The Liberal View of Justification
(This is the second part of John Gerstner’s Primer on Justification. In this article he discusses the liberal view of justification)
Works → Justification – Faith
Liberalism believes justification is earned by works. The liberal believes that by acting virtuously while abstaining from sin, he may make himself acceptable to God, that is, be justified or be considered by God a just or righteous person. For him, justification means being made just by his own efforts. His is a do-it-yourself religion. Its golden text is, ‘‘Do this and thou shalt live.” The liberal believes that he can earn his own salvation by his own efforts. The gospel or good news for a liberal is the discovery of his own potentialities, and he is perfectly confident that he can make it on his own without any help from anybody, including God. He does not need Jesus Christ as a Savior. He needs no Savior because he is quite able to cope, thank you. He may or may not think that you are okay, but he has no doubt that you may be okay and that he is okay. Give him the light and he will find his own way. This is the gospel of self-esteem.
The diagram pictures that works (good deeds) bring justification minus faith. I had better explain the ‘‘minus’’ or the liberal view will be misunderstood. The liberal, who thinks he can save himself by his own endeavors, is not opposed to faith, in every sense of that word. He has faith that good food, for example, will nourish his body; that honesty pays in business; that if he posts a letter it is likely to reach its destination. He also has faith that everything will come out all right in the end, and that all’s well that ends well. It is strange in a sense, therefore, and unfair on the surface of it, to represent him as minus or hostile to faith. As a matter of fact, he is a practitioner of faith in many, many areas. His greatest faith, of course, is in himself and in his fellow man, whom he considers quite able to meet the demands of an all-holy and perfect God. Some of us would call this kind of faith “presumption’’; but, in his own opinion, it is a well-grounded belief in his own ability. So, in a sense, he is far from being without faith. He is almost “plus” faith with a vengeance.
But the liberal is minus or devoid of faith in the sense that he does not trust in the redemption of Jesus Christ for his salvation. He does not have faith in the shed blood of the Redeemer. He does not trust for his salvation in what someone else has done on his behalf. He does not need that kind of help, he thinks, and will not call upon it. In fact, he is insulted by such an offer. He feels that faith is a crutch for the people who cannot get along without it. As a healthy, upright, moral being, he does not need such a crutch as the work of Jesus Christ.
Christ speaks to the liberal when He says, “I did not come to call the righteous to repentance, but sinners.” The liberal virtually says, “You can say that again. That is perfectly true, I can achieve righteousness on my own. In fact, I have. I don’t need to repent of my sins and trust in salvation from any other source.’’ Liberals in the Gospels were the Pharisees, who trusted in themselves for righteousness. The modern liberal does the same; consequently, far from accepting the death of Christ as the basis of his salvation, he puts Christ to death for insulting him with the offer of salvation.
In that sense, “minus” faith is something of an understatement. If I gave the impression that the liberal was minus any kind of faith, it would be unfair to him who trusts in many other areas. But in the sense of the redemption offered by Jesus Christ, the liberal’s minus faith is too fair to him. Far more than lacking in faith, he is positively hostile to it. He takes mortal offense at the suggestion that he needs it. It is precisely because he has faith in himself that he will not have faith in Christ and is insulted by the merest hint that he needs it. So the presence of faith of his kind is what makes him minus, or violently opposed to, faith in the biblical and saving sense.
Liberalism, as I am using the word here, refers to persons who trust in themselves, and who, because they do, feel no need for special salvation. Consequently, they oppose the very claim of Christianity to be a revealed religion. The liberals, in the sense in which I’m using the word, deny the miraculous—the miraculous birth of Christ; the miraculous activities of Christ; the miraculous resurrection of Christ; the miraculous ascension of Christ; the miraculous intercession of Christ—and, of course, they do not expect the miraculous return of Christ in the clouds of glory. J. Gresham Machen, in his classic volume, Christianity and Liberalism, which even the liberals admit is a masterpiece, noted that liberalism is another religion, not Christianity. Liberalism and Christianity are not to be confused. They are in direct opposition to one another. Everything that Christianity maintains, such as the fall of man, the sin of man, and the necessity of redemption by grace and justification by faith, is repudiated by liberalism, making it, therefore, another religion altogether. It is indeed salvation by good views rather than by good news (the gospel). One of these religions is based on a high view of man’s own character; the other is based on a confidence that man is a sinner who can be saved only by grace. These are two diametrically opposed ways of salvation.
