Enemies at the Gate: Four liberalizing trends that threaten the contemporary church (Phil Johnson)

Selected Scriptures   |   Thursday, March 7, 2013   |   Code: 2013-03-07-PJ

2013 Shepherds' Conference

Study historical theology and one of the trends you will notice is that churches and institutions almost always drift into apostasy and spiritual decline. Earthly organizations seem to have an almost unavoidable tendency to degenerate—and if they continue to exist at all, they will for all practical purposes become totally secular. The ones that continue as religious institutions (like the papacy and the eastern orthodox church) grow corrupt, both doctrinally and often morally, and wherever they remain dominant they produce spiritual blight.

      I suppose that's because human institutions are built and populated by people who suffer from total depravity. And it usually takes only a generation or two before the founding principles are abandoned or amended beyond recognition.

      My faith is not shaken by that. The Lord is not building an earthly temple or a worldly society, so the dissolution of human institutions, while sad and deplorable, is not a disaster of eternal proportions. The only Christian institution God is building is the church of Jesus Christ, and the gates of hell will not prevail against her. Individual churches may fail; the church universal will ultimately be the Church Triumphant.

      And although earthly organizations and human religious societies continually fail, the gospel remains triumphant. There is always a remnant that rises up and keeps the testimony of God's truth alive. It seems to me we're seeing that happen right now in western evangelicalism.

      That's good news. The meltdown of our culture doesn't mean truth is losing the war against falsehood, or that darkness will overcome the light. In fact, given the state of the church at the moment, I think a season of unpopularity (and perhaps even overt persecution) will have a purifying effect on the visible church. People who go to church to be entertained, to watch the pastoral staff do the Harlem Shake, or listen to a sermon on the redemptive themes in the latest Spiderman movie—people like that will drop the pretense of being gospel-believing evangelicals. And I think that will be a good thing for the church.

      So as I have said many times, although I recognize that this world's prospects are bleak because of the curse of sin, I'm not a pessimist. I'm a Calvinist. And Calvinists can't be defeatists, because we know God is sovereign; we know he's in control even when things look bad; and we know truth will eventually triumph over falsehood, good over evil, and righteousness over unrighteousness. And God will be glorified somehow in everything that happens. "We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose." So those who love God can sing "Nearer my God to Thee" with absolute joy and even cheerfully rearrange the deck chairs while the Titanic goes down. God has a good purpose in everything that comes to pass, and He can even make the wrath of men to praise Him.

      But, on a human level, I'll confess that I'm troubled when I see churches and Christian institutions drift away from the truth and apostatize. And sometimes it happens unexpectedly and with disturbing speed.

      Biblical Theological Seminary was founded in 1971 by Allan MacRae and Jack Murray. They and their constituents were strong biblical conservatives; they were fundamentalists. Who would have thought 25 years ago that the school they founded would become the incubator for postmodern neo-liberal approach to theology? Who could have predicted a committed postmodern pluralist like John Franke would become a leading voice on the faculty of Biblical Theological seminary for some 17 years? How does a shift of that magnitude occur less than three decades after the founding of the institution?

      But it does happen—not always so fast, but with a fair degree of regularity—and similar scenarios have troubled a number of formerly conservative evangelical institutions of higher learning over the past 15 years or so. I graduated in the mid 1970s, and let's face it: alumni in my generation don't seem to protest the liberalizing trend the way our parents' and grandparents' generation did, so our alma maters have shown a tendency to abandon their founding principles faster and easier than the institutions that went liberal in the first half of the 20th century.

      Among Protestants, the drift into apostasy generally seems to pull toward the left. Churches, denominations, and institutions of higher learning generally decline within a hundred years of their founding. They usually turn liberal.

      Charles Spurgeon observed and remarked on this pattern. In fact, a series of articles he published in The Sword and the Trowel in 1887 on this very subject led him into a controversy that consumed the remaining five years of his life. The strain of this controversy probably shortened his lifespan.

      It all started with a feature article written by a friend and fellow pastor of Spurgeon's—Robert Shindler. The title of Shindler's article was "The Down Grade," and Shindler pointed out that non-conformist churches in England had a long, repeating pattern of decline. Sound churches and Christian organizations would begin to abandon their evangelical convictions and gradually embrace one form or another of Socinianism—theological liberalism.

      It was always the same leftward drift. Liberalism might slightly change its look and feel from century to century, but the theological issues under attack issues were always the same. Evangelicalism in England had seen the same tendency come and go in several waves. Rationalism, liberal pietism, Unitarianism, Deism, "Free thought," and modernism—and all of these were varying degrees or slightly different expressions of the Socinian heresy.

      Socinianism is a kind of sanctified skepticism. It is a variety of unbelief that wears a religious face and claims to be a kind of faith. Socinianism is the principle at the heart of theological liberalism.

      Elements of liberal religion are as old as Cain, whose sacrifice to God consisted of produce—the fruit of the ground. In other words, he brought a gift of merchandise rather than a sacrifice of atonement. Perhaps he was merely offering the surplus that remained after he had set aside his own food—so that instead of offering the best of the firstfruits, he was giving God leftovers. More likely, this portion of his harvest represented the works of his own hands rather than a vicarious atonement—as if he spurned the idea of propitiation. Whatever Cain's intention might have been, his sacrifice wasn't offered in faith, and therefore it wasn't a suitable sin offering. It was nothing more than a way of papering over his unbelief with a veneer of piety. He had a form of godliness, but he denied its power. That is the gist of the liberal and Socinian error.

