The Theologian - The internet journal for integrated theology


Christianity, Liberalism and the New Evangelicalism

by Carl Trueman


For Christians, the past should always be instructive. When we look back to the Old Testament, we see how much of Old Testament faith and life was nurtured by remembrance of times past. The Passover, that most wonderful and central of Jewish celebrations, was designed specifically to remind ancient Israel of the miraculous deliverance which God had wrought; then the psalms, those communal songs and poems which were central to Israelite praise of God -- and which should still be central to Christian praise today -- often look back to the past to remind the congregation of acts both of human sin and divine grace and salvation, provoking thereby both repentance and faith. The past may be a foreign country, as L P Hartley famously wrote, but it is not so foreign that it has not been a constant resource for the church throughout the centuries.

While the events of biblical history are peculiarly instructive because they culminate in Christ and are, as it were, constituent parts of God’s revelation to humanity, the events of post-biblical history are also valuable. We must be aware, of course, that these events are neither revelatory in the sense that they bring new information, commands or promises from God; nor is the historian able to give the kind of definitive interpretation on events and figures which the biblical writers, under the influence and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, are able to provide; we must also be aware of the temptation to idealise the past, to set our heroes up on pedestals and to treat them as if they could do no wrong; but, for example, by revealing the weakness of human nature, the critical issues in theology, and the way in which decisions in one area of church life can have ramifications all over the place, historical studies of post-Biblical church life may, like the biblical history itself, give the church cause to lament over its sins, rejoice in God’s grace and, just perhaps, avoid making the same mistakes again.

It is with this in mind that I wish today to reflect upon the thoughts of one of the church’s great leaders of the last century: J Gresham Machen.

Who was J Gresham Machen?»1

Born in 1881, John Gresham Machen was the son of Southern parents and grew up in an Old School Presbyterian home in Baltimore, Maryland. Old School Presbyterianism was that tradition of theology exemplified by men such as the Hodges and Warfield who tended to eschew the revivalist temper of much of the evangelical theology in the United States in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, along with its concomitant parachuch activities. Instead, Old School presbyterians favoured a more sober attitude to the Christian life which emphasized the importance of the church’s historic confessions and catechisms, and the centrality of the visible church, with its offices and sacraments. These were emphases which Machen was himself to stress in his later career. Indeed, after study at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore it was to Princeton Theological Seminary, where the Hodge dynasty and now B B Warfield dominated intellectual life, that Machen went to engage in theological study, though he was far from clear at this point in his life as to what his future career path might be.

Princeton Seminary was the preeminent centre in the United States -- if not the world -- for studying Reformed theology in its classic, confessional form. It was thus into a thoroughly orthodox theological environment that the young Machen enrolled himself and in which he excelled as a student. Indeed, Machen’s work at the Seminary was of such calibre that Francis L Patton, the seminary’s president, recommended at the end of his second year that he remain at the institution once he had completed his degree in order to teach New Testament Greek and related subjects. Machen, however, was unsure at this time about what his future career should be and opted, instead, to spend some time furthering his theological studies in Germany. Thus it was that he found himself at the University of Marburg, sitting at the feet of some of the most brilliant and inspiring liberal theologians of their day.

Like many a theological scholar before and after him, Machen’s experience of liberalism at university precipitated something of an intellectual crisis. The liberals with whom he came into contact were filled with a passion and dedication to their cause which took his breath away. One in particular, the brilliant and wild-eyed Wilhelm Herrmann, made a stunning impression on the young American. In Herrmann, Machen saw not only somebody of a passionate piety but, more important, somebody who embodied the very ideal of the union of a zeal for theology with the stature of a university professor. Like many a Christian student since, Machen found himself somewhat confused and startled by the combination of such liberal views with such an apparent passion for Christ in the great German. In a letter to his brother, he made the following statement:

Herrmann, in his religious earnestness and moral power, has been a revelation to me....[He] affirms very little of that which I have been accustomed to regard as essential to Christianity; yet there is no doubt in my mind but that he is a Christian, and a Christian of a peculiarly earnest type. He is a Christian, not because he follows Christ as a moral teacher; but because his trust in Christ is...unbounded. It is inspiring to see a man so completely centred in Christ, even though some people might wonder how he reaches this result and still holds the views he does about the accounts in the New Testament.»2

How indeed! Herrmann was a classic representative of that liberal tradition of theology whose exponents hold their views with a passion, a zeal, and a seriousness which puts many conservatives to shame. As Machen tells us, this caused something of a crisis in his Christian life. Years later, he was to argue that liberalism, such as that of Herrmann, was not Christianity at all but merely something which happened to use the same language as Christianity. At the time of his first exposure to liberalism, however, such thoughts were some way in the future. All Machen could see was the burning passion of his professor for speaking of Christ. Nevertheless, after a long struggle, Machen came to realise that the theology of the German liberal schools, passionate though it may be, was not the theology of the Bible and that there Christ was not the Christ of Paul.

Machen returned to America and taught New Testament at his alma mater, Princeton Theological Seminary, where he was particularly close to his senior colleague, B B Warfield. However, with Warfield’s death in 1921, an era came to an end and, by 1929, Princeton Theological Seminary was reorganised, ostensibly for administrative purposes. In practice, however, this reorganisation led immediately to the radical loosening of the Seminary’s confessional commitments in line with parallel shifts within the theological politics of mainstream American presbyterianism.

As a result, Machen left and founded Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, where such significant Reformed thinkers as John Murray and Cornelius Van Til were to join him. A little while later, Machen was forced out of his denomination and subsequently founded the church now known as the Orthodox Prebyterian Church. Then, worn out by over a decade of heated controversy, Machen died in 1937.

Christianity and Liberalism

It is upon Machen’s call-to-arms of 1923, the little book entitled Christianity and Liberalism, that I wish to concentrate the remainder of our time today. Now regarded as one of the classic texts in the so-called fundamentalist controversies of the 1920s, this was no product of a backwoods fundamentalist redneck. Indeed, this work of the Princeton scholar earned the admiration even of cultured atheists such as H L Mencken. What it did not do was earn any praise from the liberal theological establishment and that for one very simple reason: in this work Machen made the straightforward claim that historic, biblical Christianity and liberal theology were not two parts of the same larger movement but were in fact antithetical to each other.

To put it in its bluntest terms, liberalism was not Christianity, and Machen was issuing the former with its marching orders.. This thesis, dramatic and offensive as it was, was worked out by Machen in six chapters, covering the importance of doctrine, the nature of God and man, the Bible, Christ, salvation, and the Church. In each case, Machen presented compelling evidence that the Christian view of these things was utterly opposed to the liberal view, that these two theological traditions did not offer different but compatible perspectives on the same thing but were actually as opposed as faith and unbelief. What I intend to do today is simply summarise Machen’s arguments on a number of key themes as a basis for seeing how, if at all, the principles which his work highlights are of relevance to us today.

