It has been called “the second most important book you will ever read.” Whatever rank of importance it may command, there is no doubt that Christianity and Liberalism is a book conservative Christians must read repeatedly. “The purpose of this book,” Machen begins, “is not to decide the religious issue of the present day, but merely to present the issue as sharply and clearly as possible.” Sharp and clear. Such is a good description of the book. A sharp and clear knowledge of the great chasm between genuine Christianity and the impostor called liberalism is a crying need for all believers, and especially for all who would be ministers of the gospel. Machen answers that need.
Originally published in 1923, Machen wrote this book in the midst of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy. As he says, “In the sphere of religion, in particular, the present time is a time of conflict; the great redemptive religion which has always been known as Christianity is battling against a totally diverse type of religious belief, which is only the more destructive of the Christian faith because it makes use of traditional Christian terminology.” As these two rival religions collided within churches and denominations in America, Machen rose to the challenge and drew the line boldly between Christianity and liberalism. In this book, he walks the reader through the importance of doctrine and the distinctive Christian doctrines of God and man, the Bible, Christ, Salvation, and the Church. In so doing, he leads us to true Christianity “in order that men may be led to turn from the weak and beggarly elements and have recourse again to the grace of God.”
Although Christianity and Liberalism focuses heavily upon doctrine, it is also a book that has important things to say about religious affections. As this website never ceases to argue, right doctrine ultimately cannot be divorced from right loves. When the younger Machen did advanced theological study in Germany, he was nearly taken in by the passion of Wilhelm Herrmann, a leading liberal German theologian remembered today as the teacher of both Rudolph Bultmann and Karl Barth. But Machen came to see that the romanticized god of love held up by liberal theology was not the God of the Bible.
When we hear phrases today like “Christianity is not a religion but a relationship with Jesus,” we are hearing warmed-over liberalism which Machen rejected. Evangelical feel-good fests abound, and the number of evangelical ministries which unite around fuzzy love for Jesus is beyond counting. Machen reminds us that this kind of love is not only inadequate; it is dangerous. Without sharp and clear doctrine, love for Jesus may actually become a different kind of love altogether than the love to which Jesus calls us. Consider, for example, this stirring excerpt from the chapter on salvation.
Religion cannot be made joyful simply by looking on the bright side of God. For a one-sided God is not a real God, and it is the real God alone who can satisfy the longing of our soul. God is love, but is he only love? God is love, but is love God? Seek joy alone, then, seek joy at any cost, and you will not find it….
“God’s own Son delivered up for us all, freedom from the world, sought by philosophers of all the ages, offered now freely to every simple soul, things hidden from the wise and prudent revealed unto babes, the long striving over, the impossible accomplished, sin conquered by mysterious grace, communion at length with the holy God, our Father which art in heaven! Surely this and this alone is joy. But it is a joy that is akin to fear. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. Were we not safer with a God of our own devising – love and only love, a Father and nothing else, one before whom we could stand in our own merit without fear? He who will may be satisfied with such a God. But we, God help us – sinful as we are, we would see Jehovah. Despairing, hoping, trembling, half-doubting and half-believing, trusting all to Jesus, we venture into the presence of the very God. And in His presence we live.
Is this not what we long for – true joy in knowing the true God?
So, read Machen. His sharp and clear expression of the truth will not only fortify your doctrinal convictions and protect you from deviations in the name of “love,” it will also challenge you to worship in spirit and truth. When God’s people do that, then, as Machen says, “that is the house of God and that the gate of heaven. And from under the threshold of that house will go forth a river that will revive the weary world.”