Can you share a lesson from American church history?

2 Min Read

This is an important story because, for us who are American Christians, it is our DNA. It has affected us in previous centuries, so I think it’s an important story to wrap around. Let’s go back to the 1920s and one of my figures, J. Gresham Machen.

Machen was a brilliant scholar. He had a bachelor’s from Johns Hopkins, was Princeton-trained, and then became a Princeton professor. Machen lived during the time of modernism in American culture, as the twentieth century was a time of optimism and growth. Of course, it had World War I, but that influenced Europe far more than it did America because it took place on European soil. France lost 2 million people in World War I, while America lost 170,000 soldiers, which is terrible, but the differences are known. But it was still a time of modernism, and Machen lived during the “Roaring Twenties,” as we call it. It was a culture that was ready to move away from God. That’s modernism: “We don’t need God anymore. We built skyscrapers, and He is holding us back.”

Much of the church didn’t want culture to keep moving past them, so they said: “Hold on, you don’t have to leave just yet. We’ll make our doctrines a little more palatable. If you don’t like sinful man, let’s say that humanity is basically good. If you don’t like the idea that Christ had to die and you must have a substitute, let’s turn Christ’s death into just an example that you are empowered to follow every day. Isn’t that beautiful?” That’s liberalism. It compromised the doctrines that actually define Christianity in order to stay at the “cool table” of culture.

Along came Machen, and he wrote a book, Christianity and Liberalism. He essentially said: “This is not Christianity. This is a Christianity without a cross, which is not Christianity. Christianity without the message of sin is not Christianity. Christianity without an authoritative Bible standing over us that we are accountable to is not Christianity. If you don’t have those things, you don’t have Christianity. You are American. You are free to believe whatever you want to believe. We love liberty, but you can’t believe something that’s the total opposite of Christianity and call it Christianity.” Machen took a bold stand.

I mention all of this because I think it’s true of the story of American Christianity, which is a tale of two cities. We love our culture in America. Sometimes, we want to be a part of it so much so that we’ll compromise our convictions. It has happened. We all saw it. It’s happening right now. Whole denominations are selling their birthright to keep up with culture. That’s one city. Or, we can be a church of conviction that says, “No, we are going to follow God’s Word.” Machen is a good example of being a Christian of conviction.

So, that is one incident I find interesting and informative.

This transcript is from a live Ask Ligonier event with Stephen Nichols and has been lightly edited for readability. To ask Ligonier a biblical or theological question, email or message us on Facebook or Twitter.