Messages for Today from Yesterday
A BULWARK NEVER FAILING
October 29, 1950
Scripture: Galatians 3:1-11
Today we have a very definite subject. Always on the last Sunday in October ministers in the Protestant churches throughout the word observe what is known as Reformation Day. For it is the Sunday nearest the day in late October in the year 1517 when the monk Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg. I am preaching then today on certain aspects of the Protestant Church. The text is the theme of the Protestant Church, the eleventh in the third chapter of Galatians: ďThe just shall live by faith.Ē
Two words of introduction. First, the Protestant Church is primarily a church of laymen. The laymen, including the men and the women, are the prime movers and those that have the greatest responsibility for the church. First then, Protestantism is a movement of laymen, and not of ministers.
The second thing is to remind you of our attitude toward all other churches. I speak of course as a Reformed minister, one who is in the Calvinistic tradition, one who is trained in the theology of Calvin and in the polity of the Presbyterian Church. Our policy and our attitude is never to be critical of anyone elseís faith. Oneís religious beliefs are a very private and personal matter. It is not in the spirit of Christ to be critical of other menís faith and their beliefs. I remind you often of that conversation that Jesus had with one of His disciples, when John rushed to Him and said, Master, there are men over here who are casting out devils in Thy name, and they do not belong in our group. Forbid them not, said our Lord; he that is not against me is for me.
Within the compass of the Holy Catholic Church, of the ecumenical church if you will, there are all the bodies that we call Protestant; there is the Greek Orthodox Catholic Church; there is the Roman Catholic Church; there are other groups that might not fall in any one of those divisions: all who call God Father and Jesus Lord. We are not to be critical of others, nor are we to dispute with them about their beliefs, nor are we to hold them up in any way as objects of difference or scorn, but we are to worship God as we see and to allow all men to worship God as they desire. And all that we ask is that they have perfect freedom, and that they allow us to have perfect freedom; that we do not criticize them, nor in turn do they criticize us. The Protestant Church believes in the worship of the individual man and woman.
Now while I am on that may I go just a step further, and remind you that we should emphasize those things where we are similar, and de-emphasize or play down our differences. That is true within Protestantism, as well as the cleavage between Protestantism and the Greek Church and the Roman Church. All too often Protestants forget their similarities and play up their differences.
Take for instance the similarities between the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Church, or the Presbyterian if you will. We differ very markedly in our attitude toward the authority of the Church and the place of the clergy and of orders and many other things. But there are so many marks of similarity. They believe in God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. They believe in the saving power of Jesus Christ. They believe just as definitely as we do in sin, and original sin. They believe in the providence of God, the over-all working of the predestinarian purposes of God in the world. They have this same personal piety that we have, though they release it through different channels, with which we do not agree always. Here is where you find similarities in people: the hymns they sing and the prayers they utter. When Christian people kneel at the cross of Christ and pray, you find that the differences are removed frequently.
Some sixteen or eighteen months ago I conducted a funeral with a Roman Catholic priest. He and I had the funeral service together. I read the Scripture and had the prayers, and then he had prayers, after which I conducted the commital service. As this Roman Catholic priest and I stood together at the head of the grave, what happened? I read from the Bible, which he believes in, and I prayed and then he prayed; he read his prayers from his missal. And what was interesting there? We had not rehearsed this together. I met him in the cemetery. The phraseology of his prayers was almost exactly the same as my prayers; for after all we were talking to the same God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. I prayed out of the great tradition of the Reformed faith, and he prayed out of the tradition of the Roman Catholic faith; but our prayers were almost identical. Now you see we can play up our similarities and we should de-emphasize our differences.
I say this because when I am preaching on the Protestant Church, I am not doing it to criticize somebody else, but I am doing it to remind you and me of our heritage. Marvelous heritage that we have, tremendous responsibilities that are ours. And so I start by reminding you that it is a laymanís church; and the glory of Protestantism and the weakness of Protestantism is at that point. The glory, because it is a laymanís church, and the weakness, because all too often laymen do not recognize their privilege and their responsibility.
The Protestants look to what source for authority? Not to the church, but to the Bible. The Protestants base their authority on the Bible, the revealed Word of God. The church is the medium to build the Kingdom, but not the final authority. The Bible is the authority, and beyond that, Godís spirit speaking to the individual man. Now of course when one says that, he must recognize at once what the Bible is, where it has authority and where it does not.
The Bible is the story of the great conflict throughout all time between righteousness and sin. It is the story of Godís redemptive purpose so that man may master sin. It is the story of the ethical and spiritual development of the human race; and in the realm of the spirit, in the realm of that which is ethical and moral, it is supreme. It has authority, for God has spoken through menís experiences, that they may understand these truths. It does not claim to be a book of history, nor does it claim to be a book of science, nor is it a book of geology or physics or chemistry. It has nothing to do with that. There are parts of the Bible that are very unreal as far as that is concerned. If you were taking a class in anthropology at the University, you would not turn to the first chapter of Genesis to learn about the history of the development of man. Thatís not what the Bible is for, except to have learned this: that God created man, that God placed His spirit in man, that God recognized from the first that evil was in the world and that there is the question that I am in Godís image, that evil is in the world. It has authority on that fact, but not on how man was created, for the writers did not have the information, nor do they have it yet completely. So if a college or university student hears me today, he need not worry because the Bible says that man was created dust out of hand and they tell you that it took a million years to create man. The Bible isnít interested in that. It is interested that man was created in the image of God, and that we have fallen from His image. So in the realm of truth, of spiritual truth, the Bible is the authority, and the Protestants stress that fact.
