Christianity and Liberalism
Theologies for Life and Death
A couple years ago, I stumbled upon a copy of J. Gresham Machen’s famous book, Christianity and Liberalism. The bold juxtaposition caught my eye, so I decided to read it. I was immediately hooked; its cogency and warmth are compelling enough, but considering that it was written 100 years ago, its timelessness is remarkable, too. It easily could have been written just last week.
Visit any mainline church, and you’ll likely encounter the same ear-tickling theology that Machen denounced in his book. Under venerable old steeples, liberal shepherds feed sanctified progressivism to their unsuspecting, but hungry, flock. Instead of feeding on biblical (and now offensive) truth, congregants in open and affirming churches can enjoy vague discussions of spirituality mixed with calls to woke repentance.
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As Machen observed over a century ago, the theological left no longer wants the biblical Jesus, other than as a moral exemplar of compassion and service. In Machen’s 1923 America, liberals envisioned Christianity as set of ideals for improving society, subject always to the nuances of changing times. Once the essentials of the faith were conceded to accommodate those changing times, the gospel message disappeared altogether. God is love anyways, they reason, so all roads must lead to heaven.
Machen was a tenacious man amid liberalism’s early assault. A presbyterian and libertarian, he was also a respected and meticulous Princeton theologian. His orthodox views on scripture eventually put him at odds with the modernist views that were slowly infecting Princeton’s seminary. After a long-suffering and intense battle for truth, he left Princeton and established both Westminster Theological Seminary and a new denomination, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
When one brings up Presbyterianism and its reformed tradition, its detractors usually focus on “Calvinism,” the doctrines of total depravity, election, and so forth that John Calvin famously defended during the Reformation. Although Machen fell squarely in the Calvinist camp, Christianity and Liberalism wasn’t about denominational distinctions; his focus instead was the liberal attack on the foundational beliefs of the Christian faith. For this reason, Christians from a variety of other traditions—Catholic, Episcopalian, Methodist, Baptist, or Lutheran—will easily relate to the picture of theological decay that Machen painted in his book.
Orthodoxy isn’t just a problem for the left, although its absence has inflicted the most damage there. Some traditions on the right also shy away from sound theology, offering crowd-pleasing fog machines and seeker-friendly worship instead. Those under their care may at least hear a simple gospel, but anemic teaching and doctrinal gaps leave new believers vulnerable to deception. Over time, those gaps are easily filled by emotional appeals that place personal experience above God’s word as the reference point for truth. Even once-faithful pastors are then lured into theological compromise; and they cause many to stumble.
I will use myself as a case in point. Unlike Machen, I grew up in a typical 1980’s Southern Baptist church where Calvin’s name was never mentioned. It wasn’t liberal by any measure, but there were gaps. I won Sunday School stickers for scripture memorization but had no idea what “theology” was. As I grew older, “doctrine” sounded like dull divinity-school jargon; talking too much of it signaled cold religiosity or seminarian debate. In fact, doctrine seemed just a distraction from the real business of living the “victorious Christian life.” As for creeds, catechism, and the like—weren’t those just for our somber Catholic or Episcopalian friends?
Fast forward about 20 years, and a tragic death left me reeling in wild anxiety and confusion. My lifelong faith was sucked into this horrid existential vortex, too. I questioned everything from the very existence of God (on the worst days) to the assurance of salvation (on the best days). I could hardly see my hand in front of my face. Suddenly theology mattered very, very much.
When it comes to theological liberalism, the picture grows even darker. Its invented universe, often advertised as inclusive Christianity, bears no resemblance to the real world, much less the Christianity of scripture and the apostle Paul. Our real spiritual dilemma—the sin that separates us from God—finds no solution in liberalism’s empty rituals, social justice sermons and cherry-picked scriptures. Liberalism cannot point suffering sinners to the living God.
This deficit is by design, because liberal shepherds don’t need to reconcile anyone to God. According to their progressive (but inclusive) fantasy, God is already the universal father of all people, smiling with interfaith love on an evolving humanity. Jesus was the unhoused refugee who surely would’ve embraced socialism. The Holy Spirit is a vague presence who doesn’t convict us of sin or otherwise disturb our imagined peace. This theology of worldlings is, in fact, not Christianity at all.
Theological liberals are, if nothing else, masters of ecumenical pageantry; they are the “faith leaders” who flock around the global left to pronounce blessings their schemes. Although such theater doesn’t fool God, it nonetheless beguiles the tastemakers who so often warm to its fires. Satan himself could hardly devise a better ruse.
However spiritually impotent it is, though, liberalism does speak an artful language. Its kindly-sounding love, inclusivity, and belonging are broad enough to attract unsuspecting parents to its associated "“inclusive Christian” schools; its sacramental language hides the wolves behind flowing Sunday vestments. Thus, students will celebrate Diwali and see transgender flags in chapel; and congregants must lament and confess their privilege, but not their sexual sin.
It’s well past time to reclaim the name of Christianity from the counterfeiters on the left—not for the sake of argument, but for the sake of souls who unknowingly trade in its false currency. Theological liberalism in all its fashionable forms—inclusive Christianity, interfaith unity, and progressive Christianity— is a road to perdition. Ultimately, what we believe about God and man is our theology of life, and eventually it will be our only comfort in death.
Q: What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.
He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.
Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.
Question 1, The Heidelberg Catechism