Presbyterian's Terrible Responsibility

The more I read the Westminster Confession of Faith, the more frustrated I become. If it were simply the case that the Confession said "this is true" while I think "that is true", then it would be easy to examine the arguments for "this" and "that". But when the Confession makes multiple statements which are true but ends with a conclusion I don't agree with, it's much harder to show where the error lies. Sometimes the error lies in something held to be true, but not explicitly stated. [1] Then you have to find that missing piece and show why it doesn't fit. It can take a great deal of unravelling of the Gordion knot to see where this kind of mistake was made.

An easier example, however, is found in J. Gresham Machen's
Christianity and Liberalism, where a number of true and partially true statements are made leading to a wrong conclusion. He writes:

At the very basis of the work of the apostolic Church is the consciousness of a terrible responsibility. The sole message of life and salvation had been committed to men; that message was at all hazards to be proclaimed while yet there was time. The objection as to the exclusiveness of the Christian way of salvation, therefore, cannot be evaded, but must be met. In answer to the objection, it may be said simply that the Christian way of salvation is narrow only so long as the Church chooses to let it remain narrow. The name of Jesus is discovered to be strangely adapted to men of every race and of every kind of previous education. And the Church has ample means, with promise of God's Spirit, to bring the name of Jesus to all. If, therefore, this way of salvation is not offered to all, it is not the fault of the way of salvation itself, but the fault of those who fail to use the means that God has placed in their hands. But, it may be said, is that not a stupendous responsibility to be placed in the hands of weak and sinful men; is it not more natural that God should offer salvation to all without requiring them to accept a new message and thus to be dependent upon the faithfulness of the messengers? The answer to this objection is plain. It is certainly true that the Christian way of salvation places a stupendous responsibility upon men. But that responsibility is like the responsibility which, as ordinary observation shows, God does, as a matter of fact, commit to men. It is like the responsibility, for example, of the parent for the child. The parent has full power to mar the soul as well as the body of the child. The responsibility is terrible; but it is a responsibility which unquestionably exists. Similar is the responsibility of the Church for making the name of Jesus known to all mankind. It is a terrible responsibility; but it exists, and it is just like the other known dealings of God.

It is true that salvation is found only in Christ. It is true that salvation is by grace, through faith, and that faith comes from hearing the word of God. It is true that there will come a time when there can be no more Gospel proclamation -- the door will shut. The problem is in the notion that the presentation of the Gospel is "committed" to men. The hidden assumption is that we, and we alone, are responsible for delivering the message and that, if we do not, terrible results will follow.

But this position cannot be supported by Scripture. If salvation is by grace, and God's grace is irresistible (as Reform doctrine affirms), then the "terrible responsibility" side must affirm that God's irresistible grace will not reach someone when we fail in our duty to proclaim the kerygma. This ties in with the Presbyterian understanding that one of the "means of grace" is the word, leading to the conclusion that we can thwart God's grace by not evangelizing. But this cannot be true. God does not need us to convey His grace. He can speak through dreams and visions, a burning bush, a donkey, or any other way He desires. Jesus was quite emphatic when He said, "I tell you, if [my disciples] were silent, the stones would shout out!" [2] This also shows a problem with the Presbyterian view of Scripture. Scripture is whatever God says, however God says it, whether it's confined to the pages of 66 books or not. This, of course, opens us up to the problem as old as Eden, "has God said?" But it does the Church no good to take the easy way out and say "these books and no others". That's contrary to what the book itself says. After all, Paul quoted pagan philosophers. But that's a topic for another time.

No, the proclamation of the Gospel is not a "terrible responsibility". Instead, it is joyful participation in Kingdom life. It is joyful because we participate in what the King is doing. [3] It is joyful because it bears fruit. [4] It is joyful because if we fail, we have a Shepherd who will not lose any of His sheep. [5]

If you ask me "why evangelize?" then I will give you two answers. First, our Lord told us to do it. [6]. Second, even a pagan Norse god knows the reason for right behavior: [7]


[1] The "means of grace" is one such example. "It is only in an indirect way that the Confession treats of the means of grace..," (
here, which then notes, however, of fuller direct exposition in the Catechisms).
[2] Luke 19:40
[3] Rom 10:18
[4] Isaiah 55:11
[5] Ezekiel 34:11-12, John 10:27, John 18:9
[6] Matthew 28:19-20
[7] Thor: Ragnarok.
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