of God. But that the new organization was formed for the defense of the gospel needs no further elaboration. It was manifest at that time, and it has been manifest since, to all.
It is refreshing to see the measure of honesty in the spokesman for the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. Dr. Lefferts A. Loetscher, professor of American church history at the Theological Seminary of the Presbyterian Church in Princeton, New Jersey, when he tells us in his recent book, The Broadening Church, that the church had opened its doors to a full recognition of moderate liberalism, which is simply another way of saying that the church had opened its doors both to faith and to unbelief and had put them upon a par.
But perhaps we put the cart before the horse. We discussed the monuments in the battlefield of the gospel, but we have not yet defined what we mean either by defense or by gospel. What is the gospel, and against whom must it be defended? The gospel is certainly a statement of good news of salvation from sin. It is likewise an interpretation of the good news, and it is an application of that interpretation.
This is all implicit in the text of Scripture where the apostle tells us, "Christ died for our sins." It's a story—Christ died. It's an interpretation—for our sins. It's an application—for our sins. And without all three elements, that which might pass for preaching is not the preaching of the gospel. It is just not the gospel simply to state the facts of gospel history. Nor is it the gospel simply to state an accurate interpretation of those facts. In other words, it is not just a pious concatenation of words that comprises the gospel, no matter how earnestly or how zealously they may be proclaimed. If such were the case it would be accurate to say that we can preach the gospel in any church, and we should have been foolish to give up the great forum of the Presbyterian Church and unite ourselves in a little band like this for the proclamation of the gospel. But the gospel consists in the application of that truth to the sins of a particular age, to the sins of a particular church, and to the sins of a particular individual. The gospel is for people, and the sins from which it delivers are the sins of people.
And what are the sins of our age? To be sure, we hear a very great deal about juvenile delinquency, and statistics are printed concerning major crimes, and certainly in our age, as in every age, there are a great many violations of the sixth and the seventh and the eighth commandments. But I submit to you that in our day the sins which need to be ferreted out and to which the gospel must be applied are more particularly the sins against the first table of the law. And almost all "gospel preaching" so-called ignores the first table of the law. Morality has become moralism, and the most blatant violations of the first and the second and the third and the fourth commandments are tolerated and encouraged in high places within the church.
A few weeks ago I attended the banquet of the Military Chaplain's Association of the U.S.A. and one of the principle speakers was a very prominent Presbyterian clergyman. He told how the Protestant and the Roman Catholic and the Jewish chaplains worked together. And he told of a little band of soldiers that he had under his care, of many and various faiths, and how they all prayed together, and how, in his view, each found his own god in his own way and then rose up to serve. Serve whom? Serve what? The answer, of course, is that each served the god of his own imagination, but that he served that god by serving mankind. And that, my friends, is true humanism. And if that is not a violation of the first and the second and the third commandments of God, then I haven't the slightest idea what those commandments mean.
My friends, the gospel is good news that is given to sinners. It is given first of all to those who equate the God of the Bible with the god of their own sinful imaginations, who worship God in ways that they devise themselves, and which he has not prescribed, who preach the revelation of God as if it were the revelation of man and not truly the Word of God, who trample his Sabbaths and turn them into a holiday, after they have tipped their hat to some sort of god in some sort of church. These are the sins of our age, and they are the sins to which the gospel must be addressed. And these are the sins with which individual sinners and with which the churches must be faced, in the light of the law of God and of the gospel of Christ. Unless this is being done, the gospel is not being preached, no matter in what pious terms the preaching may be cast.
In preparation for another occasion I took the trouble to look over a number of volumes of sermons published by prominent evangelists of past days and of our day. Some of them were pretty good sermons, and I may say that the most prominent evangelist of our day (who I understand may have cut into my crowd tonight) is about the best of them. But you know, hardly one of them referred in any direct way to the primary teachings of the first table of the law. Hardly one of them called upon men to forsake gods of their own imagination which they had created, and not one of them called upon apostate churches to repent, and upon members of such churches to sever their sinful ecclesiastical connections which were held in violation of the third commandment, and to forsake their loyalty to their leaders who had torn asunder the Word of God and who had trampled underfoot the truth of God. And it is the gospel addressed to such churches and to such sinners that must be preached in our day.