Before I do this, however, I want to make one point quite clear at the outset: liberalism is not simply something which affects others; it lies dangerously close to the evangelical door as well. This is because, as Machen shows, liberalism is not so simple or straightforward a phenomenon as to be reducible to a single error which can be avoided. To put it in plain terms, avoiding liberalism is not simply a question of believing the Bible to be the word of God. Rather, liberalism embodies a whole range of attitudes to divine things which can sit quite happily with high-sounding words about biblical authority. It is in these other areas, such as our views about the importance of doctrine, the nature of God, the seriousness of sin and so forth that we must be vigilant.

Therefore, I will make no comment today upon chapter four of the work which deals with the Bible. This is not because it is not important, nor because I do not agree with the burden of Machen’s argument at this point -- most emphatically I do. It is simply because time is limited and I feel the afternoon would be better spent in earnest self-examination on other areas where perhaps we are less sensitive to the inroads of liberalism. I hope in the subsequent comments on Machen’s powerful little book to draw out exactly what I mean by this.

(I) Doctrine

The first thing Machen seeks to demonstrate in his work is the importance of doctrine, that is, of the church’s verbal declaration of what it actually believes to be true. Indeed, while this topic occupies the first chapter, it is without doubt the underlying theme and presupposition of the entire work without which the rest really makes no sense at all.

To establish the importance of doctrine as such, Machen makes a number of points. First, he indicates that objection to doctrine in itself is often a highly specious move, and one which the Christian should not allow the liberal to make. We are all, I guess, familiar with those who say that it is not theology or doctrine which is important, but the presence of Christ in the heart. Such a statement is as false as it is true. What is more often than not being objected to in such statements, says Machen, is not the notion of doctrine pure and simple but a particular doctrine or system of doctrines with which the liberal diagrees. Thus, the liberal is often as doctrinaire, if not more so, than the person or the tradition which he or she opposes.»3

Such a point scarcely needs any corroboration today; we have only to think of the virulent abuse and sneering contempt heaped upon evangelicals, not because they believe something with passion and conviction, but because what they believe happens to conflict with the views of those who have power and influence at denominational HQ, or Westminster, or Fleet Street. The liberal bishops and the religious pundits in the national media are as dogmatic in their creeds as evangelicals; what they object to is not creeds per se but the particular creed to which evangelicals are committed. We should therefore not allow objection to particular doctrinal convictions to masquerade as objection to doctrine in general.

Machen moves on from this preliminary point to deal with the liberal argument that Christianity is not a system of doctrines but a way of life. This is the kind of argument put forward by those who wished to reduce Christianity to a code of ethics, a form of religious self-understanding, a way of living that embodied love to God and love to neighbour but which did not go so far as to claim that Christianity offered any utterly unique basis for so doing. For many like this, Christianity represented the best basis for ethical conduct, but it was, at the end of the day, only quantitatively, not qualitatively, different to Judaism and Islam. In other words, Christianity represented a higher form of religious consciousness than these two, but not something which was different in any deep, radical sense.

To this kind of argument, Machen responds that Christianity is not simply a way of life; it is a way of life founded upon and rooted in a very distinct message. It is not reducible to mere feeling or sentiment; it is based upon the historical account of ancient Israel as it culminated in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. These are the things which give Christianity its uniqueness, its particularity; and these are the things which make Christianity at its core irreducibly doctrinal.»4

Machen follows this up by looking at the attitude of Paul in his letters. At no point does Paul ever say that doctrine is indifferent and that it is only practice that matters. On the contrary, the universal claims of the gospel message make such indifference an impossibility. As Machen says:

It never occured to Paul that a gospel might be true for one man and not for another; the blight of pragmatism had never fallen upon his soul.»5

Substitute the word `postmodernism’ for `pragmatism’ and the sentence is as relevant today as it was eighty years ago when first written. The historical particularity of the events underlying the gospel message does not render them of mere local interest to first century Jews or to the particular communities and organisations which look back to them as having special significance. On the contrary, the claims which focus on the particular, historical man Jesus Christ have an absolutely universal relevance which pragmatism, pluralism and now postmodernism cannot be allowed to undermine or weaken in any way without a fundamental compromise of the message which is the basis of the Christian life.

Objections that Christianity is not about doctrine but about a relationship with a person are also given short shrift by Machen. Here he makes the simple point that interpersonal relationships are functions of trust, and trust requires knowing who the other person in the relationship is. One cannot trust someone whom one does not know; and, if one does know the person, then one can inevitably express certain truths about the person using formulas of words -- and that, at its simplest, is what Christian doctrine is. For Machen, the events of Christ’s birth, Calvary, and the empty tomb are the things which reveal who God is and allow human beings to enjoy a relationship with him. Thus, one cannot meaningfully speak of having a personal relationship with God without also grasping the doctrines of incarnation, cross, and resurrection. He himself expresses it as follows:

It is vain, then, to speak of reposing trust in the Person without believing the message. For trust involves a personal relationship between the one who trusts and him in whom the trust is reposed. And in this case the personal relation is set by the blessed theology of the cross.»6

A few lines later he continues with a devastating put-down:

The truth is that when men speak of trust in Jesus’ person, as being possible without acceptance of the message of his death and resurrection, they do not really mean trust at all. What they designate as trust is really admiration and reverence.»7

Here, I think Machen touches the very heart of liberalism. At the end of the day, it is not about sin and redemption as orthodox, historic Christianity understands those terms; it is rather about seeing in Christ the embodiment of the good man, the one who lives for others, the one who is ultimately to be admired and, if possible, emulated; not the one in whom faith is to be placed because of the qualitative uniqueness of his person and work.

The lessons from Machen’s discussion of the importance of doctrine for the contemporary evangelical situation are quite clear: doctrinal indifferentism -- that attitude which regards the individual’s or church’s experience of Christ as essentially separable from, more important than, or even opposed to, a clear understanding of his person and work -- is a sure sign both of an incipient theological liberalism and something which has little or nothing to do with the tradition of historic, orthodox Christianity.

We must not allow the rhetoric and language of personal relationships to be used as a means of downplaying the crucial importance of clear, orthdox doctrine. If we are to have a personal relationship with anyone, then that relationship depends upon a sure knowledge of who that other person is and what they are like. My personal relationship with my wife is not essentially separable from, more important than, or even opposed to my knowledge of who she is, what she says, and what she does; and the same applies to my relationship with Christ. When we keep in mind that doctrine is part and parcel of our personal knowledge of who Christ is, the danger involved in downplaying doctrine becomes crystal clear.

Now, there are no doubt few if any here today who would be willing to stand up and declare themselves to be indifferent to doctrine; but the danger on this point is often more subtle, and perhaps even unconscious, than a straightforward and explicit commitment to the kind of liberalism which Machen is criticising. My own belief is that when we reflect at any length upon our church life, it often becomes clear that we are not as far from this attitude as we might like to think. To demonstrate this, I wish to make two important points.

