This is the sixth installment in our seven-part series based on J. Gresham Machen’s seminal work, Christianity and Liberalism (1923). In the book, still relevant almost a century later, Machen contrasts the modernist theological liberalism of his day with biblical Christianity. In this post we see how theological liberalism and Christianity have completely different hopes for salvation.
J. Gresham Machen shows us that liberalism’s view of salvation is human-centered, while Christianity is God-centered. Liberalism thinks that human nature inherently has the resources for our own salvation, but Christianity teaches that the resources for salvation only come from God’s supernatural act of redemption through the atonement of Jesus.
Belief in the substitutionary atoning work of Jesus on the cross in the place of sinners is criticized by modern naturalistic liberalism. Instead, the death of Christ is seen as an example of self-sacrifice, as a picture of God’s hatred of sin, or as a display of God’s love, but not as the propitiatory substitution of Jesus in our place, for our sins. Aside from viewing substitutionary atonement with disgust, liberalism criticizes salvation by the cross of Christ because it is dependent upon history, makes for a “narrow” and “exclusive” religion, and seems to challenge the character of a God of love.
All sin at bottom is a sin against God. (p. 130)
Machen answers liberalism’s objections in several ways. First, Christianity is dependent upon history because the good news of the gospel is rooted in the historic event of the death and resurrection of Christ, not mysticism. The good news of the gospel announces that this event has ushered in a new age for the world, and that God has redeemed sinners. Second, Christian salvation has always been centered on devotion to Jesus Christ as the only way of salvation.
Third, Christian salvation is consistent with the attributes of God. Jesus’ love and the Father’s wrath do not separate the triune God. The Father and Jesus are both angry at sin: the Father is a consuming fire (Deut. 4:24), and Jesus grabs a whip to rid his temple of corrupt moneychangers (Matt. 21:12–13). Machen shows the falsehood of the common caricature of the angry Father taking it out on the innocent Son, because it is God himself who pays the penalty he requires: “God himself in the person of the Son who assumed our nature and died for us, God himself in the person of the Father who spared not his own Son but offered him up for us all” (p. 132).
Fourth, the New Testament says that Jesus died not merely as a martyr, but as the divine Son of God who is able to bear the sins of others and who willingly chose to die for us (John 10:18).
The New Testament does not end with the death of Christ; it does not end with the triumphant words of Jesus on the Cross, “It is finished.” The death was followed by the resurrection, and the resurrection like the death was for our sakes. Jesus rose from the dead into a new life of glory and power, and into that life he brings those for whom he died. (p. 114)
Redemption is applied to us through the creative act of God by the Holy Spirit in the new birth. This is necessary because humans are not innately good (as liberalism assumes), but dead in sins, in need of regeneration and God’s life-giving grace. People must have faith, but faith itself is a gift to be received from God, not a work to be done by us (Eph. 2:8). Instead of liberating humanity, in reality liberalism denies the freedom it promises, which is only found in the liberating grace of God.
Much More than a Means
Liberalism offers a social salvation that believes religion is a means to some greater goal, like more socially conscious institutions and healthier communities. Biblical Christianity is not less, but much more than that. It does not withdraw from the world, but seeks the welfare of the world. Most importantly, it seeks the welfare of the world by calling people to repent of their sin and accept the reconciling work of God in the death of Jesus for them.
Christianity will indeed accomplish many useful things in this world, but if it is accepted in order to accomplish those useful things it is not Christianity. (p. 152)
The message of Christianity is not primarily about religious virtues, but the message that God has acted in history on behalf of sinful humanity to reconcile us to God. This reconciliation then brings freedom to live a life of love toward God and others. God does not exist primarily for our sake; we exist for the sake of God. Salvation is not found in a way of life, but through faith in the act of God in Jesus Christ.
In the next and final post, we’ll see how Machen shows that Christianity and liberalism have incompatible visions for the church.