      You can also see a strong strain of liberalism in the religion of the Sadducees in Jesus' time. Three times the New Testament emphasizes that the Sadducees didn't believe in the resurrection of the dead. They didn't believe in angels or spirits, either. Acts 23:8: "The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, nor angel, nor spirit." In other words, they were skeptics with regard to anything supernatural. The Sadducees were the social and priestly elite—the wealthy, influential, sophisticated segment of the priesthood who held the power. Therefore they were generally conservative with regard to their politics, but they were essentially liberal with regard to their doctrine.

      Sadduceeism is very much at the heart of all liberal unbelief. One of the dominant ideas in all forms of liberal religion is that the moral teachings of Scripture what truly matters. Everything else is optional: creation, the miracles, heaven and hell, and ultimately even the deity of Christ—as long as you embrace His moral principles.

      And even then, there's a tendency for liberals to reduce all the moral teaching of Christianity to a very squishy notion of love. (So you have liberal, quasi-evangelical groups like Sojourners talking about biblical "justice" while they campaign for acceptance of homosexuality and gay marriage.) The liberal idea of "justice" isn't at all about retribution for evildoers; it's mainly about redistributing wealth and franchising the disenfranchised. So when they speak of "Justice," it's always "social justice," rather than justice as a principle of divine righteousness.

      I mentioned that liberalism has been relentless and pervasive particularly in Protestant circles, ever since the Protestant Reformation, and I've used the term Socinianism a few times. For those of you who might need to brush up on Reformation history, let me briefly review what Socinianism is and where the term came from.

      Socinianism is without a doubt the most widespread of all the heresies in our generation. The average theological liberal probably wouldn't use terms like Sadduceeism or Socinianism to describe himself, but both of those words accurately reflect the historical pedigree of the liberal belief system.

      Socinianism was born almost immediately after the start of the Protestant Reformation. It takes its name from two Italian guys who started it all: Laelius and Faustus Socinus (or Sozzini). They were Uncle (Laelius) and nephew (Faustus). Both of these men had abandoned Roman Catholicism, but unlike the Protestant Reformers, the Socinians ended up rejecting almost everything about the Catholic religion, including whatever was orthodox.

      And since they rejected everything Catholic, the Socinians ended up with a doctrine that is an amalgamation of every error that had ever assaulted the catholic belief. (Small-c catholic.) In that sense the word catholic refers to the historical consensus of mainstream Christianity. Catholicity, the word itself, refers to core doctrines historically affirmed by the Christian church as a whole: the deity of Christ, the doctrine of the Trinity, the resurrection of the dead, the second coming of Christ—everything in the apostles' creed; agreement with the Nicene council; the council of Chalcedon, and the Athanasian Creed. Now to be clear: Socinians may not emphatically or even expressly deny every element of catholicity, but in practice, they put it all on the table and declare it optional. They especially reject and despise the exclusivity of Christ, the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement, the eternality of hell, and the very idea of divine wrath.

      You will find in Socinian doctrine some strain of virtually every heresy that ever assaulted the ancient church—the legalism of the Judaizers; the Arian denial of the deity of Christ; the intellectual arrogance of the gnostics; and the entire Pelagian system, beginning with a denial of original sin, culminating in a religion of works-righteousness. ALL of that is absorbed into the Socinian system.

      You cannot go much further than Socinianism and still have any of the remnants of anything called "Christian" in your system. Socinianism itself is a rank form of unbelief, retaining the name Christian while rejecting every doctrine that is essential to genuine Christianity.

      Laelius Socinus was born in Italy in 1525, at just about the same time the Reformation was beginning. He became interested in studying theology, and met up with some of the original Protestants in Venice. From there he traveled into Poland, Switzerland, and Germany, hoping to learn from the Reformers. He met Philip Melancthon, Luther's great friend and one of the founding fathers of Lutheranism. During his time in Europe, Socinus came to know several of the Reformers personally. Among his personal acquaintances were the Reformer Heinrich Bullinger, and even John Calvin.

      All the Reformers were wary of Laelius Socinus and his theology. Rather than simply asserting what he believed and denying what he rejected, Laelius had an annoying habit of questioning everything. He began to get a reputation as someone who liked to raise questions in people's minds about almost every aspect of Christian truth. He liked to ask questions that challenged the most fundamental doctrines of Christianity. For example, he constantly raised questions about the doctrine of the Trinity. It is clear from the personal papers he left behind that He rejected the Trinity, but rather than simply coming out and saying so, he claimed to believe in the Trinity but questioned that doctrine every chance he got. Under the guise of seeking understanding or looking for clarification, he was actually trying to undermine the doctrine, which he had already rejected in his own thinking.

      He would ask, "If God has always existed in three persons, why didn't He reveal Himself as a Trinity in the Old Testament? Why is there so much stress on one God in the Old Testament if God is three Persons? How could Jesus be 'the only-begotten Son' of the Father if He has eternally existed? Isn't the doctrine of the Trinity a contradiction?" And on and on. These questions were really subtle attacks on the truth.

      John Calvin in particular was annoyed by Laelius's style of questioning everything. Calvin got so fed up with Laelius for this that he wrote him a letter, which said this:

You need not expect me to reply to all the monstrous questions you propose to me. If you are gratified by floating around in such high-minded speculations, I pray you permit me, a humble disciple of Christ, to meditate on those things which tend to the edification of my faith. And hereafter, by my silence, I will indeed accomplish the thing I wish for: that you no longer annoy me in this way.

