Revisiting David Wells: Valiant for Truth

From Stephen Nichols | February 2, 2018

On September 9, 1926, an article on J. Gresham Machen appeared in The Presbyterian. It was written by the Reverend T. H. Lipscomb, a pastor in the Methodist Episcopal Church, who had just heard Machen in Biloxi, Mississippi, and had this to say:

We find him endowed with an intellectual clarity and felicity of expression which causes to flow forth into the minds of even unlearned hearers a sparkling stream of pure truth, quickening and convincing out of a mass of detailed knowledge from which most scholars bring forth only negations or inconclusive theories.  His mental idiosyncrasy in this regard is quite marked—hitting the nail on the head, causing the sparks to fly; and in the light of vindicaed truth driving error from the field.  We recall, as we think of him, Bunyan’s Mr. Valiant for Truth.

The Reverend Lipscombe added that Machen is “Not a ‘saint of the world,’ who stands for nothing and against nothing, but a saint of God who loves truth, seeks truth, finds truth, and upholds truth against all adversaries.”

Bernard Stonehouse, Machen’s biographer, would also use that expression to describe Machen. It was not simply that Machen stood for truth; he was valiant for truth.

Machen came by the title Valiant-for-Truth the hard way. Through the 1920s up until the last day of his life, January 1, 1937, Machen was embroiled in controversy and fighting for the faith. He took a courageous stand within in his own seminary, the storied Princeton Theological Seminary. He had, sadly, a front row seat to the unraveling of the once great seminary. He battled liberalism in his denomination’s missionary efforts, opposing very prominent voices who advocated the transformation of missions away from gospel proclamation towards social improvement and betterment. He battled the denomination itself, insisting (of all things) that his denomination be true to its Confession of faith. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Machen took stand after stand. He earned the title Valiant-for-Truth.

Twenty-five years ago, Dr. David Wells sounded a clarion call to the church with the publication of his book No Place for Truth (Eerdmans, 1993). Wells decried the cultural accommodation of the church, which was the exact same dynamic that led to the malaise and crisis Machen faced in his day. Wells carefully documented the adaptation of modernity by much of the church, resulting in the tossing overboard of theology, the abdicating of truth. Among the many particular culprits, Wells notes the influence of therapy culture. As he quips, “Thus was biblical truth eclipsed by the self and holiness by wholeness” (210).

No Place for Truth was the first volume in a pentalogy that looked at crucial doctrines—all of which had fallen on hard times in the evangelical church. As I look at Wells’ project, I see far more than an exploration or an analysis of the loss of theology in the life of the church. I also see a way forward. I also see a call to action. If No Place for Truth is a call to be valiant for the truth, each one of the four volumes that Wells wrote offers a specific truth for which we must be valiant.

From his book God in The Wasteland (Eerdmans, 1994), we learn:

  1. We must be valiant for the truth of the “weightiness” of God.

In this book, Wells acutely observed, “The fundamental problem in the evangelical world today is that God rests too inconsequentially upon the church. His truth is too distant, his grace is too ordinary, his judgment is too benign, his gospel is too easy, and his Christ is too common” (30).

Near the end of Psalm 50, a Psalm rife with language of judgment, we read this indictment by God Himself: “You though that I was one like yourself” (Psalm 50:21). That should send chills up our spine. We have domesticated God; we have tamed Him. Or, we vainly think we have. We are far too flippant and far too casual in our view of God both in culture and in the church. We need to be reminded of the gravitas, the weightiness, of God.

From Wells’ book Losing Our Virtue (Eerdmans, 1998), we learn:

  1. We must be valiant for the truth that man is a moral being.

We are not amoral, and, despite what many might think, we will pay a steep price for immorality. As moral beings we are under obligations, we are accountable, and we will be judged. We do not live in a moral vacuum, and neither do we as a society get to determine a moral code. We are not simply material creatures who act on impulses and instincts. These are all myths that are deadly and damning.

These two truths go together. Calvin reminded us that true and sound wisdom consists in the right knowledge of God and the right knowledge of ourselves. When we have God resting casually and inconsequentially upon our shoulders, we will distort and pervert our own selves as moral beings; someday we must give an account of the deeds done in our flesh. It is likely going to become increasingly more difficult not to conform to the world, not to be influenced by culture, on matters of morality. We can easily be lulled into complacency and even slight compromises.

To all this we must respond by being valiant for moral conviction, not shrinking back from speaking up for morality and for virtue.

From Wells’ Above All Earthly Powers (Eerdmans, 2005), we learn:

  1. We must be valiant for the truth that Christ is above all earthly powers.

In the Philadelphia Art Museum there is a large painting by Francesca de Rosa, done in Naples in 1640, entitled “Massacre of the Innocents.” It recalls horrific moment when Herod, blinded by his own insatiable lust for power, orders the murder of all male infants and toddlers under two years of age (Matthew 2:16-18). The account is difficult enough to read about, let alone see depicted on a large canvas. Soldiers with their conditioned bodies slaughtering helpless infants as mothers vainly try to intervene. What de Rosa captures best is the faces of the soldiers, distorted and twisted in anger.

This is but only one example of the threat of earthly powers. Many mistakenly ascribe ultimate power to these regimes and to their demented and delusional leaders. Some even ascribe supremacy to earthly powers. Some futilely ascribe permanence to earthly powers.

Any time we cower before earthly powers, or we succumb to the temptation to compromise before power, we forget that Christ is the Alpha and the Omega. We forget what Paul reminds the believers at Colossae, that “whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities”—that Christ is before all things (Col 1:15-17).

Dr. Sinclair Ferguson put it this way: “How extensive is the kingdom of King Herod now? How extensive is the kingdom of King Jesus now?”

Finally, from his last book of the pentalogy, The Courage To Be Protestant (Eerdmans, 2008), we learn:

Machen

  1. We must be valiant for the truth that our confidence and our hope is in the gospel.

To put this another way, we must have the courage to be Protestant, the courage to be like the Reformers. Wells notes that evangelicals spend a great deal of time and energy thinking of ways to make Christianity interesting and appealing to modern people. And many times, the ways and strategies and techniques we come up with do not include the gospel. It is as if we think the gospel is not enough, that the gospel will not work.

The reality, of course, is the opposite. The gospel is the words of eternal life. The gospel is our only hope. The gospel is the tip of the spear and it is the spear itself.

Only months before he died, Machen wrote:

Our real confidence rests not in the signs of the times, but in the great and precious promises of God. Contrast the weak and beggarly elements of this mechanistic age … and I think we shall come to see with a new clearness, despite the opposition of the world, that we have no reason to be ashamed of the gospel of Christ.

May we be as valiant for truth in our day.

DOWNLOAD THE ACADEMIC CATALOG