In 1923, during the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy that would reshape American evangelicalism, J. Gresham Machen wrote Christianity and Liberalism. It served two purposes.
First, it set out—clearly, exhaustively, and yet winsomely—how the liberal religion that had infiltrated American seminaries, churches, and denominations in the preceding decades was in fact a different faith altogether from orthodox Christianity. Liberal religion is not simply a different take on Christianity with different emphases. No, it is something else, another religion with different answers to the big questions—on things such as God, man, Christ, the Bible, and salvation—than Christianity has always taught.
Second, Christianity and Liberalism was a plea for honesty. Machen perceived that his ideological opponents wanted to have their cake and eat it too—they wanted the name of Christianity without being saddled with what they saw as its embarassingly outdated and barbaric ideas. Toward that end, they claimed to be the true Christians, those who held to the kernel of faith (often defined simply as love for one’s neighbor or as the universal fatherhood of God and the universal brotherhood of man) while discarding the husk of others’ experience that had accumulated over the centuries.
And yet, as Machen demonstrated, what they called Christianity bore little resemblance to what had always been called Christianity. Machen would have preferred that they simply be honest. They could believe whatever they want, but they should come up with a new name for it rather than redefining Christianity as it had always been understood.
Machen wrote at a time when the landscape of American Christianity was changing rapidly. We might imagine that it was a time that was very different from ours. But the challenges then are much like the challenges we face today: the culture points to facets of our faith, denounces them as outdated or unloving, and demands that we renounce them. The theological liberals of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries did just that in the hopes of gaining the approval of the culture. Today the danger is less that churches will negotiate fundamentals of the faith such as penal substitutionary atonement or the virgin birth. The issues now are frequently more cultural, and the temptation is to soft-pedal our beliefs for fear of causing offense and losing our hearing with the culture or with our neighbors.
But Machen’s call for honesty does not apply only to others; it applies to us as well. Nothing is gained—either for our neighbors or for the effectiveness of our witness—when we hold back on what we believe. As followers of the God who loves truth and who is truth, we must be honest. Here are three things that can be helpful to remember in this regard.
the sovereignty of god
Failing to be honest about what we believe often comes from a desire to control the outcome of an encounter. But that is not in our power. It is, however, in God’s power, and He will direct the encounter as He sees fit according to His good purposes. Our part is to be faithful to Him. We cannot control someone’s reaction to what we say, but we can control what we say and how we say it. Let us strive to be faithful in our proclamation of what the Bible teaches, and let us do so winsomely, with love for our neighbor; not obnoxiously, lest the offense come from our presentation rather than from the teaching itself.
the advantage of a confession
A robust confession of faith states plainly and publicly what we believe. As a faithful summary of what the Bible teaches, a confession gives believers something to study and to use in encounters with questioners.
A confession also helps believers indicate that their statements are not simply their own but issue from a long and distinguished church tradition. It helps them say, “This is simply what the Bible teaches and what the church confesses.”
A confession gives weight to encounters with questioners and bolsters believers’ honesty. Confessional churches cannot hide behind platitudes or a bare-bones statement of faith on a website. Their beliefs are out in the open for all the world to see and to criticize. Having a confession helps churches and Christians be honest with the world.
the power of conviction
Many people today lack strong convictions. They are blown this way and that by the demands of the culture. We ought not to be like that. We are grounded in the unshakable, unchanging Word of God. We need not fear the culture.
When we show that we are not afraid, when we refuse to be cowed by the sinful demands of the culture, we demonstrate powerfully the worth of what we stand for and what we stand on. Standing on the solid rock of orthodox biblical teaching, in a world of shifting sand, is a compelling witness to the truth of what we proclaim.
Let us declare what we believe to all who ask and to all who will hear. Let us declare the whole counsel of God, and let us do so “from the heart, sincerely, freely, clearly, and fully” (Westminster Larger Catechism 144), without fear, and with a clear conscience. When we do so, we show our trust in the Lord who has saved us and who promises that His Word will not return to Him empty (Isa. 55:11).