Historic Christian Faith
Nico van der Walt
It’s a very telling and interesting verse this. One has the impression that Judas was planning to write to them about, as the King James Version put it, “our common salvation”, i.e. about the wonders of their salvation, but then he went ahead and said: “I feel now compelled” and he’s basically on a sidetrack and he started talking about the need to contend for the faith, which he said, “once delivered to us.”
It is very interesting if you look at this verse, where he says: “I felt the need …”; by saying this he means: “What I want to share with you is of the utmost importance”.Secondly, he says: “you will earnestly contend.” The Greek indicates intense effort, e.g. in a wrestling match. It also indicates an ongoing effort, or an ongoing action. What should they content for? For the faith he says. What faith? “The faith once delivered to the saints or transferred to those that God has set apart for Himself. So it’s not just any religion, he defines faith. This is the faith that was delivered.
This concept, to carry over or deliver, is very important. The Greek word “paradidomi” means to give, or to surrender or to give as a man would pass a baton, or as you would pass a torch during a torch run. What he thereby implies is that this faith is given by the Lord through His apostles. Judas as one of the last of the apostles speak of this as the faith that came through the apostles and it was a faith that is given and implied that it must be delivered to the next generation. It is as Paul wrote to Timothy in 2 Timothy 2v2 where he says that he must teach men, who are able to teach others. The whole idea is that it must be delivered from generation to generation or it should be. It’s the verb. The noun is also sometimes translated as tradition. I realize that the word tradition is for many of us a negative concept, but in Scripture it sometimes, not always, has a negative concept. There is such a thing as the tradition of the elders which is strongly criticized by the Lord Jesus as negative traditions. There is also in the New Testament such a thing as positive traditions and it is the traditions of the faith. It is given to the saints, is said here. Those who are sanctified by God, to sanctify means to put aside or to set apart for Himself, they are the stewards and they should keep it and pass it on. Then very important, he said, ‘that which once was delivered’, in other words, delivered once and for all. It emphasizes the finality of God’s revelation and its fixation. It was captured, it’s set, it’s immutable, it dare not change and the stewardship of the saints is delivered precisely to make sure that it is pure, without eventually degenerating. There can not be added to and there may not be taken away from, that’s the accent here.
A number of Spurgeon’s members (Spurgeon was the famous preacher in London in the 19th century, a phenomenal preacher, a man of God) came to him one day. By the way, Spurgeon had not a day of formal theological training. He was actually a “country bumpkin”. They asked him: “How can we know that what you preach is the truth, while many other preachers’ messages is not the same as yours, and they are much more educated than you. How can we be sure? ”
It’s a burning question, and if it was then a burning question, how much more today? Our time is marked by a thousand voices. In the church there are various viewpoints in our day. There is confusion everywhere and there is uncertainty; all the beacons are constantly being moved. Now, just think of our Afrikaners’ recent past. Twenty years ago it was generally accepted in the churches that ‘apartheid’ was biblical founded. Today you will have to look very far to find someone with that viewpoint. I am not speaking about the right or wrong of the position. All I’m saying is that we’ve experienced over the past decade or two times of tremendous change. Take something else. Ten, twenty years ago it was unthinkable that a woman could be an elder in the Afrikaans churches. Today it is common. One has the impression that the beacons are constantly being moved. If one looks at the writings, it is only a matter of time before homosexuality will be legalized in the churches. One can go on. We all know the newspaper reports lately, how there hardly passes a week without media reports of theologians who question the most fundamental truths of our faith. They question the virgin birth of Jesus, the miracles of Jesus, His resurrection from the dead, they even question the historicity of Jesus. It creates a tremendous insecurity in the general church goer’s life. You just realise how many insecurities there are if you look at the questions that people ask. Every faith beacon are being moved in these days, by some people anyway.