Calvin went on to say this:

I must again seriously repeat what I warned you of long ago, that unless you speedily correct this itching after investigation, it may bring upon you much mischief. I would be cruel if, with a show of indulgence, I were to encourage this vice, which I believe to be spiritually hurtful to you.

      As far as we know, Laelius Socinus published nothing in his lifetime. He was nothing more than a gadfly who hovered around the great Reformers, quietly attempting to sow seeds of skepticism and infidelity among these men. Ultimately he returned to Italy, where he began to influence his nephew Faustus.

      And when Laelius died, Faustus Socinus inherited his uncle's personal papers. Those papers formed the basis of Faustus's theological education. I mentioned that Laelius's papers revealed that he rejected Trinitarianism. Here's an interesting fact: During his time in Europe, many people believed that Laelius was denying the Trinity. He denied the accusations, and he even met with Heinrich Bullinger, the great Reformer, and successfully convinced Bullinger that he held an orthodox view of the Trinity. But the papers he left Faustus make it very clear that Laelius had abandoned the Trinity early on. This raises a fair question about Laelius's basic integrity. It becomes very evident that he was a dishonest man, concealing what he really believed, content merely to sow seeds of doubt in the minds of others.

      Nevertheless, Faustus developed the Socinian system into a full-fledged liberal unitarianism. He denied the Trinity, but he did not stop there. He denied divine foreknowledge. He claimed God could not know the future, because the future doesn't exist yet. He also denied the authority of Scripture. And He especially denied all the miracles of Scripture.

      In short, Laelius and Faustus Socinus took the skepticism of the Sadducees and blended it with the humanistic rationalism of the enlightenment era, and that gave birth to this heresy.

      Now listen carefully: Rationalism and skepticism are the two philosophies that lie at the heart of the Socinian error. Rationalism is a view that makes human reason the highest test of truth. Skepticism is a doctrine that says absolute knowledge is impossible. Marry skepticism with rationalism, and you have the philosophical basis for Socinianism.

      Both rationalism and skepticism are so much the driving force of modern secular thought that these are by no means novel ideas to any of us. But in the seventeenth century, this way of thinking was extremely radical.

      And of course, both skepticism and rationalism are antithetical to Christianity. Christianity teaches that essential truth is revealed by God in His Word; that revealed truth is absolutely certain and trustworthy; and it must be believed for salvation. That rules out skepticism. Furthermore, Christianity teaches that the revealed Word of God is the highest standard of truth. Everything must be tested by Scripture, and anything that is contrary to Scripture cannot be received as true. That rules out rationalism. So, in other words, the whole philosophical basis of Socinianism is anti-Christian.

      Now, this isn't my main outline, but let me give you a short list: four key errors of the liberal/Socinian error. (You can take these down if you like, but this part won't be on the quiz, so you can just listen if you are tired of taking notes.) Four key errors of the liberal/Socinian error:


1. It Nullifies the Authority of God's Word.

      This is the starting point for Socinianism. It makes Scripture subservient to human reason. And if human reason is supreme, then Scripture has no authority over the human mind. It is as simple as that.

      Now, I would be the last person to denigrate sound reason. I believe sound logic and careful, accurate thinking are supremely important. By saying that reason must be subject to Scripture, I am not saying that we can therefore dispense with reason altogether. I am most certainly not arguing for a system that throws logic out the window. I have no patience with those who think faith and reason are antithetical. Certain modern kinds of Christianity like to demean logic and glorify absurdities. Modern charismatic theology often portrays reason as the very antithesis of faith. This is also true of many neoorthodox Christians who think Christianity is full of contradictions, and faith means embracing absurdities. I disagree. That is irrationalism, and irrationalism is just as much a heresy as rationalism is.

      The truth is that Scripture is supreme over human reason, but Scripture itself establishes and affirms the fundamental rules of sound logic. Scripture tells us, for example, that truth never contradicts itself. Scripture says God is truth, and He cannot deny Himself (2 Timothy 2:13). God cannot lie (Titus 1:2)—so whatever is the antithesis of true must be false. Whatever is self-contradictory therefore cannot be true. All the basic rules of logic are affirmed in Scripture in this way.

      In other words, Scripture and sound reason work together to yield a right understanding of truth—with reason always kept subservient to Scripture. The error of both neo-orthodoxy and the charismatic movement is that they throw out reason altogether.

      Socinianism goes to the opposite extreme. It does away with the authority of Scripture and makes reason supreme.


2. It Devalues the Deity of Christ

      Socinians don't necessarily repudiate or deny the deity of Christ, but their theology erases the significance of Jesus' deity and eliminates the necessity of such a doctrine. The most devoted liberals outright reject doctrines that exalt Christ—such as his Virgin Birth, deity, bodily resurrection, and complete sinlessness. But what you find more commonly nowadays is a kind of stealth liberalism, where doctrines such as those are not overtly rejected, but downplayed and treated as optional.

      From the 18th century on, Socinianism in its most extreme form has gone by the name "Unitarianism." If you are familiar with the Unitarian movement in England and in New England, then you have a pretty good grasp of what pure Socinianism is like when it is taken to its logical end. Remember that Laelius Socinus himself denied the Trinity. And the Socinian drift leads inevitably into one variety of Unitarianism or another.

