Machen and Lessons for Today’s Liberalism
Written by Managing Editor on July 28, 2019
By Jesse Sumpter
In the midst of the theological and cultural battles in our time–Revoice, Woke theology, Feminism–a wonderful resource to draw from is J. Gresham Machen (born July 28, 1881). His battle with Liberalism a hundred years ago offers important lessons for those who are fighting today’s Liberalism.
Here are three key lessons to take to heart.
First, the enemy is inside the Church. Machen writes, “The greatest menace to the Christian Church today comes not from the enemies outside, but from the enemies within; it comes from the presence within the Church of a type of faith and practice that is anti-Christian to the core” (Christianity and Liberalism, 160). It is easy to think that the issues are out in the world or out in society. That is one of Satan’s tactics of distraction. He gets us to look out at the world and all the issues happening out there and we forget the issues in the Church. Or he lulls us into thinking that things inside the Church are not that urgent: “At least we are not as twisted as….” While the social issues around us are significant, the place where Satan is aiming to get his hold is inside the Church. We tend to think that the Church is the last place the battle happens. Rather, it is the first.
Machen reminds us, “The type of religion which rejoices in the pious sound of traditional phrases, regardless of their meanings, or shrinks from ‘controversial’ matters, will never stand amid the shocks of life” (C&L, 1). If the Church is not ready for the fight inside the Church, then it will not be ready ever. This is not a call to fight just for the sake of fighting. Rather, Machen calls us to a dutiful vigilance that is constantly on guard because we recognize that sin can and does arise in the Church.
We cannot ignore the reality of sin in our midst. The Church is not perfect. The Church is made up of sinners and the truth will need to be defended from attacks that are both outside and inside the Church. This is a task that requires men of fortitude and wisdom. Men who rely on God’s Spirit to guide and lead and protect. Only in the strength of Jesus, can we guard and defend properly.
Second, Machen shows us that Liberalism is at core a different religion. It might show up inside the Church but that does mean it is Christianity. Rather, it is an alternate religion. This alternate religion comes about when teachers and theologians suggest that Christ does some part of the work of salvation and then we need to do our part to complete it. This alien theology often holds up Christ as the great example that we must follow. This claim makes our salvation dependent on something that we must do. But that is not Christianity.
While it is true that Christ is our great example to follow, He is first and foremost our savior. He saves us first and then we follow Him. There is no way we can follow Him until we are made alive by Him. Machen writes, “…Christ will do everything or nothing, and the only hope is to throw ourselves unreservedly on His mercy and trust Him for all” (C&L, 25). If we add anything to Christ then we have added a negative. That is, when we add anything to Christ we are actually subtracting Christ from the equation. Christ plus Woke equals Woke. Christ plus Feminism equals Feminism. Christ plus Gay equals Gay. Our only hope is Christ plus nothing else. If we add anything, then we will never find Christ. Any theology that suggests we must add something is a false religion and is anti-Christian.
Third, Machen points out that these liberal theologies place great emphasis on feelings. He looks back at the Christian message from the beginning with the apostles and writes, “It was based, not upon mere feelings, not upon a mere program of work, but upon an account of facts. In other words it was based upon doctrine” (C&L, 21). Doctrine is the Christian message. There is no way around that.
There is a tendency in Christian circles to emphasize Christianity as a relationship and while that is true, it does not negate Christian doctrine. We cannot have a true and real relationship without knowing who we have a relationship with. We must know the God who saves us. This means we must have doctrine.
Doctrine is inescapable. If we do not have true doctrine based on the Bible, then we will make our doctrine in the image of man. This happens with how people speak of the character of Jesus. In Machen’s day, he too saw the abysmal ideas about Jesus, suggesting that the King of the universe was a pansy in sandals. People twist the Sermon on the Mount into a hippy song or they talk about how Jesus “hung out” with sinners, but Machen declared the truth: “…it was Jesus–Jesus whom modern liberals represent as a mild-mannered exponent of an indiscriminating love–it was Jesus who spoke of the outer darkness and the everlasting fire, of the sin that shall not be forgiven either in this world or in that which is to come” (C&L, 84). Jesus is not a big teddy bear. He has a winnowing fan in His hand and He will clean out the floor and burn the chaff.
When people pick passages of the Bible and ignore others, they are creating a new religion. We recognize this easily when we look back at someone like Thomas Jefferson who took the Bible and cut out the parts that he didn’t like. We should recognize it when other people do the same, even if they are not pulling out their scissors.
In pointing out the dire situation like this, people might accuse us of not being loving. When that accusation comes, many run and hide and others compromise. Machen writes, “It is strange how in the interest of an utterly false kindness to men, Christians are sometimes willing to relinquish their loyalty to the crucified Lord” (C&L, 175). Machen instead reminds us: “Love, in the Christian sense, is not a mere emotion, but a very practical and a very comprehensive thing. It involves nothing less than the keeping of the whole law of God” (C&L, 146). Love is not how we feel or how others feel. It is defined by God’s law. “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments” (1 John 5:3). If we are not loyal to God’s commandments then we are not loving, no matter how nice we might seem or how good we might feel.
When we see the law of God correctly, we see how far we are from true love. Is there any hope for us to achieve true love?
Machen points us back to the gospel. We are called to believe and trust in Jesus’ work of salvation. We cannot save ourselves. We are dead and only Jesus can save us. Machen writes, “True faith does not do anything…Faith is the exact opposite of works; faith does not give, it receives” (C&L, 147). Faith is trusting and resting in the sure promises of God. That is it. But how are we made righteous? By Jesus’ work. He is the perfect lamb and His perfection is given to us as a gift. We receive it and the Holy Spirit makes us righteous. Machen explains, “…Paul does not say that faith produces the life of love; he says that the Spirit of God produces it” (C&L, 146).
This means that if we rest and trust in the promises of God in Christ Jesus, then God is already at work in our lives and hearts. It is His good work that makes us love rightly by obeying His commandments. It is only by God’s work that we are made perfect.
One final thought from Machen: “Mere concessiveness, therefore, will never succeed in avoiding the intellectual conflict. In the intellectual battle of the present day there can be no ‘peace without victory’; one side or the other must win” (C&L, 6). There is a battle raging and we must be faithfully diligent in it. We must be on guard in the Church. But we must remember that this battle is not won by our own efforts or on our own strength. It is won by Jesus. And the reality is that the battle has already been won. We are then called to believe in that victory and declare that message of victory to others. This is our task and by God’s grace we will declare the truth boldly.