Polemics is the church’s warfare on behalf of the truth and against the lies that Satan raises against the truth. Polemics is a Reformed calling. This calling is explicitly commanded in Scripture: contend earnestly for the faith. In carrying out this calling the church is faithful to her king, Jesus Christ, who is a warring Christ. He came to crush the head of the Serpent and all his seed. He speaks of his own resolve to carry on polemics and his purpose with those polemics in Psalm 101:8, “I will early destroy all the wicked of the land; that I may cut off all wicked doers from the city of the LORD”. Polemics by the church is the work of Christ who carries on this warfare in and through His church. Since Christ is a warring Christ, the church must be a warring church.
The calling of the whole church, of her officebearers, especially of the professors of theology, and of every believer, is to do polemics. Doing polemics the church earnestly contends for the truth of the Word of God against all heresies that militate against it. The word of God curses the deceitful refusal of those who bear the sword of the Lord, His Word, to wield it in spiritual warfare against God’s enemies, lies, false doctrine, and heresy. This behaviour is akin to the disgraceful behaviour of the soldier who is armed for warfare, but stays on the back lines and never engages the enemy. Doing polemics is also contrasted with the deceitful practice of those who cover their refusal to do polemics with a vain show of polemics by means of many words and definitions about polemics without ever actually engaging in this hard, painful, and bloody spiritual warfare. The difference between merely talking about polemics and the practice of polemics is as big a difference as merely writing about warfare at the military academy at West Point and actually engaging in warfare on the beaches of Normandy. The Reformed believer may not deceitfully keep back his sword in the day of battle, but neither must he merely talk about polemics without actually engaging in the practice. Reformed polemics is not only a Reformed calling, but a Reformed practice.
This necessary practice of polemics involves especially confronting the precise error that threatens the truth of the gospel at that moment. Martin Luther, the greatest polemicist since the Apostle Paul, wrote about this reality: “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 Christ. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved, and to be steady on all the battlefield besides, is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point”. That should be the motto of every Reformed believer in his polemics. The believer practices precision in spiritual warfare. That precision serves not only the destruction of the precise form of the lie that threatens the church, but also serves the development of that specific doctrine under threat so that by means of that precise polemics the truth is brought to a higher state of development. Such controversy always takes places under the sovereign direction of the Lord who will not only have the lie defeated but the faith of the church established more and more.
The practice of polemics practically, then, involves naming names. Just as it impossible to wage war in the world without defining and naming the enemy against which some country is opposed, it is equally impossible to engage in the practice of Reformed polemics without naming names. The Reformed believer in his polemics is not only opposed to false ideas and heresies, but also to those that teach and promote them. The purpose of naming names is so that others may be warned and that those who teach those false doctrines may have opportunity to repent of their errors, or at the very least that they may be warned that they oppose the truth of Christ and the Reformed believer freed from their blood in the day of Christ. Luther explained his great zeal for polemics as in part motivated by this consideration: “I will do my part faithfully so that none may be able to cast on me the blame for their lack of faith and their ignorance of the truth when we appear before the judgment seat of Christ”.
Since in warfare it is necessary to know one’s enemy it is necessary that the Reformed church and believer in the practice of polemics also know their enemy. This knowledge of the enemy is not merely a general recognition and acknowledgement that they fight with Satan, but also includes knowledge of the tactics of this enemy. One word more than any other describes his tactics: deception.
Belonging to his deception involves the fact that Satan rarely comes against the church nakedly revealed as the Great Red Dragon. He came in the garden as a subtle serpent. He came to Jesus under the form of his dear disciple Peter who casually took him aside to whisper in his ear that he need not go to the cross. He comes yet today under the form of articulate, winsome, learned, and popular men. This reality is the point of the Apostle in his warning to the church in Ephesians 6:12. Speaking of the “wiles of the devil”, he explains, “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places”. The church in her warfare fights against flesh and blood. The errors, lies, and false doctrines come through the instrumentality of men. The faces of men are the faces of the threat. This can lead the church to believe that she fights only with men. But the church must ever keep in mind that standing behind those men and motivating them is Satan, the inveterate enemy of God, Christ, the church, and all that is good. Whether those men serve Satan wittingly or unwittingly makes no difference as to the fact of the church’s warfare with Satan. In all her warfare she in fact wars not with flesh and blood—men—but “against principalities, against power, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places”. The real enemy always is the spiritual forces of the Prince of Darkness grim.
Martin Luther constantly reminded his readers of this fact. After he badly abused the Swiss Reformers Oecolampadius and Zwingli in the controversy over the Lord’s Supper, in the course of which he accused them of everything from villainy to blasphemy, he wrote, “God knows, with these crude illustrations I do not wish to offend Zwingli, and especially not Oecolampadius, to whom God has given many gifts beyond so many others. Indeed, I am heartily sorry for the man. I aim such words not at them but only upon the arrogant, mocking devil who has so deceived and mislead them”. He added later, “This spirit is not good, and means no good through these fanatics, although I think the preachers against whom I write have no malice in mind.
But dear God, they are not their own masters; the spirit has blinded and taken them prisoner. Therefore they are not to be trusted”. He was alive to the reality that he did not fight with flesh and blood, but spiritual wickedness in high places and that his real opponent was always Satan’s minions, sometimes Luther felt Satan personally. The reason that the church must recognize the enemy as being principally Satan is so that the church never attempts to fight that enemy in her own strength, but that she “take… the whole armour of God” (Eph. 6:13).
Involved in the practice of polemics is church’s resolve to defeat the enemy by spiritual means: prayer, faith, the word of God, and the rest of the spiritual weapons with which Christ arms his church. She is forbidden in her spiritual warfare to use carnal weapons of man’s philosophy, man’s rhetoric, or man’s tactics. The word of God is her weapon. By means of the careful study, explanation, and application of that word to the controversy the lie is defeated on the field of battle.
