Near Christianity

Liberalism took the Church captive to modern thought.

The Church Captive (8)

From that time Jesus began to preach and to say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” 
Matthew 4.17

“The gospel which Jesus proclaimed in Galilee consisted in the proclamation of a coming Kingdom. But clearly Jesus regarded the coming of the Kingdom as an event, or as a series of events. No doubt He also regarded the Kingdom as a present reality in the souls of men; no doubt He represented the Kingdom in one sense as already present. We shall not really succeed in getting along without this aspect of the matter in our interpretation of Jesus’ words.”

  - J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism[1]

Which Gospel?
It didn’t appear to trouble anyone, when I called it to the attention of the creators of my Gospel harmony Bible app, that they had omitted Matthew 4.17. It just wasn’t there. The defining text for the ministry of Jesus, simply left out, as if the Gospel of the Kingdom didn’t matter, as long as the Gospel remained. The creators haven’t fixed the app to this day, and it’s been several years since I contacted them. They’re captive to a version of the Gospel that can do without the Kingdom. It’s just too much trouble, I guess, to make it right.

And that’s pretty much where liberal churches were in the early years of the 20thcentury. Oh, they preached about good works, social reform, and a better world for all. But they left off the Gospel of the Kingdom and the Good News that lost sinners could be saved. They just didn’t consider it necessary for their agenda. They pointed to Jesus as an example we all should follow (think: Charles Sheldon’s In His Steps), but they omitted His work as Savior and King.

J. Gresham Machen confronted the rise of liberalism in his own denomination, The Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. He believed that essential truths about the Christian faith were being overlooked, redefined, or, worse, denied by his fellow pastors: “From the beginning, the Christian gospel, as indeed the name ‘gospel’ or ‘good news’ implies, consisted in an account of something that had happened. And from the beginning, the meaning of the happening was set forth; and when the meaning of the happening was set forth then there was Christian doctrine. ‘Christ died’ – that is history; ‘Christ died for our sins’ – that is doctrine. Without these two elements, joined in an absolutely indissoluble union, there is no Christianity.”

In an effort to keep the Gospel pure, at least on the field of foreign missions, Dr. Machen created an independent missions board, organized around historic evangelical and Reformed beliefs. For his efforts, his denomination suspended him from the ministry.

Losing sight of the past
In Christianity and Liberalism, J. Gresham Machen confronted the widespread liberalism of his day, arguing that liberal churches and theologians were captive to a form of Christianity that, while attractive in many ways, was not true Christianity at all. Rather it was a form of what we might call near Christianity, using language familiar to followers of Christ, but leaving the Gospel of the Kingdom behind. Instead of holding fast to historic Christian faith, liberals sought to rewrite it in terms more agreeable to the temper of the times: “When it is once admitted that a body of facts lies at the basis of the Christian religion, the efforts which past generations have made toward the classification of the facts will have to be treated with respect. In no branch of science would there be any real advance if every generation started fresh with no dependence upon what past generations have achieved. Yet in theology, vituperation of the past seems to be thought essential to progress.”

Liberal pastors and theologians were picking-and-choosing among Christian truths to support their social and increasingly political agenda. They conflated Christianity with secularism, rather than confronting the latter by the former:“When a man takes his seat upon the witness stand, it makes little difference what the cut of his coat is, or whether his sentences are nicely turned. The important thing is that he tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. If we are to be truly Christians, then, it does make a vast difference what our teachings are, and it is by no means aside from the point to sit for the teachings of Christianity in contrast with the teaching of the chief modern rival of Christianity.”

Liberals had little use for the idea of sin, except as an inevitable condition common to all, which, they thought, ought to be tolerated. Machen reminded his readers that “According to the Bible, man is a sinner under the just condemnation of God; according to modern liberalism, there is really no such thing as sin. At the very root of the modern liberal movement is the loss of the consciousness of sin.”

Liberalism could not expect to realize its heaven-on-earth agenda so long as liberals chose not to make an issue of sin. By allowing people to think they were good enough, or at least, not as bad as they might be, they undermined both their agenda and the orthodox proclamation of the faith: “The fundamental fault of the modern Church is that she is busily engaged in an absolutely impossible task – she is busily engaged in calling the righteous to repentance. Modern preachers are trying to bring men into the Church without requiring them to relinquish their pride; they are trying to help men avoid the conviction of sin…Even our Lord did not call the righteous to repentance, and probably we shall be no more successful than He.” Instead of bringing people into the liberal churches, liberal preaching drove them away like a fast-receding tide.

Captive to emotions
Liberalism, as Dr. Machen saw it, pandered to the emotions of people, and tried to build on their sense of decency and rightness, an agenda for social reform that would bring justice and equality to the world. This focus on emotions rather than sound doctrine betrayed historic Christian faith: “Christianity is founded upon the Bible. It bases upon the Bible both its thinking and its life. Liberalism on the other hand is founded upon the shifting emotions of sinful men.”

The problem with most liberal pastors and theologians, at least those familiar to Dr. Machen, was that they had many great ideas, and knew how to engage people’s emotions, but they didn’t know Jesus, and therefore had no zeal for Him or His Kingdom: “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 relationship to Jesus. Jesus for him is an example of faith, not the object of faith.”

No wonder people became bored with liberalism: “The truth is, the God of modern preaching, though He may perhaps be very good, is rather uninteresting. Nothing is so insipid as indiscriminate good humor. Is that really love that costs so little? If God will necessarily forgive, no matter what we do, why trouble ourselves about Him at all? Such a God may deliver us from the fear of hell. But His heaven, if He has any, is full of sin.”

Dr. Machen insisted that “the Christian life is not a life of idleness, but a battle.” It meant dying to self, taking up one’s cross, preparing for sacrifice and suffering, and not merely asking “What would Jesus do?” and hoping for the best. The Kingdom of Jesus demands all of life, every moment, every situation, every relationship, role and responsibility: “…the evangelical Christian is not true to his profession if he leaves his Christianity behind him on Monday morning. On the contrary, the whole of life, including business and all of social relations, must be made obedient to the law of love. The Christian man certainly should display no lack of interest in ‘applied Christianity.’”

The near Christianity of 20thcentury liberalism undermined the Scriptures by focusing on what people wanted; denied the Kingdom of heaven by preaching social reform on earth; coddled people in their sins and thus locked them out of God’s redemption; and made the churches which taught this drivel into relics of faith and betrayers of their heritage.

Are we captive to a form of near Christianity in our day? Do we pick and choose what we think people will want to hear, rather than call them, as God Himself does, to the Kingdom and glory of God, a life of cross-bearing and sanctification, and a mission of realizing the Kingdom of heaven on earth in our day? 

The people are perishing under the ministrations of those who ‘do not deny’ the Cross of Christ. Surely something more than that is needed. God send us ministers who, instead of merely avoiding denial of the Cross shall be on fire with the Cross, whose whole life shall be one burning sacrifice of gratitude to the blessed Saviour who loved them and gave Himself for them!

  - J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism

T. M. Moore

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Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, quotes from Church fathers are from The Ancient Christian Commentary Series (InterVarsity Press).


[1]All quotations from J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism(Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1923, 1974).

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in Essex Junction, VT. 

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