Christianity vs. Modern Liberalism

J. Gresham Machen was invited to speak at the Moody Institute Founders Conference, held February 5-9, 1923. R. A. Torrey also spoke. Machen’s book Christianity and Liberalism would be released two weeks later.

Joseph Bowles, writing for the Moody Institute’s monthly newspaper, wrote:

The opening address was by Dr. J. Gresham Machen of Princeton Theological Seminary on “Christianity vs. Modern Liberalism.” Both the man and his message caught at once the fixed attention of the audience. Here was no mere rattle of intellectual musketry or scattering machine gun fire, but rather, to carry out the simile, the effectiveness of a high-powered artillery unit, amply supplied with the best quality shells, served with masterly precision on the positions of the foe.

A rapid, even speaker, thought close packed, no wordy digressions, every sentence giving added force to the argument, the whole a singularly lucid, logical, overwhelming refutation of modernist sophistries—that was Professor Machen and his address—a keynote of heavenly power and blessing that deeply stirred the hearers.

His second address, Tuesday morning, “Is Christianity True?” fully bore out the same characteristics.

Machen’s first address was recorded by a stenographer and published in the April 1923 edition of Moody Monthly.

You can also listen to a reading of this by OPC minister Bob Tarullo at the Reformed Forum.

Christianity vs. Modern Liberalism

By Rev. J. Gresham Machen, D.D., Assistant Professor of New Testament Literature and Exegesis in Princeton Theological Seminary

Will read a few verses from the First Epistle to the Corinthians, fifteenth chapter, beginning with the first verse:—

Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand;

By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain.

For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures;

And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures:

And that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve:

After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep.

After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles.

And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time.

For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.

But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.

Therefore whether it were I or they, so we preach, and so ye believed.

In the time allotted me this afternoon I will not try to settle all the religious issue the day, but try to be bold enough to present that issue as briefly and clearly can, that you may be aided in settling it for yourself.

But presenting the issue sharply and clearly is by no means a popular business at present. There are many people at present time who, as Dr. Francis L. Patton on has aptly put it, prefer to fight intellectual battles in what may be called a condition of “low visibility”.

Presenting the issue sharply is regarded by them as an impious proceeding. May it not discourage contributions to mission boards? May it not prevent church consolidation and cause a poor showing in church statistics?

But for my part I am glad to tell you my sympathies are with those men, whether conservatives or radicals, who have a passion for light. The type of religion which delights in the pious sound traditional phrases regardless of their meaning and shrinks from controversial matters, will never stand amid the shocks of life.

Liberalism a Misnomer

When you get beneath the traditional phraseology used everywhere today to the real underlying issue, you discover that that great redemptive religion called Christianity is being attacked within the church by a totally different type of religious thought and life, which is only the more opposed to Christianity because it is making use of traditional Christian phraseology. That modern non-redemptive religion which is attacking Christianity at its root is called by various names. It is called Modernism. It is called Liberalism.

All such names are unsatisfactory; the latter in particular is question-begging, because the movement is regarded as liberal only by its friends. To those opposed to it it seems to involve a narrow attention to certain facts, and a closing of the eyes to others that are equally vital.

But by whatever name the movement may be called, the root of the movement is found in Naturalism, and by that I mean the denial of any entrance of the creative power of God, as sharply distinguished from his works in nature, at the beginnings of Christianity.

When I use the term “Naturalism” it is in a different way from that in which it is used by the philosophers, but in that non-philosophic sense it expresses fairly well what is really at the root of that which is called by a degradation of the original noble term, “liberal religion.”

The Importance of Doctrine

What then are the teachings of modern Naturalism as over against the teachings of Christianity? At the beginning of the discussion we are met with an objection which goes to the very roots of the matter. People will tell us that teachings are unimportant. They will tell us that even if the teachings of modern naturalistic Liberalism are entirely different from the teachings of Christianity, yet the two may turn out to be fundamentally the same, because teachings and doctrines are unimportant. All creeds they tell us are equally good for they all spring from Christian experience.

