Recently, I (Aaron) read Christianity & Liberalism by J. Gresham Machen. This may be the most important book I have read in the last 3 or 4 years. In it, Machen distinguishes between the historically true Christianity and the Christianity of Liberalism. Machen writes “In setting forth the current liberalism, now almost dominant in the Church, over against Christianity, we are animated, therefore, by no merely negative or polemic purpose; on the contrary, by showing what Christianity is not we hope to be able to show what Christianity is, in order that men may be led to turn from the weak and beggarly elements and have recourse again to the grace of God” (13).
Machen’s main goal is providing a clear difference between what the Bible says about Christianity and what modern liberals say about Christianity. I would add not to the point, but to provide even more evidence that there is such a thread, that throughout Church history there have been those opposed to the true church by “having a form of godliness but denying its power (2 Timothy 3:5)”. These are the “sheep in wolves clothing” that Jesus warns us about in Matthew 7:15. Before providing any clear differences, on the outset I want to be clear about what is meant by historical Christianity and liberalism.
What is meant by historical Christianity is what Jude says in Jude 3, “I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints”. Jude uses faith not as some subjective, relativistic word depending on religious and moral preference, rather as a definitive thing. Jude assumes the word true before the word faith. Jude needs not say to contend for the true faith delivered to the saints. He only needs to say the faith. The faith delivered to the saints is a historical thing. It is not made up, but rather based on things that actually happened, on facts. Paul sums up the faith, or what I contend to be Christianity, in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, (and) that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (ESV). What does Paul mean? He means the most important thing for the Church at Corinth is to have faith and to believe in the historical Christ, who died, was buried, and rose again. This is the anchor of Jude’s definitive faith. This is the foundation, the only foundation, for true Christianity.
Liberalism, however, attempts to reconcile what is perceived as science and what is historical Christianity. Machen says:
It is this problem which modern liberalism attempts to solve. Admitting that scientific objections may arise against the particularities of the Christian religion – against the Christian doctrines of the person of Christ, and of redemption through His death and resurrection – the liberal theologian seeks to rescue certain of the general principles of religion, of which these particularities are thought to be mere temporary symbols, and these general principles he regards as constituting “the essence of Christianity.” (5)
Machen goes on to say “Modern liberalism may be criticized (1) on the ground that it is un-Christian and (2) on the ground that it is unscientific” (6).
The modern liberal notion to have the “essence of Christianity” is really a difficult thing to define. But it can be traced back to the early days of the Church. In Acts 17:18, the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers conversed with Paul and said “What does this babbler wish to say?” because “he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection“. The Stoics believed in being one with nature (whatever that means), and that the best indicator of one’s philosophy was his behavior, or his way of life. Now, this seems to be partly Christian. But the Stoic did not charge Paul as a babbler because Paul was preaching a way of life. Rather, the Stoic said Paul was a babbler because Paul was preaching the gospel of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Machen says “Christianity for Paul was not only a way of life, but also a doctrine, and logically the doctrine came first” (20). The liberal notion of the essence of Christianity, meaning lifestyle, is maybe the most dangerous false gospel.
Machen says about this notion of liberal Christianity:
It may appear that what the liberal theologian has retained after abandoning to the enemy one Christian doctrine after another is not Christianity at all, but a religion which is so entirely different from Christianity as to belong in a distinct category. It may appear further that the fears of the modern man as to Christianity were entirely ungrounded, and that in abandoning the embattled walls of the city of God he has fled in needless panic into the open plains of a vague natural religion only to fall an easy victim to the enemy who ever lies in ambush there. (6)
Machen goes on to add:
Our principle concern just now is to show that the liberal attempt at reconciling Christianity with modern science has really relinquished everything distinctive of Christianity, so that what remains is in essentials only that same indefinite type of religious aspiration which was in the world before Christianity came upon the scene. In trying to remove from Christianity everything that could possibly be objected to in the name of science, in trying to bribe off the enemy by those concessions which the enemy most desires, the apologist has really abandoned what he started out to defend. Here as in many other departments of life it appears that the things that are sometimes thought to be hardest to defend are also the things that are most worth defending. (6)
I believe that what Machen writes is as indicative, if not more so, with our church culture as much as it was in his day when he wrote this book (1923). The main problem, and the most potent enemy of the true church, is the enemy within, the man who simply moralizes Christianity and fits the realm of moral teaching into modern scientific thought and calls it Christianity. Michael Horton wrote a book titled “Christless Christianity”. Horton has several similar thoughts throughout this book, dealing much with history and statistics, and relates our Americanized version of Christianity as one without Christ Himself. Horton calls the modern liberalistic version of Christianity, the one very popular in our American Church, “moralistic therapeutic deism”. It is moralistic in that a modern common assumption is that good people, or moral people, will go to heaven when they die, and bad people, or immoral people, will go to hell when they die. It is therapeutic in that a modern common assumption is that God exists for my benefit, for my happiness, and wants me to have my best life now. Religion is kind of like therapy, it can give me peace of mind and God exists for my well being. It is deism in that God is really out of the picture. Religious, moral, theological differences are not big deals, but as long as God is there to be “turned on” when I need Him.