      Many modern theological liberals will insist that they are Trinitarians. But remember that Laelius Socinus also claimed to be Trinitarian. But Socinianism is not truly and faithfully Trinitarian.


3. It Diminishes the Role of Grace

      Socinianism denies the fallenness of humanity and therefore in its full expression it renders the grace of God unnecessary. Socinians and liberals like to think of humanity as essentially good. There's no room in their system for doctrines such as original sin or total depravity.

      But think about it: If your theology has no concept of sin and depravity; if you refuse to understand and affirm that fallen humanity is hopelessly in bondage to sin, helpless to redeem themselves; then your doctrine really has no place for the grace of God.

      This, by the way, was Augustine's argument against Pelagius. He studied Pelagius's writings and pointed out that he barely ever mentioned the grace of God. In fact, Augustine said, Pelagius seems to use the word grace only so that he can avoid the embarrassment of otherwise not mentioning it.

      Liberalism always fosters a moralistic, works-based religion. In liberalism, faith—genuine belief, true conviction, settled belief—is optional. Good works are essential. To illustrate: A few years ago, when the talk about the Emergent movement was at its height, Scot McKnight wrote an article in Christianity Today to explain the complexities of Emergent religion for the evangelical mainstream. Scot Mcknight himself was mostly sympathetic to the Emergent movement. He lives on the evangelical fringe, and in my judgment there are strong liberal tendencies in much of what he writes. And he was explaining Emergent Christianity in a sympathetic fashion, giving what he regarded as the defining characteristics of the Emerging Church. The article was titled "Five Streams of the Emerging Church" (subtitle: "Key elements of the most controversial and misunderstood movement in the church today.") He's trying to help us understand this poor misunderstood movement. In his words, "I want to undermine the urban legends and provide a more accurate description of the emerging movement." He clearly saw it as a mostly positive development.

      And along the way, he said this: "A notable emphasis of the emerging movement is orthopraxy, that is, right living. The contention is that how a person lives is more important than what he or she believes." Then he says, "Here is an emerging, provocative way of saying it: 'By their fruits [not their theology] you will know them.'"

      Now, in the first place, he's making a horribly misleading false dichotomy. Biblically, our theology is an important aspect of our fruit. Second John 9: "Whoever transgresses and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God. He who abides in the doctrine of Christ has both the Father and the Son." So you can—you must—identify false teachers by their doctrine.

      In the second place, the notion that what people do is ultimately more important than what they believe flies in the face of the very same proof-texts that are normally used to support it. In that same context, for example, Scot McKnight quotes James 2:20: "Faith without works is dead." But that verse doesn't suggest that what we do is "more important" than what we believe; James's whole point is that faith and works seen properly are perfectly symbiotic. Both are absolutely essential. In terms of causal priority, faith does take first place over works, because any truly good works we do are the fruit of our faith. Truly good works are an expression of faith—and James expressly says so at the start of his argument (James 2:18): "I will show you my faith by my works."

      The whole way of thinking is upside down. It stresses works over faith, and that is the very error the apostle Paul devoted his life to defeating. Take the notion that behavior always trumps belief to its logical conclusion and you will end up making a person's own works the ground of his or her hope for justification.

      That's no trifling mistake. It's an absolute lie—a damnable lie; and it is the main falsehood that undergirds the very core of liberal and Socinian thinking—to suggest that what you believe doesn't ultimately matter very much as long as you are good enough.

      Anyway, to review: Socinianism nullifies the authority of God's Word; it devalues the deity of Christ; it diminishes the role of grace. Now fourth:


4. It Obliterates the Meaning of the Cross

      Liberal doctrine is inherently hostile to the idea that God punished Christ for the sins of other people. That, of course, is the central lesson of Scripture when it comes to the idea of atonement.

      Biblically, there are two important aspects of atonement for sin. On the one hand, it involves the payment of a price. There are a few key biblical terms that underscore this. One is the word ransom. In Matthew 20:28, Jesus says, "The Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many." Now some think this means Christ's blood was a ransom paid to Satan. That is not what it means. Satan is in no position to demand payment for sins. The reason we owe a price for our sins is because sin offends the perfect righteousness of God.

      In other words, the "ransom" of the atonement was a price paid to satisfy the perfect righteousness of God.

      There's another very specific biblical word that underscores the idea of a payment for sin. It is the word propitiation. You'll find that word in 1 John 2:2 and Romans 3:25: propitiation—a large-sounding technical and theological word, but it's not really a hard word to define. It is virtually a synonym for the word satisfaction. It refers to the fact that God's justice, His wrath, and His perfect holiness were satisfied—placated—propitiated by the shedding of Christ's blood. That is a very important doctrine. Deny it and you have denied true Christianity.

      Another way to say it is this: We believe the atonement is substitutionary. Christ died in our place and in our stead, bearing our sins, paying the awful price on our behalf. That idea is essential to a biblical understanding of atonement. Atonement involves the payment of a price.

      But I said there are two aspects of atonement according to Scripture. First is the payment of a price. Second is the remission of sins. Acts 10:43 uses this term: "Whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins." Remission is a synonym for forgiveness.

      Now here is how the Socinians argued. The argument is not hard to follow: They claimed that these two ideas, the payment of a price on the one hand, and the forgiveness of sins on the other, are mutually exclusive. They said sins can either be remitted or they can be atoned for, but not both. If a price is demanded, then the sins are not really "forgiven." And if God is really willing to pardon sin, then no price is necessary.

