Theological liberalism presents not merely a sub-Christian view of salvation but a different conception of it entirely, which depends on and elevates humanity rather than God. Machen sharply contrasts the liberal view of salvation, Christ as example, with Christ as vicarious sufferer in the mode of legal penal substitution. Far from being an arcane and “subtle” theory, substitutionary atonement “is itself so simple that a child can understand it. ‘We deserved eternal death, but the Lord Jesus, because He loved us, died instead of us on the cross’” This is the gospel.
Understanding salvation requires a picture of the world, its purpose, and ultimately its Creator, Savior, and Judge. For this reason, J. Gresham Machen discusses salvation only after the other foundational doctrines in Christianity and Liberalism. In the first chapters he established the divergence between the Christian faith and modern theological liberalism regarding God, humanity, the Bible, and Christ. Machen then turns to the gospel, the way of salvation, in order to demonstrate their opposing concepts of humanity’s plight and reconciliation. He presents a theocentric vision of salvation that proclaims sin in its fullness and centers the cross of Jesus as the Triune God’s act in history to bring gracious redemption. The Christian faith and theological liberalism diverge on the need of salvation, the basis of salvation, the means of securing salvation, and the new reality brought about by the saving activity. Most fundamentally, “Liberalism finds salvation (so far as it is willing to speak at all of “salvation”) in man; Christianity finds it in an act of God.” Machen will show us how orthodoxy Christianity and theological liberalism present difference accounts of atonement, sin, the character of God, and the instrument of salvation.
The parting of ways on salvation secures Machen’s thesis that, in fact and by honest assessment, Christianity and theological liberalism are different religions: “Despite the liberal use of traditional phraseology modern liberalism not only is a different religion from Christianity but belongs in a totally different class of religions.” Each religious tradition presents some sort of problem-solution schema of the world. Something has gone terribly wrong; human existence is not as it is supposed to be. Theological liberalism presents not merely a sub-Christian view of salvation but a different conception of it entirely, which depends on and elevates humanity rather than God. Machen sharply contrasts the liberal view of salvation, Christ as example, with Christ as vicarious sufferer in the mode of legal penal substitution. Far from being an arcane and “subtle” theory, substitutionary atonement “is itself so simple that a child can understand it. ‘We deserved eternal death, but the Lord Jesus, because He loved us, died instead of us on the cross’” This is the gospel.
Different Accounts of Atonement and Sin
Machen presents the modern liberal atonement theories in contradistinction from the Reformation view. Fundamentally, liberal theologians posit a subjective effect of the death of Christ on the human being rather than and objective accomplishment that alters the relation of the sinner to God. Broadly conceived, the liberal views of the atonement addressed by Machen fall under the category of moral influence theories or exemplarism. “The essence of it is that the death of Christ had an effect not upon God but only upon man.” Machen delineates three varieties of these modern theories of Christ’s death, each of which attribute an exclusively revelatory effect to the cross of Christ.
- The cross reveals the ultimate “example of self-sacrifice of us to emulate”
- The cross reveals God’s hatred of sin therefore motivating us to do so as well
- The cross reveals God’s love for us.
Machen acknowledges that each of these points have some basis in biblical truth, but they do not address the underlying plight of the human person before the Holy God nor account for human inability because of sin. Such atonement theories portray the problem between God and humanity as one of knowledge rather than iniquity.
The heart of the division between Christianity and theological liberalism regarding atonement is different ideas of sin. As Machen explains in his chapter on Christ,
Without the conviction of sin there can be no appreciation of the uniqueness of Jesus; it is only when we contrast our sinfulness with His holiness that we appreciate the gulf which separates Him from the rest of the children of men. And without the conviction of sin there can be no understanding of the occasion for the supernatural act of God; without the conviction of sin, the good news of redemption seems to be an idle tale.
Early-twentieth century liberalism, across the whole spectrum, maintained the idea of fundamental human goodness and inevitable progress through human will and action. Sin was recast in a utilitarian form as that which adversely effects human flourishing, with the Godward direction of sin minimized or rejected. For this reason, the traditional Protestant concepts of guilt, justification, and Christ’s substitutionary death were overturned. As Machen notes, “[Theological liberals] err in that they ignore the dreadful reality of guilt, and make a mere persuasion of the human will all that is needed for salvation.” Under the liberal schema, humanity’s problem was ignorance and not condemnation; therefore, the solution of the cross was reimagined.
On the various subjective atonement theories presented by liberal theologians, the revelatory aspects of the cross float in the air, lacking grounding in history or theological truth.
But they [the revelatory aspects of the cross] are swallowed up in a far greater truth—that Christ died instead of us to present us faultless before the throne of God. Without that central truth, all the rest is devoid of real meaning: an example of self-sacrifice is useless to those who are under both the guilt and thralldom of sin; the knowledge of God’s hatred of sin can in itself bring only despair; an exhibition of the love of God is a mere display unless there was some underlying reason for the sacrifice.
In rejecting these views, Machen has Harry Emerson Fosdick’s controversial sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” firmly in sight. He quotes Fosdick’s repudiation of penal substitution as an example of this point: “They speak with disgust of those who believe ‘that the blood of our Lord, shed in a substitutionary death, placates an alienated Deity and makes possible welcome for the returning sinner.’” Fosdick, however, is not the only, or even the main, target of Machen’s criticism but a leading example of what he sees as the theological drift of the Church from the faith of the Bible.
Different Accounts of the Character of God
Machen addresses two specific critiques of Christ’s death as a vicarious sacrifice: (1) how can one suffer for another and (2) what does this communicate about the character of God. Regarding the first, he writes, “modern liberalism has still more specific objections to the Christian doctrine of the cross. How can one person, it is asked, suffer for the sins of another? The thing, we are told, is absurd. Guilt, it is said, is personal; if I allow another man to suffer for my fault, my guilt is not thereby one whit diminished.” But, Machen maintains, the death of Christ is not like this. Christ’s death was unique because his person is unique, as the God-man. “It is perfectly true that the Christ of modern naturalistic reconstruction never could have suffered for the sins of others; but it is very different in the case of the Lord of Glory.”