A New and Rising Liberalism

There’s a new liberalism making its way through our churches and transforming our denominations. No, this liberalism doesn’t deny the virgin birth or the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection. This liberalism is steeped in biblical exegesis and historic-reformed categories. Today’s liberalism attempts to use the common creeds and confessions we know and love, and it emphasises the importance of using scripture to defend our ideas. This liberalism has a foothold in virtually every major Reformed seminary and denominational group. Like the liberalism that Machen fought, this liberalism isn’t simply an aberration away from biblical Christianity; it’s an entirely different religion. Using the same language, borrowing from the same history, often preached side by side with orthodoxy, this liberalism poses no less a serious threat to orthodox Christianity than did the liberalism of the earth 20th century.

The theological liberalism of the fundamentalist modernist controversy dealt primarily with doctrinal categories. The liberals of the early 20th century wanted to keep the form and trappings of Christianity while also stripping it of any doctrinal content that flew in the face of a rationalist view of science and the world. They wanted the moral authority of a religion without the dogmatic content of biblical Christianity. Today’s liberalism, however, is a different category all-together. Modern Liberalism accepts the validity of miracles, the virgin birth, the deity of Christ, the authority (at least in theory) of scripture, the resurrection, and the substitutionary nature of Christ’s atonement. Today’s liberalism isn’t theological; it’s ethical.

Today’s liberalism addresses not what we believe but how we act. Of course theology is always behind our ethics, but examining the doctrinal statement of today’s Modern Liberals will turn over little that’s concerning. It’s in their practice that the concerns are shown. The theological liberals of the early 20th century professed faith in a real Jesus while denying that he ever lived. They claimed to believe the whole of scripture yet consistently undercut every significant doctrine. So today, Modern Liberals profess faith in the same theology as orthodox reformed Christianity, yet their practice is profoundly different to that of New Testament Christianity.

Good truths are being twisted. Those who emphasise God’s grace and Christ’s love to the neglect of a fully biblical emphasis on the absolute imperative of Christians to pursue holiness today demonstrate the theological component behind this rising Modern Liberalism. Those who teach only on justification and the love of God, those who openly deny or tacitly undercut the necessity of sanctification are fuelling the ethical dimension to today’s Modern Liberalism. The Epistle to Titus is abundantly clear: the Christian life is comprised of both right faith and right action, both right believing and right living, both biblical doctrine and biblical practice. Neglecting either point results in a deficient Christianity.

What are some examples of this new liberalism in evangelical churches today?

  • ever changing complentarianism; increasing discomfort with male headship

  • milquetoast response to gender and sexual confusion in our day

  • Christianised ‘me-too’

  • shallow politicisation of pulpits

  • CRT in the church and theological academy

  • deficient or nonexistent pastoral theology

  • flawed understandings of God’s grace and Christ’s love

  • honouring the language of scripture but ignoring the substance

  • grace over truth

  • love over law

  • justification over sanctification

  • unity over fidelity

  • empathy over communion

  • tone over substance

  • feelings over the content of faith

  • culture over Christ

  • The theological liberalism of the past was afraid the modern man wouldn’t think the Christian faith was reasonable in the face of science. Modern Liberalism’s God is worried we might be thinking too highly of him.

  • Modern Liberalism has too low a view of sin and God’s word (as did the older liberalism).

  • Modern Liberalism has a fundamentally therapeutic view of redemption. The main concern is not that we are actually right with God but that we feel better about ourselves and our relationship with God.

  • Modern Liberalism has little to say about the Christian life today. Biblical ethics is almost completely neglected.

  • Modern Liberalism is obsessive about the world’s understanding of justice but apathetic about God’s.

  • Modern Liberalism worships a God who can save our souls but who either doesn’t or can’t transform our natures in this life.

  • Modern Liberalism has no place for a robust doctrine of sanctification, and it lives in fear that any discussion of sanctification is both legalistic and moralistic.

  • Modern Liberalism has a low view of the local church and local church pastors.

  • Modern Liberalism has little theological discernment.

Reformed Christians have spent the last century dealing with the arguments and categories of early 20th century liberalism, but those battles have already been fought. We will be outflanked if we continue to prepare for the ideological battles of the last century. As those who should understand the times, we need to understand the nature of the liberalism arising in Christianity today. This ethical liberalism threatens to undermine the church in this day and in the next few decades.

A church or pastor may emphasise some of these points without necessarily drifting in theological liberalism. But the presence of multiple of these markers may also very well indicate that liberalism is making an incursion. Make no mistake: Modern Liberalism is just as heretical as was the theological liberalism of the early 20th century. It is heresy to deny the necessity of sanctification for believers as much as to deny the authority of scripture. To deny that Christ truly transforms his people in this life is as much heresy as it is to deny that he came to save.

The church is compared to a building in the New Testament. Are our churches sturdy homes built on the rock, or are they breezy shacks built on the sand? While holding to the truth we must guard against the tendency to a brittle and loveless orthodoxy, yet that very real temptation should not dissuade us from holding to the truth. Some sturdy homes may smell a bit musty and need a bit of fresh air or revitalisation, but a beachside shack will be quickly blown away and offers no shelter at all.