We are grateful when liberals acknowledge this and do not pretend to be Christians. Some years ago I was giving a course on the cults at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Representatives of the different sects presented their viewpoints to my class. When I had the liberal pastor of the First Unitarian Church, the Rev. Mr. Cahill, present his views, he began in a very refreshing manner. He said bluntly at the outset of his lecture, after thanking me for the opportunity to address this class: “Dr. Gerstner is a Christian. I am not a Christian. Christianity is a religion of redemption, and your professor believes in it and is entitled to the name Christian. I don’t believe in the supernatural events of divine salvation through Jesus Christ, which I admit is the definition of Christianity. I am, frankly, not a Christian. I am a liberal, and I have a religion which is quite different from your professor’s, as he understands and I also understand.”
Most liberals do not admit they follow another religion. On the contrary, they claim to be authentic Christians. One can see why orthodox Christians are profoundly distressed by this. When somebody who denies Christ is the way of salvation passes himself off as a Christian, that is a dreadfully dangerous business. We must warn people constantly that liberalism is another gospel that is not a gospel at all. While a liberal propagates this religion as the truth, he owes it to everybody not to claim to be Christian and to admit that his views are diametrically opposed to the Christian position.
However, very few liberals actually acknowledge the truth of their divergence from the evangelical, historic Christian faith. Please note again, dear reader, that I am using the word liberal in a very precise sense of the word. I am not saying that any deviation whatsoever from the orthodox consensus constitutes liberalism. A person may be liberally inclined at certain points while nevertheless adhering to essential Christianity. I myself have been called a liberal on occasion because I believe in biblical criticism. Some orthodox Christians think the Bible ought not to be subject to any kind of criticism. They regard persons who think it should be as liberals, whether they are believers in its inspiration or not. I do not consider myself or others liberal because we believe in biblical criticism. We don’t consider other persons as liberal (in the sense that we are using it here) simply because they take a different view on predestination or baptism or church order, or a number of other doctrines on which orthodox Christians, who believe the supernatural gospel of Jesus Christ, vary from one another. Please remember, I am speaking here about liberalism as another religion, which opposes supernatural Christianity and denies its essential doctrines (while still claiming to be Christianity).
Liberalism has been with us from the beginning. In the early church it took the name of Pelagianism. At the time of the Reformation it was known as Socinianism. Today, in the Roman Catholic Church, it is usually called modernism. In Protestant churches it is designated by the term liberalism. As mentioned, we do not consider it a form of Christianity. In my own book on the cults [Theology of the Major Sects, Baker Book House, 1960], I class it with the non-Christian sects. When discussing the sects, I mention that it is far more of a threat to the Christian church than are the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Christian Scientists put together. Anybody who is at all knowledgeable about those and other cults is immediately aware that they are not orthodox Christian bodies. But liberalism, flying at a “low level of visibility,” is often not seen as a cult or sect, which in fact it is. Consequently, it probably leads more Christian people astray than all the recognized cults combined, precisely because it is not recognized as a cult. On the contrary, it falsely represents itself as, and frequently is thought by its victims to be, a bona fide expression of the Christian religion.
We can see, however, that it is categorically opposed to Christianity at its heart. The way of salvation taught by the Christian religion (the liberal Mr. Cahill very correctly observed) is by faith in Jesus Christ; whereas, according to liberalism, a person is justified by his own efforts. He thinks he is justified by faith in himself.
(This series will continue with Gerstner’s look at the neoorthodox view of justification)
Excerpted from Primitive Theology by John H. Gerstner.