The evil of sectarianism, as if mocking at all the prophecies of the apologists and symbolists of the turn of the century, is still increasing rather than decreasing in this twentieth century. In Germany, for example, the number of known sects increased from 83 in the year 1898 to 272 in 1957 (and how many sects-of-five-men, or better said sects-of-five-women there are of whom at most only the very nearest neighbors know). In Holland the number of sects grew from 160 to 348; in the United States from 162 to 247; in South Africa even from 32 in 1909 to 783 in 1956; and in Brazil the development went even more rapidly from 9 in 1907 to 821 in 1957. And all these numbers are based on very incomplete statistics.
The source of all sectarianism, even though the sects may be divergent as Unitarianism and Mormonism, Pentecostalism and Free Religion, Catholicism and Calvinism, is the lack of knowledge of the message of the New Testament, and the consequent complete misunderstanding of Christ as the only revealer of divine being in this final and therefore most decisive chapter of the history of mankind.
It is a platitude to say: Knowledge of the revelation of truth does not always begin with clarity. It can increase in clearness, it should increase in clearness. But under any circumstances revelation begins with certainty. Either God has spoken through holy men who, driven by the Spirit, have set down in writing what was revealed, or he did not speak. If he has spoken, then he has spoken in a manner, which must be understood. Then all the questions about God’s existence and being are decisive and to be sure decisive eternally. Even the doubt that is nourished in some theological and philosophical circles, even the despair and unbelief of mankind, even a sea of uncertainty on our part cannot therefore change anything at all about this certainty of the presence of God. This presence among men is his revelation. There are and there always will be—in this we acknowledge that Barth is right—countless human questions in the sight of this presence of God. But these human questions are concerned not with the certainty of the revelation brought about through the Savior, but exclusively with the answer already given in the revelation. Certainty has the first and last word, not as our certainty, but as God’s certainty.
God’s revelation in Christ has the character of having occurred but once. As a man can have only one father—as he can look into the eyes of only one man at the same time—can receive at one time only the word of but one man into himself—as a man can be born bodily only once and can die only once, thus he can only believe and accept but one revelation. One can set a number of religions side by side, but one cannot set a number of revelations side by side as equal in worth. When one says "revelation" one means a single revelation, done once for all time, irrevocable and unrepeatable, just as surely as God is one single God. Before the reality of this God all possibilities sink away, before the truth of this God all possibilities fade away, before the face of this God there is no evasion either to the right or to the left, no choice, but only again and again one decision.
We were speaking of the recognition of revelation. We could not speak of this without anticipating in fact that which was the distinguishing thing regarding the question about the essence and content of revelation. Why then this certainty, this uniqueness (once-for-all-ness) of the knowledge of revelation? For this reason, because revelation, that which the prophets of the Old Covenant and the sons of God in the New Covenant encountered, is nothing less than God himself. For that reason revelation is a secret and remains a secret, that is to say a reality which we cannot understand, derive, nor establish from ourselves alone, not in all eternity, nor from anywhere else. God is from himself and through himself. Therefore he is and remains the God who allowed himself to be comprehended in his Son and in his revelation, the Holy Scriptures, that document of the Holy Spirit. But we have his revelation, we who are so bold as to call ourselves Christians, who let the Holy Scriptures be the beginning of our thinking after they themselves have spoken for themselves. And therefore this revelation through the Bible is the authority; that is to say, the truth which is not measured by any measuring rod of any truth whatsoever—even though it might be the deepest and sincerest truth taught by man. So since the revelation of God in the Scriptures is God himself, the Scriptures are the last court of appeal over mankind: grace for that one who in faith accepts the judgment of condemnation as a God-given right—condemnation for that one who does not accept grace but who tries to make his own human opinion valid rather than the revelation of God. Where a humanly devised plan of redemption and way of salvation that rests on man’s arbitrary conception of God and of man rules the field, though the intention may be ever so good and pious—there the church of Christ is not present, there is not that church which the gates of hell cannot conquer. There is precisely a sect.
The essence of the good tidings of God’s Son Jesus Christ, preached by his disciples to every creature, consists in the fact that this very God has so loved mankind, the world—that is to say the good and the bad, the foolish and the wise—has so loved them and still so loves them that he himself gave his only begotten Son in order that all who believe on him should not be lost but should have eternal life. For as many as received him, as many as allowed the great change of mind to be completed in them, as many as happily and tremblingly confessed him before men, as many as let obedience follow their belief as a most glorious fruit, to them he gave along with baptism for forgiveness of sins also the power to become God’s children. But the promise is valid for the children only: only the repentant son may return home in penitence to his father and be consoled. Thus Christ, the One who came from the Father and was sent by the Father as a Saviour, is the certainty of our redemption: the only Way, the only Truth, the only Life—and no one can come to the Father but through him.
The Sectarians teach just the opposite of all this. They all believe, more or less veiled through flowery theological phrases and nebulously guarded reservations, that man can and must, say they, become saved and holy through his own efforts, through his own accomplishments. That is the real distinguishing mark of sectarianism. With the sect, with every sect, no matter how fully with their mouths they may speak of Christ, his merit, and his blood, at the end of it all they always come along with the teaching that a man with his doing and belief can and must be, say they, the source of his own salvation and sanctification. That he himself can grasp God, can come to him and with his own merit, his good deeds, and his virtue and righteousness can stand before him or at least contribute something to his redemption and salvation; that is what they all believe, from the Pentecostals to the Roman Catholics.