May God help us to hold to the truth with grace and truth.


“Generals are always planning how to win the last war. Constitutions are always written to thwart the last usurper”.


This was something I wrote for the elders at the church I serve to try to deal with this threat now. Much the same as what many others here are saying.

Thank you for this, Pastor Aaron. It is amazing to me that more people don’t (won’t) see this. Machen wrote in English hardly 100 years ago, and if you want to see the fruit of where this all leads, you can walk to a local mainline church to listen. (I assume the names are changed in England, but same story.)

Can you flesh out the link between a de-emphasis on sanctification and the practical liberalism that we see (CRT and whatnot)? I see the correlation but I don’t understand the causation or even which way it points.

After a bit more thought. If you work from the premise that every Christian truth will be offset by two equal and opposite errors, you can argue that the current push towards ethical liberalism is a vast over-reaction to a culture of legalistic rule-keeping-for-the-sake-of rule-keeping that ruled the roost in a number of church settings, and certainly the one I grew up in. E.g. in Fundamentalism, and also in the Pentecostal tradition, the way in which outward conformity to the “rules” was often accepted as a substitute for true heart transformation. (Fundamentalists are not Pharisees, but when Fundamentalism goes bad, Pharisaism is the result).

But yes, our immediate clear & present danger is allowing the call to sancification to go ‘off the boil’. It is not Pharisaism, and has not been for a long time - despite what Tim Keller seems to think.

I read Machen again last summer, and this was the point that showed me something more than a mere lack of understanding was going on. A bit of context…the Biblical Counselling movement in the 70s and 80s in the US, whatever its faults were, did bring about a rediscovery of the category of sanctification. It was a clarion call to pastors to think in terms of practical sanctification in local church life. In many ways, the Biblical Counselling movement began as a reformation of pastoral theology, though that has since changed. But that movement to re-emphasise sanctification never made it this side of the Atlantic. British reformed-ish Christianity really has no significant doctrine of sanctification. It’s just not there. Maybe the Pentecostal/Holiness traditions have/had more of it, but independent and conservative Anglican churches in the last century or so have almost no practical understanding of what sanctification is or means in daily life.

Some of that lack of emphasis on the doctrine of sanctification is understandable (though not excusable). We all need reformation at various times and in various ways. None of us has a perfect theology; none of us has a fully complete theology. Granted. But as with the liberalism of the 20th century, the question to ask to determine orthodoxy - particularly among pastors and teachers - is not, ‘what do we have to know that’s enough to be a Christian?’ but ‘how much can one deny before the gospel is lost?’ It’s like a bicycle wheel. You can ride for a while with one broken spoke. Maybe even several broken spokes. But eventually you’ll hit a number where the integrity of the wheel is critically compromised.

Especially in American reformed-ish circles, and increasingly among British reformed-ish circles, sanctification is being - at best - dangerously de-emphasised or - at worst - even actively denied. From the perspective of historic Reformed orthodoxy, justification is monergistic and sanctification is synergistic. Jesus justifies us by his works that we receive by grace through faith. The Holy Spirit sanctifies us by working in and through our souls (mind, will, and affections) so that we actively consent to and pursue that sanctification ourselves.

When major reformed-ish speakers, pastors, and books deliberately and consistently deny that there must be individual repentance and personal responsibility for sanctification as a necessary consequence of the gospel, the gospel has been compromised. We’re back to easy-believe-ism and decisionism. We have a gospel that saves our souls without transforming our natures.

It’s one thing when a doctrine simply isn’t known or has been forgotten. It’s another thing when it’s regularly minimised and denied, especially when those who do so are responsible to know better. For pastors to teach a doctrine of justification that has no connection to sanctification is to teach a gospel that is foreign to scripture.

Exactly right. And even if there were these massive pockets of Pharisaism or legalism in evangelicalism today, the Apostle Paul in Galatians didn’t feel the need to soft-pedal the personal responsibility for sanctification despite the legitimate legalism he was facing. Nor did the writer of Hebrews.

At some point we’re not simply disagreeing on theological emphasis. We’re actually teaching fundamentally different religions.

Having grown up as a Pentecostal, and having been in two Anglican settings (and two Vineyards) in the last thirty years, I would have to agree. It is true that on Ash Wednesday we are reminded, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn from your sin and follow Christ”. But otherwise there’s not really nearly enough of this sort of thing.

In my Pentecostal days, we heard a lot about holiness and sanctification, and sang about it too. Since then, I think they’ve “gone off the boil” in this respect, a view shared by my father, a retired A/G pastor, and therefore with the long-term perspective. I suspect that American Fundamentalism has gone in the same direction and for the same reasons.

But the reverse of the situation is also worth noting: Scottish presbyterianism, and its Northern Ireland equivalent. In Northern Ireland, they were notorious in years past for things like shutting up public parks on the “Sabbath”. So you can imagine the ill-feeling that left behind. My own judgement is that the legalism in years past in the Church of Scotland, has done a lot to inoculate several generations of Scots against the Gospel.

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