      In fact, the Socinians argued, if a price must be paid, then it is not really grace. It's merely a legal transaction, like the payment of a traffic ticket.

      You can see the subtlety of that argument. But there is a major problem with it: it is completely contrary to what Scripture teaches about grace, and atonement, and divine justice. It formulates definitions of those terms that ignore what Scripture teaches about them.

      Grace is not incompatible with the payment of a ransom. It was purely by grace that God Himself made the payment we owed. In fact, this is the consummate expression of divine grace: that God willingly sent His Son to die for sin and to redeem sinners.

      Furthermore, if you study what Scripture has to say about the forgiveness of sin, you will see very quickly that the shedding of Christ's blood is the only ground on which sins may be forgiven. This is the very thing the Socinian doctrine of the atonement denies, but look how clearly Scripture affirms it: Matthew 26:28: [Jesus said,] "For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins." And the verse that makes this truth inescapable is Hebrews 9:22: "Without shedding of blood [there] is no remission [of sins]."  

      That truth makes lots of people uncomfortable. But it is absolutely essential to a right understanding of the cross of Jesus Christ. Second Corinthians 5:21): "[God] made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him." Isaiah 53:5: "He was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed." First Peter 3:18: "Christ . . . suffered . . . for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God." Romans 3:25: "God put [Him] forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith." First Corinthians 15:3: "Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures." And I could probably go on for half an hour quoting texts that say the same thing. First John 2:2: "He is the propitiation for our sins." That is the very heart of gospel truth. That is the true meaning of the cross.

      Liberals don't like it. Steve Chalke and Brian McLaren say it amounts to cosmic child abuse. The doctrine of penal substitution became the favorite whipping boy when Emergent postmodernists set out to redefine the Christian faith in kinder, gentler, more politically-correct terms. That's nothing new. Liberal religion always tries to redefine the atonement.

      If you want to read an early account of this, read about Peter Abelard in the early 12th century. I'll let you find his story on your own, or we'll run out of time, but do look it up. Peter Abelard was an extremely gifted but contemptible man. He titled his autobiography The History of My Calamities, in which he takes the role of both victim and hero.

      Let me read one brief excerpt that kind of reflects his character. He writes this about his adolescent years: "So distinguished was my name, and I possessed such advantages of youth and comeliness, that no matter what woman I might favour with my love, I dreaded rejection of none." Not surprisingly, he had an illicit love affair with a woman named Heloise. A child was conceived through their union, but Abelard and Heloise did not marry. Instead, he continued to pursue the life of a monk, and since he could find no school that was worthy of his intellect, he founded his own.

      He was a classic theological liberal, and he took up the subject of the atonement, arguing that the cross is not a substitution or payment for sin; it's merely an example for us to follow, and the humility of Christ wields a powerful moral influence that will eventually change and redeem the world from its fallenness. His view is usually called the "Moral Influence Theory" of the atonement.


Anyway, that's a quick summary of some of the most prominent threads that run through most varieties of theological liberalism. I mentioned at the start that ever since the Protestant Reformation, theological decline in our churches and institutions usually drifts in a liberal direction. That's how the current flows. At first it is subtle. But the drift is predictable and the same pattern has been repeated over and over in western evangelical history. As I said, that was the very point Charles Spurgeon and Robert Shindler were making when they wrote that famous series of articles on "The Down Grade" in Spurgeon's magazine The Sword and the Trowel. It led to a controversy that ultimately got Spurgeon censured and drummed out of the Baptist Union. He died under the strain of that fight. But history has more than vindicated him. On the original point he was making, he was exactly right. The liberal drift is like a steep down-grade. Once you get rolling down that hill, it is virtually impossible to stop without going over a cliff or crashing and burning at the bottom. And once the downward motion starts, it is practically irreversible.

      Trace the history of religion in America and you can't help noticing the almost magnetic pull of liberalizing influences. The Massachusetts Bay colony was founded by a group of devoted Puritans. They were Calvinists, thoroughgoing Bible believers, and their leaders were pastors—John Cotton and Richard Mather. Richard Mather's son, Increase, was also a pastor, married to John Cotton's daughter. Their son was born Cotton Mather, one of the first American-born generation. He followed his father's and grandfathers' footsteps and became a pastor. During the final decades of his ministry, Cotton Mather encountered German Pietism and was enthralled with it. His later ministry reflects a drift toward moralism and works-oriented preaching. He wrote a famous book titled Essays to Do Good—and "doing good" became the theme of his preaching and writing. He remained committed to Calvinist doctrines; he didn't deny (as far as I know) anything his father and grandfathers taught, but he tended to take gospel truth for granted, while preaching moralistic sermons.

      Mather was a contemporary of Solomon Stoddard, Jonathan Edwards's grandfather. Stoddard pastored a church across town from Mather. Cotton Mather was just one generation ahead of Benjamin Franklin and the American founding fathers. When Franklin was a young man he lived in Boston, and he had a famous encounter with Cotton Mather that left an influence on him. Franklin talks about it in his autobiography. He bumped his head on a low-hanging ceiling in a stairwell, and Cotton Mather seized the opportunity to give him a lecture about the evils of pride and how to avoid bumps on the head by going through life with your head bowed."

