Machen on the Necessity of Christian Doctrine: An Application of Christianity and Liberalism Chapter 2 (Part 2)

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Having examined J. Gresham Machen’s arguments in chapter two of Christianity and Liberalism, we now turn to reflect on the implications this seminal work has for our own time. While the old modernism is considered dead today, its effects remain. This matter of doctrinal indifferentism in particular has come to characterize much of professed Christianity, even evangelical Christianity. Popular contemporary Christian songs as well as preaching passionately plead that “just Jesus,” or perhaps “the cross,” is all that is important, not doctrines and not our interpretations.[1] The rhetoric has a certain attraction, and it conveys the happy sentiment that our fellowship is, after all, in the Lord Jesus Christ. But the plea is muddle-headed, for as soon as we ask, “Who is Jesus?” or “Why does he matter?” or “Why is the cross important?” we are into Christian doctrine—the very thing said to be unnecessary. Apart from doctrine and clear biblical interpretation, both Jesus and his cross have lost meaning.

1. While somewhat dated, Paul Jacobs’ analysis of the top twenty Christian songs in 2011 revealed a trend that has continued. When describing these songs, he writes: “Noticeably absent from the lyrics is the name ‘Jesus.’ Of the twenty songs examined, only five of them actually use the name of Jesus as a lyric. Some of the songs speak of ‘Savior’ and ‘God’ but largely the songs represent a ‘Jesus Free’ zone . . . The resurrection of Christ is noticeably absent from each of these songs.” See Paul Jacobs, “Sing Unto The Lord A New Song: An Examination of the Theological Orthodoxy and Biblical Content of the Top 20 Contemporary Christian Songs of 2011” (Evangelical Theological Society, Milwaukee, 2012), 3–4.

Often this indifference to doctrine is just laziness, an aversion to thinking. But the problem goes deeper than ignorance and muddled thinking. The consequences of doctrinal indifference are severe, and much is lost. 

Christian Essentials

The fundamental claim of Christianity is that it is a revelation from God. God has revealed himself and his saving purpose, and this revelation is written for us in Scripture. This revelation—this message—is true, and it is every Christian’s responsibility to propagate this truth to others. This “gospel” is to make its way throughout the entire world not by the sword but by word and witness, both spoken and written. Christianity has, first and foremost, a message to be proclaimed, and God’s kingdom makes its saving advance to the nations by this message. 

Machen sums up his argument in chapter two in these terms exactly. He cites the words of the risen Jesus, who said just before his ascension, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). This commission of Jesus to his followers shapes the character of Christianity as founded on a message. “Christianity is based, then, upon an account of something that happened, and the Christian worker is primarily a witness.” From the beginning Christianity has been “a campaign of witnessing,”[2] and the first Christians understood themselves as entrusted with a message. The book of Acts records for us the first stages of this witnessing campaign, and the New Testament epistles are given to the same purpose—the proclamation and exposition of this message.

2. J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, New ed (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 44.

The Christian obligation to “contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) reflects this conviction perhaps more pointedly, even polemically. The Lord Jesus is God’s supreme self-revelation (John 1:1; Heb. 1:1–3; cf. Matt. 17:5; John 7:16; 14:24), and he entrusted this revelation to his apostles (John 14:24–26; 16:12–15; 17:4–8) who by his Spirit received “all truth” (John 16:13; cf. 15:26–27). The word of the apostles is the message from Christ that the world must receive and believe (John 17:8, 18, 20). The apostles, in turn, claim that their message from the Lord Jesus (e.g., 1 Cor. 14:37; 2 Thess. 2:15; 3:6; 1 Pet. 1:12; cf. Eph. 2:20) has been entrusted to the church “once for all” to be proclaimed, preserved, and defended at all costs (cf. 1 Tim. 3:15; 6:20; 2 Tim. 2:2; Jude 3). In short, Christianity is characterized as essentially a doctrinal religion. And its ministers are therefore commanded to devote themselves “to teaching” (1 Tim. 4:13), to “keep a close watch on . . . the teaching” (1 Tim. 4:16), and to give diligence to “rightly handle the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15).  

So Christianity is grounded in divine revelation. It is characterized by the claim of truth, and its primary assignment is to make this truth known to the world. To ignore or minimize doctrine, then, would be to evacuate Christianity of its very essence and purpose. Or we might say, it would be to abandon Christianity outright. 

Gospels True and False

Indeed, we must take a further step and say that this Christian message, the gospel, has a certain defined content that is intolerant of all rivals. As we have seen, the apostle Paul pronounces a curse on all who contradict it (Gal. 1:8–9). The apostle Peter insists also that there is no other way to be saved (Acts 4:12). The claim to follow Jesus will not suffice if Jesus is understood in terms other than those defined by his apostles. All contrary notions constitute “another Jesus” and “a different gospel” (2 Cor. 11:4). All this assumes doctrine, carefully defined teaching. Vague notions of Christian-esque sentiments will not do either. The gospel as articulated by Jesus’s chosen spokesmen, the apostles, is the message we are given. To the degree that we ignore it, Christianity itself has slipped from our grasp. 