My first point is that the role that personal testimonies play in much of church life can serve to sideline doctrinal imperatives. At the end of the day, the gospel in the New Testament is identified with the story of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ and its doctrinal significance. It is, as Machen would say, not an ethical demand but an announcement; a message of good news built upon particular historical happenings. Therefore, the gospel is not the transformation of an individual life; it is not the rescuing of someone from some evil addiction; and it is not the turning of a sinner from the path of destruction to the path of life.

All of these things can flow from the gospel; but the gospel itself is the announcement of what God achieved in Jesus Christ. Thus, while personal testimonies may have their place in church life, they should never be allowed to eclipse the preaching of the gospel which is the proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ. If they are allowed to do so, then that is indicative of a church for whom the experiences of individual Christians has become more important than the doctrinal truths which in reality underpin and shape those experiences. When this happens, make no mistake -- it does not matter how conservative the church claims to be, how sound its paper orthodoxy is, the difference between the theological approach of that church and that of classic liberalism is one of degree, not of kind.

My second point is that the collapse in denominational identity, or, in the case of much British evangelicalism, the complete lack of any denominational identity whatsoever, often speaks volumes about doctrinal indifferentism. Now, I am aware of the arguments that stress the lack of denominations in the New Testament and that point to the deep and mystical unity which all believers enjoy in Christ which transcends denominations. I do not deny the truth of either of these points.  What I would like to suggest, however, is that much of the interdenominational and parachurch activity which goes on within evangelical circles today is not simply or perhaps even primarily a response to these two issues but is rather a function of a rising doctrinal indifferentism.

In my own experience, parachurch organisations and fellowships often define themselves on paper in doctrinal terms, but in practice one of two things tends to happen. First, these organisations may allow such liberty of interpretation regarding the doctrinal articles of constitution that such statements are rendered meaningless. The only conclusion that one can draw in such circumstances is that that which unites the members of these organisations is perceived to be something which cannot be clearly expressed in doctrinal terms. In other words, this unifying factor, whatever it may be, is anything but doctrinal. And that is doctrinal indifferentism which, if left unchecked, will become liberalism as sure as night follows day.

Second, where doctrinal statements are taken seriously and where men and women refuse to subscribe with their fingers crossed, the agreed statements can be so minimal as to be almost meaningless, as is the case, for example, with an important evangelical scholarly fellowship in the USA whose members have to believe only in inerrancy and the trinity in order to qualify for membership. The result is that other important areas of doctrine, such as the sacraments, salvation, and the last things, are marginalised, relegated to irrelevancies, and sometimes all but forgotten.

When such organisations then become a major focus of our Christian activity and draw individuals and churches away from their particular responsibilities to their local areas and to their denominations, this situation can again quickly lead to doctrinal indifferentism and to churches who lack any really distinct identity or message. This is for the simple reason that, once we start ditching our distinctives, where do we stop? Whatever our views on, say, baptism or the Lord’s Supper, these things are important. We may well enjoy fellowship with those with whom we disagree on these issues, but we should never give the impression that these things are not significant. Indeed, the existence of denominations is often an historical witness to the fact that these things are of crucial importance. Machen himself makes this point crystal clear. Speaking of differences about the sacraments, he makes the following profound observation:

That difference is indeed serious, and to deny its seriousness is a far greater error than to take the wrong side in the controversy itself. It is often said that the divided condition of Christendom is an evil, and so it is. But the evil consists in the existence of the errors which cause the divisions and not at all in the recognition of those errors when once they exist.»8

Do you see Machen’s point? Yes, denominations and a divided Christendom are evils, but they are the result of doctrinal error, not the result of making distinctives out of trivia. Therefore, any attempt to overcome the fragmentation caused by denominations must take this point seriously and not merely sidestep the problem by relegating differences over doctrine to the level of matter indifferent. To do is, once again, to open the door to doctrinal indifferentism, the handmaiden of theological liberalism.

It is, of course, hard in the UK, when evangelicalism is such a small movement and where it is so highly fragmented, not to sideline certain debates for the sake of interchurch co-operation. I am not advocating withdrawal from such bodies; but let us always be aware of our motives for involvement and of whatever price we are being asked to pay to sit at certain tables. I would suggest that if the price is that of giving up wholesale our belief in the importance of such things as the nature of grace, God’s electing love or of the sacraments, and of turning our churches into bland manifestations of a generic, minimalist evangelicalism then the price might well prove in the long run to have been far too high.

In this connection, I believe a further point is worth making: not only must we make sure that the focal point of our church is the doctrinal preaching of the gospel in all its fulness, we must also make sure that this doctrine penetrates to the pew. The history of the church is peppered with examples of churches which enjoyed powerful, faithful preaching for many years and yet which all but collapsed into doctrinal apathy and even heresy on the retirement or death of their minister. While a number of reasons could be given for this, one underlying factor has to be the failure of the message to pass effectively from the pulpit to the pew.

The danger in our current situation is no different. I was talking recently to the head of a parachurch organisation who was telling me how disheartened he was at the lack of doctrinal understanding among many of the young people applying to him for work. They loved the Lord Jesus; but they seemed to know next to nothing about him. This is very worrying, for if Machen was right -- and I believe he was -- then such lack of doctrinal knowledge actually indicates a lack of a deep and meaningful relationship with Christ. It is thus important for ministers to make sure that what they teach on a Sunday is not only doctrinally solid and wholesome, but that it is digested by the congregation.

Part of that process is facilitated by making sure that the prayers prayed in church and the songs which we sing together are sound and wholesome. There is much evidence to suggest that a lot of the theology which church members imbibe comes through the prayers they hear and, especially, the songs that are sung. If these are empty of doctrinal content, it is hardly surprising that congregations are themselves doctrinally impoverished. I guess as an elder in a Scottish presbyterian denomination you will expect me to say this, but I’ll say it anyway: the singing of psalms is one sure way of making sure that God’s word and its teachings are imbibed by the congregation.

In addition, we need to think carefully about following up preaching in a manner that ensures the doctrinal message goes home. The Puritans followed up their preaching through catechism classes; we may well feel that such are inappropriate today, given the differences in working hours, family life etc. But if that is so, we surely need to find a modern-day equivalent in order to make sure that what is said from the front of the church on a Sunday hits home on the other six days of the week. Whatever we do, however, we need to address the problem of doctrinal indifferentism in the church membership at the current time and put into place measure to combat it. Failure to do so in this generation will inevitably lead to liberalism in the next.

(II) God and Christ

After discussing the importance of doctrine, the next chapter, entitled simply `God and Man’, stresses one simple but overwhelming and terrifying truth: the Christian God is a transcendent God. In one awesome passage, Machen says the following:

[O]ne attribute of God is absolutely fundamental in the Bible; one attribute is absolutely necessary in order to render intelligible all the rest. That attribute is the awful transcendence of God. From beginning to end the Bible is concerned to set forth the awful gulf that separates the creature from the Creator. It is true, indeed, that according to the Bible God is immanent in the world. Not a sparrow falls to the ground without Him. But he is immanent in the world not because He is identified with the world, but because He is the free Creator and Upholder of it. Between the creature and the Creator a great gulf is fixed.»9

To understand the significance of this, we need to grasp two basic facts about the kind of liberalism against which Machen is reacting. First, such liberalism made a great play of arguing that God could only be known in and through Jesus Christ. Such language had a certain specious orthodoxy. After all, any theology which does not stress the importance of Christ to the knowledge of God is unworthy of the name Christian in even its broadest sense.