Well now, my friends, whether the objection is well founded or not, we ought to observe exactly what the objection means. I will tell you what it means, it means that we are falling back into a fundamental skepticism, because if all creeds are equally true, then since the creeds are contradictory one to another, it follows with inexorable logic that all are equally false, or at least equally uncertain. To say that all creeds are equally true is the same as to say that all creeds are equally false or equally uncertain; and when you say that creeds make little difference provided there be a unitary Christian experience, you are falling back into agnosticism which fifty or seventy-five years ago was regarded as the deadliest enemy of the Christian church. That enemy has not been made a friend, but has been made only more dangerous, by being received within our walls.

Christianity they will tell us is a life and not a doctrine. Now that seems to be a devout and pious utterance, but it is radically false all the same, and to see that it is false you do not need even to be a Christian, you need have just common sense and common honesty. For when you say that Christianity is this or that, you are making an assertion in the sphere of history. You are not saying what you think ought to be true, but what you think actually is a fact. When people say that Christianity is this or that—some have ventured the absurd assertion that Christianity is democracy —when you say Christianity is this or that, you are making an assertion in the sphere of history. It is just like saying that the Roman Empire under Nero was a free democracy. It is possible that the Roman Empire under Nero might have been a great deal better if it had been a free democracy, but the question is whether as a matter of fact it was a free democracy or not. So when you say that Christianity is a life, not a doctrine, you are making an assertion in the sphere of history, because Christianity is an historical phenomenon exactly like the Roman Empire, like the kingdom of Prussia or the United States of America.

What Does the Charter Say?

Now before you can determine whether Christianity is this or that, you have to go back to the beginning of the Christian movement. At the beginning of the life of every corporation is the incorporation paper, commonly called the charter, and in this paper are set forth the objects of the corporation. It is conceivable that other objects may be more desirable than those set forth in the incorporation paper, but if the directors use the name and resources of that particular corporation to pursue these other objects, they are going ultra vires of the corporation. It is the same fundamentally with Christianity. It is conceivable that after further investigation we may have fresh views about it. It is conceivable that the founders of the Christian movement were wrong, and that we in the twentieth century can better their program. It is conceivable that they had no right to legislate for all subsequent generations. That is a matter for us to determine in the light of the evidence, but at any rate the founders of the Christian movement did have an inalienable right to legislate for all generations that should choose to bear this name of Christian.

Therefore, if you would honestly determine what can bear the name Christian, you have to go back to the beginnings of the Christian movement. Now the beginnings of the movement constitute a fairly definite historical phenomenon; there is a certain agreement as to what Christianity at its inception was, possible even between Christians and non-Christians, because we have certain sources of information which are admitted to come from the first Christian generation, like the passage we read today—sources which give us definite information about the beginnings of Christianity.

The Christian movement began a few days after the death of Jesus of Nazareth. I can see no good historical justification for calling anything that existed before the death of Jesus of Nazareth, Christianity. At any rate, to be cautious, I will say that if Christianity existed before that time it existed only in a preliminary stage. Evidently after the death of Jesus of Nazareth there was a strange new beginning among His disciples, and that new beginning began the movement which caused the spread of the Christian religion out into the world.

Now, what was the character of the movement at its beginning? For one thing, it was not merely a life as distinguished from a doctrine. Do not misunderstand me. It certainly was a strange new kind of life; anybody who came into contact with those early Christians recognized that they were living an entirely different sort of life from the people around them. It is perfectly clear that the first Christians were living a new type of life, a life of strange purity and strange unselfishness.

Something Happened

But how was that type of life produced? I will tell you the way modern leaders of the church would have expected it to be produced. They would have expected the first Christian missionaries to go forward and say: “We have been in contact with a wonderful person, namely, Jesus of Nazareth, and our lives have been changed by that contact. We call upon you, our hearers, to submit yourselves to the contagion through us with the life of Jesus of Nazareth.”