Spurgeon’s answer that he then gave to his church members are very significant, and speaks of wisdom and maturity. He told them, well, that’s a good question, but this I can tell you: “If I go up and down the corridors of time, walking back, then one after the other man and woman of God will stand up and shake my hand. ” What he meant by it is that they would approve the message that he preached. Then he mentioned a whole numberof names, through centuries past, from respected faith heroes of the past, people whose testimony still stood, people whose work still stood, respected people, even centuries after they’ve lived. Spurgeon often said in his church (the Metropolotin Tabernacle), that he had no ambition to preach something new. He had a precious saying, which reads like this: “If it’s true, it’s not new, and if it’s new it’s not true”. I think it’s a simple statement, but it is very important. Spurgeon appeals to the truth consensus of the church through the ages. He appeals to the historic Christian faith. He says in other words ask them, ask yourselves whether you hear a new gospel from me or if you hear the old-old gospel. Spurgeon had no ambitions to develop his own theological wheel, despite the fact that he was intelligent and a gifted genius. He was happy to preach the same gospel as the Puritans and the Reformers, the Church Fathers and the martyrs, the apostles and Jesus Christ Himself preached. That was good enough for him. The reason for this is of course that there are certain things in life that never change. Yes, we live in a world that is constantly changing, it is so, and mostly in the time in which we live now. Centuries before Christ lived an ancient philosopher, a Greek philosopher, who said you can never put your foot into the same river. It was his way of saying, well, a river never stays the same. Two minutes later it’s no longer the same water. Two minutes later, the water level is probably higher or lower, or whatever the case may be. Everything changes constantly.
There are some things that never change. God never changes. His truth never changes. Man never changes profoundly. Think in terms of man’s moral development. Is it not ironic that the twentieth century saw more bloodshed than in any other age?. There never was a century like the twentieth century. It therefore looks like man at his deepest level did not developed morally. The plan of salvation does not change, Our sin and our lostness does not change and therefore the church’s calling at its deepest level does not change whatsoever. The church’s calling is to preach the message of salvation in Christ.
Absolutes in our faith:
Freedom is one of the outstanding features of the gospel. Every man, every woman who has truly repented can witness about the new freedom he experiences. However, there are certain non-negotiable absolutes without which the church, Christianity and preaching can not nearly be what it should be. There are certain absolutes. There are a thousand things in this life and in this world that for the Christian and his Bible are non-essentials, eg. the clothes you wear. We are mercifully past the point where you think you should be wearing a suit and a tie when you’re talking about the things of the Lord. According to the Bible that is irrelevant. Where you meet is irrelevant. There are a thousand things that just does not matter. However, there are certain truths, certain norms, that we must hold onto without compromise. Prof. Murray Janson recently accused a liberal theologian Dr. Piet Muller of having left Christ and the gospel. Of course Murray Janson was right. Piet Muller took offense, he took very seriously offence, but Murray Janson without any doubt was right about him as long as he do not repent of his liberal views . There is no way you can call yourself a Christian if you have left all the things Dr. Piet Muller wants to leave behind. What is there in a Christian if nothing is fixed anymore. This is the first statement I want to make. There are absolutes in our faith. There are a thousand things which does not matter, but there are certain absolutes.
Some things are more important than other things:
Within the large spectrum of biblical pronouncements, there are certain things that are more important than other things. The Bible is simply not equally clear about everything. One example is exactly how the church should be ordered, how our worship services should be ordered. There are several guidelines on the issue of church government in Scripture, but it’s not something that is very clear and beyond any doubt captured for us. Therefore there can be reasonable freedom for that matter. On the other hand, there are certain things in the Scriptures that are greatly emphasized e.g. God’s plan of salvation. How He operates and what He is doing and through whom He works; with that matters there can be no doubt. Scripture is crystal clear on this.
There is no room for arbitrariness and you dare not deviate to such an extent as Paul writes, for instance, to the Galatians, that if they still are being circumcised, or want to be circumcise, then they have broken the bond with Christ. What is happening in the Galasian letter, is that after the apostle was there and preached the gospel to them who started off very promisingly, the Judaists arrived and preached that Jesus Christ is necessary for our salvation, yes, we must believe in Him, but in addition we must also uphold the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament and especially circumcision. If one works through the book of Galatians, especially the first chapter, Paul called the curse of God upon anyone who preached another gospel. The Greek word that he used for curse is the same word used in the Old Testament for utter destruction. The word is used when the Lord God commanded His people to go in a city and indiscriminately kill everything, man and mouse, babies, women and old people. It’s that curse and that’s the word that Paul uses. He called destruction over such preachers. He said that even if an angel from heaven preached any other gospel unto them, then do not believe them. They obviously preached the gospel of Christ plus. Christ plus circumcision, in their case. Then he says in chapter five, if you still think you need to be circumcised, meaning, if you still think that circumcision is a contribution to your salvation, that your circumcision is part of the basis of your salvation, then you have broke your bond with Christ. Then Christ means nothing to you anymore. Then you are on your own, then by implication the only way for you to be saved is that you keep the law perfectly. If it comes to the Lord’s plan of salvation and Christ’s work and Christ’s glory, then there is not a millimeter of room for compromise. It’s an absolute. In other things, there is room for freedom.