When we take into account, however, that liberalism disputed the reliability of the gospels as historical accounts of Christ, and rejected the historic understandings of trinity and incarnation, it becomes clear that the liberal Christ is not the Christ of the Bible or of the orthodox Christian tradition. For these, after all, considered the gospels to be the basic historical source for knowledge of Christ, and held that doctrines such as trinity and incarnation represented objective realities not subjective modifications of the religious psychology of the believer. In practice, therefore, what Christ-centred liberalism did was to create a Christ in its own image, a Christ who perfectly matched up to the expectations of late nineteenth century society.

Second, the world to which Machen belonged was one in which cheap sentiment had come to exert a profound influence. Machen was, of course, an American, but we can see the same kind of sentimentalism in Britain. One has only to think of some of the crass artwork of late Victorian England, of many of the popular novels of the era, for example, some of those by Charles Dickens (of whom, I confess, I am a great fan, his tendency to sentiment aside), of some of the poetry even by men such as Tennyson and Browning, and of the paternalism of much of the politics, to realise that this was an era where sentimentalism about many things -- whether it be the poor, the Empire, or England itself -- was rife. And it affected theology too where it found its most obvious manifestation in a dogmatic attachment to the so-called universal fatherhood of God.

Machen is aware, of course, that the Bible does speak at times of God as a kind of universal father; but he is careful to point out that such references are vague and only occur very occasionally; the dominant pattern of the New Testament is to reserve the language of fatherhood to describe the profound and intimate relationship that exists between God and his redeemed people.»10 This is a million miles away from using the terminology of universal fatherhood, terminology which implicitly serves to break down the distinction between God and the world in a manner which fatally weakens any notion of his utter transcendence.

The loss of divine transcendence has a variety of disastrous theological consequences, not least in the area of the understanding of sin. As Machen declares in this chapter as he moves from the transcendence of God to the moral corruption of man, `At the very root of the modern liberal movement is the loss of the consciousness of sin.’»11 For him, the two things are different sides of the same coin: the undermining of transcendence serves to make God smaller, to make him less of a God; and the less of a God he becomes, the more trivial the sin of man against such a God is made to appear. Indeed, we might borrow the first two lines of Whittier’s famous hymn as an example of just how this is so: `Dear Lord and Father of mankind / Forgive our foolish ways’. In line one, God becomes the universal Father; in line two, human sin becomes foolish, not morally outrageous. Loss of divine transcendence sets the scene for the trivialisation of sin.

If Machen’s comments on this issue were relevant in his own day, then it is surely the case that they remain so for ours. Now, it is very tempting at this point for us to play the pharisee, to look at those outwith the Reformed and evangelical camps and to thank God that we are not as other men on this issue. We would never lose sight of the transendence of God or the sinfulness of sin. But is it the case that we are so guiltless on this issue? I would suggest that we do not have to look beyond the boundaries of our own camps to find evidence of precisely the kind of thinking which Machen saw as so lethal to vital Christian theology and life. Indeed, a whole variety of comments suggest themselves in this context, but I will again restrict myself to the one or two which seem most pertinent.

First, reflect for a moment upon the Sunday services in which we participate. When we enter our churches on Sundays, is the atmosphere one which inspires awe, one which provokes a response like that of the prophet Isaiah: Woe to me, for I am a man of unclean lips? That, I would suggest, is the kind of result that a vision of God’s transcendence and holiness will produce in us, revealing as it does not just God’s greatness but our own unworthiness. Or is the atmosphere perhaps more likely to inspire cries of `Come in God, my old mate, and have a cup of tea.’ That, I would suggest, is the result of a loss of a sense of divine transcendence and human sinfulness, and yet one which perhaps characterises many a church service.

And I am not here making a point about traditional versus contemporary styles of worship. The traditional service can easily fall prey to the trivialisation that routine and formalism bring in their wake; the obsession without form for its own sake can be far removed from true reverence and as detrimental to true Christian worship as can a slavish commitment to the new and the contemporary. No, the point I am making is one concerning our attitude to what the church is all about. Do we go there to stand in the presence of a holy, awesome and transcendent God, to acknowledge our own unworthiness, to thank him for Christ, and to worship him for who he is; or do we go there to have a chat and a laugh with some divine buddy who makes us feel better about ourselves.

Our answer to this question depends entirely upon our view of divine transcendence; and the evidence of what our answer is will be found in the kinds of prayers spoken and of songs sung. These both reflect and reinforce our view of God and of ourselves. Trivial songs and flippant prayers all ultimately speak of an understanding of God which has missed the importance of divine transcendence and turned the human predicament into the punchline of a cosmic joke.

Second, look at the content of the sermons we hear and the books we read. Are they books and sermons which deal with the doctrine of God and the doctrine of sin, with the greatness of the divine and the corruption of the human? If the bestseller shelves at the average Christian bookshop are anything to go by, more often than not the most popular books seem to be those which deal with our problems. We live in a culture of therapy which is obsessed with the well-being of self, and where our major problems are defined using the categories of happiness and contentment, not those of guilt and forgiveness. That is why we now get Christian books on slimming, on better sex, on learning to love ourselves more. God has been sentimentalised and the human predicament has been trivialised to the point where Christianity is seen to centre on the problem of a marred self-image, not a marred divine image. The idea that God is angry with sin, that our problem is, first and foremost, that of alienation from our creator rather than alienation from self, scarcely seems to feature.

At the end of the day, we might cynically say that such ideas do not make good copy and do not sell many books. I would submit that this has to be in large part the result of the loss of our sense -- indeed, our understanding -- of God’s transcendence and of our fiinitude and sin. A church that grasps the centrality of divine transcendence will also grasp the depth of human sinfulness and the awesomeness of divine grace in Christ; and such a church will consequently preach a gospel which revolves around the perfection of God, the fallenness of humanity, and the decisiveness of God’s action on the cross; she will not be so concerned to present God as the believer’s best buddy and Christianity as the best high that money cannot buy.

Thus, let me reiterate what I said earlier: we must beware of pointing the finger at churches which explicitly deny the authority of the Bible as being liberal; when our churches in their preaching and in their worship fail to give due weight to the transcendence of God the seriousness of human sin, the difference between those of us who call ourselves Reformed or evangelical and those whom we would label as liberal is a difference of degree, not kind.

(III) Christ and Salvation

Over one third of the text of Christianity and Liberalism is taken up by the two chapters which cover Christ and Salvation respectively. There is a sense, therefore, in which these issues represent the very heart of Machen’s argument. If his statements on doctrine, on God and man, and on the Bible are the presuppositions of his case, then those on Christ and salvation are where his argument reaches its culmination.