That is just what people are saying today. That is what modern men would have expected the first Christian missionaries to say, but as a matter of historical fact they said nothing of the kind. They produced a new type of life not by exhortation, not by the contagion of personal influence, but by the proclamation of a piece of news; they produced it by the account of something that had recently happened.

That seemed a strange thing to the people of those days—to change men’s lives not by telling them to be good, but by giving them an account of things that had happened. It seems strange today, it is what Paul called the foolishness of the message. It seemed to be an absolutely foolish way of trying to change the lives of men, but to the historian it is perfectly plain that that is the way they went at it.

Do you want me to tell you what the first Christian movement was in Jerusalem? They did not say, “Submit yourselves to the spell of Jesus Christ and be children of God the way Jesus was a Son of God,” but they said, “Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; he was buried; he has been raised on the third day according to the scriptures.” It was an account of things that had happened and an account of the meaning of the happenings, and when you get those historical facts with the meaning of the facts you have Christian doctrine. Christ died—that is history. Christ died for our sins—that is doctrine. We have that at the very basis of all Christian work; it was there in Christianity in the first century, and today Christianity, as then, is founded upon the account of something that happened.

What I mean can be summed up in the first chapter of Acts—the eighth verse—“Ye shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea, and Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.”

Now it is a complete misinterpretation of these words if you say that the witness is merely to what Christ has done for you in your own souls. That is not the way the words are meant. Paramount is the witness to the plain historical fact of the resurrection of Christ. If there is some skeptic here, I do not need to argue with him about the historical value of the book of Acts, or whether Jesus really spoke these words, because all historians, whether Christians or not, ought to admit that it is a good summary of what the Christian movement at its very beginning was; it was a campaign of witnessing, an account of historical facts; Christ died; He was buried; He has been raised.

The Christian Worker a Christian Witness

Well then, if the Christian worker is fundamentally a witness, it is important, despite modern impressions about it, that the Christian worker should tell the truth. When a witness gets up on the witness stand it makes little difference what the cut of his coat is, or whether his sentences are nicely turned; the important thing is that he should tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. That is the important thing for the Christian preacher and Christian worker today. Do not misunderstand me. It is a sad thing if you tell the truth with your lips and if your life belies your message’, because then the more true the message the greater your sin, for you are bringing despite upon the truth. On the other hand, it is a sad thing when a man uses the gifts God has given him in order to proclaim things which are false. Therefore, the first thing is that we should tell the story which is at the basis of Christianity and tell it straight, and full, and plain.

It does make a vast deal of difference what our teachings are, and it is the fundamental business of the Christian church today to set forth the teaching of Christianity truly and plainly in opposition to the teachings of the modern rivals of Christianity. And the chief modern rival of Christianity is not Mohammedanism or Buddhism, but naturalistic Liberalism, which is almost dominant in our large ecclesiastical bodies today.

What then, briefly, are the teachings of Christianity over against the teachings of Liberalism? We have just said that Christianity is an account of something that happened, not something that always was true, but something that happened about 1900 years ago, when God saved man through the atoning death of the Lord Jesus Christ.

But before you can understand that gospel, that account of something that happened, you must know first something of God, and second something about man. These are the two great presuppositions of the gospel message, and it is these presuppositions, as well as the gospel message, to which modern Liberalism is diametrically opposed.

It is opposed to Christianity in its view of God, and in its attitude toward God. Now in the Christian view of God there are many elements, but one element is absolutely fundamental, and gives consistency to all the rest. It is the awful transcendence of God, the awful separateness of God; and it is that element in the Christian presentation of God upon which despite is being cast everywhere in the modern liberal church, because it regards God as fundamentally just another name for the great process of nature as it is. We find ourselves in the midst of a vast process, and to that vast process is applied the name of God. That is what people mean by the immanence of God.