But he who commits the basic error of believing that he can be redeemed by his own strength or by the help of the good works of others, then becomes the easy prey of all other false teachings. He has entered upon the steep plane and glides down irresistibly toward destruction; but while doing thus he lives in the delusion that he is steering his course to eternal salvation. Because the sectarians of all shades do not understand the gospel, but hope to be saved through meritorious works, whereas unmerited grace has led us to faith, it is only natural that they should regard everything that is found in commandments and teachings of the Bible, or what they themselves invent, only as law, as the guide to heaven, as a means to holiness, which according to them must be used, in order to become just, virtuous and holy, to merit eternal salvation for themselves, and to be able to stand before God. Foreign to them is the blessed knowledge given in the New Testament that he who is called by God’s grace in the Word, who has become a believer through the Word and has been baptized according to the instructions of the Word of God and through baptism has been born again—that such a one lives in accordance with God’s commandments and is striving toward sanctification, not in order to be saved, but because he is saved and therefore wishes to be perfect, as his Father in heaven is perfect.
The foolish views of the false teaching about the Bible itself can, however, be traced back to the same error. Since they do not understand that the gospel is the only saving message of God to lost humanity they make no distinction between the Old and the New Testaments and look upon the entire Holy Scriptures as a law book binding them. Unknown to them is the divine truth that the whole Bible exists only for the sake of the gospel, not the gospel for the sake of the Bible, and likewise that the gospel exists for the sake of mankind and not mankind for the sake of the gospel. But along with their wrong attitude toward the Bible is closely associated the false, unevangelical use of the Bible. They put into the Bible the doctrines thought out by men, in order to derive them again according to their claims and interpretations of the Bible. But all these peculiar doctrines are always based only on a single Bible phrase taken out of context. The intended doctrine thus founded would then become to them a part of the central teaching of the Bible to then be carried to all the world by their missionaries. All the rest of the Holy Word is then used further as proof for the chief principles of that sect. If the parallel passages derived from a concordance do not suffice, then they reach out to the wildest and most arbitrary allegories or to grammatically impossible new interpretations of Biblical concepts for their symbolism. And this seeking after proofs of the correctness of preconceived ideas is then named as if in mockery, "earnest Bible investigation."
But since sectarians claim not to obtain their salvation through their complete surrender to Christ, nor through the deeds of God, but on the contrary through their own accomplishments, it is quite obvious that they finish in self-deification or else they are obliged to practice an ugly worship of mankind, sometimes open, sometimes secret. To them the greatest thing is not God’s work in Christ, but the demonic, flashing enlightenment of their leader or prophet. In this they are idolaters, like the heathen, and their manner of preaching is not patient proclamation of Christ and his joyful message but a fanatical and dishonest soliciting of their own affairs. Their influencing of ignorant and naïve souls is served however by threats of hell, alluring promises of heaven, promises that their followers will reign with Christ in heaven over unbelievers of this world, intimidations of all kinds, dreams, tears, and confessions, witnessing, sighs, speaking with tongues, and convulsive spasms of repentance.
The effect of this error finds expressive in its unfortunate victims in manifold manner. Most manifest is fanaticism, which is presented as courage of faith and faithfulness to creed, and at once makes those who have been led astray in doctrine to be inaccessible to any reasonable considerations whatsoever, or any explanation and truly Biblical teaching. When these fanatics have been driven into a corner and have been shown that the doctrines to which they have so decisively given value even from the very first are false and mistaken, that they contradict the Scriptures, and are therefore ungodly, then most of them give up any further attempt to defend their sectarian beliefs and take recourse either in alleging the continued operation of the Holy Spirit in the head of their hierarchy or to special divine revelation given directly to their prophets. Then they feel themselves strong and invincible in this new position and demand in addition that this doctrine of theirs which "after their own lust they heap to themselves, having itching ears" (2 Tim. 4:3)—they demand that this doctrine be looked upon as organ and mouthpiece of God. To be sure this doctrine carries weight only with the ignorant—but the ignorant of course comprise the great host of those who "shall be carried away with every wind of doctrine" (Eph. 4:14) and "shall be turned to fables" (2 Tim. 4:3).
True Christians understand at once that such behavior also has its roots in the one basic error, in the mistaken conception of the New Testament. He who knows and understands the Gospels and the books written by the apostles, he knows also from the second epistle of Peter that God has given to us in his Son grace, peace, and power, the knowledge of Christ and everything that serves us for like and godlike conduct, so that we need no further revelation in order to be saved, and that according to him who is Alpha and Omega, beginning and end of our faith, there can be and will be no further and surpassing revelation of God for his children of men. Therefore the Holy Spirit does not communicate to his own any more than what they have in Christ, his words and his deeds. The Holy Spirit teaches us only to understand the Savior and to glorify him in us, as Christ himself foretold. Even the Holy Spirit cannot tell us more than what is written in the writing of the New Covenant, and therefore the Holy Spirit will work in the future upon us only through this Scripture: God’s Word.
False teachings, sectarian circles are spread abroad only where the wretched paltry oil-lamp of human reason of the unsaved is preferred to the divine light of the gospel, or the gloomy torch of fanaticism of the ignorant man is preferred to the glorious light of the gospel. Where the salt of Christianity has lost its savor because it has been watered down with the flat lye of sham light, where the light of Christianity is no longer visible because one has set over the true light the bushel of Pharisaism that squats in the corner—there the seed of the evil old enemy thrives in the plowed field of the kingdom of heaven.
The Course Of The Church Through The Centuries