      Not long after that, Ben Franklin was 16 years old and working as an apprentice to his elder brother, who was a newspaper editor. Ben Franklin wanted to get his writing published, but his brother would have none of it; he wasn't going to publish his kid brother's prose. So Benjamin invented an alter-ego—a widow whose beliefs reflected the pietistic moralism of Cotton Mather. Franklin named her "Silence Dogood," and he wrote a series of newspaper columns under that pen name. He literally left them on his brother's doorstep, and they were so well written and slightly humorous that the newspaper published them. Then Ben Franklin's brother found out who really wrote them, and fired him.

      Anyway, Franklin was of course not an evangelical believer; he was a deist. Deists believe in a God who is transcendent but not imminent. Franklin did not believe in the inspiration of Scripture; he believed the only truth we know about God is what we can discern from nature and reason. In other words, Deism is a kind of Socinian liberalism. Like all Socinians, the Deists used religious terms and imagery, and they held to a system of moral and ethical values that was rooted in biblical law, but they didn't believe in the authority of Scriptures; they treated the miracles of the Bible as myths, and they regarded their more evangelical neighbors as hopelessly old-fashioned and much too rigorous in their religious beliefs. In Franklin's generation, deism was already more popular than the Calvinistic evangelicalism of their Puritan forefathers.

      Universalism was also beginning to gain popularity. An exact contemporary of Jonathan Edwards was Charles Chauncy, who for 60 years pastored Boston's famous First Church—the oldest church in Massachusetts. While he was pastoring there (barely one generation removed from Cotton Mather) Charles Chauncy secretly adopted universalism and wrote and distributed two anonymous tracts promoting universalist doctrine—rank Socinianism. Chauncy wrote a textbook on theology defending universalism, the innate goodness of humanity, and human free will. But he waited twenty years to publish the book, because he knew it would blow his cover. For years he had kept up the pretense of orthodoxy while preaching insipid moralism. Now that the cover was off, a generation of people raised under preaching that was full of pious words and moral admonitions but devoid of any doctrine were ripe for any kind of unorthodoxy, and they embraced universalism in droves.

      That was the culture in which George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards ministered, and New England had grown so accustomed to pietistic, doctrinally-vapid moral lectures that when Edwards and Whitefield came on the scene preaching the authority of Scripture, the reality of hell, and the doctrine of justification by faith, lots of people thought this was some novel approach to religion.

      The Great Awakening helped reset the spiritual compass of early American religion, but if you read the spiritual history of America and trace the patterns, you see the same cycle repeating over and over again. One generation after Jonathan Edwards Jonathan Edwards' you have the emergence of the "The New Divinity"—a system that proposed New Perspectives on the doctrines of free will, original sin, and justification by faith. The champions of the New Divinity claimed they were following the path blazed by Jonathan Edwards. What they actually did was impose a slant on Edwards's ideas that steered their followers into radical free-willism, justification by works, semi-pelagianism, Pelagianism, and Socinianism. In other words, it had a liberalizing influence.

      And I could go on, but I hope the point is clear. Virtually every second generation or so (often more frequently than that), there is some influence or another that subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) pushes mainstream evangelical Christians toward Socinianism. And these trends invariably have a destructive influence. They kill churches.

      And above all—and this is the key point I hope you have picked up—they invariably come with stealth and deception. The purveyors of destructive doctrines rarely say what their real aim is. They often deny that they are liberal, even while promoting overtly liberal ideas. Jim Wallis of Sojourners, Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, even Tony Campolo—all of them promote classic liberal notions, using classic liberal arguments and classic liberal rhetoric. But all of them have at one time or another insisted that they are evangelical in order to gain influence in evangelical circles.

      That's nothing new. Socinianism has always spread by stealth and deception. Jesus warned about wolves in sheep's clothing. Paul warned about demons and false teachers that disguise themselves as angels of light. Jude 4 warns us to be on guard against false teachers who creep into the church unnoticed. In 2 Corinthians 4:2, Paul refers to certain false teachers with evil motives who use "disgraceful, underhanded ways . . . practice cunning [and] tamper with God's word." In 2 Corinthians 2:11, Paul says "we [sh]ould not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs." Still, Christians have been outwitted by Satan, again and again. There's no excuse for it, except that we are fallen creatures, prone to arrogance and laziness, and we tend to let down our guard just as our spiritual forefathers did. We act as if we think we are above being fooled, even though Scripture repeatedly warns us to stay on guard.


      A couple of years ago, the 9Marks ministry asked me to write an article for their journal titled "The Neo-Liberal Stealth Offensive," pointing out how even today, right now, Socinian influences are fatally infecting large segments of the visible evangelical movement.

      The truth is, no church that is well taught and sound in the faith would ever abandon the gospel in order to embrace humanist values. The only way a church can abandon sound biblical convictions and embrace liberalism instead is if they go through a long period of neglect, during which the value of truth is forgotten.

      It generally goes like this: When there's a revival or a period of persecution, you have a generation who are willing to die for the truth, and they are always spiritually triumphant. The next generation remembers that truth is important, but they aren't quite as ready to die for it. The next generation isn't even willing to fight for the truth, and that generation is susceptible to apostasy.

      So liberalism can't take root in a truly healthy church or seminary. It must therefore be insinuated covertly, so that over time it can gradually gain strength and influence. Liberals are nothing is not patient. And the long-term success or failure of the whole liberal agenda hinges on a patient public-relations campaign.

      That is precisely how neo-liberals have managed to get a foothold in the contemporary evangelical movement. Consider how evangelicalism has changed in just a few short decades.


Classic Evangelicalism

      Historic evangelicalism has two clear distinctives. One is a commitment to the inspiration and authority of Scripture. The other is a conviction that the gospel message is clear and non-negotiable.

