In Chapter 7 of the book Christianity and Liberalism, by J. Gresham Machen, the author sets out to defend the Christian doctrine of salvation against liberalism.
Up until this point in the book, Machen has been pointing out what liberalism has gotten wrong: doctrine, God, man, the Bible, and Christ himself. But, some may say, what does it matter? Liberalism offers something present, something is not so tied to history, not so narrow, as traditional Christianity. Why does it matter if it’s wrong on these points — even if they are important points?
The core reason that liberalism must be rejected is that it does not offer a true salvation. It offers only a false hope of redemption based on modern sentiment — a “moralistic therapeutic deism” (Smith and Denton).
In reality, if you look carefully at liberalism’s understanding of God, man, the Bible, and Christ, it follows logically that the liberal view of salvation is unorthodox. Liberalism sees God as the kindhearted father of all mankind. Mankind is viewed with “supreme confidence in his human goodness” (55). Thus, there is a gradual lessening of the chasm between God and man (55). The authority of the Bible is exchanged for the authority of “Christian experience” (66). And Christ becomes merely a great man — an “example for faith” but not the “object of faith” (72). For the liberal, “the Gospel story of the Incarnation… is… a symbol of a general truth that man at his best is one with God” (54).
If God is not so great, and we are not so bad, then the Bible can be just a general moral guide, and Christ can be just our good example. And maybe we can achieve heaven, if there is such a thing, by trying to be nice and by being close to God in our hearts.
Liberals reject orthodox Christianity and accept this vague idea of salvation based on several objections. First, they object to orthodox Christianity’s reliance on history (102). Second, they object to the narrow exclusiveness of Christianity (103). Third, they object to the possibility of substitutionary death and atonement (106).
Machen clearly answers each of these objections and the real question remains: does this liberal “salvation” work? If orthodox Christianity is right, then liberalism must be wrong. It is not the same religion. If we believe the Bible at all, we must believe that “man is not merely ill, but he is dead, in trespasses and sins, and what is really needed is a new life” (117).
True salvation means regeneration and a restoration to what was lost — our relationship with God. Any really honest person will at some time or another come face to face with their sinfulness. He can ignore it and hope for the best, work to feel better himself, or look outside of himself for an answer. But whatever a man believes about God, he will one day stand before Him. Will his “Christian experience” be enough on that day? Or will he need a mediator, an Advocate, a Messiah? Will he need just “ethics” or will he need justification through an atoning sacrifice?
Orthodox Christianity teaches that man is totally sinful, and God is completely holy, and without the life and death and resurrection of Christ, there can be no fellowship between the two. Christian salvation is rooted in an act of God; liberal redemption is rooted in our own work (99). This is the great danger of liberalism. The salvation it offers it no salvation at all.
Machen, J. Gresham. Christianity and Liberalism. 1923. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2009.
Smith, Christian, and Melinda Lundquist Denton. Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. Oxford University Press, 2011.