Sunday and Machen: God Weaves His Tapestry

Proverbs 16:9 A man’s heart deviseth his way: but the LORD directeth his steps.

Proverbs 19:21 There are many devices in a man’s heart; nevertheless the counsel of the LORD, that shall stand.

The Bible leaves no room for doubt that God has a purpose for this world. The purpose of God is in His heart, and is enacted according to His good pleasure. It is a privilege, as a Christian, to be a part of God’s amazing purpose.

Sometimes we are exhorted to try to make our own way through life. This is an unbiblical idea. It is the Lord Who orders our steps. He is weaving together a beautiful tapestry in our lives and in this world. This tapestry is to be a display of His glory. If I try to weave it myself, it would turn out to be rather ugly. God is the Weaver. Therefore, I am not here to try to earn my way into some high ministerial position. Nor am I to compete or campaign for a good seat in Heaven. I am here to glorify the Lord by being faithful to Him. 

When we understand this principle, it helps us to realize that oftentimes God will use people we wouldn’t expect. If choosing spiritual leaders were a task given to us, we would often choose the wrong men, even though we may devise a system whereby we choose them. God is not obligated to call the men we think can handle the job. Rather, He chooses whom He will, period. This is demonstrated wonderfully in the lives and ministries of Billy Sunday and J. Greshem Machen.

Billy Sunday

Billy Sunday was arguably the most popular evangelist of the early twentieth century. Billy Sunday was born into poverty. A notorious baseball player, Sunday was converted at the Pacific Garden Mission in Chicago and then became involved in the YMCA where he first started to preach. His ministry was marked for its strong opposition to drinking, and Sunday’s prominent role in the prohibition movement. His ministry was known for its histrionics and fervor. 

One website said: “Sunday preached a crude style. He referred to himself as the “rube of rubes” because of his rural background. He gestured wildly and every sermon became a pantomime. He ran, jumped, skipped and gyrated all over the place. He even smashed chairs in a “rage against Satan.” He perspired freely. In an effort to cool off, he often removed his coat, tie and vest, and then rolled up his shirt sleeves. He mocked and chided the ‘dandy’ preachers with their conservative style and demeanor.”

Sunday had very little theological training, save that of an apprenticeship under J. Wilbur Chapman. As a result, Sunday would be under attack by other conservative leaders for his style and lack of depth. To this day, Billy Sunday is criticized for his lack of doctrinal content and seeming zeal without knowledge.

J. Greshem Machen

J. Greshem Machen, on the other hand was born into a privileged family. His father was a lawyer, and Machen received his childhood education in a classical school where he learned Latin, Greek, and piano among other things. He also majored in classics at college and earned a masters in theology from Princeton seminary.

Machen was arguably the premier biblical Greek scholar of his time. His grammar is still used today. He also left Princeton seminary, because of liberalism, and started Westminster Theological Seminary as well as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Machen is still widely regarded today as one of the most prominent figures in early fundamentalism, a great theologian, and a very able scholar.

It is obvious that the guys he hung out with wouldn’t hang out with the guys Billy Sunday hung out with.

However, Machen was able to hear Billy Sunday preach. He said of the sermon, “The sermon was old-fashioned evangelism of the most powerful and elemental kind. . . . The climax was the boundlessness of God’s mercy; and so truly had the sinfulness of sin been presented that everybody present with any heart at all ought to have felt mighty glad that God’s mercy is boundless. In the last five or ten minutes of the sermon, I got a new realization of the power of the gospel.”

He went on to conclude, “Every morning, on the page of the paper devoted to Billy Sunday, a Unitarian statement appears in opposition. I like Billy Sunday for the enemies he has.” 

God is not bound to call the people into the ministry that you and I think are the ablest. Who would have thought a privileged, well-educated scholar would take bold steps against liberalism and cut ties with the most distinguished American seminary of its time? Billy Sunday was poor. J. Greshem Machen was rich. Billy Sunday was a drunken athlete-turned prohibitionist. Machen was a Greek scholar and a theologian. Who would have thought that a very zealous and theologically inept Billy Sunday would influence people like J. Greshem Machen? Yet, these two individuals are arguably two of the biggest movers and shakers of the fundamentalist movement of the 20th century. 

This also helps me to be grateful for the varieties we have within Christianity today. Evangelicals often chide fundamentalitsts for their overzealous histrionics and lack of depth. I believe much of this criticism is justified. Fundamentalists often chide evangelicals for their apparent quest for approval of the world and intellectualism that oftentimes escapes the bounds of biblical humility. I also believe this criticism is often justified. Still, we need zeal and knowledge. We need boldness and humility. We need powerful preaching and doctrinal preaching. I thank God for the under-educated preachers who can do nothing more than pour out their hearts against sin and lift of the Lord Jesus the best way they know how. I also thank God for the scholars among us who can employ the use of many different systems to elaborate on the doctrine of the Bible. 

God may use an Elijah, of whom nothing is known prior to his appearance in Israel, an apparently brute man who wore camel’s hair sent to boldly proclaim to Israel that Jehovah is God. He will also use an Elisha, from an apparently wealthy background, whose ministry is marked by healing and salvation. He will use a Peter and He will use a John. He will use a Paul as well as a Cornelius. 

Psalm 104:24 O LORD, how manifold are thy works! in wisdom hast thou made them all: the earth is full of thy riches.

Don’t try to devise your own path. Simply obey the Lord’s leading in your life now. He will take it and use it as He sees fit, as He weaves together a wonderful tapestry for His glory.

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