Machen, like Warfield before him, frankly acknowledges that not all doctrines are of equal weight. All are important and organically part of God’s revelation in Christ entrusted to the church. But those that bear immediately to Christianity’s central message are by definition of more significance and, therefore, all the more important for preservation, proclamation, and defense. Machen notes that in comparison, Reformed Christianity has more in common with Roman Catholicism than with Protestant liberalism. Certainly, our doctrinal difference with Roman Catholicism are enormous, particularly with regard to the church and the way of salvation. But our differences with this other religion, liberalism, are far greater, for it denies virtually all Christian essentials. Still, acknowledging such relative distinctions only highlights the Christian necessity of doctrinal clarity. 

Doctrine and Life

The distribution of material in the New Testament epistles demonstrates a distinct relationship established between Christian teaching and Christian living. Both Warfield and Machen are careful to note that in Paul’s letters doctrinal instruction typically comes first and then exhortation. But the relationship between the two is not just that one happens to come first; the point is that the one is grounded on the other. Romans 12:1–2 is the classic example: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (italics added). Paul’s “therefore” is characteristic of his exhortations, pointing back to the doctrine previously expounded (here in Romans chapters 1–11). His teaching is intended to ground and shape life. 

Machen brings this to particular clarity, even if only briefly, with this observation: 

Here is found the most fundamental difference between liberalism and Christianity—liberalism is altogether in the imperative mood, which Christianity begins with a triumphant indicative; liberalism appeals to man’s will, while Christianity announces, first, a gracious act of God.[3]

3. J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, New ed (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 39.

This is massively important both for Machen’s argument and for Christian living itself. On the one hand Machen’s observation does indeed demonstrate that liberalism is not Christianity of any recognizable kind. It is the early church heresy Pelagianism revived—a message of self-effort. Christianity first and foremost has good news to announce, not a behavioral demand. This difference between liberalism and Christianity is a fundamental one. The one says, “Do!” The other says, “Done . . . so go do!”

On the other hand, Machen’s observation has important implications for Christian living, reflecting a major emphasis in the New Testament. The apostle Paul in particular draws out the contrast between the ineffectiveness of the old covenant and the effectiveness of the new covenant. The old covenant made its demands, but it offered no provision for compliance with those demands. Here he echoes the prophet Jeremiah’s announcement of the new covenant in Jeremiah 31:31–34. Because of the sinfulness of the human heart the old covenant could not bring about the righteousness it commanded, so God promised a new covenant that would provide both obedience from the heart and forgiveness for sin. What the law could not accomplish, God has accomplished in us through Christ. Led by his Spirit we have a new freedom from sin and a new enablement in overcoming it (Rom. 8:1–15). God’s commands under the new covenant are matched with gracious provision. There is enablement. We are called to obey because we can. This provision of grace is what informed Augustine’s famous prayer, “command what you will, and give what you command.” 

Everywhere in the New Testament this message—this doctrine—of freedom from sin and divine enablement to obedience informs and undergirds the call to godly living. Liberalism’s indifference to doctrine, therefore, undercuts its purported interest in the Christian way of life. 

Concluding Thoughts

Christianity in its inception was a doctrinal religion. So far from indifference to propositional teachings, this was its leading feature. The first Christians understood themselves as entrusted with a message, the proclamation and exposition of which defined their very reason for being. That message consisted of truth claims that must be embraced for salvation and that enliven the believing heart to a new kind of living. Jesus Christ crucified and risen is its central message, and in its many entailments this message provides what is necessary for life to the glory of God. Indifference to doctrine, therefore, is indifference both to Christianity itself and to the life it commends and commands.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Author

  • Fred G. Zaspel

    Fred G. Zaspel (Ph.D., Free University of Amsterdam) is one of the pastors of Reformed Baptist Church in Franconia, PA. He is also executive editor of Books At a Glance and an adjunct professor of theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of several books and articles, including The Theology of B.B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary, and the forthcoming How to Read and Understand the Psalms, co-authored with Bruce Waltke.

Fred G. Zaspel

Fred G. Zaspel

Fred G. Zaspel (Ph.D., Free University of Amsterdam) is one of the pastors of Reformed Baptist Church in Franconia, PA. He is also executive editor of Books At a Glance and an adjunct professor of theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of several books and articles, including The Theology of B.B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary, and the forthcoming How to Read and Understand the Psalms, co-authored with Bruce Waltke.