Denying the Gospel seems to be the latest evangelistic strategy of many pastors and church spokesmen. Penal substitutionary atonement is now dismissed as just one viable option of many ways to understand the cross, if it’s not dismissed outright. Biblical inerrancy is under attack, derided as a hindrance to reaching modern sophisticates. And if inerrancy is not compromised explicitly, the authority of Scripture is reduced to verbal assent by scholars who smartly call evil “good” and good “evil” and prove it with lots of footnotes. A broadening of the way to salvation, a more “tolerant” sexual ethic, and the silence of the otherwise orthodox point to a spreading spiritual leprosy within the camp. But despair we must not. Au contraire, downgrade, as Spurgeon called it, is an insidious assault by the enemy, but like all the enemy’s work God will use it for good. In what follow I list five benefits of heresy. I’m sure there are more. But here are five.
First, heresy brings truth to the fore. Often truth is taken for granted. The Church moves on assuming the truth. The assumption can lead to forgetfulness. But when heresy emerges, Christians are forced to think things through and take nothing for granted. The early Christological heresies, the Reformation , the modernist controversy all prove this point. Even the Epistles of the New Testament are written in response to heresy. When errors surface the saints are forced to spot them. Upon recognizing error they proceed to articulate the truth as a remedy to the error. Truth shines most radiant against the dark backdrop of lies.
Second, heresy sends people to the Bible. When the average Christian hears that pastor or doctor so and so is accused of being a false teacher, they are forced to decide. Do they or do they not believe the accusation? To evaluate the situation Christians will search the Scriptures like the Bereans. They examined “the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11). It is not enough to ask whether the person in question is likeable, whether he can quote scholars, or whether he has credentials. For the born-again believer those questions amount to clap-trap. Even a wise parent will use the occasion of heresy to tell his children to learn the Bible lest they too one day be blindly led to hell (Proverbs 19:25a). The Spirit prompts the truly converted to open the Bible, and that’s always a good thing.
Third, heresy shows the true Christians. How do we recognize true Christians? They hear the voice of Jesus and obey Him (John 10:27). Jesus was very clear that there will be many false converts. Many will believe they are converted but truly are not. Controversy is a time when the sheep separate from the goats. The Spirit opens their ears to the voice of Christ amidst the hubbub of the soundbites. The goats leave for error (1 John 2:19), but the faithful remain. God strengthens their hearts, and they emerge courageous for truth.
Fourth, heresy forces the Church into unity. Some people naively think church unity means that we get along with whoever calls himself a Christian. That’s false. Many people call themselves Christians but are agents of Satan sent to deceive. Paul mandates Christian unity and tells the Corinthians to “all” “agree” and to “be united in the same mind and same judgment” (1 Corinthians 1:10). That’s not primarily an organizational or denominational unity, nor is it a unity with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister in Christ. Rather it is a unity of agreement, of like-mindedness, and of conviction. If someone calls himself a Christian but resolutely contradicts foundational truth, the Church is stronger to separate from him. Such divisions are not divisions among Christians but rather between light and darkness, Christ and Satan. Gospel truth is the rallying point of the Christian Church.
Fifth, heresy serves future generations. The theological controversies of past generations serve the Church for perpetuity. For example the Nicene Creed of 325 AD was forged in theological controversy. Arianism ravaged the Church, and it had to be repudiated. Nicaea did just that. It clarified orthodoxy. 1700 years later, it still serves us well. Likewise, in the nineteenth century, Charles Spurgeon fought against downgrade. Then, like today, church leaders attacked core beliefs. Spurgeon noted,
A chasm is opening between the men who believe their Bibles and the men who are prepared for an advance upon Scripture…The house is being robbed, its very walls are being digged down, but the good people who are in bed are too fond of the warmth, and too much afraid of getting broken heads, to go downstairs and meet the burglars… Inspiration and speculation cannot long abide in peace. Compromise there can be none. We cannot hold the inspiration of the Word and yet reject it; we cannot believe in the atonement and deny it; we cannot hold the doctrine of the fall and yet talk of the evolution of spiritual life from human nature; we cannot recognize the punishment of the impenitent and yet indulge the “larger hope.” One way or the other we must go. Decision is the virtue of the hour.
Spurgeon lamented the attack on biblical inerrancy, the attack on penal substitutionary atonement, the attack on the biblical account of creation and fall, and the attack on the exclusivity of the Gospel. Moreover, he lamented the unwillingness of others to join him in his stand. They were too “afraid of getting broken heads, to go downstairs and meet the burglars.” With his opponents attacking him he said, “I am quite willing to be eaten by dogs for the next fifty years but the more distant future shall vindicate me.” He has been vindicated. 150 years later the same downgrade has returned. We find strength in a 19th century Englishman who stood for truth when it was not fashionable. And by following his lead, we pave the way for posterity to do the same.
Scripture tells us to “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). It says “all circumstances” because many circumstances, at face value, don’t present themselves as worthy of thanks. But when we understand that God is good and God is sovereign and God has promised that all things work together for our good, for the triumph of His people, then we know that face value is often not the true value of a situation. Behind a dark providence we find God kindly using the devices of the enemy to serve the good of Christ’s people. The rule applies just as much to heresy and error as to anything. Heretics smile as they spray their lies as from a flamethrower. But the ashes from that fire often fertilize the life of the Church. What wicked men mean for evil God means for good.