Addiction, the Gospel, and Self-Esteem: How Modernism Fails Us
The gospel doesn’t intuitively make sense in our culture anymore. And it’s due to the fact that we have lost two basic assumptions about how the world works. As a whole, Western culture has lost an understanding of both the nature of God and nature of man. Machen warned against the dangers of losing these two basic presuppositions. These two doctrines, according to Machen, are the “two great presuppositions of the gospel” (47).
First of all, God. If God is just a feeling, God is not God. If God is just a “higher power” with no definition, then God is not God. We see this all too often in the modern concept of “spirituality” without any real theology. Liberalism, Machen says, is “pantheizing” (55). Everything is God, and nothing is God. This vague, fuzzy concept of God lacks any power to convict or comfort.
Second, modernism lacks a proper concept of the nature of man. This goes hand in hand with the lack of sound theology. In Christianity, God is holy, just, and transcendent, and man is sinful and fallen. Therefore, there is a “gulf” between God and man (54). However, in liberalism, God is just a vague concept- a kind “father” of all men. And humanity is not sinful but inherently good. “At the root of the modern liberal movement is the loss of the consciousness of sin” (55). So there is no gulf between God and man, and the gospel loses its redemptive power.
I see this loss very clearly in my field of study — social work. Christian and non-Christian theorists wrestle with the same human brokenness, but from totally different starting points. Is man born sinful, bent on sin from the womb ? Or is he born good, and bent out of shape by his environment? If man is sinful, he needs repentance and a savior. But if man is inherently good, he needs only better programs, better self-esteem, better medications.
For example, in the field of addictions, sin is not even a part of the equation. Rather, addiction is described as “a chronically relapsing brain disease, which affects the brain’s reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry” (Australian Psychological Society). Although this may be part of the story, it is not the whole story. I have personally seen the emptiness of this narrative as I sat in addiction groups during field experience and heard women wrestling with the guilt and shame of their choices. Shallow encouragements to improve their self-esteem was pretty much all that could be offered them.
On the other hand, as Machen so eloquently writes, “In Christianity… nothing needs to be covered up. The fact of sin is faced squarely once for all, and is dealt with by the grace of God. But then, after sin has been removed by the grace of God, the Christian can proceed to develop joyously every faculty that God has given him. Such is the higher Christian humanism- a humanism founded not upon human pride but upon divine grace” (57).
As Machen pointed out 100 years ago, a correct doctrine of God and of man is vital to a true understanding of the Gospel. The consciousness of sin is not a failure of self-esteem. It is the kindness of God to lead us to repentance.
Australian Psychological Society. “Apply what you know: Treating alcohol and drug problems.” InPsych, 2017. www.psychology.org.au/for-members/publications/inpsych/2017/oct/Apply-what-you-know-Treating-alcohol-and-drug-pro
Machen, J. Gresham. Christianity and Liberalism. 1923. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2009.