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Gospel Truth of Justification (5): Polemical

Gospel Truth of Justification (5): Polemical

The apostle Paul, after addressing the churches of Galatia in verses 1-5, immediately administers a rebuke to them with the expression, “I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel: which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ” (Galatians 1:6, 7).

John Calvin, commenting on verse six of this opening chapter of Galatians, observes that the apostle Paul’s “greatest severity of language is directed...against the false apostles.”[1] Writes Calvin,

He [Paul] charges them [false apostles] with the additional crime of doing an injury to Christ, by endeavoring to subvert his gospel. Subversion is an enormous crime. It is worse than corruption. And with good reason does he fasten on them this charge. When the glory of justification is ascribed to another, and a snare is laid for the consciences of men, the Saviour no longer occupies his place, and the doctrine of the gospel is utterly ruined (emphasis mine, AJC).[2]

In defense of the truth of justification by faith alone, the apostle Paul used polemics. In Galatians 1:8, the inspired apostle Paul pronounces a curse upon them which “preach any other gospel unto you than that which we preached unto you.” He states again emphatically in the next verse, “If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed.”

Polemics is the activity of identifying, opposing, fighting against, and destroying false teachings, either in doctrine or walk. It is spiritual warfare (2 Corinthians 10:3-5). The word itself comes from the Greek word polemos, meaning “war.” That the true church militant carries on war against false teachers and their teachings should not surprise or offend members of the church. God declared this war. In the garden of Eden God declared, “I will put enmity between thee [Satan] and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15). This war has been ongoing since the beginning of time. In the New Testament, Satan continues his attack upon the church, so that Peter warns, “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Peter 5:8). He attacks the church, as Paul warned the elders of Ephesus upon his departure (Acts 20:28-30), by sending “grievous among you, not sparing the flock.” Jude exhorts the beloved to “earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (v. 3). Why? “For there are certain men crept in unawares, who were before of old ordained to this condemnation, ungodly men, turning the grace of our God into lasciviousness, and denying the only Lord God, and our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 4). The apostle Peter warns the saints that as “there were false prophets also among the people....there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies” (2 Peter 2:1).

Knowing the truth and defending it is of utmost importance to Reformed believers, especially officebearers, for as Calvin observes, “To know what are the leading points of the gospel, is a matter of unceasing importance,” for “when these are attacked, the gospel is destroyed.”[3]

(Protestant) Reformed officebearers, upon signing the Formula of Subscription, vow that they “heartily believe” the doctrines contained in the Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession and Canons of Dordt to be in full agreement with the Word of God.” Further, they “promise...diligently to teach and faithfully to defend the aforesaid doctrine.” Moreover, they “declare”....that they will “not only reject all errors that militate against this doctrine”—particularly those doctrines condemned at the Synod of Dordt—but that they are “disposed to refute and contradict these, and...exert [them]selves in keeping the church free from such errors” (emphasis added).[4]

Equally clear is the section of the Church Order, a minor confession, dealing with the responsibilities of the officebearers of the church. Article 18 states, “The office of the professors of theology is to expound the holy scriptures and to vindicate sound doctrine against heresies and errors” (emphasis added).[5] Article 55 of the Church Order, following upon Articles 53 and 54, which require of professors, ministers, elders, and deacons that they subscribe to the Reformed confessions, reads, “To ward off false doctrine and errors that multiply exceedingly through heretical writings, the ministers and elders shall use the means of teaching, of refutation or warning, and of admonition, as well in the ministry of the Word as in Christian teaching and family-visiting.”[6]

The author, in penning the contents of Gospel Truth of Justification: Proclaimed, Defended, Developed, is necessarily polemical. The author, holding the office of professor emeritus of theology in the Protestant Reformed Churches, is bound by the Reformed confessions and the Church Order. To avoid polemics in writing on the truth of justification by faith alone would be a shameful dereliction of duty.

The author is also properly polemical. First, in the book he addresses particular errors which are a genuine threat to God’s people. Second, Engelsma addresses serious, confessional, and fatal errors. None of the errors are imagined or invented. Third, the author in his polemics is fair, allowing the advocates and defenders of false doctrine to speak for themselves. He does not “put words in their mouths,” nor does he take their words out of context. Their positions are given ample space and accurately cited. Finally, in refuting heresies, the author is motivated by love for God and the glory of his name. He writes,

Nothing, not even impenitent idolatry or sodomy, would so defile the heavenly choir as th[e] attribution of the glory of salvation to the saved sinner. To the redeemed in heaven forever, as to the saints now on earth, comes the effectual call, “Praise our God, all ye his servants, and ye that fear him” (Rev. 19:5). From the great multitude in heaven, as from the true church in the world today, comes back the response, “Let us...give honour to him” (v. 7) (p. 331).

Next time, a brief summary of the heresies and errors refuted and why this defense of justification by faith alone is necessary.


[1] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul to the Galatians, trans. William Pringle (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1998) 1:29.

[2] Calvin, 1: 31.

[3] Calvin, 1:31.

[4] Formula of Subscription, in Confessions and Church Order, 326.

[5] Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches, in Confessions and Church Order, 386.

[6] Church Order, in ibid., 397.


This article was written by Aaron Cleveland, a member of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. If you have a question or comment for Aaron, please do so in the comment section.


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