There has been a wonderful saying, for many centuries, in the church which means a lot to me. The saying in Latin is, “in necessariis unitas, in non necesariis or in dubiis libertas in omnibus caritas”. What does this mean? “In necessariis” means in those things that are essential there must to “unitas”, it is unity. In things necessary there should be unity. In “non necesariis”, it’s the non-essential things or”in dubiis” doubtful or uncertain things there should be “libertas”, it is freedom, “in omnibus” in everything there must be love. Hear how much wisdom is there in this. Here we work with the “necessariis” and the “non necessariis”, the essential and non-essential things, those things neccessary and those things not neccessary. We work with a distinction and it is said that in the necessary things there must be unity, in non-essential things there must be freedom but in all things love. There is, in other words, certain things that are essential in the Bible and there are other things that are not essential. There are certain things we can say is absolutely concrete, there are other things that the Bible is not very clear about and where there is freedom.
The Bible’s relevance:
One of the most remarkable features of the gospel is its universal adaptability in relevance. It does not matter in what century you live. It does not matter in what culture you live, the gospel is for you. It’s remarkable, when you think about it a bit. The church grows well in the soil of rich and poor, educated and uneducated, young and old. It does not matter, the gospel is for everyone. If you look at the church, even a typical church, if such a church is healthy, then you find old and young people. You get rich and you get poor, you get educated and uneducated, a variety of people. Even more so if you look at the church universal, worldwide. Why is this so? Well, because the absolutes, the so-called “necessariis”, the essential things of the faith is universal and timeless. It simply speaks to the needs and questions of all people. Therefore it is limited to that essensial things.
Distinguish between essential and non-essentials:
The gospel is universally relevant. It is very important that we distinguish between the essential and non-essential things. As it is, with foundations, the absolutes of our faith lies beneath the surface. It is not always obvious. Immature Christians, young Christians in that sense, very often struggle to see what the absolutes are. They do not always know. After you have repented, you’re initially like a bull in a flower garden and you do not have the necessary discernment. You do not have the necessary tact. You do not always know what is important and what is not important. You tend to be legalistic. You are very likely to condemn people if they do not match your standards for being on the mark. As you get older and more mature in the Lord, then you realize that many of these things are not necessarily unimportant, but they’re really secondary. In the process you do a lot of harm. Have you ever seen what a balloon does? It pulls away with a speed but there is no direction or course. It makes all sorts of twists and so on, and then it is done. Over the years, however, there comes at least a little bit of wisdom, a little bit of discernment. On the other hand, one can say that to the extent that you and I are able to understand, discern and formulate the essential things of our faith, the absolutes of our faith, to that extent we are spiritually mature. I’m not saying it’s the only standard, but it is one of the standards. Kind attracts kind. The church of Jesus Christ is characterized by diversity. All kinds of people. You can choose your friends, but you can not choose your brothers and sisters in the church. It is of the utmost importance to us that Jesus Christ is the head of the church and it is his prerogative to add to this church who He wants to.
The church of God is characterized by a diverse range. So He glorifies Himself. To the extent that a church, and we as individual members, or Christians are able to distinguish between the essential and non-essential, to that extent there will be harmony between us. To that extent will we experience community. This is a prerequisite for harmony in our church community that we will be able to distinguish. It is absolutely necessary that the cornerstones of our faith be precisely in place, fixed in our minds and in our beliefs.
Without fixed benchmarks we simply do not have the ability to judge the ethics of our day, to judge the practices of our day, what is right, what is wrong. What is a benchmark? Say for instance, one builds a large dam, one of the first things you do is to concrete pegs in the mountain both sides of the river, on rocky ledges or rocks that will not move. This is your fixed points.
Years ago I was the local engineer of the Pongola Gate Dam, Northern Zululand and we were at one stage concerned because we found deep under the foundations a break or two, that we were not aware of during the design. We were therefore a little afraid that the enormous dam wall and of the largest dams in the country, might move. So therefore we used, on a regular basis the most accurate survey instruments we had, on these benchmarks and we measured this dam from different angles to make sure there is not a shift. We would have picked up a shift of a millimeter or two immediately. Fortunately there were no slips, but it is absolutely essential that those benchmarks, those beacons may not move. They are in place. So it must be in our faith that certain benchmarks are in place. Without the immovable anchors of universal absolutes and objective truth, we are like corks on the sea of a thousand human opinions.
It is unfortunately so that decades of rice-water preaching, especially among Afrikaners, meant that the average church member in our day are not able to distinguish between the absolutes and that which is secondary, between the essential and non-essential things. This have the result that the modern church goer just simply cannot resist the spirit of our times of post-modernism. What is post-modernism? It’s basically a philosophy of relativism, everything is relative, nothing is fixed. If it is right for you, then it is right, but for me it’s not right. Ultimately, each one is a law unto himself.