Now do not misunderstand me. God according to the Christian view is immanent in the world. God is everywhere— “closer to us than breathing,” but immanent in the world not because He is identified with the world but because He is the Creator of it and upholds the things which He has made. The fundamental thing in the Christian notion of God is the sharp distinction between all created things and the Creator who is the explanation of all mysteries.

It is strange that men can call that a new vision of God which obscures the distinction between God and man, and involves God even in the sin of the world! How men can call such a view of God a new revelation is strange, because pantheism as it is called, is just as old as the hills, and has always been with us to blight the religious life of man. Modern Liberalism even when not consistently pantheistic, is at any rate pantheizing since it seeks to obliterate the sharp distinction between God and man, and involves God in the sin of mankind. Very different is the holy and living God of the Bible and of Christian faith!

Liberalism Denies Sin!

In the second place, modern Liberalism differs from Christianity in its view of man. It differs because it obliterates the distinction between man and God in the way I have said, but it differs in a more fundamental manner still. At the very basis of modern Liberalism in the church is a loss of the consciousness of sin. You can examine the religious literature of the present day, the Sunday-school lesson helps and the sermons, and you will find that the characteristic thought through the whole of them is a profound satisfaction with human goodness. The modern preacher has no words too strong to express his scorn of the Christian view of the awfulness of sin.

A few months ago I stopped in a distant city and went to what seemed to be the leading church. It was the day when the new Sunday-school teachers were inducted into their office; and the preacher preached a sermon about Christian education and told his people, especially those who were to train the young, that formerly there had been a terrible view that children were lost in sin and needed a Redeemer. And he got a laugh from his congregation by quoting the old theologians about the awfulness of sin under which all men were born in this world and the need of redemption in order to escape the righteous judgment of God. He said, “People really used to believe that all children were born in sin and needed the Saviour, Jesus, but we have learned in these days that it is our duty as Christian teachers merely by the teaching of Jesus to draw out the good that is already in them.”

The question arose in my mind why he quoted the theologians, why he indulged simply in the vulgar ridicule of them, when he wanted to cast ridicule upon the doctrine of the retributive justice of God; because he could have raised a better laugh if he had quoted the words of Jesus!

Jesus said more awful things about the terribleness of sin and the retributive justice of God than any man, and it is exceedingly strange how men at the present time who claim to have Jesus as Master (they speak of him always as “the Master,” but they do not speak of him as Lord or Saviour), who claim to have Jesus as their authority in the sphere of religion, will proceed in the same breath to cast despite upon the things which are at the very center of His teaching, and at the very center of Christianity, as is the awfulness of the guilt of sin.

Do you want me to tell you what the fundamental fault with the church today is? It is this—the modern preacher, whether in the Sunday-school class, or in the home or in the pulpit, is feverishly engaged in an absolutely impossible task. He is engaged in calling the “righteous” to repentance, in trying to bring men into the church, and at the same time permit them to retain their pride in their own goodness. Even our Lord did not succeed in calling the righteous to repentance, in trying to bring men to the church, and at the same time permit them to retain their pride in their am goodness. Even our Lord did not succeed in calling the righteous to repentance, and probably we shall be no more successful than He. At the very basis of Christian preaching is the mystery of the consciousness of sin and that is produced by the Holy Spirit, and when a man comes under the conviction of sin his whole attitude is changed.

These are the two presuppositions of the Christian message—the Christian view of the awful holiness of God and the Christian view of the terrible guilt of sin. God could only bring sinful man into His presence through the atoning death of Jesus Christ our Lord, but the account of that gospel is found in the Bible and with regard to the Bible modern Liberalism differs fundamentally from Christianity.

The Bible Absolutely Unique

The Christian view of the Bible of course makes the contents of the Bible absolutely unique. You might have all the ideas of the Bible in some other book, but you would have no Christianity; because Christianity is an account not merely of things that always were true, but an account of something that happened, and unless the thing really happened then we are still hopeless under the guilt of sin. It all depends upon the question whether, as a matter of fact, the eternal Son of God did take our sins upon Him and die instead of us on the cross.

