Our Reformed Heritage
Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies
by Bob Burridge ©2014
Lesson 2 – “Triumphantly Intolerant” – Acts 4:12
As the world tries to develop a system of what’s right and wrong it has a few serious problems. First, most of those setting the boundaries are not redeemed by Christ, therefore they cannot see things as they really are. Second, they have no standard for morality beyond their own current opinions.
Different ideas about what’s right and wrong causes arguments, political battles, persecutions, and wars. There are radical extremists determined to torture and kill anyone disagreeing with them. There are those who claim to be “open minded”, but believe that to be open minded means “agreeing with them”. It often seems that there’s nothing as closed minded as those who brag about being “open minded.”
There are groups like the “Freedom From Religion” people who claim that public prayer, Christmas, Easter, and Bibles are intolerant things which should be made illegal and banished from society. It’s ironic how intolerant they are who see those who disagree with them as the intolerant ones. It’s nothing new though. Attacks against God’s truth have been going on since Eden.
The word “tolerate” comes from a Latin word, “toleratus”. It is a past participle of “tolerare” which means, “to endure, to put up with something”.
God is both tolerant and intolerant.
On the one hand God “tolerates” the existence of evil and sin in his universe. He could remove it immediately, or have kept it from every existing — if that was his plan. He puts up with it, endures it, and uses it to reveal is power, justice and grace.
On the other hand, God is “intolerant” regarding the approval of immorality and of those who engage in evil and sin. He not only tells us it’s wrong, he also promises to pour out his vengeful judgment upon it.
Habakkuk 1:13 brings both of these ideas together: Speaking to God the Prophet asks, “You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong, why do you idly look at traitors and remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?”
He testifies that God is offended by evil and wrong. In confusion he wonders why he doesn’t just eliminate it.
First: We know that God tolerates the existence of evil and sin.
He allows unbelief, wickedness, and rebellion in his world to serve his purposes. Certainly God allowing evil to exist does not mean he approves the sinfulness of evil.
Acts of sin and evil are permitted to occur (they are actually decreed) to be used to serve God’s end.
Romans 9:22-23, “What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory”
The word “endured” there is the 2nd aorist form of the Greek word “phero” (φέρω) which means “to bear up, carry something, endure”. The word itself has nothing to do with approval. Though God puts up with evil for a time, he is not in the wicked sinning through them. They are the ones fully responsible morally for their attitudes and actions. This is made clear throughout the Bible.
God tolerated the rise of Egypt’s Pharaoh to accomplish the display of his power in delivering Israel. In Romans 9:17 Paul quoted Exodus 9:16 when he wrote, “For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’ ”
He used the jealousy of Joseph’s brothers to put the chosen deliverer in the hands of that evil Egyptian ruler. In Genesis 50:20 Joseph said to those brothers, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”
God tolerated the existence of evil religious leaders to accomplish the atonement made by Jesus on the cross. Acts 2:23, “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.”
Acts 4:27-28 in prayer to God, Peter and John said, “for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.”
God patiently endures evil behavior to supply a continuing lesson about human depravity. By that, God says he makes known his wrath, power, and grace. This does not make evil to be good. It shows that evil is never beyond God’s control.
Sin and evil are not independently existing created things.
They don’t float around in the universe as independent and unattached entities. They are attributes, moral conditions of persons. They are the attitudes and behaviors which are contrary to moral good as defined by God’s own nature.
God’s attributes are not created, they are eternal. Good is eternal because it is a characteristic of the divine nature. Evil is no more a created thing than is “good”. The creation of imperfect morally fallible and morally changeable creatures brought into existence the possibility of the opposite of God’s perfections. In his word God tells us that in his relationship to such creatures, and to the moral evil they produce, he displays his amazing divine perfections.
That is what we saw back in Romans 9:22. God endures evil to exist, “to show his wrath and to make known his power.”
That is how God tolerates the existence of evil and sin, while not approving the immorality of evil and sin.
We need to learn where to tolerate and
where not to tolerate things we deal with.