It is very important that we formulate these necessary things. Although it is vital today, even through the centuries it was necessary and therefore the church through the ages have sought to define and distinguish the necessary things or “necessariis” from the “non necessariis”. One of the things that made it necessary was the need to distinguish between right mindedness and heresy. The deposit of this formulations we find in the great creeds of the church through the ages.
We live in a time where people do not have much respect for the creeds. If one understands why it occurred then you start to value it. It was simply an attempt by the church through the ages to accurately formulate those things that are essential and to give it into the hands of members and say, here are the essential things. Of course it is always fallible. It must be tested with the Word. The Bible alone is the benchmark, if I can express it that way. Now people say, yes, but isn’t that exactly the reason for dissension in the church, because these confessions are so different from each other. It’s not true, that’s ignorance. If you compare the great creeds of, let’s say, the Protestant Churches with each other, then you realize that its about a 95% match.
You can even take different church tradition’s confessions like the Anglican Thirty-nine Articles, and the Baptists’s 1689 Baptist Confession and the Belgic Confession and compare them and you will see that 95% of it matches. They differ only in view of church government and baptism. As for the rest they agree. Therefore it tells us that the church understood the truth the same throughout the ages irrespective of denomination. Those who are serious about the Word, come to the same conclusion for all practical purposes. In this we have a tremendous security and comfort. They really did try to limit themselves to absolutes. For example we find that the church fathers in the case of escatology or the doctrine of the end times limited themselves by just stating the fact of Christs return and did not go into all the differing views about His return like pre-millenium, post-millenium and A-millenium.
It’s very helpful to formulate the essentials or necessities of our faith in a nutshell. The question is, how well we can sum it all up. The creeds, the Three Forms of Unity, the 1689 Baptist Confession, the Westminster Confession, Sevoy Confession etc., in a sense is the most concise in which you can put it.
There are certain short formulas we can easily remember and that can be tremendously helpful. The most important and comprehensive and most famous is the five clarion calls of the 16th century Reformation. “Sola Etota Scriptura”, better known as simply “Sola Scriptura”. The second one is “Sola Gratia”. The third one is “Solus Christus”. The fourth one is “Sola Fide”. The fifth one is “Soli Deo Gloria”. Sola means alone, or if it says “Sola Etota” it means Scripture alone, but the whole, the entire Scripture. This is our standard. “Sola Gratia” means that all salvation is God’s grace. It’s grace alone. “Solus Christus” means there is no salvation except through Christ alone. “Sola Fide” means by faith alone. “Soli Deo Gloria” means the glory of God alone. Now you will say, we know it. Surely it is everywhere the same. If one understands the implications then you realize that there are large parts of the Church of God today where these statements, these clarion calls are being violated. I really think that we hear in these five Sola’s the five benchmarks of our faith.
What is also useful to remember is that we are saved by grace alone, on the basis of Christ’s work alone. Note this alone. It is of cardinal importance. By faith alone. This is in line with the previous one. Then it goes further, “to good works” and therefore according to good works. When the Lord God savingly intervenes in a person then it is always accompanied by regeneration, the inner change of heart and it cannot fail but to be expressed in good works, obedience, love, etc. Eventually you will know that Scripture in many places emphasize that we will be judged according to our deeds. We are saved for good works, and therefore ultimately by good works. Our faith must be Word-based, God-centred and Christ-Focused.
One of the most valuable lessons that individual Christians can learn and what churches also need to learn is the English ruling that mean a lot to me, namely “Major in God’s majors, not in His minors”. In other words concentrate in your faith and your practice on those things that are emphasized in the Scriptures. To the extent that we are working with secondary matters, to that extent we waste our time and are not doing what we should be doing. To that extent our service will not stand and will go up in flames. You know 1 Cor. 3 where the apostle says: “We must be careful how we build; chaff, hay and stubble, it will burn. We need to build with gold and silver and precious stones, that will stand. Such a person will be saved, but his works will perish. It very often has to do with the fact that a person is engaged in secondary matters. You don’t concentrate on the things that are absolutely necessary. To the extent that the church is also working with secondary matters, to that extent there will be strife. Conversely, to the extent that a congregation focus on those things that are absolutely necessary, it will go well in that church. Especially preachers should note this.