This is the danger lurking in our pews. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, or the modern liberalism religion they call Christianity, is not the Christianity of Jude, of Paul, of Peter, of John, or of Christ. The resounding message of true Christianity, found in the Bible, is that we are all not good. We do not have a neutral bent towards God, rather we have a naturally bad bent towards God. The liberal idea of sin is one of failure to live up to all that we are intended for, rather than an offense against an Almighty God worthy of eternal punishment, by which we will be sent to Hell to experience the full weight of the wrath and punishment of God for all eternity.
One of the more popular phrases I read and hear from people is that a sin is a sin. In dealing with certain cultural issues, the pushback is always that their sin is no worse than the sins of others. I am told often to “take the plank out of my eye first”. Here’s the issue: they are right only in the true statement that sin is sin. But I fear that what is intended by that message is one of softening the idea of sin rather than trembling as a result of our sin. If sin is sin, and sin is bad, and my sin sends me to Hell for all eternity by the Just and Good Judge of the universe, then I ought not to trifle with quaint sayings and clichés such as sin is sin and love the sinner hate the sin. The greatest expression of love towards sinners that a Christian can make is to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ, which must start out with the proclamation “you are a sinner!”. How much do I hate those sinners who do not know Christ if I “accept” them in their sin and simply try to love them to Jesus, without having told them the most damning and indicting news against them, namely, they are sinful. Jesus DIED for sin! He DIED. Let that sink in. It is the reason Martin Luther, the great reformer, when giving his first mass, held the elements of communion in his hands, and trembled, because he realized that he was not good, and if he was handling Christ Himself, he ought to not be full of sin! Luther’s tremble came at the realization that he wasn’t good! In order for someone to be converted to Christ, he must know of himself that he is not good, but sinful!
Jesus’ ministry was one of teaching primarily. The first thing he did, after being baptized, in his pubic ministry, was to proclaim repentance to people. The word repent literally has the idea of being holistically new and having a new mindset. Jesus proclamation in his teaching ministry was that the mindset of His followers would be new. Jesus trumps the Old Testament version of commandments in that He deals with the inner man and not just the outer man. Jesus moralistic teachings, such as the sermon on the mount, is moralistic in the sense that it deals with seemingly “outer man” issues. But Jesus point in all of those is that He sets a new standard, perfection. Each time Jesus speaks of “old commands”, He will say “you have heard it said” but then Jesus says, “but I say to you”. Jesus is not replacing old commands with different commands. Jesus reinforces that those old commands are good. But He also trumps them by dealing with the “inner man”. Jesus says later in His teaching ministry that the greatest commandment is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind” (Matthew 22:37). Jesus deals with the inner man primarily. Repentance is not accomplished by the modern notion of being good. Repentance is accomplished by the justification and regeneration of Jesus Himself inside the sinful mans heart, soul, and mind. The natural outcome of that to Jesus is the second greatest commandment – to love your neighbor as yourself.
It is obvious that our culture is confused about Christianity, sometimes even the Christian cultures in which we live are confused about what true Christianity is. Secular culture is confused about Christianity by Christianity. But make no mistake, the (true) faith that was delivered once for all to the saints is prevailing and will prevail in the end. When we read the final pages of Revelation, we see that the true church, the bride of Christ, will be gloriously ushered into eternal dwelling in the heavens and the new earth, with God dwelling with His people and His people dwelling with their God. This picture in Revelation 21 causes joy in my heart. I am reminded of the hymn It is Well. The opening line of the last stanza says “and Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight”. Oh what a day that will be!
The modern liberal idea of Christianity will indeed prevail in our secular culture. Its easy and it requires only that sinful people continue to be sinful people. Moralistic-Therapeutic-Deism makes sinful people believe they are good, that they need God when life becomes difficult, and the end goal of life is to be happy. It is only true Christianity which calls sinful men out to confessional faith, faith in the only begotten Son of God, faith that Jesus indeed died for my sin, was buried, and on the third day rose again in a glorious resurrection. I have faith that I too am raised with Christ in newness of life. This new life, however, is based not on feeling or on my own notions of what is good and good for me. This new life is based only in the doctrines, the facts, of historical Christianity, that I am Christ’s and He is mine, and that “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).
Post Written By: Aaron Hale
Machen, J. Gresham Christianity & Liberalism. 1923, 2009 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Grand Rapids, MI 49505