Central to the case made at this point in the book are three things: the uniqueness of Christ; the centrality of atonement; and the need for regeneration. We shall look briefly at each of these in turn.

First, the uniqueness of Christ. Machen is, as one would expect, impeccably orthodox in his understanding of Christ’s person, regarding him as both fully God and fully man; in other words, as God manifest in human flesh. For Machen, Christ’s unique constitution is the foundation for Christ’s unique role in history. Comparing the Christ of Christianity with the Christ of liberalism, he makes the following comment:

Liberalism regards Him [Christ] as an Example and Guide; Christianity as a Saviour: liberalism makes him an example for faith; Christianity, the object of faith.»12

The point underlying this comment is simple enough but nonetheless important: the fact that Christ is both God and man gives him a unique status in the history of humanity. Thus, it is not just what Christ shares with us, i.e., our humanity, that means he can be a Saviour for us; it is also that which distinguishes him from us, that which makes him different, which is also crucial. This note of difference is struck again and again in Machen’s discussion of Christ in order to draw out what lies behind the liberal understanding of Jesus: he is not ultimately the divine-human mediator, he is, rather, `the fairest flower of humanity’, to use Machen’s own phrase.»13

The result is that Christ is not ultimately the one who acts on our behalf to save us; he is the one who provides us with an example of how life should be lived. In a passage which brilliantly summarises and exposes the specious piety of the liberal theologian, Machen says the following:

The modern liberal preacher reverences Jesus; he has the name of Jesus forever on his lips; he speaks of Jesus as the supreme revelation of God; he enters, or tries to enter, into the religious life of Jesus. But he does not stand in a religious relation to Jesus. Jesus for him is an example for faith, not the object of faith. The modern liberal tries to have faith in God like the faith which he supposes Jesus had in God; but he does not have faith in Jesus.»14

There it is in a nutshell: behind all the pious liberal rhetoric lies a Jesus who is no more than a good example. As the doctrine of sin depends upon the doctrine of divine transcendence, upon stressing the fundamental difference between God and the world, so the doctrine of Christ depends too upon stressing the difference between Jesus and the rest of humanity; between the one who came to give his life to deal with sin, and those of us who spend our lives labouring under sin.

Machen develops his argument on this issue to point to the incoherence of liberalism’s claim to follow Christ as example. If, Machen asks, Christ claimed to be the Messiah, to be the Son of God, and to offer men and women salvation, then either he is the God of orthodox Christianity or he was one of the most egocentric, if not insane, men who ever walked the earth. Christ can only function as an example if he is taken as a man of moral integrity; if he is a man of moral integrity, then his claims about his unique status and office have to be taken seriously; and if they are taken seriously, he ceases to be in the first instance a moral example and becomes rather the one who offers salvation to humanity through his unique work.»15

Are there lessons here for us today? Well, I think we can be genuinely grateful to God that the evangelical church on the whole in this country continues to maintain her belief in the uniqueness of Jesus’ person and work. But we must not be complacent. As I look at the contemporary evangelical scene, I do see potential danger areas where the uniqueness of Christ could be inadvertently eroded, not by a full-frontal attack on the orthodox doctrine of his person but on the way that doctrine becomes marginal to the way Christ is presented by the churches.

One such example is provided by the creeping tendency to stress Christ as an example to us of how we should live. Now, please do not misunderstand me here. Certainly, Christ’s life does provide many insights into the meaning of true love of neighbour and of devotion to God as Father; and certainly Paul calls upon believers to be imitators of him as he is an imitator of Christ. But this emphasis should never be allowed to crowd out those objective dimensions of Christ’s ministry that do not apply to us by way of example. To do so, as Machen so cogently argued, would be in itself an act of incoherence. The primary purpose of Christ’s obedience, rooted in his very constitution as divine-human mediator, was the bringing of many sons and daughters to glory, not the provision of a blueprint for moral behaviour.

I confess therefore at this point to being a little uneasy with the current fashion among some evangelicals of wearing watchstraps etc with the initial `WWJD’ on them, representing the words `What would Jesus do’. I see the point and I am sure that the sentiment is well-meant. I think, however, that a theologically more correct slogan would be `What would Jesus want me to do’. This brings out the fact that Christians are meant to order their behaviour in accordance with the revealed will of God but does not in any way water down the profound difference that exists between Christ and the believer. Jesus is the divine-human mediator; he was conscious of being the Messiah; he had no sense of sin in the way that we have a sense of sin; and his behaviour in certain circumstances was dictated precisely by this unique constitution and office in a way that applies to no other human being. Thus, his role as moral example has to be understood, and to an extent limited, in this light.

Perhaps I go too far here; perhaps these evangelical mnemonics are completely harmless. All I would say is that anything which potentially weakens the distinction between Christ and the rest of humanity -- be it our preaching or our slogans -- has, in the long run, the potential of doing damage to the Christian faith. Machen puts the point nicely when he declares that `The religion of Jesus was a religion of untroubled sonship; Christianity is a religion of the attainment of sonship by the redeeming work of Christ.’»16 That is a crucial difference that should be reflected in t he sermons we preach, the prayers we pray, and the songs we sing.

A second point which Machen makes about Christ and salvation is the uniqueness of Christianity’s claims. Of all of the claims of Christianity to which liberals have objected, that of Christianity’s claim to be the only way to salvation has surely proved most offensive. Indeed, one would have to concede that the Christian who has not at some point struggled with the terrible awesomeness of ths doctrine has probably never thought about it in any depth. It is horrifying to think that Christianity is the only way to salvation; but belief in this point is ultimately a question of biblical authority -- if we take the Bible seriously, then our consciences are bound to the texts it contains, however difficult some of those texts may be to accept. Machen makes it quite clear that Christianity’s uniqueness and the narrowness of its claims were an essential part of its message from the earliest times:

What struck the earliest observers of Christianity most forcibly was not merely that salvation was offered by the means of the Christian gospel, but that all other means were resolutely rejected. The early Christian missionaries demanded an absolutely exclusive devotion to Christ. Such exclusiveness ran directly counter to the prevailing syncretism of the Hellenistic age.»17

Anyone who knows anything about the history of the early church will know how true this statement is; indeed, they will also know that those within the Christian community struggled with precisely the same problem of how the particular events of Jesus’ life could have such universal significance. Nevertheless, whatever the difficulties, the early church established as normative both the universality and the uniqueness of Christianity’s claims. It was really only with the Enlightenment that rejection of these positions came to be regarded as an acceptable position for those who still wished to claim the name of Christian while developing a theology of a distinctly liberal hue.

