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RCT5: Christianity & Liberalism

Reading Classics
Today we come to another of our readings in Gresham Machen’s classic work Christianity & Liberalism. By this point Machen has already noted 3 points of difference between liberalism and Christianity: their message, their view of God and man, and their understanding of the Bible. With differences of this magnitude, it is not at all surprising that they differ drastically in the message they teach. But before he can consider the message, Machen needs to consider the Person upon whom the message is based. And that leads us to this chapter which is titled simply “Christ.”

He begins with Paul, showing the way Paul regarded Jesus. He “clearly stood always toward Jesus in a truly religious relationship. Jesus was not for Paul merely an example for faith; He was primarily the object of faith. The religion of Paul did not consist in having faith in God like the faith which Jesus had in God; it consisted rather in having faith in Jesus.” Jesus was not just a great example to be followed. “The plain fact is that imitation of Jesus, important though it was for Paul, was swallowed up by something far more important still. Not the example of Jesus, but the redeeming work of Jesus, was the primary thing for Paul.” 

This is true of his contemporaries as well; many others regarded Jesus as the object of faith. “Evidently in making Jesus the object of religious faith—the thing that was the heart and soul of Paul’s religion—Paul was in no disagreement with those who had been apostles before him.” The facts can only be denied with real ignorance. “The whole of early Christian history is a hopeless riddle unless the Jerusalem Church, as well as Paul, made Jesus the object of religious faith. Primitive Christianity certainly did not consist in the mere imitation of Jesus.”

Was this kind of faith in Jesus justified by what Jesus himself taught? Absolutely; Machen has already made it clear that Jesus presented himself as Savior. Machen also makes the interesting point that Jesus did not invite confidence by minimizing his work. “He did not say: ‘Trust me to give you acceptance with God, because acceptance with God is not difficult; God does not regard sin so seriously after all.’ On the contrary Jesus presented the wrath of God in a more awful way than it was afterwards presented by His disciples.” It was this supposedly mild-mannered Jesus who spoke of the horror of outer darkness and everlasting fire. What Jesus taught about God can rightly bring us to despair rather than hope. Trust and hope come only when following God’s way of salvation through Jesus.

The truth is, the witness of the New Testament, with regard to Jesus as the object of faith, is an absolutely unitary witness. The thing is rooted far too deep in the records of primitive Christianity ever to be removed by any critical process. The Jesus spoken of in the New Testament was no mere teacher of righteousness, no mere pioneer in a new type of religious life, but One who was regarded, and regarded Himself, as the Savior whom men could trust.

But by modern liberalism He is regarded in a totally different way. Christians stand in a religious relation to Jesus; liberals do not stand in a religious relation to Jesus—what difference could be more profound than that? 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.

According to modern liberalism, in other words, Jesus was the Founder of Christianity because He was the first Christian, and Christianity consists in maintenance of the religious life which Jesus instituted.

Machen now asks, “Are we able or ought we as Christians to enter in every respect into the experience of Jesus and make Him in every respect our example?” Difficulties arise in answering this question and Machen points to a couple of them.

  • The Messianic consciousness of Jesus. How can we imitate Jesus in being the heavenly Son of Man who was to be the final Judge of all the earth.
  • The attitude of Jesus toward sin. Jesus had a complete absence of a sense of sin.

He goes on to ask, “Why then did the early Christians call themselves disciples of Jesus, why did they connect themselves with His name? The answer is not difficult. They connected themselves with His name not because He was their example in their ridding themselves of sin, but because their method of ridding themselves of sin was by means of Him. It was what Jesus did for them, and not primarily the example of His own life, which made them Christians.”

At the end of it all, Jesus is indeed an example to us; the best example. But this can only be the Jesus of the New Testament, not the Jesus of liberalism. “The example of Jesus is a perfect example only if He was justified in what He offered to men. And He offered, not primarily guidance, but salvation; He presented Himself as the object of men’s faith. That offer is rejected by modern liberalism, but it is accepted by Christian men.”

This is getting long, so I think I’ll stop at this point and allow others to fill out the other details. There is certainly a lot to chew on in this chapter.

Next Week

For next week please read chapter 6, “Salvation.”

Your Turn

The purpose of this program is to read these books together. So if you have something to say, whether a comment or criticism or question, feel free to use the comment section for that purpose.

Note: If you are mentioning Reading Classics Together on Twitter, we’ve got the hashtag #rctmachen set aside for that purpose.