But against whom must the gospel then be defended? Set for the defense of the gospel, yes, but defense against whom? The answer is very simple. It must be defended against the devil and all his agents. We in our sophisticated age have lost sight of the personality of the devil. He is treated, even in orthodox circles, as an idea and not a person. He might be useful to scare children, but hardly appropriate to discuss with sophisticated adults. Perhaps we have so emphasized the glorious truth of the power of God and the marvelous truth of the direct access which we have to God that we have forgotten the important truth of the personality and the power of Satan. To be sure, the manifestations of his power in the time of Christ were different than they are now, but there is not the slightest evidence that he is less powerful now than he was at that time. His craft and power are still great, and he fights battles against the forces of God with great and powerful weapons in every age. It is he who sets the battle line, and his battle line is different in every age. He is a clever general and he doesn't continue to fight battles which he has already won. And he has pretty well won the battle to make people think he doesn't exist. And the placing of the devil in the category of the bogeyman in our so-called enlightened age is one of his greatest victories.
But if the power of the devil is not as easily seen in our day as it was when he possessed individuals and in their form confronted the Lord Jesus Christ, his power is still great, and he now works subtly through agencies, frequently those agencies with the greatest show of piety.
Let us see in the second place the present battle in defense of the gospel. We've seen some past monuments, and incidentally what the gospel is and against whom it must be defended, but what are the present battles which must be fought? Let us turn from the past to the future, for, as the French statesman Mendes-France, who is in the news again today, reminds us, "Nostalgia with the past is a drug that clouds the mind to the opportunities of the future." How shall we do battle in defense of the gospel in our day? Where shall the battles be fought in that defense? It is possible to discover hundreds of battle lines, but we shall confine ourselves to only three, for we believe that under them are subsumed most of the activities of Satan in our day. All of them could, of course, be subsumed under the title "unbelief." However, in the battle against unbelief there are many major skirmishes. There are, to be sure, other sectors in the battle line in other parts of the world and the worldwide church. We must also fight at these points. But if we confine ourselves tonight to the battle right here in America, the battle to be fought within our own ranks and the ranks of the society within which we move, we shall see that the battle seems to center at three points. None of these fronts has lately been opened, but they are all continuations of earlier battlefields and battle fronts, and the lines have simply been shifted.
The names of the battles to be fought, are the battle against religionism, the battle against externalism and the battle against formalism.
The first, religionism, used to go simply by the title of unbelief. And then it became agnosticism, and now it has become Christianity. And the latter two used to be subsumed under the biblical title, "the leaven of the Pharisees," and Pharisaism may be defined for our purposes as the doctrine that the chief end of the church is to propagate itself.
Let us look a little more closely at the manifestations of these doctrines and I think we shall see that we must be set in defense of the gospel against them. The first major battle which must be fought is the battle against religionism. Its theory is that religion is good, and that all religions are a manifestation of the true religion, and a difference of approach to God. The manifestations of religionism in our day are legion and we can mention a few.
Some time ago I was driving along in a strange area, behind a bus. And on the back of the bus there was a sign which many of you have seen, I am sure: "Go to the church or synagogue of your choice." And right over that was another advertisement, "Eat ice cream every day. It is good for you." Religion and ice cream. Religion is good for you, no matter where you buy it, and ice cream is good for you, no matter where you buy it. Oh, to be sure, some religion may be better for you than others, just as some ice cream may be better than others. But they are all good for you, so have some. It will do you good. That is the doctrine of religionism.
I am told that there is a room in the United Nations building in New York City that is the meditation room. It is supposed to be symbolic of all religion, supposed to inspire reverence by a clever arrangement of lights and furniture. And I am told that the room is about as close to being without form and void as anything can be and still be a room. And yet I suppose that if we were to go there, we should almost instinctively tiptoe in with our hats off because anything that has had that much planning and that much arrangement must contain some sort of good.
It is only comparatively recently that a prayer room has been furnished in the Capitol of the United States, for obviously, if the legislators are going to pray, they have to have the right surroundings to inspire prayer. And it is only recently that the words "under God" were put in the pledge of allegiance for the United States, and that was supposed to be a victory for religion; and only recently "In God we trust" has been ordered to be placed upon the money of the United States. Now these things are not bad in themselves. They may, as a matter of fact, be good, but they are a sign of the religionism in our day. And the lie that Satan has promoted in all places that religion is good, is a lie as great as any that he has ever propagated. For false religion is an abomination before God. And those who join in it and unite themselves to it are condemned of God in the strongest terms.