Besides the recognition that Satan comes behind men, the church must also recognize that the men that Satan uses are deceptive with all the arts of the prince of deception. So speaking of false teachers Paul warns the church of “the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive” (Eph. 4:14). The purpose of false teachers is to deceive and to entrap the believer and church in the lie. The methods that they use are “sleight” and “cunning craftiness”. The word “sleight” refers to playing cards or dice. The false teacher is a like a card shark who is adept at fooling his audience with his tricks. In this he is cunning and crafty. He plays hocus pocus with the word and truth of God. By this means he entraps with the lie.
In the same passage the Apostle also speaks of the defence of the church against such cunning craftiness, “speaking the truth in love”. Whatever else speaking the truth in love means, it means principally this, that all the church’s speaking of the truth proceed out of a love for that truth and be spoken with the love of that truth in mind. The goal of the church in her polemics may not merely be formal victory in an argument, to overcome an opponent, or to show the logic of her arguments in contrast to the fallacies of the opponent, but the goal must be the victory of the truth. The goal must be that the truth stands out clearly and victoriously over the lie in order that the truth be esteemed and glorified as the word of God. Belonging to this is especially the church’s zeal for the glory and name of God and Jesus Christ. The sine qua non, then, of the church’s polemics is her love of the truth. That love of the truth is the esteem of the truth as precious and dear to her. It is also her firm resolve to keep communion with that truth as all costs, including the loss of her earthly friendships, standing, and ultimately of her own earthly life. In this love for the truth she speaks it, confessing with her mouth what is in her heart. Through this speaking the love of the truth is also strengthened by her continual acquaintance with the truth through the pure preaching of that truth. Loving the truth as precious and dear she defends it with all her might. Loving the truth, she hates the lie and wills its defeat.
Adding to the deceptiveness of the false teachers is that as Satan’s ministers they are able to transform themselves in ministers of Christ. Scripture speaks of this reality in 2 Corinthians 11:13-15, “For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ. And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their works”. They do not come telling the church that they are speaking a lie, but they proclaim that they are speaking the truth, that they are only interested in the holiness of the church, or that they are jealous for the purity of Christ’s bride. Belonging to this aspect of the deceptiveness of the false teacher is the fact that the false teacher is almost always one of the most pleasant and likeable person the believer will ever meet. All of this serves the purpose to disarm the believer and to deceive the church.
Further, the church may not be ignorant of the object of Satan in his warfare. This object is summarized admirably by the Belgic Confession in Article 12, “The devils and evil spirits are so depraved that they are enemies of God and every good thing, to the utmost of their power, as murderers, watching to ruin the church and every member thereof, and by their wicked stratagems to destroy all”. Satan’s object is nothing less than the total destruction of God’s church. In short the warfare of the church is total war. This warfare cannot be waged by half- measures, or half-heartedly, but requires an equal determination on the part of the church not merely to defeat the lie, but to destroy it. It is this for which the Lord taught the church to pray in the second petition of the Lord’s prayer according to the Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 48, “Destroy the works of the devil and all violence which would exalt itself against thee; and also, all wicked counsels devised against thy holy Word”. Praying for that, she must be zealous in that purpose and work of Christ and do polemics wherever the battle rages.
To do polemics requires that the Reformed believer be engaged. He must first all be engaged in the battle with sin in his own heart and life. The fervent prayer of the believer who will do polemics in the church must daily be what the Heidelberg Catechism teaches in Lord’s Day 52, “do thou therefore preserve and strengthen us by the power of thy Holy Spirit, that we may not be overcome in this spiritual warfare, but constantly and strenuously may resist our foes, till at last we obtain a complete victory”. Daily the believer must put off the old man and put on the new man, a kind of personal polemics.
Second, the believer must be engaged in the church. This involves his knowledge of the issues that currently face the church, especially at the broader assemblies. When the agendas for the assemblies come out, then it is perfectly proper and good for believers in the pew to ask for them in order know what is on the agendas, to discuss the agendas, and to follow the deliberations of the items on the agendas on the floor of the assemblies. The agendas are not private documents, but public as are the discussions on the floor of the church meetings that follow from them. The broader assemblies must encourage this engagement by the believer by treating as little in closed session as possible and only where absolutely necessary. The believer has the right and the duty in his capacity in the office of believer to know and to follow these developments in the church. One example of this engagement of the believer in the happenings at the church assemblies is found regularly on the pages of the Standard Bearer magazine where by long standing precedent the editor of that magazine previews for the people of God the content of that year’s synodical agenda. Another example is that many societies in the churches have the practice of discussing the agendas of upcoming classical or synodical meetings. When the acts and announcements of the decisions of the assemblies are distributed, then, the engaged believer reads this carefully and judges it spiritually according to the word of God. All this belongs to the necessary engagement of the believer in the life and struggles of the church of God.
Third, this engagement of the believer extends to the believer’s knowledge of the current issues that characterize the broader church world in which the Reformed believer finds himself. More than likely one or more of these issues will also confront his church sooner or later. It has to be one the most naïve and dangerous responses to controversy in the broader church world to think or say that this is not a threat to us. Such a response almost guarantees that the church will face that exact threat in some form if for no other reason than her near suicidal lack of preparation and engagement with that issue.
Such an engaged believer is the believer that will also be prepared spiritually and intellectually to engage in polemics. Churches full of such believers will also be polemical churches engaged actively in the warfare of Christ their king. Being engaged they will not only talk about polemics, but do it for the glory God and the defence of the truth they love.
Written by: Rev. Nathan Langerak | Issue 48