      Specifically, evangelicals understand the gospel as an announcement of what Christ has done to save sinners, redeem Adam's fallen race, and usher believers into His eternal kingdom. The gospel is not a mandate for sinners to save themselves, redeem humanity, recover human dignity, safeguard cultural diversity, preserve the environment, eliminate poverty, establish a kingdom for themselves, or champion whatever social concept of "salvation" might be popular at the moment.

      To put it as simply as possible, the gospel is the good news that sinners can be justified only through faith in Christ alone, and exclusively by His gracious work—not by earning merit for themselves through works, religious rituals, or self-discipline.

      The Protestant Reformation clarified and illuminated those same two principles—sola Scriptura and sola fide. Sola Scriptura was the formal principle of the Reformation, and sola fide was the material principle. Those weren't novel ideas someone dreamed up out of thin air in the sixteenth century. They are and always have been essential principles of biblical Christianity. In the long course of church history, those truths have frequently been clouded and confused, or mingled with (and sometimes overwhelmed by) bad teaching. But since the time of Christ and the apostles those truths have never been totally silenced. They are in fact the very backbone of New Testament doctrine.

      Historic evangelicalism was built on that fact. From the dawn of the Reformation through the mid-20th century, no honest, authentic evangelical would ever have thought of questioning Scripture or modifying the gospel.

      But consider what has happened to evangelicalism just in my lifetime.


Contemporary Evangelicalism

      With the advent of the seeker-sensitive movement, evangelicals began to be influenced by a new species of entrepreneurial leaders who marginalized those core doctrines by neglect. Most of them didn't overtly deny any essential biblical truths; but neither did they vigorously stress or defend anything other than their own methodology.

      The results were predictable: Churches are now filled with formerly unchurched people who are still untaught and perhaps even unconverted. Multitudes of children raised on a treacly diet of seeker-sensitive religion grew up to associate the label evangelical with superficiality. Most of them couldn't tell you what the term originally meant, and they reject whatever vestigial evangelical boundaries or doctrinal distinctives their parents may have held onto. But they figure they are still entitled to call themselves "evangelicals" when it's convenient. They like to live at the fringes of the visible movement, decrying how out of step the church is with their generation. That, after all, is exactly what they learned from their parents.

      This is fertile soil for liberalism to burst into full flower, and that is precisely what is already happening. Evangelicals are blithely following a number of trends that advance the neo-liberal agenda. Unless a faithful remnant begins to recognize and resist the neo-liberal strategy, evangelical churches and institutions will eventually succumb to rank liberalism, just as most of the mainstream denominations did a century ago.

      Here are four of those trends you must resist if you want to stand with the remnant who will survive and hold onto the faith. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it's the best advice I can fit in four short points.


1. Don't follow the spirit of the age.

      If you marry the spirit of the age, you will soon be a widower. Theological liberals have always been diligent students of the spirit of the age. A century ago, they were known as "modernists" because post-enlightenment values were the pretext they used to advance the liberal agenda. They insisted that if the church refused to change with the times, Christianity itself would become irrelevant.

      Naturally, "changing with the times" meant abridging the gospel message. They were convinced that sophisticated modern minds would not accept the supernatural elements of Scripture. That was OK, the modernists insisted, because the real heart of the Bible's message is the moral and ethical content anyway. Besides, they said, practical virtue is what the church ought to focus on. They considered it sheer folly for preachers to stress difficult doctrinal features that sounded primitive and offensive to modern ears—such as the wrath of God, blood atonement, and especially the doctrine of eternal punishment. Future generations would be lost to churches that held onto such beliefs and refused to accommodate modern thought, they solemnly warned. The situation was urgent.

      Of course they were dead wrong. Churches and denominations that embraced modernist ideas declined both in number and in spiritual vitality, and many of them died completely. Meanwhile churches that stayed faithful to their evangelical convictions thrived.

      Postmodernism is the pretext neo-liberals nowadays use to argue that everything must change in the church. The world keeps changing its point of view, and the liberals are still complaining that the church is lagging behind, out of step—irrelevant. Notice, however: although today's neo-liberals' say they are post-modern (supposedly hostile to modern values) both the line of argument they use and their theological agenda remain exactly the same. The doctrines postmodern liberals relentlessly challenge today are the same ones the modernists rejected: especially God's hatred of sin; penal-substitutionary atonement, and the doctrine of hell.

      It's no secret that the world has always despised certain aspects of biblical truth. If it were a legitimate goal for the church to keep in step with the world, it might make sense to review and revise the message from time to time. But the church is forbidden to court the spirit of the age, and one of the main reasons the gospel is such a stumbling block is that it cannot be adapted to suit cultural preferences or alternative worldviews. Instead, it confronts them all.

      Beware of church leaders who are more worried about being contemporary than they are about being doctrinally sound; more concerned with their methodology than they are with their message; more captivated by political correctness than they are by the truth. The church is not called to ape the world or make Christianity seem cool and likable, but to proclaim the gospel faithfully—including the parts the world usually scoffs at: sin, righteousness, and judgment (the very things Jesus said in John 16:8 the Holy Spirit would convict the world of). Jesus expressly taught that if we are faithful in that task, the Holy Spirit will convict hearts and draw believers to Christ.