The second manifestation of the power of the devil in our day, against which we must be set for the defense of the gospel, is externalism. When the scribes and the Pharisees called attention to the temple, and when they called attention to themselves as the direct descendants of Abraham, they were engaging in externalism and thus were manifesting one of the chief characteristics of Pharisaism. We can see its extension a very great deal in the last 25 years. Dr. Loetscher, whom I mentioned a moment ago, in that same book admits that during our time administrative centralization and theological decentralization have taken place. And a great deal of the energy of many of the churches, and certainly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. has been taken up with the making of rules to tighten the hold of the denomination upon the individual churches, and of the churches upon their people, and to weaken the message that is to be preached. The Presbyterian Church, for instance, has secured for itself a title to all the property which is owned by the several congregations. And as one recent author has put it, a chain of hard cash binds the individual church to the denomination. The same author tells us that the general assemblies of that church have become gigantic salesmen's conventions, in which a successful promotion of the external product has become the chief end, and from which the individual salesman having been talked to and having been sold anew, goes home to sell his product and to build the church. Well, you remember that we've said that the chief end of man is to build the church, according to the Pharisees. The curse of externalism has certainly come into every denomination. And which minister of the gospel has not been tempted to measure his success by the size of his congregation or by the size of his salary? Or which minister has not been tempted to measure his success, comparing it with his fellow ministers along those lines? I trust this externalism has not gained ground in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
I shall never forget how in the early days of the church whole families made almost unbelievable sacrifices to be in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. I remember how I was called to become secretary of the missions committees in 1938, in July of that year. And the first month, as I signed the warrants for the checks that went out, I discovered that we had enough money on hand to pay all the missionaries in full. It was obvious the church had made a very wise choice! And the second month we had enough on hand to pay the missionaries 50% of their salaries. And the most that any missionary was supposed to get was $100 a month. And so the most that anyone actually got paid was $50 a month. Well, that was the second month. And then the third month of September, when it came time to sign warrants for the checks, we discovered that when we divided what we had on hand, we had enough to pay each missionary 31% of his salary. And the most that any one was supposed to get paid was $100 a month, and the most any one received was $31.
So I decided I would set out and see if I could find some money, or see if I could find some way by which the work could be curtailed. And I remember being entertained very graciously in the home of a cultured older couple. He had been a successful minister in the Presbyterian Church. A day or so before I arrived he had received his check for $31 for his month's salary. And as I was received so graciously, the hostess proceeded to set the table as she had been accustomed for a long while on the average rate of about 10¢ per day per person. And we had potatoes for breakfast. And we had potatoes for lunch and we had potatoes for dinner. Each in a different form, more or less, but potatoes just the same. And they thought nothing of the externals, for they were happy in being a part of a church that was set for the defense of the gospel.
Then I moved on to another family. And that was a family with a number of children. And someone had donated to them a bushel of apples, and we had apples for breakfast, and we had apples for lunch, and we had apples for dinner. And the externals of the church meant little to them, for they were in a church that was set for the defense of the gospel. And they were happy.
Then I suppose we might speak of externalism in connection with the modern celebration of religious holidays. A case in point is our tremendous preoccupation with things like Christmas and Easter and Good Friday, and now I suppose we'll have Pentecost. It is rather interesting that the second meeting of the Presbytery of Philadelphia was held on Friday the 27th of December, 1706, for the examination of a man to be ordained to the ministry. I wonder how many Presbyterian churches could manage to get a Presbytery together two days after Christmas when all the ministers were worn out with their celebration. It is rather interesting also that in the little book The Day Lincoln Was Shot, the author, who is a Roman Catholic, makes a point of it that it seemed to some of the Roman Catholics improper that President Lincoln should be attending the theater on the Friday before Easter. But, you know, I don't find the slightest bit of evidence that Mr. Lincoln thought it the least bit odd that he should have a theater party and invite General Grant to be the guest of honor (General Grant, of course, didn't go) on that day. I wonder whether a modern president would dare to attend the theater on such a day, or whether the externalism which is so characteristic of our age has gone so far as that it would judge a man in such a matter.