Machen counters the accusation of narrowness which is alleged by liberals against the Christian position by pointing out that this narrowness is not so much a function of the gospel itself as of the activity of the church:

If, therefore, this way of salvation is not offered to all, it is not the fault of the way of salvation itself, but the fault of those who fail to use the means that God has placed in their hands.»18

This point is both profound and pertinent, and perhaps even more relevant and urgent today than when Machen first wrote it. Indeed, I was struck some years ago at a lecture given by a former missionary who pointed out that, over the last one hundred years or so, the exclusive nature of Christianity’s claims regarding salvation had shifted from being a motive for mission and evangelism to being a problem for theodicy or, in layman’s parlance, the fairness of God. In other words, the fate of the lost was not so much something which drove people to their knees in prayer for missionaries but something which caused believers difficulties when they wondered how a God of love could send people to hell. Put simply, is the narrowness of Christianity a motive for evangelism or a theological problem? As soon as it ceases to be the former and becomes the latter, we lose sight of what the gospel is and dramatically weaken the imperatives of mission and evangelism.

Machen correctly roots the narrowness of Christianity’s claims in the uniqueness of Christ’s person. This uniqueness meant that Christ’s life and works, especially as they culminate in the cross, are unique. After all, Christ is not another man, albeit a superlative example of manhood; he is very God of very God. This divinity, as we noted above, marks him off from all other members of the human race. As a result, the church must beware of anything which serves to water down this fundamental division which exists between Christ and his works and those of other men and women. This error can be made almost unconsciouly as Machen demonstrates by looking at the words of three hymns, `Nearer my God to Thee’, `In the cross of Christ I glory’, and `When I survey the wondrous cross’, pointing out that the first is mere sentimentality where the cross is used to refer not to the cross of Christ, but to the sufferings of Christians. A valid point, Machen says, but one which really fails to come to grips with the uniqueness of Christ’s cross and which is open to dangerous misinterpretation.

In the second, the cross is the cross of Christ; it is celebrated over and gloried in; but it is not explained in any way and remains a somewhat ill-defined symbol. Only in the third, `When I survey’, is the cross expounded in anything approaching its biblical dimensions; and only this cross is capable of doing justice to Christ’s uniqeness and warding off the cheap, unbiblical sentimentality which too often fills the void left by a failure to bring out these gospel truths.»19

Underlying all this error is, for Machen, once again, a faulty view of God rooted in a light view of sin. A light view of sin can only co-exist with the loss of a sense of divine transcendence, and this leads directly to a sentimentalised view of God as love, and only love. Such a view of God has at least two major problems attached to it. First, it really fails to live up to the reality of the world. In a passage of rhetorical power, Machen asks:

How do you know that God is all love and kindness? Surely not through nature, for it is full of horrors. Human suffering may be unpleasant, but it is real, and God must have something to do with it.»20

The God of cheap sentiment, the God of love and nothing else, is simply not a God who matches up to the experience of the world. The death of a small child, the reality of war, famine, disease -- all of these things happen, all must be related to God in some way; and yet what connection can they have with the God of sentimental love? Liberalism thus cheats people of the God of the real world, as Machen goes on to state in his second major point:

Religion cannot be made joyful simply by looking on the bright side of God. For a one-sided God is not a real God, and it is the real God alone who can satisfy the longing of our soul. God is love, but is He only love? God is love, but is love God? Seek joy alone, then, seek joy at any cost, and you will not find it.»21

Machen’s point is simple: sin and evil are realities -- problematic, mysterious, inexplicable, but realities nonetheless; and, as he goes on to say, only the sovereign, transcendent, holy God can face up to these realities and provide us with any answers to these difficulties through the terrible death of his Son upon the cross; indeed, only this God can save. But this God, and this salvation, elicit a joy that is, in Machen’s phrase, `akin to fear’.»22It does not mimic the joy of fleeting human happiness but provides something much deeper and richer for the believer.

The applications of this to the present are obvious. All around the emphasis would seem to be upon happiness and joy. As I mentioned earlier, bookshelves in our Christian bookshops groan under the weight of Christian `How to....’ books; our hymnody rarely speaks of human sin, let alone the depths of human misery that flow as a consequence; and Christian assurance is too often identified with `feeling good’. Underlying all of these things is an understanding of Christianity which fails to come to grips with the unsentimental realities of life in the fallen creation of a holy God. Salvation is first, last and always about repairing the moral rupture between God and humanity which occurred at the Fall, and all our preaching, praying, church policies and outreach must place this concern at the very centre.

How can we tell when such changes are creeping in to our churches? Well, like the dog that didn’t bark in the Sherlock Holmes story, what are often so significant are those questions which are never asked. I give here just one example, that of the emphasis on seeker-sensitive services. Now, please do not misconstrue me here: I am very much in favour of bringing non-Christians to church and of exposing them to the gospel. I am firmly committed to the notion that aggressive evangelism is of the essence of the Christian life, both corporate and individual. But I have noticed over the last few years that discussion of seeker-sensitive services has tended to be driven by the notion of what the `seeker’ will tolerate. I was even told by one person at a church meeting that the church should no longer sing psalms or traditional hymns in its worship because this would `put outsiders off’. The key to evangelism is, apparently, to make the outsider feel `comfortable’.

Now, while it is clear that the church envisaged by Paul in the New Testament is one where the outsider can come in and understand what is going on, nowhere are we told that the outsider should feel `comfortable’. The question that in my experience is never asked in discussions of seeker-sensitivity is crucial: should outsiders feel comfortable when they join a group of saved sinners worshipping a holy and transcendent God? Indeed, we might press the question further: should we as believers feel entirely comfortable in the presence of a holy and transcendent God? Certainly, a brief glance at the prophets or at the admonitions of Paul should indicate that `feeling comfortable’ in church is more likely to be a sign of woeful complacency built on a faulty doctrine of God and sin, than of an effective evangelism policy.

Yes, we should welcome outsiders; we must not allow unfriendliness, bad manners, or downright rudeness to put people off. Yes, we should present the gospel to them in a way that they can understand; good communication skills are certainly to be desired. Yes, we should offer Christ to them as the answer to their problems; but we must make sure that we stress that the major problem, upon which all others depend, whether of loneliness, debt, drugs, or sex, is that of sin against and alienation from God. Christ is first and foremost the answer of a gracious God to humanity’s sin against a holy and transcendent God, not humanity’s problems with self-image or broken marriages. Machen himself sums up the position with clarity at the end of the chapter on salvation:

According to Christian belief, man exists for the sake of God; according to the liberal church, in practice if not in theory, God exists for the sake of man.»23

(IV) The Church

The last section of Machen’s great work deals with the doctrine of the church. Here, I guess, one treads on most controversial ground because denominational allegiances strike deep and what Machen has to say still has the power to cut to the quick some eighty years after it was first written. As time presses on, I will make my comments brief.

First, he argues that much of the weakness of the church derives from the existence in her ministry of men who do not believe the basics of the faith. Men who deny the virgin birth, the reality of the incarnation, the significance of the cross, the historicity of the resurrection, are allowed not just to hold membership of the church but even to occupy her puplits and teaching positions in her seminaries.»24

Second, and as an answer to this problem, Machen indicates that churches are voluntary organisations. The liberal theologian does not have to belong to a voluntary organisation with whose tenets he finds himself at variance, and more than a Democrat has to join the Republican Party.»25 Indeed, the liberal is at perfect liberty to go off and join a liberal denomination or, if such does not exist, to found one himself. Third, unless there is some kind of separation of Christians and liberals at the level of denominations, the preaching of the gospel will be hopelessly compromised.»26

In many ways, this view of the church is the outcome of all that has been said by Machen so far, primarily, of course, his emphasis on the utter antithesis between Christianity and liberalism, whereby the former is not a deviant form of Christianity but actually not Christianity at all. The implications for churchmanship would seem, to me at least, to be obvious.