According to the Christian view of the Bible it not only contains an account of something that happened, but contains a true account, and thus there is added to the Christian doctrine of revelation the Christian doctrine of the inspiration of the Word of God, and upon that doctrine despite is everywhere being cast today. Men are always talking about the “mechanical” view of inspiration, which makes the Biblical writers little more than stenographers. But as a matter of fact the Christian doctrine of inspiration does not deny the human characteristics of the biblical writers, nor display any lack of interest in the human means that these writers had for gathering their information, but it holds that by the Spirit of God these writers were preserved from the errors which are found in other books, and thus gave to us the only infallible rule of faith and practice.

The Seat of Authority According to Liberalism

But what does modern Liberalism substitute for the authority of the Bible? Sometimes a totally false impression is produced that it substitutes the authority of Jesus.

That is altogether false, because when asked what they consider the authority of Jesus, we discover that modern Liberalism rejects a great many of the recorded words of Jesus. It does not believe that Jesus ever spoke some of them, because in His recorded words in the gospels are some things most hateful to it. Modern Liberalism says that not everything recorded of Jesus in the Gospels was spoken by Jesus, and we must sort out the words which were spoken by Him and reject the rest.

But suppose we press it further. We shall discover that even in the reduced Jesus of modern liberal reconstruction there are some things abhorrent to the Liberal church, and modern Liberals if pinned down to it will say that they do not believe everything Jesus said was true, but they will say they are still Christians, they are still His followers, because they still hold to the central life purpose of Jesus.

Well, what was the central life purpose of Jesus? According to the Gospel of Mark the central life purpose of Jesus is found in His atoning death. “The Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and give his life a ransom for (instead of) many.”

These words are of course abhorrent to the Liberal Church. But when you ask what the central life purpose of Jesus was, you will find you are in the mire of dispute, and that they will accept as authoritative only a few of the sayings of Jesus, not because they are His sayings, but because they happen to agree with their own opinions. The real authority of the modern Liberal is not Jesus, but it is, as men say, “Christian experience.”

But what do you mean by Christian experience? What do you mean by Christian experience as authority? Surely you do not mean merely a majority vote of the organized Church. Do you mean, then, individual experience? But this is endlessly diverse, and therefore what you will have substituted for the true authority of the Word of God, is no authority at all but the shifting emotions of sinful men.

But people say what a foolish thing it is to depend upon a book! It all depends upon the book, my friends. The Reformation of the sixteenth century was founded upon the authority of a Book! May that Book again set aflame the world, and may the present bondage give place again to the glorious freedom of the sons of God!

The Christian View of Christ

When you come to the contents of the Bible everything points to the central figure—Jesus Christ. What is thought of Christ, first, by the modern liberal church and second, by Christian men?

At this point a further perplexity arises, for ask the modern liberal preacher his view of Christ, and he will say with great conviction, “I believe in the deity of Christ, I believe that Jesus is God.”

We hear much like that today. People say, “Why, after all, this great preacher is most orthodox because he believes in the deity of Christ, and those who are objecting to his presence as a leader in the church, are mere uncharitable heresy hunters.”

Do you not see, my friends, that, when they say Jesus is God, the value of that utterance depends upon what they mean by God? That little word “God” is not a bit more beautiful than any other English word. The value of it depends altogether upon what you mean by it, and when the modern liberal preacher says he believes Christ is God, he may mean God exists in all the world, God exists wherever life pulsates through humanity, and only appears fuller and plainer than any other place in the life of Jesus.

That is what is often meant, and of course that is very far from the Christian faith. Very often when he says Jesus is God, he means to use the term in this way: “We have given up,” he says, “the old notion that there is a Creator and Ruler of the world. We know nothing about that—that is metaphysical. The word ‘God’ is useful merely as expressing the highest object of men’s desires.” So when they say Jesus is God they do not mean that Jesus is the supreme ruler of the world, but simply that Jesus, though a man like the rest of men, is the highest thing we know.