We accept the fact that God calls us to live here in a world still lost in sin. We need to understand the sad condition of the lost. We remember that aside from God’s grace, we are no better than the most evil and sinful people. We need to appreciate the sin barrier that separates the lost from fellowship with their Creator.
It’s not our job to silence the lost by violence. They are here for a reason. However we are not to tolerate the lies that distort God’s truth, or the immorality that offends God’s moral principles as if we approve of them.
There’s a compassionate intolerance that reaches out with the love of Christ.
This compassionate intolerance humbly refuses to be tolerant of the things that destroy and do harm.
We should never compromise God’s message to make it more acceptable to the lost world. Changing our behavior or modifying the Gospel to get them to tolerate us should not be our goal. That’s destructive. It serves Satan’s imitation kingdom, and tears at the kingdom of God. This is what often makes people label conservative Christianity as intolerant of others.
We should deal with unbelief and evil evangelistically and as good neighbors, while we don’t approve of it. Our job is to love the truth, and to represent God faithfully. It is not to treat unbelievers in a rude way, or to forbid them from expressing their views. That was never the way of the Prophets, of our Savior, or the Apostles.
A great debate arose in the early 20th century
over the rise of Modernism.
Modernism attempted to re-interpret the Bible to make it fit in with a more secular view of the world. They saw the Bible as inspiring reading and they believed that God can speak to us through Scripture, but they believed it was not free from errors, or the opinions and cultural views of the writers. It tried to explain away the miracles by saying they were primitive interpretations of natural events, or just myths. The Modernists assumed that Jesus was not virgin born, but was conceived illegitimately, probably by a Roman soldier. They denied that there was any real atonement made on the cross. They saw the crucifixion as just an act of martyrdom. They also rejected the actual resurrection of the body of Jesus.
With that rising threat of unbelief, the Presbyterian Church at that time had proposed Five Declarations of faith.
- Those ordained to the ministry should all believe in …
- the infallible and inerrant inspiration of Scripture
- the supernatural nature of the miracles of the Bible
- the virgin birth of Jesus Christ
- the necessity of a real atonement made on the cross
- the actual bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ
As Modernism infiltrated the Church it demanded that we should be tolerant of other views about these five statements. They did not mean just being nice to those who differ with them. They meant that we should accept other ideas of truth right along side our own. The Modernists in the Presbyterian Church wanted to allow ministers to deny some of these basic biblical teachings.
One who stood out in the battle was John Gresham Machen.
He was born in Baltimore, Maryland on July 28th, 1881. His father was an Episcopalian and a prominent Baltimore Lawyer. His mother was from Macon, Georgia. She raised her son John in the old school Southern Presbyterian tradition.
He learned his Bible well and was taught the Westminster Catechisms. He got his degree from John Hopkins University in 1901, and Princeton Seminary in 1905. After that, John went to Germany for a year where he studied under some of the leading Liberal theologians. When he came back to the states he struggled to deal with the conflicting approaches to God’s word.
In 1906 he became an instructor at Princeton Seminary, and was ordained in 1914. At that time he was moved up to the position of Assistant Professor.
When Liberalism started to appear Machen was well equipped to deal with it.
He spoke out against the Philadelphia Plan in 1920 which wanted to unite 19 denominations. Not all were faithful to the Bible and some rejected its basic teachings. His lectures on The Origin of Paul’s Religion became a classic defense of the Biblical Faith.
In 1923 a conservative overture almost failed to pass General Assembly. It called for all Pastors and teachers to be faithful to the doctrines of the Confession and particularly to the Five Declarations. Shockingly 359 ministers voted against it! There were only 439 supporting it.
Later that year the liberal ministers adopted the Auburn Affirmation. It said that the General Assembly had no right to declare what doctrines had to be believed, and said that the Five Declarations were not a necessary part of the Christian Faith.
The Moderates were influenced by the outward success of the American Evangelicals and wanted a more practical and social gospel that allowed for differences of faith. Machen said he respected the concerns of the Evangelicals, but the Presbyterian Church was not the place for non-Presbyterians even if they wanted to do good things.