Three Concluding Questions

I want to draw this lecture to a close by asking three questions which Machen’s book raises and which we as evangelicals need to address at the present time. Underlying them all is my belief that Machen is correct about two basic things: first, that Christianity and liberalism are not two forms of one religion but actually two different religions, opposed to each other at every significant point; and, second, that Christian orthodoxy is not simply about believing the Bible to be inerrant but about a variety of related doctrines including the transcendence and holiness of God, the awfulness of human sin, the uniqueness of Christ and the exclusivity of Christian salvation.

When we see liberalism in these terms, we are perhaps less inclined to start our anti-liberal polemics by pointing the finger at others and more inclined to begin with some earnest and necessary self-examination.

Question One: When you put a pound in the collection plate on a Sunday morning, how much of it goes towards propagating the gospel and how much goes towards opposing the gospel?

I know that there are many arguments that rage about separatism and the validity of remaining in mixed denominations at the moment, and one conclusion to be drawn from Machen’s argument is that liberals, if they are honest, should leave evangelical denominations as an honest socialist should leave the Conservative Party. But history shows that this rarely happens: most liberals do not have the integrity to act on their convictions and often end up in the driving seat of denominations, of prebyteries, of mission boards etc, with evangelicals happy to act as back-room boys or to function as independents.

But I believe that this bottom-line question has to be asked by all evangelicals in these mixed bodies: does any part of the pound I put in the collection box on a Sunday go towards the propagation of liberalism, a religion which has nothing to do with Christianity proper and which serves only to undermine the church? To paraphrase a sentence in Machen, if half of our hard-earned givings are being used to neutralise the good work funded by the other half, is not our giving to the organisation or denomination concerned turned into an act of absurdity? You may disagree, but I firmly believe that the question of denominational church commitment is, at the end of the day, really that simple.

Question Two: Do the words of the songs we sing, the language of the prayers we pray, and the content of the preaching from the pulpit we support uphold the non-negotiable truths of divine transcendence, human sinfulness, the uniqueness of Christ, and the exclusivity of Christian salvation?

For Machen, liberalism is at heart an attempt to sentimentalise God and thereby to trivialise human sin, water down the uniqueness of Christ and dissolve the exclusivity of Christian salvation. We need to be very careful here, because we may well uphold the authority of the Bible, but if we do not do so in concert with maintaining these other doctrines, we too have become liberals, we too have become purveyors of another gospel. Let us therefore think very carefully about what our hymns, prayers and sermons say.

As I said earlier, with regard to songs of praise, my own preference is very much for psalms, and becomes more so as the years go by, because only there it seems to me does on find an awesome and overwhelming sight of God combined with the whole range of human emotions. Where else can one find words that speak so eloquently in praise of the depths of human sorrow and despair? Where else are the great saving deeds of God recounted with such power to the praise of his glory? Where else does one get such profound insights into the very psychology of Christ? Nevertheless, whatever songs you choose to sing in your church, make sure they do justice to the God of the Bible and do not substitute him with some lesser God of human imagining.»27

As for sermons, if you are a preacher, then preach the gospel of a transcendent God who saved men and women through the terrible and awesome sacrifice of his own Son on the cross. Leave jokes, politics, and suggestions for slimming to the comedians, politicians and daytime TV personalities -- they probably do these things much better than you anyway. Concentrate on the glory of God’s grace displayed in his Son, because that is what your job description, as a minister of the gospel, requires. And don’t worry if it’s not trendy. Being a bank manager is not trendy, but people still have to go to banks for help with their finances; being a car mechanic is not trendy, but people still need to go to garage to get an MOT certificate; and people will still need someone to tell them plainly how to get right with God. You owe it to them not to clown about in church but to bring home the message of Christ in crystal-clear and uncompromising terms.

As for prayers, follow the pattern laid out by the example of prayers in the Bible. Become preocuupied with God’s glory and God’s gospel. Don’t let your needs and worries become the centre of attention. God’s power, God’s transcendence, God’s ineffable grace and mercy -- let these be your obsessions, let these be the centre of your prayer life, both privately and, if you lead prayer in church, corporately as well. And when called upon to pray in public, lead the people in prayer; set them an example; show them what the biblical priorities are. As the doctrine of God is that upon which all sound theology hangs, so it is that upon which all God honouring prayer depends too.

Question Three: Do we listen for the significant silences from our pulpits, our church organisations, and even our own hearts?

What is the dog that doesn’t bark in your church? I am increasingly convinced that the measure of a theologian or preacher or church is to be found not so much in what is said as in what isn’t said. Often, of course, the word that is never said is `No’. Indeed, after `Sorry’ this surely has to be a contender for the least-used word in the English language. Let me ask you, where do you draw the line on doctrine, on behaviour, on what is said in your church’s pulpit? Under what conditions would you use the `N’ word? Are you prepared to take the flak, unpopularity, perhaps lack of career advancement that comes in its wake? Where are the men and women in your church who are prepared to stand up and say `No’ when a member of your congregation proposes a scheme for the church which is well-meant but ultimately hare-brained and unbiblical?

In another article, Machen memorably described the Apostle Paul as `the man who could say “No”’. And `No’ is precisely what Machen says in this little book, and what he said to the board of Princeton Seminary, and what he said to his denomination. It earned him, humanly speaking, nothing but scorn, derision and an early grave; but it is my belief that he went to heaven as one who, in Christ, had worked with all his might for the preservation of the gospel. The church in Britain urgently needs such men and women today who know when it is necessary to say firmly but politely `No’. For only when boundaries are drawn does it become clear what the church stands for and what the gospel itself is.

Further, let me ask preacher: what are the books of the Bible on which you never preach? What are the themes you never address in your sermons? Why do these gaps exist? Do they tell us something about what you do -- or don’t -- believe, or how you do-- or don’t-- behave? And, perhaps more important, do they leave your congregation’s mind empty on a key issue? Remember, the emptiest minds are the most easily filled; and if, for evil to prosper, it needs only good men to do nothing, one might also say that, for liberalism to grow, it needs only good preachers to be silent on certain issues. So, before we start hitting at other ministries for being liberal, let us take a good, hard look at ourselves to discern where it is that we are most vulnerable to liberalism’s seductive but corrosive temptations.

Next, let me ask the church members here today a similar question: what are the books of the Bible you never read? The areas of your life you never mention in prayer to bring under the lordship of Christ? Are these `silences’ significant? One of the great advantages to using a reading scheme which takes you through the Bible in a year is that you cannot censor your Bible reading, consciously or unconsciously, and are thus exposed to the whole counsel of God. I thus commend such schemes to you as highly desirable weapons in the battle against that private liberalism to which we are all prone. We need to meditate upon the whole of scripture, not simply those bits which fit in with our own ideas about what God should be like. That is the road to sentimental, therapeutic liberalism.

