The Separateness of the Church — Part 1

Last Sunday, I picked up a copy of this old article on the literature table at Orwell Bible Church. It is written by a Presbyterian minister who stood for truth in a time when churches were caving in to liberal ideas and men were unwilling to speak out. It was a good read as what he says still applies today. God will not let the Church fail no matter what once-strong churches, colleges, or organizations choose to do.

The Separateness of the Church — Part 1
by J. Gresham Machen (1881–1937)

Matthew 5:13: Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.

In these words our Lord established at the very beginning the distinctness and separateness of the Church. If the sharp distinction is ever broken down between the Church and the world, then the power of the Church is gone. The Church then becomes like salt that has lost its savor, and is fit only to be cast out and to be trodden under foot of men.

It is a great principle, and there never has been a time in all the centuries of Christian history when it has not had to be taken to heart. The really serious attack upon Christianity has not been the attack carried on by fire and sword, by the threat of bonds or death, but it has been the more subtle attack that has been masked by friendly words; it has been not the attack from without but the attack from within. The enemy has done his deadliest work when he has come with words of love and compromise and peace. And how persistent the attack has been! Never in the centuries of the Church’s life has it been altogether relaxed; always there has been the deadly chemical process, by which, if it had been unchecked, the precious salt would have been merged with the insipidity of the world, and would have been henceforth good for nothing but to be cast out and to be trodden under foot of men.

The process began at the very beginning, in the days when our Lord still walked the Galilean hills. There were many in those days who heard him gladly; he enjoyed at first the favor of the people. But in that favor he saw a deadly peril; he would have nothing of a half-discipleship that meant the merging of the company of his disciples with the world. How ruthlessly he checked a sentimental enthusiasm! “Let the dead bury their dead,” he told the enthusiast who came eagerly to him but was not willing at once to forsake all. “One thing thou lackest,” he said to the rich young ruler, and the young man went sorrowfully away. Truly Jesus did not make it easy to be a follower of him. “He that is not with me,” he said, “is against me.” “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife and children…, he cannot be my disciple.” How serious a thing it was in those days to stand for Christ!

And it was a serious thing not only in the sphere of conduct but also in the sphere of thought. There could be no greater mistake than to suppose that a man in those days could think as he liked and still be a follower of Jesus. On the contrary the offence lay just as much in the sphere of doctrine as in the sphere of life. There were “hard sayings,” then as now, to be accepted by the disciples of Jesus, as well as hard commands. “I am the bread which came down from heaven,” said Jesus. It was indeed a hard saying. No wonder the Jews murmured at him. “Is not this Jesus,” they said, “the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How is it then that he saith, I came down from heaven?” “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Jesus did not make the thing easy for these murmurers. “Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you.” At that many even of his disciples were offended. “This is a hard saying,” they said, “who can hear it?” And so they left him. “From that time many of his disciples went back and walked no more with him.” Many of them went back-but not all. “Then said Jesus unto the twelve, ‘Will ye also go away?’ Then Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life.'” Thus was the precious salt preserved.

Then came the gathering clouds, and finally the Cross. In the hour of his agony they all left him and fled; apparently the movement that he had initiated was hopelessly dead. But such was not the will of God. The disciples were sifted, but there was still something left. Peter was forgiven; the disciples saw the risen Lord; the salt was still preserved.

One hundred and twenty persons were gathered in Jerusalem. It was not a large company; but salt, if it truly have its savor, can permeate the whole lump. The Spirit came in accordance with our Lord’s promise, and Peter preached the first sermon in the Christian Church. It was hardly a concessive sermon. “Him being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain.” How unkind Peter was! But by that merciful unkindness they were pricked in their hearts, and three thousand souls were saved.

So there stood the first Christian Church in the midst of a hostile world. At first sight it might have seemed to be a mere Jewish sect; the disciples continued to attend the temple services and to lead the life of Jews. But in reality that little company was as separate as if it had been shut off by desert wastes or the wide reaches of the sea; an invisible barrier, to be crossed only by the wonder of the new birth, separated the disciples of Jesus from the surrounding world. “Of the rest,” we are told, “durst no man join himself to them.” “And fear came upon every soul.” So it will always be. When the disciples of Jesus are really faithful to their Lord, they inspire fear; even when Christians are despised and persecuted and harried, they have sometimes made their persecutors secretly afraid. It is not so, indeed, when there is compromise in the Christian camp; it is not so when those who minister in the name of Christ have-as was said in praise some time ago in my hearing of a group of ministers in our day-it is not so when those who minister in the name of Christ “have their ears to the ground.” But it will be so whenever Christians have their ears, not to the ground, but open only to the voice of God, and when they say simply, in the face of opposition or flattery, as Peter said, “We must obey God rather than men.”

Click here for Part 2

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