It was a rousing mid-sermon rebuke — the kind to make you sit up in your pew.
“Jesus, being made perfect,” the preacher continued, “became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him. And this Jesus, was, of course, designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek. . . .”
The congregation doesn’t hide puzzled expressions. He pauses.
Melchize-who? Their sleepy faces wondered.
“Order of Melchizedek. . . .
. . . The King of Salem . . . “King of Righteousness”?
. . . Priest of the Most High who blesses Abram?
. . . In whose line the Messiah will serve as priest forever?
Maybe if he said, “Order of the Phoenix,” some might have recollected better, but “Melkitsadek” garnered little familiarity.
At this, he departs from his manuscript, walks around his pulpit, and looks them in the eye:
About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food. (Hebrews 5:11–14)
These grown men and women, Christians for some time now, started off well (Hebrews 10:32–34), yet still needed doctrinal milk, and not solid food. Although by now they should have been sharp on how the Christian should read the Old Testament, their dull ears (literally “sluggish”) made them perpetual students taking the same courses over and over. The author of Hebrews expected them to uncover Messianic treasures, pointing irreversibly to Jesus, in the deeps of God’s word; instead, they were still treading water on the surface.
Believers on the Bottle
Do texts like Hebrews 5:11–14 not vindicate for all time the careful study of God’s word, a hearty adherence to the whole counsel of God, a glad obedience to the fullness of its teaching? If the specifics of an enigmatic figure in Genesis 14 and Psalm 110 — one who many today might be tempted to deem obscure or irrelevant — has its proper place in the Christian mind, how much more the more conspicuous points?
Yet how many small groups or Sunday schools or Bible studies around the Western world today know much (if anything) about Psalm 110:4 and the priestly order of Melchizedek? Of its significance compared to the Aaronic order? The question grows sharpest, however, when we ask, How many want to know? How many of us, through disobedience and stagnancy, become “dull of hearing”?
Some modern minds seem to enshrine ignorance of finer points of Christian thought and doctrine as a Christian virtue. Particulars of Christian dogma they see as only useful to fracture, puff up, or make one useless in this world. Seminaries, in their view, are better called “cemeteries,” for higher education is where passion and love go to die.
God’s truth — that stubborn and imperishable reality that shall outlive the stars — has fallen on hard times with them. They do not wish to draw unwelcome lines, and what’s more, they believe this to be a very charitable and beautiful thing in the world. They seem altogether proud of their non-denominational, non-doctrinal, non-distinctive, and non-divisive faith. This, they say, is Christianity at its finest. Death, they cry, to circling round and round in endless debate over texts and theological jargon. Back to what Jesus gave us: a religion of love.
So much fighting exists already; they preach unity. Everywhere they see bitterness and rage; why should they argue? The most expedient thing to do, in a world of conflicting opinions — especially about religion — is to cast particularities of Christian interpretation, and in some cases, religion itself, overboard.
Lovers of First Grade
“Carried away by a fancied liberality and charity,” J.C. Ryle wrote in 1877, “they seem to think everybody is right and nobody is wrong, every clergyman is sound and none are unsound, everybody is going to be saved and nobody going to be lost. Their religion is made up of negatives; and the only positive thing about them is that they dislike distinctness and think all extreme and decided and positive views are very naughty and very wrong!” (Holiness, 278).
What it means that God predestines unto salvation, that Christ is the only way, that you must be born again, that by works of the law none will be justified, that God’s design entails differences between men and women — seem so small from their lofty perch. Faintly they hear the combatant chirping over particular views, but what is that to them? Catholic, Protestant, “spiritual, but not religious” — they see nothing really all that different in the end. Different shades of gray, they might call it.
They love doctrinal milk, love the first grade. Their vague creed of love sends them away from controversy, away from laborious study, away from loving God with “all their mind,” away from such “trivialities” as the order of Melchizedek, indeed, away from the Bible itself, beyond a favorite verse or two. And some take this to be more Christlike because it fosters unity better, or it is thought, than a religion filled with doctrinal detail.
Good Vibes Christianity
Christian teaching does divide. It separates “self-made religion” from heavenly, all other gospels from the true one, the proud from the humble, the false from the true, the goats from the sheep, the unsound from the sound, the passing away from the eternal, the teachings of demons and the teachings of Christ.
“Christian teaching separates the goats from the sheep, the unsound from the sound, the passing away from the eternal.”
Christians ought to be Berean, lovers of God’s word, lovers of steak. What is true of the nobler Jew has been true of the noble Christian throughout history: “they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11).
But what of our unity? It is precious, “good and pleasant” (Psalm 133:1), a gift from above not based on vague spiritualism or good vibes; real unity does not seek to discover how little can be believed. No, we embrace and teach and love the whole counsel of God. Love for others is nourished by doctrinal meat; by Scripture, all of Scripture — without abridgment or apology. As we confess in the Desiring God Affirmation of Faith, “Our aim is to encourage a hearty adherence to the Bible, the fullness of its truth, and the glory of its Author” (15.2). This alone “stabilizes saints in the winds of confusion and strengthens the church in her mission to meet the great systems of false religion and secularism.”
We will not agree to a man on every point; some distinctions will separate some of us from the particulars of weekly fellowship. But even then, as the Church, our superseding oneness in Christ makes our unity stronger than it ever could have been in untruth, error, and apathy, in clawing for the least common denominator, rather than turning our souls to God’s word as supreme, and then finding who are our fellows.
Need of the Hour
Our souls need more than little-truth, little-light, little-belief. Our souls need a feast of pure meat and holy potatoes to gird us up for life’s hardships. Milk-and-water theological minimalism may sustain infants, but not for long.
“Our souls need more than little-truth, little-light, little-belief.”
“We must charge home into the consciences of these men of broad views,” as Ryle put it, “and demand a plain answer to some plain questions. We must ask them to lay their hands on their hearts, and tell us whether their favorite opinions comfort them in the day of sickness, in the hour of death, by the bedside of dying parents, by the grave of beloved wife or child. We must ask them whether a vague earnestness, without definite doctrine, gives them peace at seasons like these” (31).
And our neighbors, coworkers, and family members need to be met with weighty-truths, broad-shouldered beliefs, and a living faith in the living Savior. All of which give us reason to smile, not frown.
What Ryle calls that spiritual “colorblindness” that “fancied liberality,” that “boneless, nerveless, jellyfish condition of soul,” that “pestilence which walks in darkness . . . a destruction that kills at noonday” (328) — cannot be the religion that turned the world upside down.
Mark what I say. If you want to do good in these times, you must throw aside indecision, and take up a distinct, sharply-cut, doctrinal religion. . . . The victories of Christianity, wherever they have been won, have been won by distinct doctrinal theology; by telling men roundly of Christ’s vicarious death and sacrifice; by showing them Christ’s substitution on the cross, and his precious blood; by teaching them justification by faith, and bidding them believe on a crucified Savior; by preaching ruin by sin, redemption by Christ, regeneration by the Spirit; by lifting up the brazen serpent; by telling men to look and live — to believe, repent, and be converted. (328)
Dare then, Christian, to have decided beliefs in this world. Satan and his demons are decided. The world is concrete in its creed. False teachers are bold in their belief. Those attempting to uncreate God’s reality are firmly concluded. Will we not be?
And in such courage, we will not find ourselves alone but flanked — by real fellows, with whom we will then taste true unity.