Such men are further removed from the Christian faith than Unitarians. Unitarians at least believe in God, whereas these men speak highly of Jesus, call Jesus God, only because they think low of God, not because they think high of Jesus.

In another way also such men are inferior to Unitarians, inferior in the plain matter of honesty. When they say, Jesus is God, the truthfulness of that utterance depends altogether upon the audience addressed. I do not mean to deny that such liberal preachers do believe in the very core of their hearts that Jesus is God, they certainly mean that. But the great trouble is, they know perfectly well those words are going to be taken by the simple minded hearers whom they address in a way totally different from the way in which they mean it. They are offending therefore against the fundamental principle of truthfulness of language. The assertion, “I believe that Jesus is God,” is truthful before an audience of theologically trained persons who understand the modern way of thinking about God, but if it be addressed to a simple minded people, then the language is untruthful and all the best motives in the world cannot possibly excuse it. Nothing can possibly excuse language which is not in accordance with facts.

Simplicity of the Cross

Liberalism is different from Christianity also as to salvation. What is the way of salvation according to the Christian account? Two aspects are to be distinguished. In the first place, the basis of it all is in the atoning death of Christ. According to Christian belief that is a very simple thing. Men talk about the theory of the atonement as though it were a subtle thing, but you can put it in words of one syllable. We deserve eternal death. The Lord Jesus Christ, because he loved us, died instead of us on the Cross.

That certainly is not incomprehensible. It is mysterious in its depth of grace, but it is a thing that a child can understand. Do you want me to tell you what is difficult? It is not the simple Bible presentation of the death of Christ, but the manifold modern effort to get rid of that simple presentation of the Cross in the interests of human pride.

The modern liberals pour out the vials of their scorn upon the Bible presentation of the Cross of Christ. They speak of it with disgust as involving a “trick” intend to placate an “alienated God.” Thus they pour out their scorn upon a thing so holy that in the presence of it the Christian heart melts in gratitude too deep for words.

People talk about Christian experience. My friends, where can Christian experience be found if not at the Cross of Christ, at that blessed place where a man knows that in a great mystery the guilt of his sin was taken by the Holy One, and borne instead of him on the Cross?

The very nerve of the Christian view of the Cross is that God Himself makes the sacrifice for our salvation. Where can love be found except at the Cross of Christ, the one who died, the just for the unjust? “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son.” There, and there alone, is to be found the love that is love indeed.

The New Birth

This work of Christ is applied by the Holy Spirit of God in the new birth. You will hear very little about the new birth in modern preaching. Modern missionaries will tell you, you must give up the thought of winning individual converts in mission lands. For the new birth they are inclined to substitute “the social gospel.” But at the very centre of Christianity are the words “Ye must be born again.”

Justification by Faith

That is the work of the Spirit of God, the application of the work of Christ. But in applying the work of Christ the Spirit makes use of faith. People who have found salvation know what it means.

Liberals talk about faith in Jesus, but they mean simply admiration of Jesus. They talk about it as if the basis of the Christ life were “make Jesus Master in your life.” The Y.M.C.A., in recent years, has put the declaration of purpose to live the Christ life as somehow being on a par with the reception of the salvation which is found in the Cross of Christ. I do not see but that that is the exact opposite of faith. That means that you are trusting in your own works. Faith means not that you do something, but that you receive first the gracious gift of God. When the Lord Jesus has died for you you accept it without work of your own. You accept the gracious thing He did. And then by God’s help the good life follows.

Victory Assured

Christianity is fighting a great battle today. It is one of three great crises in the history of the Christian church. One came in the second century when Christianity was almost engulfed by paganism in the church in the form of Gnosticism. There was another in the middle ages when legalism was almost dominant in the church, similar to the modern legalism which appears in the liberal church. Christianity today is fighting a great battle, but I, for my part, am looking for ultimate victory. God will not desert His church.