To modify the core message of the gospel in order to receive what we think of as a proper hearing will lead to unfaithfulness. There are temptations within the evangelical church to compromise at the same places where theological liberalism was found defective: the doctrine of sin, character of God, and the accomplishment of the cross. The theocentric vision of salvation cannot be substituted for a human-centered mode of self-help or moralistic pursuit.
From Machen’s intervention in this now century-old controversy (see Part 1), twenty-first century American Christians should heed his warning and avoid temptations of minimizing or modifying the concept of salvation. We should reject adjusting the atonement, sin, and our view of God to meet the tastes or fads of the day, but rather have a clear-eyed focus on sin and the cross as the core of the gospel. Likewise, the dangers of sentimentality, now in therapeutic form, must be avoided and replaced with clear theological speech. Machen’s proper ordering of the doctrine of salvation and ethics should be imitated without giving into quietism or utilitarian applications of Christian doctrine. While theological liberalism is certainly not dead and gone, few are enticed to adopt it wholesale; the more persistent danger is the unwary or unwise taking steps down the path liberalism tread ignorant of its inexorable downgrade towards unfaithfulness. In this article, I will offer a few entailments of Machen’s warning for the contemporary church.
The beginning of the road to theological liberalism came with the attempt to accommodate the concepts of Scripture to modern values. What we have received in the Word of God is meant to be the guide to faithful life under Christ and by the Spirit for all ages. “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). To modify the core message of the gospel in order to receive what we think of as a proper hearing will lead to unfaithfulness. There are temptations within the evangelical church to compromise at the same places where theological liberalism was found defective: the doctrine of sin, character of God, and the accomplishment of the cross. The theocentric vision of salvation cannot be substituted for a human-centered mode of self-help or moralistic pursuit.
See Sin Rightly
As with the failure of theological liberalism, the problems of the Church in late modernity begin with a distorted view of sin, which has been detached from the holiness of God. Sin, and therefore the forgiveness of sin, has increasingly been expressed in the therapeutic register. Carl Trueman has expressed the prevailing environment as “the cultures of psychological man: the only moral criterion that can be applied to behavior is whether it conduces to the feeling of well-being in the individuals concerned. Ethics, therefore, becomes a function of feeling.” On this view, sin is that which makes me or others feel bad. This therapeutic faith can be traced partially to the liberal preaching that Machen challenged in the 1920s. As a historian of the social gospel has noted, “In many ways, Fosdick epitomized a broader movement toward exploring the psychological implications of religious faith, a movement that helped to spawn the wider development of therapeutic religious models in the aftermath of World War II.” Such modifications can be observed in the contemporary Church through the popularity of pop psychologists like Brené Browne and her emphasis on shame, Jordan Peterson’s Jungian-tinged emphasis on personal responsibility, or the broader shift to speak of “brokenness” to the exclusion of guilt. These trends have a truth to them, but also error.
For instance, God does address our shame, and sin does cause brokenness. However, failure to see sin in a fundamentally theocentric frame, as Machen does, papers over its severity and cost. Sin rejects God, despoils our nature, and corrupts us entirely. Sin is the antithesis of all that is good, right, and true. Sin deserves death. Sin is not limited to the “really bad stuff,” but all thoughts, words, deeds, and inclinations of the human heart against the perfect divine will. One grasps the goodness of the gospel only after the terrible verdict against sin. “The account of that work is the ‘gospel,’ the ‘good news.’ It never could have been predicted, for sin deserves naught but eternal death. But God triumphed over sin through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Accounting for the multifaceted nature of sin is necessary and a helpful way of communicating the word of God to our culture, but we must not fail to speak of its fundamental revolt against the Holy God. Preaching about sin must account for the whole life and bring all our collective and individual violations of the divine will to light. No room ought to be granted to “respectable sins” either of the culture or the Church.