Then I suppose also that a case in point might be the use of the word "church" in our day. It is rather significant that the minutes of our first presbytery (the second sitting of which occurred in December of that year) contains the statement that an ordination was to be held "in the public meeting house." The use of the word "church" to mean a building is comparatively new, and I believe that one of the symbols of externalism in our day is the fact that we oftentimes in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church are told that people won't attend our churches because we don't have a "church." Winston Churchill in his first volume of his History of the English Speaking People, with characteristic British humor, says that if a native of Roman Britain were to wake up today, he would find in every village temples and priests of the new creed, and the facilities for Christian worship would appear to him to be far in excess of the number of devotees. I wonder if that isn't often true in this country too.
And then certainly the externalism comes to the fore in the glorification of men and the tying of movements to men. I remember so well the General Assembly of 1933 which met in Columbus, Ohio, where is was freely said that at that time there was to be a contest between Robert E. Speer and J. Gresham Machen. And you were to vote for the one that you thought was better of the two, presumably. I remember hearing an erstwhile friend of Dr. Machen tell him to his face that if it were a question between himself and Dr. Speer this man would have to choose Dr. Speer because he was convinced he was the greater man. I'll never forget the scene in that General Assembly. A minority report on the matter of foreign missions had been presented. I as the junior member of a two-man minority had been given five minutes of the Assembly's precious time to defend the report. It was during the Depression. The Assembly could meet only for about five days, and of course you couldn't expect to give more than a total of 15 minutes to the unfortunate subject of whether biblical foreign missions should be carried on or not. I finished my little speech and as I walked down the aisle the spotlight flooded the platform and the moderator announced the next speaker in something of these terms: "As has been said of one of old, in him was the life, and the life was the light of men, so it can be said of our beloved Robert E. Speer."
There is a rather interesting sidelight upon that. One of the players in that little drama was Dr. Harrison Ray Anderson, now pastor of the Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago. Writing in Presbyterian Life for April 14 of this year, in review of a recent book, a biography of Robert E. Speer by Reginald Wheeler, he says—and I'm quoting Dr. Anderson—"His (that is, Dr. Speer's) is the only picture on my study desk save Christ's. It is easy for me to think of the two in close association. When I ask myself, facing a decision, what would Dr. Speer do or say, it seems to me, what Jesus says or does. If this be hero worship, make the most of it ... I was a member of the 1933 Assembly in Columbus and remember how the Assembly weighed the charges against Dr. Speer and then rose in appreciation for him." That, my friends, that is hero worship. And much more. But it is certainly an evidence of the externalism which has gripped so much of the Christian church and which threatens every church under heaven.
And the third area of battle is the battle against formalism. Now formalism is simply maintaining the form, regardless of what the substance may be. And there is nothing new about this, for it is as old as sin itself. The Pharisees of Jesus' day scrupulously brought tithes of the least of their substance and substituted that religion for obedience to God. It has always been easier to do than to be. And externalism and formalism have always been the plague of orthodoxy. Emil Oberholzer, in a book which has the amusing title Delinquent Saints, quotes a seventeenth-century writer who says of the Puritans, "All their religion consists in observing Sunday by not working or going into taverns on that day." And formalism is certainly not confined to modern Christianity. Some of you remember the serio-comic scene in the novel Marjorie Morningstar, where the Passover is being celebrated—being celebrated by people who hadn't the slightest notion there was anything objectively true about it but who thought that it was a good thing to bind the family together and to keep the traditions. And that is formalism.
There are many evidences of it in our day. The mere celebration of the beginnings of Presbyterianism in this country, which will be held in the Presbyterian Church, and are being held all over the country, are an evidence of it. Great rallies are being held and are being announced. To be sure, the organization of Philadelphia Presbytery in March, 1706 was a direct ancestor of the Presbyterian General Assembly which will be held in this city beginning tomorrow. In form they are the same organization, but in substance they are totally different organizations. We said a little while ago that if it had not been for the decision of the Council of Nicaea in favor of Athanasius, the church would have been a totally different church after that date than before it, even though it might have kept the same name and many of the same words and forms. It would still have been a totally different church.
