Theological liberalism (as J. Gresham Machen described it so well) is anything that seeks to tame Christianity and use it for its own purposes.
It can take the form of the social gospel, where Jesus becomes little more than a means to relieving poverty and oppression, things that are certainly good, but Christless and gospel-less when you remove the cross and the necessity of conversion.
It can take the form of the prosperity gospel, where God is simply a means for the realization of my health and wealth — a cosmic vending machine if you will; a genie to grant me my selfish desires.
It can take the form of so much of what goes on in mainline evangelicalism, where sermons are no more than pop psychology lessons cast in Christianese, where Christianity is “Life in the Suburbs 2.0,” here to make your life a little bit more comfortable and functional.
And it can take the form of the Religious Right, where particular political ideologies and agendas get baptized as Christian, where appeals to faith are shallow attempts to mobilize Christians as political allies, and where scripture gets abused (think “people of God” texts for [insert United States here]) are used for one’s own end and as ammunition in a misguided expression of culture war.
On the other hand is a theological conservatism: Jesus does not exist for my purposes; I exist for his.
As contemporary Christian continues its debate over homosexuality and (so-called) same sex marriage, my mind keeps drifting back to one of my favorite books of all time, Christianity and Liberalism (originally published in 1923) by J. Gresham Machen, one of my favorite authors of all time. (See my review of this book here.) This ‘Christian’ position in support of same-sex marriage as Christian is merely one manifestation of an ever present liberalism to which Machen’s words are as relevant as the day he originally wrote them.
If you haven’t yet read this book, please do yourself a favor and do so immediately. But in the meantime, allow me to share with you some snippets that I think exemplify this current relevance.
On standing for and proclaiming the truth.
The type of religion which … shrinks from “controversial” matters, will never stand amid the shocks of life. In the sphere of religion, as in other spheres, the things which men are agreed are apt to be the things that are least worth holding; the really important things are the things about which men will fight. (1-2)
The things that are sometimes thought to be hardest to defend are also the things that are most worth defending. (8)
Ephesians 2:8 states that one is saved by grace through faith. Now, this is a relatively well known verse. And the concept of salvation by means of faith in Christ and His saving work alone is also relatively well known, at least among evangelicalism.
Maybe your familiar with this truth. I hope you are. But have you ever thought to yourself, “why faith? Why is it that faith saves as opposed to something else like good deeds, joy, sorrow, gladness, or a sense of surreal peace?” Obviously it was God who determined faith to be the means of man’s salvation; it’s not as if this was some external law or obligation that was imposed on Him. So, why faith? Why is God’s plan of saving people by His grace through faith. Why does He count those with faith as righteous (Rom 4:3; cf. Gen 15:6)?
J. Gresham Machen, at this point in my life, is probably my favorite author. Last year around this time I read his book Christianity and Liberalism. It was great. The purpose of his book was to identify liberalism (Liberal Christianity) and Christianity (Christianity that holds to the historic Christian doctrines) as two distinct religions. At one point in the book he states,
Admitting that scientific objections may arise against the particularities of the Christian religion . . . the liberal theologian seeks to rescue certain of the general principles of religion, of which these particularities are thought to be mere temporary symbols, and these general principles he regards as constituting “the essence of Christianity.” . . . As a matter of fact . . . what the liberal theologian has retained after abandoning to the enemy one Christian doctrine after another is not Christianity at all, but a religion so entirely different as to belong in a distinct category.