I need not pursue that further. Now, not only is it authoritative, but it calls then for a study and understanding. Recently I have been meeting with a group of young men studying the Bible; not using any other text book, just studying the Bible. So many of you read the Bible rather superficially when you were children, but youíve long since stopped reading. How can you understand the source of authority if you do not know the Bible? Now you see you are Protestants. You believe in the authority of the Bible, as above the authority of the Church. You have the individual right to study the Bible. If you are a conscientious layman you will study the Bible and be informed.
Itís just as if a person claimed to be a citizen of the United States and said, I am proud of being a citizen of the United States; and had never read the Declaration of Independence and had never read the Constitution and did not know the Bill of Rights and did not know the Constitution of his own state, and did not know the historical background of our country. Then he stands and claims to be an authority as a citizen when he is completely illiterate or ignorant about the Constitution and the Declaration and the Bill of Rights and the Constitution of his own state. Palpably itís absurd to talk about being an intelligent citizen if you do not know the Constitution; and just as palpably it is absurd to talk about being an effective Christian if you do not know something about the Bible. So the Bible is the source of authority for Protestants.
Now may I hurry on. In the polity or government of the church, it is not a church governed by ministers or clerks. A minister is what? He is presbyter, we believe. I am a presbyter or elder. I am a teaching elder; the lay elders in this church are ruling elders. What does the word ďministerĒ mean? It means one who serves. I am the servant of the First Presbyterian Church. I am not the head of the church. I do not even belong to this church, you see, in the Presbyterian polity; I belong to the presbytery. I am not the ruler, I am not the head. I am the servantóyour servant, and your pastor to feed you, but never to tell you what to do. Did you ever hear me tell you what to do, in any realm? Well, if I did, I was slipping that day. You never hear me tell you what to do. Youíve heard me advise with you and counsel with you, but youíve never heard me say, Do as I do, or do this because I say it, or do this for any reason, except as Godís Word says it. I am your servant, your minister.
Who controls the church? You do. Who makes up the church? You do, and so do I. We are together, ruling the church, running the church, developing the church. And there is the glory of Protestantism: the individual responsibility in the church. The fact that you, as members, have a part and that the church has no authority over you in any way. The church does not control your soul nor your destiny, but only Almighty God. You share in the running of the church.
From that conception might I say came the great democratic principles of the world. When men began to realize that each man was priceless in the sight of God, that every man answered only to God directly, that every man had right and freedom to voice his views, then democracy was possible. No totalitarianism in the Protestant church, and whenever any bishop in the Protestant Church or any minister endeavors to act as a totalitarian authority, be suspicious of him. If I ever tried to run this church solely on my own authority, that day you should say, We need another servant, for our servant has lost his sense of proportion. But that responsibility is a great one, and if you do not measure up to it the church lags in its efforts.
Then just one other word. Not only the authority of the Bible and the place of the layman; we talk about the individual priesthood of believers. Protestants stress that each individual prays directly to God, and God hearkens to every individual. I wonder if you ever dramatized that in your thinking and living and if you ever really think about it very much. Here in public worship I lead your prayers; you should be praying also. When you leave this sanctuary today, you go out of here as what? A priceless being, far more valuable than this building, or the Coliseum at the University or the Library of Congress or the Capitol at Frankfort or a battleship or anything. You are more priceless than any battleship or any building because you are a child of God, made in His image. And what is your right and your privilege? That you, without anybody else, without me or the church or anybody, can lift your voice to God, your thoughts to God, and know that He listens to you, and He talks back to you.
We have many celebrities come here. I was in Washington this summer, you know, for three weeks, and there are some people in Washington who are important that I could have gone to see, but I didnít try. If I were in London, I might have an audience with King George. But after all, King George and the people in Washington wouldnít be very much interested in me. But God is just as interested in me as He is in anybody else in the world. Did you ever think of that? That here my name, Robert Miles, means as much to God as George the Sixth or anybody; for Jesus Christ died that His Majesty George the Sixth might be saved, and Jesus Christ died that I might be saved, and at the foot of the cross we are equal. I am just as important as anybody in the world, and I tell you while it makes me humble, it fills me with pride.
So I talk directly to God, and He talks directly to me. If God be for us, who can be against us? The genius of Protestantism is, that individuals believing that, go out to do what? To build a better world. So I rejoice in the Protestant faith. It suits my approach. And I am called upon to build His church, not by being critical of anybody else, but by giving myself completely through the channel in which I am. A just man shall live by his faith.