And I submit to you that while in form the church is the same, in substance the little presbytery in 1706 and its spiritual ancestry is totally different than the organization which will meet downtown this week. Creeds are no longer used to define truth but to conceal it. And everyone in the Presbyterian Church has freely agreed that creeds can be interpreted to mean almost anything.
Another evidence of formalism is the use of "shibboleths." There are all sorts of shibboleths which are likely to gain ground, particularly in orthodox churches. I could mention dozens of them, and I shan't take your time tonight. But you know something of what they are. Orthodoxy is defined by whether you accept this or that or the other shibboleth. In the Presbyterian Church it was, Will you support the boards and agencies of the church? If you will, you are orthodox. Among some of our Fundamentalist brethren it is, Will you refrain from smoking and other worldly amusements? And if you do, you are orthodox.
But formalism in our day is also manifested in the preparation for the ministry. Prior to 1929, if a man had been graduated from a respectable seminary with a high academic standing, he could be admitted into the pulpit of almost any Presbyterian and Reformed church with little difficulty. But gradually the ministry has been formalized and the first and foremost element to be measured in the reception of a minister is, Where did you go to Seminary? I am not in any sense detracting from the importance of the decision as to where a man should go to seminary, for the decision to go to this or that seminary is one of the most important decisions that a man makes in his life. But I submit to you that the first question with which the presbyteries should concern themselves is, Does the man know the gospel? Is he on fire with a desire to preach it? And is he competent to preach it? And when those things have been determined, then the subordinate shibboleths or something of the sort might fit themselves into their right place. Churches have oftentimes become clubs or labor unions which must protect their members against the intrusions of outsiders. There are just so many bricks to be laid, and if you have too many bricklayers you depress the market. Such an attitude toward the ministry, unfortunately, is the attitude, even in some good churches. But it is formalism, Pharisaism, just the same.
All these things are evidences of Pharisaism and the Pharisees are those who were most roundly condemned by the Lord Jesus Christ. Their sins were not considered to be trifles. Their sins were the sins which compelled Christ to condemn them in the most dreadful terms.
And so the battle must be fought against religionism, against externalism, and against formalism, if we are to be really set for the defense of the gospel.
Now in the last place, rather briefly let us look at the assured success in the defense of the gospel. Can we be assured that we'll be a success? Can it be that some crisis may actually bring failure? More than once our futures have turned on balances so delicate and precarious that even the slightest addition to our burdens must have been fatal. But will success come?
May I suggest briefly four ways? First of all, it will come by our keeping our mind on the perpetual character of the war. This is not the age for ease in Zion. This is not the age of the church triumphant. This is the age of the church militant. The Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. has lived since 1936 as if it were the church triumphant. Loetscher freely admits that the church since 1936 has enjoyed the longest period of theological peace since the reunion of 1869. There has been no room in that church for thoughtful discussion of theological issues, for they might rock the ecclesiastical boat which is sailing so smoothly and so triumphantly.
Let it be constantly kept in mind that there is no preaching of the gospel unless there is a continuous and relevant setting forth of the gospel against the errors of the day. And that sort of controversy, my friends, will not hurt the gospel cause. As in the world, life is a constant struggle against the cause of death, so there can be no maintenance of life in the church without constant struggle against the causes of death in the church. And death in the church is caused by the power of sin and Satan triumphing. More often it is forgotten, as Charles Hodge reminds us, in the index volume of the Princeton Theological Review, "Liberty is maintained only by unsleeping vigilance against aggressions of power, virtue is of necessity constant antagonism to vice and truth to error."
Winston Churchill, who certainly should know, reminds us that you cannot preserve a bastion without destroying the enemy without, which is but another way of saying that you can't maintain the status quo in a church, but you must always be attacking the enemy lines.
In the second place you must remember that the battles must constantly be fought at the very point of contact. Just about the finest piece of writing I have ever seen is that of Martin Luther at this point. I'm quoting: "If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing him. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved, and to be steady on all the battlefields besides is merely flight and disgrace, if he flinches at that point." The most subtle temptation that comes to the people of God is to continue to give the appearance of fighting battles, but not to be fighting them at the point where the enemy is attacking. That is the failure of a great deal of evangelism in our day. The evangelist talks of sin, but not the sins of the individuals he is addressing, nor the church in which he is preaching.