      But speaking of wanting to be hip and fashionable, here's another important bit of advice if you want to resist the liberal drift:


2. Don't court the world's admiration

      There is of course nothing wrong with being winsome. As recipients of divine grace, if our lives properly manifest the Spirit's fruit, we should by definition have personal charisma (cf. Galatians 5:19-23). We also ought to maintain a good testimony before the world. In fact, to qualify as an elder, a man "must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace" (1 Timothy 3:7).

      That of course speaks of a person's character-graciousness, compassion, and a reputation for integrity. It is not a prescription for the appeasement of worldly tastes or the endorsement of every earthly fashion. When we need to shave corners off the truth or compromise righteousness in order to gain the world's friendship, bearing the reproach of Christ is an infinitely better option. No true friend of God deliberately seeks the world's camaraderie (James 4:4).

      But one of the common characteristics of liberalism is an obsession with gaining the world's approval and admiration no matter the cost.

      It's the attitude of the church leader who lets neighborhood surveys and opinion polls determine the style and agenda of the church.

      When a church gives in to that craving for worldly approval, they will inevitably subjugate the gospel to a more popular message. At first, they won't necessarily deny core gospel truths such as the historical facts outlined in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4. But they will abbreviate, modify, or add to the message. The embellishments usually echo whatever happens to be politically correct at the moment-climate change, world hunger, the AIDS crisis, or whatever. Those things will be stressed and talked about repeatedly while the historic facts of Christ's death and resurrection, the great themes of gospel doctrine, and the actual text of Scripture itself will be largely ignored or treated as something to be taken for granted.

      Feed any church a steady diet of that kind of teaching for a few years and they will have no means of defense when someone attacks the faith more directly.

      That's precisely what is happening today with various attacks on substitutionary atonement, the exclusivity of Christ, the authority and inerrancy of Scripture, and other essential Christian truths. All of those things were first downplayed in order to make the church's message sound more "positive." Now they are being subjected to a full-scale assault.

      Such problems are exacerbated and the liberal craving for worldly esteem reaches a white-hot intensity in the academic realm. That brings up yet another feature of the neo-liberal agenda to watch out for:


3. Don't be intimidated by the Socinian air of intellectual superiority

      Liberals treat faith itself as an academic matter. Their whole system is essentially a wholesale rejection of simple, childlike belief. Their worldview foments an air of academic arrogance, setting human reason in the place of highest authority; treating the Bible with haughty condescension; and showing utter contempt for the kind of faith Christ blessed.

      Consequently, liberals are and always have been obsessed with academic respectability. They want the world's esteem as scholars and intellectuals and they will quickly compromise or cave in if necessary to get it. They sometimes defend that motive by arguing that the secular academy's acceptance is essential to the Christian testimony.

      Of course that is a quixotic quest. It is also a denial of the Bible's plain teaching. Believers cannot be faithful to Scripture and win general accolades from the wise men, scribes, and debaters of this age. The world hated Jesus, and He made it clear that His faithful disciples mustn't expect—or even seek—the world's honor (John 15:18; Luke 6:22; cf. James 4:4). Paul, who was a true scholar in every sense, wrote this world's wisdom off as sheer foolishness: "Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God" (1 Corinthians 3:18-19).

      True Christian scholarship is about integrity, not accolades. Liberalism covets the honor but not the honesty. As D. A. Carson says, evangelicals need to pursue academic responsibility; not academic respectability.

      The liberal craving for recognition from the academic world explains why liberals are always drawn to ideas that are stylish and politically correct, yet they are resistant to virtually the all the hard truths of Christianity—starting with the authority Scripture claims for itself.

      Be on guard against that tendency. Here's one last bit of advice:


4. Do not discount doctrinal and biblical precision

      This may sound like an oxymoron, but while treating faith as an academic matter, liberals prefer an almost anti-intellectual, agnostic approach to dealing with the specific truth-claims of Scripture. They like their doctrine hazy and indistinct.

      One maneuver neo-liberals have perfected in these postmodern times is an artful dodge when they dislike a particular doctrine but cannot afford to make a plain and open denial. Instead, they will claim that Scripture is simply too unclear on that point. We can't really be sure. The point is disputed by top scholars, and who are we to speak with too much certainty? Let's have a five-year moratorium on strong opinions.

      Thus without denying (or affirming) anything in particular, and without even technically dismissing the matter under discussion as an unimportant point, the ruse effectively sets the truth aside. The skeptic's goal is thus accomplished without incurring any of the odium of skepticism.

      Heavy doses of that flavor of postmodern, neo-liberal evasion have conditioned multitudes of church members to regard carefulness and precision in handling doctrine as both unimportant and potentially divisive. These days the person who shows evidence of doctrinal scruples is much more likely to be held in suspicion or disdain among evangelicals than the neo-liberals who have deliberately made the study of biblical doctrine seem so cloudy, confusing, and contentious.

      In reality-and this is a lesson the church should have learned from both Scripture and church history-unity and harmony cannot exist in the church at all if there is not a common commitment to sound doctrine.


      Today the threat posed by neo-liberalism looms large. Conservative evangelicals cannot afford to be apathetic. The Emergent movement may have seemed to disintegrate, but the leading figures and popular ideas from that movement have been already been unleashed into the evangelical mainstream like so many dandelion seeds. They will simply blend into mainstream evangelicalism (which is growing less mainstream and less evangelical all the time).

      We must pay attention to the lessons of history and stand firm on the truth of Scripture—and we desperately need to be more aggressive than we have been so far in opposing these neo-liberal influences.