Finally, when we look for ministers to fill our pulpits, do you as church members listen for preaching that exalts God and Christ, and do you ask the hard questions when the vacancy committee comes before the church? It is not enough that a man be affable, approachable, full of rich tea and sympathy with the old folk, fluent in street-talk for the young folk, always there for the lonely, the singles, the marrieds the families etc. Much of this kind of thing should not be the minister’s responsibility anyway. He’s not a social worker, after all, but a preacher of the good news.

The big questions are: does he have a view of God as transcendent, of man as sinful, of Christ as the only way? Does he in his public prayer and his preaching inculcate such a vision of God’s holiness, glory and grace that believers, sinful as they are, feel a little uncomfortable -- not to mention any unbelievers who might be present? If the answer to this question is yes, then great, he’s your man. If the answer is no, then, however `user friendly’ he might appear, he will be no use in helping to keep the church truly Christian; he is more likely to foster precisely the sort of atmosphere in which liberalism can prosper.

I hope that all this is not discouraging. Many even within the evangelical fold have read Machen’s book as a depressing statement of the perennial problems of the church. On one level it certainly is so, for it reminds us that the battle with liberalism is always with us; and, by defining liberalism as he does, Machen also implicitly shows us how even we Christians, as sinful human beings, have a tendency toward liberalism through our downplaying of both the transcendence of God and the seriousness of human sin. If there is one sad lesson we should take away from the book it is that we must continually fight liberalism within our own soul and within our own churches with all our heart and soul and mind for this battle is nothing less than one particular outworking of our love for God in Christ. And, make no mistake, this battle will last as long as sin itself.

On another level, however, Machen’s book is gloriously positive. It contains passage after passage which express the glory of God and his gospel in a wonderful and moving manner; it lays out so clearly how far man has fallen and how much God has done for him; and it reminds us again and again that God, not man, thank goodness, is the centre and goal of creation. I end, however, with the closing words of another of Machen’s works, the essay on Paul as `A Man who could say “No”’great little book, words which speak eloquently and positively of the need of his, our, and every hour before Christ’s return:

We know not in detail what will take place when the great revival comes, the great revival for which we long, when the Spirit of God will sweep over the church like a mighty flood. But one thing we do know -- when that great day comes, the present feeble aversion to `controversy,’ the present cowardly unwillingness to take sides in the age-long issue between faith and unbelief in the Church -- will at once be swept aside. There is not a trace of such an attitude in God’s holy Word. That attitude is just Satan’s way of trying to deceive the people of God; peace and indifferentist church-unionism and aversion to controversy, as they are found in the modern Church, are just the fine garments that cover the enemy, unbelief.

May God send us men who are not deceived, men who will respond to the forces of unbelief and compromise now so largely dominant in the visible Church with a brave and unqualified `No’! Paul was such a man in his day. He said `No’ in the very first word of this Epistle [to the Galatians], after the bare name and the title of the author; and that word gives the key to the whole Epistle that follows. The Epistle to the Galatian is a polemic, a fighting Epistle from beginning to end. What a fire it kindled at the time of the Reformation! May it kindle another fire in our day -- not a fire that will destroy any fine or noble or Christian thing, but a fire of Christian love in hearts grown cold. »28

Amen. So let it be.

See these further links for more on Liberal Theology:

A brief response to liberal theology - J Gresham Machen

The full text of Machen's famous book against liberal theology

The rise of liberal theology - M James Sawyer


  1. The two best biographical studies of Machen are the personal memoir of his Westminster Colleague, Ned B Stonehouse, J Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1954) and the more scholarly analysis of D G Hart, Defending the Faith: J Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Prostestantism in Modern America (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995). A bibliography of Machen’s writings can be found in Charles G Dennison and Richard C Gamble, Pressing Towards the Mark: Essays Commemorating the Fifty Years of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (Philadelphia: OPC, 1986).
  2. Quoted in Stonehouse, p. 107.
  3. `In seeming to object to all theology, the liberal preacher is often merely objecting to one system of theology in the interests of another.’ Christianity and Liberalism, p. 19.
  4. `But if any one fact is clear, on the basis of this evidence, it is that the Christian movement at its inception was not just a way of life in the modern sense, but a way of life founded upon a message. It was based, not upon mere feeling, not upon a mere program of work, but upon an account of facts. In other words, it was based upon doctrine.’ Christianity and Liberalism, p. 21.
  5. Christianity and Liberalism, p. 23.
  6. Christianity and Liberalism, p. 44.
  7. Christianity and Liberalism, p. 44.
  8. Christianity and Liberalism, p. 50.
  9. Christianity and Liberalism, pp. 62-63.
  10. Christianity and Liberalism, p. 61.
  11. Christianity and Liberalism, p. 64.
  12. Christianity and Liberalism, p. 96.
  13. Christianity and Liberalism, p. 96.
  14. Christianity and Liberalism, p. 85.
  15. Christianity and Liberalism, pp. 94-95.
  16. Christianity and Liberalism, p. 92.
  17. Christianity and Liberalism, p. 123.
  18. Christianity and Liberalism, p. 124.
  19. Christianity and Liberalism, pp.126-29.
  20. Christianity and Liberalism, p. 133.
  21. Christianity and Liberalism, p. 134.
  22. Christianity and Liberalism, p. 135.
  23. Christianity and Liberalism, p. 154.
  24. Christianity and Liberalism, pp. 159-60.
  25. Christianity and Liberalism, pp. 169-70.
  26. Christianity and Liberalism, p.170.
  27. My argument here is essentially one regarding the content of worship, not themusical form, and it is not my intention at this point to contribute to the `worship wars’ that rage so furiously in evangelicalism at the moment. These conflicts seem too often to conflate issues of content and form. I do believe there is a relationship between content and form but that it is actually more complicated than either side in the debate often seem willing to allow.
  28. Historic Christianity: Selections from the Writings of J Gresham Machen, edited by Stanley A Mansfield, Carey C Olson, and John H Skilton (Philadelphia: Westminster Discount Books, 1997), p. 31. The closing words of Christianity and Liberalism (p. 180) are also moving, as they speak of the haven that is the church and the hope that lies for her in the future: `Is there no refuge from strife? Is there no place of refreshing where a man can prepare for the battle of life? Is there no place where two or three can gather in Jesus’ name, to forget for the moment all those things that divide nation from nation and race from race, to forget human pride, to forget the passions of war, to forget the puzzling problems of industrial strife, and to unite in overflowing gratitude at the foot of the Cross? If there be such a place, then that is the house of God and that the gate of heaven. And from under the threshold of that house will go forth a river that will revive th weary world.

Prof Carl TruemanAbout the Author

Prof. Carl Trueman is Associate Professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. This article is an expanded version of his Evangelical Library (West) Annual Lecture (2001).