And then the battle implies suffering for Christ. Remember that when the apostle wrote this, "set for the defense of the gospel," he was in prison. He tells us that the actions of his enemies in imprisoning him have fallen out to the furtherance of the gospel. Do we actually believe that will happen? Do we actually believe that if we suffer for Christ's sake it will be for the good of the gospel?
An almost perfect illustration is available in our day. Certainly the persecution which came upon Dr. Machen and his associates in 1936 was a grievous experience. It was an experience that almost crushed the sensitive saint. But when, 18 years later, an all-out attempt was made by the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. to swallow up the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.—that is, the Southern Presbyterian Church—it is very likely that the exposé of the persecution which had been visited upon Machen was the thing which actually defeated that union. To be sure, there were very many elements in the Southern Presbyterian Church responsible for defeating union with the Northern church, a union which would have been a tragedy for our Bible-believing brethren in the South. But I believe that the one element that tipped the scales was the effective use that the leaders in the Southern Presbyterian Church among the conservatives in that church made of the treatment which was afforded Dr. Machen and his associates in 1936. The experience of persecution at that moment was not joyful, but that it worked out nearly a generation later for the furtherance of the gospel in this country can hardly be denied. And we can be assured that that sort of persecution, when it is persecution of the cause of righteousness, will always produce effects which will strengthen the gospel in later days. The old truth that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church may sometimes be difficult to see at a particular point, but it is a truth just the same and is that truth which the apostle enunciated when he says that his imprisonment had turned out to the furtherance of the gospel. It is sinful either to desire or to seek martyrdom, but if it comes to maintain the cause of the truth of God, it will surely work out to the furtherance of the gospel.
And all this adds up to simply saying that success is assured if our message and our ministry as a church is relevant. And this is simply another way of saying that we shall succeed if we really preach the gospel. There is no preaching of the gospel that isn't relevant. I can't say with too much emphasis that the mouthing of pious words is not preaching the gospel, unless those words are relevant to the lives of the people to whom the gospel is addressed. The gospel is a message of God to sinners and is the message of God to sinners whom he earnestly calls upon to repent and be saved from their sins. If it is not the message of God to sinners—if it isn't relevant in the lives of the sinners to whom it is preached—it isn't the preaching of the gospel.
My friends, 1706 and 1936 are but monuments on the perpetual battlefield of the war in which the church must constantly be engaged. If a church forsakes that battle, it may build great cathedrals, it may attract vast multitudes to religious meetings, it may dictate the policies of governments, it may rule the world, but it will not be a church of Christ. It will be a synagogue of Satan, an instrument in the hands of the god of this world who blindeth the eyes of those who will not see the truth.
And, my friends, our church will remain a church just so long as it is doing battle with the full armor of God and with the sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God. Our church will remain a church just so long as it is a church which is set for the defense of the gospel. Then it will be a church in spite of its smallness, in spite of its failures, in spite of the weaknesses and sins of its ministers, of its elders, of its members. Then it will be a church in spite of any persecution, in spite of the sneers and the jeers of its enemies—in other words, it will be a church in spite of all the powers of hell. It will be a church that succeeds as God counts success.
Fear not, O little flock, the foe
Who madly seeks your overthrow;
Dread not his wrath and power.
What, though your courage sometimes faints,
His seeming triumph o'er God's saints
Lasts but a little hour.
Be of good cheer; your cause belongs
To him who can avenge your wrongs,
Leave it to him, our Lord.
Though hidden yet from all our eyes
He sees the Gideon who shall rise
To save us and his Word.
As true as God's own word is true
Nor earth nor hell with all their crew
Against us shall prevail.
A jest and byword are they grown,
God is with us, we are his own;
Our victory cannot fail.
Amen, Lord Jesus, grant our prayer!
Great Captain, now thine arm make bare,
Fight for us once again!
So shall thy saints and martyrs raise
A mighty chorus to thy praise,
World without end, Amen.
The Rev. Robert S. Marsden (1905-1960) was a minister of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. After studying at the University of Pennsylvania (A.B.), Princeton Theological Seminary, and Westminster Theological Seminary (Th.B.), he served as pastor in Middletown, Pennsylvania, as general secretary of the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension, and as executive secretary of Westminster Theological Seminary. He edited the book The First Ten Years (Philadelphia: Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension, 1946).
© 2023 The Orthodox Presbyterian Church