A Foundation of Truth
Warfield was a Christian and a theologian, but for him these two categories are virtually one and the same. And we must recognize this if we are to understand him and profit from his instruction on the Christian life. For Warfield theology is not merely some added, optional dimension to the Christian life: it is the very stuff of Christian living. The Christian life is founded on and fostered by truth. Behavior, conduct, service, and personal expressions of godliness are of course essential also, and Warfield treats these subjects with a lively warmth that evidences their importance to him. But he understands these matters within a context that is distinctively Christian. For him, the practical expressions of our devotion and godliness are the outworking of redemptive truth divinely revealed to us in the pages of Scripture and rightly understood. We will see how this is so in later chapters, but we should note this understanding in Warfield up front. We live unto Christ, to the glory of God, not out of a vacuum but out of a mind and heart captivated and inflamed by an understanding of God’s greatness and goodness and his saving activity in Christ. This is what fuels Christian living from beginning to end. Truth leads to life, and it is truth rightly understood that shapes Christian experience.
If life grows out of understanding, then it follows that a firm grasp and robust appreciation of Christian truth is of primary importance to Christian living. We must be very clear on this if we are to understand Warfield. For him, this is basic. Truth comes first. It is truth that God uses to produce and mold Christian living. Warfield’s own piety was, at bottom, his response to Christian truth.
For Warfield, this follows from the very nature of the case. The fundamental truth that sets Christianity apart from all other religions is that it is a revealed religion. Christianity is not first about our reaching out to God. It is about his coming to us in grace, making himself known to us, his sinful creatures, in order to restore us to fellowship with himself. It is to this end that God has spoken. Thus, Christianity is a creedal, or doctrinal, religion. It is much more than that, of course, but it is a creedal religion at the very least and at its foundation. God comes first and foremost with a message to proclaim. It is a religion grounded in and advanced by the proclamation of divinely revealed truth. And a right understanding of that message is fundamental to all that it offers. The rescue it promises comes to us as this message is embraced, and our deepening acquaintance with this message advances the comforts and blessings it affords.
A Responsibility to Pursue Truth
If the truth of God’s sovereignty is intended for our comfort, then we should wholeheartedly search out an understanding of this truth. If we are designed to worship Christ for the enhancement of his praise and for our own joyful satisfaction, then we must increasingly grasp all that we possibly can of his glorious person and work. If faith consists in an utter dependence upon Christ, then we should seek to know all we can of his person and redemptive work. If in grace God has provided for our success and eventual victory over sin, then it is in the interest of our own encouragement to understand these gospel promises and to become fully acquainted with the abundant provision of the Holy Spirit and the prospect of our coming glory. In order for us to render due worship to God, our knowledge of him must be rightly informed, and so it behooves us to explore ever further the depths of his self-revelation in Scripture. The entirety of the Christian life and experience is our response to revealed truth.
Truth leads to life, and it is truth rightly understood that shapes Christian experience.
So for Warfield, Christian doctrine is primary. God has revealed himself to us for our benefit. He has revealed himself in order to bring himself glory, to be sure. But he brings honor to himself in our redemption, and it is our increasing acquaintance with these truths that gives shape to Christian experience. We do not understand Warfield if we do not understand this.
The Enjoyment of Truth
One of the glories of the Christian life is that God has not only saved us according to his grand and gracious purpose, but he has also in grace revealed that purpose to us. He has not only set out to save us, so that in the end we will be part of his glorious kingdom, but he has let us in on it, so that we might marvel at the wisdom and mercy that lay behind it, so that we would have this to sing about, and so that we could rejoice in its present realization and in the prospect of its future consummation. It would of course have been enough if he had but saved us and let it go at that. But he has done more. He has not held back from us a realization of his redemptive work, but he has in love revealed to us “the mystery” of his eternal saving plan (Eph. 1:9–10) so that we would see his wisdom and grace and power at work on our behalf. And it has been the testimony of Christians for all the centuries that it is a deeper and increasing grasp of Christ’s immeasurable love that grounds and sustains and advances our walk with God (Eph. 3:16–19).
That God has revealed himself in the written Word is a gift to be cherished, and with this blessing comes a corresponding privilege and obligation to learn and understand that Word. He complains that it is a symptom of a decaying faith indeed when the teaching of Scripture is neglected. And he judges that attitude of doctrinal indifference as contrary to the very nerve of Christian experience. It is Christian doctrine that gives shape to the distinctive Christian life and experience, and Warfield warns that to be indifferent to Christian doctrine is, simply, to be indifferent to Christianity itself.
Warfield argues that in this sense Christianity aims first at the mind. In terms of both evangelism and Christian growth Christianity offers first a message, a word from God—that is, doctrine. And thus Warfield will not allow a disjunction between doctrine and devotion. He insists, rather, that all Christian theology is itself “directly and richly and evangelically devotional.”1 Not every Christian is called to be a professional theologian, of course. But theology is nonetheless the business of every believer. It is the stuff of the Christian life.
This is not only Warfield’s specific teaching on the matter; it is the character of his own Christian experience also. For him, the Christian experience is one that is shaped throughout by truth, truth that has deeply affected the mind and heart. And throughout his writings the doctrine he expounds is consistently an exercise of and an expression of devotion to Christ. Communion with God is not a mere feeling for him. It is the experience of God himself rightly—even if not fully—understood. And the Christian life, more broadly considered, is but the enjoyment of Christian truth rightly understood and gratefully experienced. For Warfield there is no substitute for this. Nothing else can so stimulate the Christian mind, enliven the Christian heart, and satisfyingly mold Christian experience.
- Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield. 2 vols. Edited by John Meeter. (Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1970, 1973), 2:286; here Warfield cites the words of Alexander Whyte.
This article is adapted from Warfield on the Christian Life: Living in Light of the Gospel by Fred G. Zaspel.
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