My Dear Friends,
In his masterful commentary on Second Corinthians, James Denney warned against ministers of the gospel becoming “diplomatists and strategists, rather than heralds”. This warning, issued by Denney in 1894, needs more than ever to be heeded and acted upon by Christ’s ministers today.
Over the past twenty or so years, there has been a pressing temptation within the national churches in England and Scotland for good men to become “diplomatists and strategists rather than heralds”. This is a temptation I can speak of because for twenty years I was confronted with it, and no doubt succumbed to it, while a minister in the Church of Scotland. It was, and continues to be, a subtle temptation. The pathology of the temptation expresses itself like this: "We need to have a long-term strategy to promote the gospel and recover the faith of our fathers for the church’s good and God’s glory. This may, however (but only for a short time!), involve us in swallowing practices (and even doctrines) that are unbiblical, so that in the long term we might influence congregations with the gospel and so turn the church back to the Reformation faith that first conceived the church in 1560.
“So”, the strategy continues, “let us not oppose the ordination of men to the ministry who deny the doctrines of the Holy Trinity, the deity of Christ, his penal, substitutionary sacrifice, his bodily resurrection and ascension. If pressed, let us accept women’s ordination to the eldership and pastoral ministry-our sights are set on the bigger prize of seeing the preaching of the gospel permeate the church and so restore its former glory and make it an instrument for the furtherance of the gospel in our sin-darkened world”. So goes the “strategy”. Beware, said James Denney, of becoming diplomatists and strategists rather than heralds!
The fundamental problem with evangelical diplomacy and strategy is this: the living God has not called his servants to put consequences before truth, but truth before consequences. Certainly we are never (and I mean never) to preach God’s truth arrogantly and pompously, far less coldly and clinically. But we are always to preach it faithfully, always allowing God’s holy word to lead us into God’s holy ways. Ah, you may by now be thinking, but this is a counsel of suffering! Our churches will hang us out to dry, cast us out into a harsh world. How will we then live? How will we provide for our families and care for Christ’s vulnerable flock? The answer to that not unimportant question was given by our Lord Jesus himself: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it” (Luke 9:23). Beware of becoming diplomatists and strategists and not heralds. The God who calls us to serve in the fellowship of his Son, is the God who is able to set a table in the wilderness (even an ecclesiastical wilderness) for his servants.
This year, many Christians are remembering with much thankfulness to God the life and ministry of John Calvin. Five hundred years after his birth, while many in reformed churches celebrate his remarkable ministry, how many of us are as willing and ready, as he was, to lay down our lives for the truth of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ? It is a remarkable fact that little Geneva (its population was around 20,000) sent out probably hundreds of missionaries to preach Christ throughout Europe (some men even went to Brazil). Many of those men knew they were going to their death and yet they pleaded for the privilege of being Christ’s heralds. In Scotland, Patrick Hamilton (what I would give to have him in my family tree!) was burned at the stake in 1528 at St Andrews. What was his crime? He believed and preached the gospel of justification through faith alone in Christ alone. For this he was burned to death. John Knox actually dates the beginning of the Reformation in Scotland from Patrick’s burning. Patrick little knew what his martyrdom would accomplish in the mercy and purpose of God. Yet, he laid down his life; he put truth before consequences.
I know we live in different times, but is our calling as ministers of the Crucified One to be any less faithful than Hamilton’s, or Calvin’s, or the 2000 Puritan ministers who were ejected from the Church of England in 1662 because they would not conform to the liturgy of the prayer book? They had wives and children. They had homes and flocks to shepherd. And yet, they put truth before consequences.
I did not leave the Church of Scotland and then come to Cambridge Presbyterian Church in 1999. I am not a principial secessionist. I have never told anyone to leave the Church of Scotland or the Church of England. I admire and love the men in those Churches who are seeking to be faithful ministers of Jesus Christ. I am not calling any of them to leave their churches-that would be presumptuous of me. But, perhaps I can say this to my fellow pastors: Put truth before consequences. Go where God’s truth leads. That may mean suffering, but like Patrick Hamilton’s suffering, it may be a divine precursor to a better day for Christ’s cause in Scotland and England. Shepherds don’t abandon their sheep; but they do lead their flock away from wolves and into the green pastures of God’s favour, which is always found in the pathway of obedience to his holy word.
May the Lord give us all his grace, so that we might stand, and having done everything else, continue to stand.
Your minister and fellow servant in the bonds of Christ.