Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism reads like a memo from the early 20th century to to present-day church. Case in point – Chapter 3′s extensive section on the loss of the consciousness of sin in preaching:

Modern liberalism has lost all sense of the gulf that separates the creature from the Creator; its doctrine of man follows naturally from its doctrine of God. But it is not only the creature limitations of mankind which are denied. Even more important is another difference. According to the Bible, man is a sinner under the just condemnation of God; according to modern liberalism, there is really no such thing as sin. At the very root of the modern liberal movement is the loss of the consciousness of sin.

The consciousness of sin was formerly the starting-point of all preaching; but today it is gone. Characteristic of the modern age, above all else, is a supreme confidence in human goodness; the religious literature of the day is redolent of that confidence. Get beneath the rough exterior of men, we are told, and we shall discover enough self-sacrifice to found upon it the hope of society; the world’s evil, it is said, can be overcome with the world’s good; no help is needed from outside the world.

What has produced this satisfaction with human goodness? What has become of the consciousness of sin? The consciousness of sin has certainly been lost. But what has removed it from the hearts of men?

Christianity and Liberalism by J. Gresham Machen

Christianity and Liberalism by J. Gresham Machen

…the loss of the consciousness of sin… has its roots in a mighty spiritual process which has been active during the past seventy-five years. Like other great movements, that process has come silently ? so silently that its results have been achieved before the plain man was even aware of what was taking place. Nevertheless, despite all superficial continuity, a remarkable change has come about within the last seventy-five years. The change is nothing less than the substitution of paganism for Christianity as the dominant view of life. Seventy-five years ago, Western civilization, despite inconsistencies, was still predominantly Christian; today it is predominantly pagan.

In speaking of “paganism,” we are not using a term of reproach. Ancient Greece was pagan, but it was glorious, and the modern world has not even begun to equal its achievements. What, then, is paganism? The answer is not really difficult. Paganism is that view of life which finds the highest goal of human existence in the healthy and harmonious and joyous development of existing human faculties. Very different is the Christian ideal. Paganism is optimistic with regard to unaided human nature’ whereas Christianity is the religion of the broken heart.

In saying that Christianity is the religion of the broken heart, we do not mean that Christianity ends with the broken heart; we do not mean that the characteristic Christian attitude is a continual beating on the breast or a continual crying of “Woe is me.” Nothing could be further from the fact. On the contrary, Christianity means that sin is faced once for all, and then is cast, by the grace of God, forever into the depths of the sea. The trouble with the paganism of ancient Greece, as with the paganism of modern times, was not in the superstructure, which was glorious, but in the foundation, which was rotten. There was always something to be covered up; the enthusiasm of the architect was maintained only by ignoring the disturbing fact of sin. In Christianity, on the other hand, nothing needs to be covered up. The fact of sin is faced squarely once for all, and is dealt with by the grace of God. But then, after sin has been removed by the grace of God, the Christian can proceed to develop joyously every faculty that God has given him. Such is the higher Christian humanism: a humanism founded not upon human pride but upon divine grace…

…The fundamental fault of the modern Church is that she is busily engaged in an absolutely impossible task: she is busily engaged in calling the righteous to repentance. Modern preachers are trying to bring men into the Church without requiring them to relinquish their pride; they are trying to help men avoid the conviction of sin. The preacher gets up into the pulpit, opens the Bible, and addresses the congregation somewhat as follows: “You people are very good,” he says; “you respond to every appeal that looks toward the welfare of the community. Now we have in the Bible – especially in the life of Jesus – something so good that we believe it is good enough even for you good people.” Such is modern preaching. It is heard every Sunday in thousands of pulpits. But it is entirely futile. Even our Lord did not call the righteous to repentance, and probably we shall be no more successful than He.

I couldn’t help but be reminded of Rob Bell’s recent “tour” titled The Gods Aren’t Angry while I was reading this.  The point of Bell’s tour, as I understand it, is that the message of scripture isn’t so much one of a just God who punishes sinners, but of a compassionate God who is different from the ancient wrathful pagan gods of antiquity.  This is all of a piece with the continual trend exhibited in the emergent movement (and in modern theology in general) that deemphasizes sin and the wrath of God while emphasizing the grace and love of God.  The problem with doing that, of course, is that it’s a fraud.  Telling people that God loves them without calling them to repentance for their sins and to accept the substitutionary atonement of Jesus for their salvation is to condemn them; and yet, the church today by and large deemphasizes sin because people prefer to believe that they’re basically good.

Machen addressed this problem nearly a century ago; sadly, his admonition is as necessary to the church today as it was then.

Christianity and Liberalism

On February 24, 2010, in Reformed Theology, Theology, by marc
J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937)

J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937)

Via Reformation 21, I just discovered that one of the books on my reading list is available as a free pdf download (and there’s audio too, if you prefer) at ReformedAudio.org!  Christianity and Liberalism was J. Gresham Machen’s response to the growing theological liberalism within the Presbyterian Church in America in his time. In the book, Machen demonstrates that theological liberalism is not just a version of Christianity, but is actually a wholly different religion that denies the central claims of the Christian faith.  From the introduction:

The purpose of this book is not to decide the religious issue of the present day, but merely to present the issue as sharply and clearly as possible, in order that the reader may be aided in deciding it for himself. Presenting an issue sharply is indeed by no means a popular business at the present time; there are many who prefer to fight their intellectual battles in what Dr. Francis L. Patton has aptly called a “condition of low visibility.”1 Clear-cut definition of terms in religious matters, bold facing of the logical implications of religious views, is by many persons regarded as an impious proceeding. May it not discourage contribution to mission boards? May it not hinder the progress of consolidation, and produce a poor showing in columns of Church statistics? But with such persons we cannot possibly bring ourselves to agree. Light may seem at times to be an impertinent intruder, but it is always beneficial in the end.

More like this in today’s reformed churches, please.