Good Ethics Don’t Make A Christian: Machen On Doctrine

This is the second 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. He argues that liberalism is actually a completely separate religion from Christianity, and shows how the two differed on doctrine, God and humanity, the Bible, Jesus, salvation, and the church.

Today’s post covers Chapter 2, which contrasts Christianity and liberalism on doctrine.

A central tenet of modern naturalistic liberalism, according to Machen, is the diminishment of doctrine and the exaltation of experience, with its core maxim being, “Christianity is a life, not a doctrine.” Liberals believed that creeds should be seen as varied statements of Christian experiences throughout history, not precise doctrinal formulations of historical and factual content.


In Christianity and Liberalism, Machen argues against this and shows that Christianity is established on the historical events of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Before Christianity becomes life, it is the news of a historical event. It was founded upon doctrine, which is essentially the explanation of historical events. Machen writes, “‘Christ died’—that is history; ‘Christ died for our sins’—that is doctrine. Without those two elements, joined in an absolutely indissoluble union, there is no Christianity.” The Christian life is derived from the Christian message; not the other way around.

There are doctrines of modern liberalism, just as tenaciously and intolerantly upheld as any doctrines that find a place in the historic creeds. (Machen, Christianity and Liberalism)

Jesus was committed to doctrine, as were his earliest disciples. What set the first Christians ablaze was not a commitment to being like Jesus, but a commitment to what God had done in redeeming sinners by the resurrection of Jesus.


Machen shows how the Apostle Paul was a chief example of the primacy of doctrine in Christianity. Paul tolerated preachers who taught the right doctrine in the wrong way with evil motives (Phil. 1:12–18), but was intolerant toward preachers who taught false doctrine that opposed the gospel (Gal. 1:6–9).

But, liberalism asks, what about Jesus? Shouldn’t we just get back to the person of Jesus? Machen explains that, yes, we should get back to Jesus, but that in getting back to the person of Jesus one finds him committed to a historical event that culminates in his person and work—the coming of God’s kingdom.

Jesus did not come primarily to teach religious principles and moralistic ethics, but to make all things new and to inaugurate the kingdom of God. Authentic Christianity, as opposed to Christian liberalism, returns to Jesus not first to revere his wonderful way of life, but in order to connect sinners with the living Christ through the message of Jesus’ death and resurrection.


Imitating Jesus makes for good ethics, but it does not make someone a Christian. What makes a Christian is faith in the fact of who Jesus is and what he did. There is no such thing as non-doctrinal Christianity.

Christianity is based, then, upon an account of something that happened, and the Christian worker is primarily a witness. (p. 44)

Doctrine is important to the church because the church itself is founded upon what happened in history. From its very inception the church has been a witness to the event of Jesus’ death and resurrection (Acts 1:8). The early Christians were not first witnesses to what God had done in them as individuals, but witnesses to what God had done in Jesus for the world.


While modern naturalistic liberalism minimizes doctrine, Christianity centralizes itself on the factual message composed of historical and doctrinal content. Christians are witnesses to the truth of the gospel before they are witnesses to their experiences resulting from the gospel. The most practical thing you can do as a Christian is proclaim the redemptive event of Jesus’ death and resurrection for sinners.

Machen summarizes the fundamental difference between Christianity and liberalism like this: “Liberalism is altogether in the imperative mood, while Christianity begins with a triumphant indicative; liberalism appeals to man’s will, while Christianity announces, first, a gracious act of God.”

Next up, we’ll see how theological liberalism has a different view of God and humanity from that of Christianity in the third post in the series.

Can’t wait? Read the book for free online or listen to it as a free audiobook