The Moderates were only tolerant of those who agreed with them. They issued scathing attacks on Machen and the other conservatives that dared to speak out. In 1929 Princeton Theological Seminary became the target of the Liberals in the Presbyterian Church. To move it away from conservatism, the seminary board was re-organized by the General Assembly. It was controlled by moderates who were not tolerant of Conservative views.
They blocked Machen’s appointment to the Professorship of Apologetics. That year, Machen and other Princeton Professors founded Westminster Theological Seminary. To them it was important to have a school still preparing men who were actually Presbyterian.
But liberalism continued to take over in the church.
In 1932 they published a study called Re-Thinking Missions where they minimized the gospel. They didn’t want Christianity presented as the only true religion by our missionaries. They were told to support other religions in our common goals. Pearl S. Buck was one of the most liberal missionaries who stood strongly against the conservatives.
To give better opportunity for the conservative missionaries Machen and others formed the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions. In 1936 charges against Machen were upheld stating that his conservatism was doing harm. They removed him and others from the church. To continue the original Presbyterian Church, Machen and others formed The Presbyterian Church of America. They were later required by law to change the name. They adopted the name Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
There is an intolerance that’s good, and an intolerance that’s bad.
Jesus certainly did not go along with the idea that any religion was OK with God. He said very clearly in John 14:6, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
The Apostle Peter said about Jesus Christ in Acts 4:12, “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”
We ought to be very tolerant of the fact that we all grasp at truth imperfectly, and grow at different rates. We need to remember that we only appreciate God’s truth by God’s grace in Christ. But while we tolerate one another’s needs and weaknesses, we do harm to the whole gospel and to those in need of it if we tolerate false gospels or open denials of God’s truth. We do not need to be mean spirited, arrogant, or prideful, but we do need to promote and defend the truth without compromise.
In his Introduction to the Literature and History of the New Testament, Machen wrote about the distinctiveness of the Apostolic Church. He said, “The church … stood in the midst of a hostile environment. She did not shrink from the conflict; she never entered into any compromise with a religion of works, or with heathenism; she was never content to make a common cause with the non-Christian world; she was never content with a divided allegiance.”
He said of the early Christians, “they preferred to be triumphantly intolerant.” Then he quoted that text in Acts 4:12.
Acts 4:12, “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”
He wrote books and articles back in the early 20th century which are appropriate advice for us a century later. We still need to promote the teachings of Scripture without compromise. There is only one way of Salvation from sin. He said, “Such intolerance is unpopular today. It’s unpopularity, however, is due partly to misconception. The intolerance of earnest believers does not involve a harsh and repellent attitude toward the non-Christian world. On the contrary, it is compatible with the broadest sympathies. Just because the Christian is conscious of a great possession which is lacking to the world, he desires to share it with all men. The intolerance of the early Church was an intolerance that resulted in blessing. Christ, to the early Christians, was the only Savior — no other could be tolerated beside him — but though he was the only Saviour, he was a Saviour sufficient for all.”
In the winter of 1937 Machen took a Christmas break
from Westminster Seminary.
He was tired and worn out from his busy efforts. A Pastor in North Dakota had invited him to come out there to preach when he had the chance. Against the warnings of his friends and other teachers at Westminster, Machen left Philadelphia and took a train into the 20-below zero winds of the Dakotas. He came down with Pneumonia, and after sending a telegram to John Murray at Westminster he died on New Year’s Day of 1937. He was only 55 years old.
Many call him the Martin Luther of the 20th Century. He led the way for a movement that produced not only the OPC, but eventually also the Bible Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Presbyterian Church, and more recently the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).
He strengthened the conservative cause that stood up to Liberalism as is spread in our country. He was appreciated by all who loved God’s word. While he differed with other Fundamentalists on some points, they claimed him as a dear brother in Christ. We owe a great debt to this faithful servant of God as one used to strengthen the church when under attack in a perilous era.
Note: Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.
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