It is very important that we are Scripture-based, God-centred and Christ focused in our preaching if we want the blessing of the Lord on our preaching. Very often preachers will concentrate on stories. Stories may entertain people. Man-centered sentimentality can move people to tears. Horsewhip preaching may trouble people. Eventually it is just preaching Christ to people that leads to repentance and which builds people in their most holy faith. Obviously, nothing or no one is more central, more fundamental than Jesus Christ in the Scriptures. Is it not true that Joe Bloggs, the man in the street, associates the concept to preach with do’s and don’ts. I mean, if my wife tells me what I aught to do, then I say to her, “Don’t preach to me.” What I really mean is that she should not tell me what I aught to do and what I shouldn’t do. Such people thus think of preaching in moralistic terms. A large percentage of people in the church, even if you speak of preaching think in terms of do’s and don’ts. We teach our children in that way. We say, “A child of Jesus does not do this, or say this. So we teach our children from infancy to be small Pharisees. They think that if you live right and do certain things and neglect other things then you are a Christian. That’s not true. Teachers are very guilty of this. It’s not at all what the New Testament understands under the concept of preaching. What is the New Testament’s idea? Preaching according to the Scriptures is to proclaim the majestic works of God and especially His great work of salvation in Christ. That’s preaching, it’s proclamation. There is about ten, twelve Greek concepts used in the New Testament for preaching but the accent is proclamation. So the Apostle says in 1 Cor. 2:2: “For I resolve to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” To the Galatians he says in chapter 3:1 that: “It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified..” He portrayed Jesus Christ before their eyes so that they could basically see him hanging on the cross. So what he is saying to the Galatians is, “when I was with you, Galatians, what I preached and whom I preached was Christ.” I loved to preach Him over and over, I have so preached Him from every angle and side that you afterwards could see Him as the crucified, before your eyes.
It is interesting that the very first words that Spurgeon said at the dedication of the Metropolotin Tabernacle (the great church built in London to accommodate the large crowd of people who gathered to come to listen to him): “May the theme of preaching in this building always be the person of Jesus Christ.” He also said, “I’m never ashamed to say that I am a Calvinist, I make no secret that I am a Baptist, but if someone asks me what my deepest belief is I can only answer Jesus Christ and Him alone.
Francis Shaeffer worked in the last century as a missionary in Europe, particularly in Switzerland and he stayed in a place near Geneva. He was a special man. He said that high in the mountains above his home was a rock formation, but in the winter when the snow starts falling in the mountains this whole rock reef was snow-capped and the snow lying together left the impression that it lies on a flat piece of land In a continues fassion. This seemingly continuous snow blanket is just an illusion, because these rocks are a watershed. This means that during spring when the snow melts, part of the melting snow runs off on the one side and the other melting snow half a meter away, will run off on the other side. Now what is interesting, is that on both sides were very deep gorges and valleys. The valley on the one side was part of the catchment area of the Rhine River. The water that ran down that side eventually ended up in the Rhine River and ultimately in the cold waters of the North Sea. Water from the melting snow running down the mountain on the other side landed in the lake of Geneva. From there it flowed into the Rhonerivier and ultimately in the warm waters of the Mediterranean sea, thousands of kilometers from the mouth of the Rhine.
On a farm just before Harrysmith in the Drakensberg there is just such a watershed. Water run off to one side in the catchment area of the Vaal River and eventually end up in the Vaal Dam. From there it runs down into the Orange River which eventually discharges at Oranjemund in the cold waters of the Benguela Current. Just a half a meter away on this mountain, the water runs down into the catchment area of the Tugela River and eventually ends up in the warm Indian Ocean; thousands of kilometers apart. Francis Schaeffer said that a watershed is something that cuts, splits and it determines destinations. Watersheds casts lots. Schaeffer continues to show that the church’s view of Scripture is as a watershed. How do you see the Bible, how you understand the concept of “The Word of God”, casts lots. What you think about it will determine how you live and what you value and where you are heading.
If this applies to the absolutes of Scripture then it also applies to the absolutes in the rest of our faith. The truth of God is a truth in balance, it’s a truth in equilibrium, and it is a very sensitive balance. You only need to disturb it a little then it tilts. So it is if a man moves the corner stones of our faith just half a step. If a man only slightly disturbs the benchmarks, tilting occurs which will touch the lives and destiny of countless people dramatically, especially if the church does it. It is absolutely essential for each and every believer in these days to distinguish for yourself what the absolutes of your faith is, because one simply cannot trust a preacher on face value. You must know what you believe, you have to sort it out, you must define it. What is very important, there rests a huge responsibility on us, because the church that needs to lead our children and grandchildren on the eternal road must be formed today. How you and I believe today and what we are going to preach and where we stood, determines the church of tomorrow and the day after that.