“At the very root of the modern liberal movement is the loss of the consciousness of sin.” –J. Gresham Machen (p.64)
I’ve been working my way through a new series entitled “The 10 Commandments of Progressive Christianity.” It’s an examination of 10 core tenets of progressive (or liberal) Christianity offered by Richard Rohr, but really based on the book by Philip Gulley.
We come now to the second of these tenets: “Affirming people’s potential is more important than reminding them of their brokenness.”
The core issue in this second tenet is the issue of sin. Are people sinners? If so, how big of a deal is it? And, more than that, how important is that people know they are sinners? Should we tell them? And how we do balance people’s sinfulness with their potential as God’s image bearers?
There are few issues that divide progressive Christianity from historic Christianity more than this issue of sin. Indeed, as the above quote from Machen indicates, it is the loss, downplaying, ignoring, or sometimes even the outright rejection of sin that fundamentally defines progressive Christianity.
Balancing Sin and Human Potential
Of course, we should acknowledge from the outset that this second tenet is partially true. The Christian message is not only about our sin and our brokenness. “You are a sinner,” is not all that can, or should, be said. Christ saves us from our sin, yes, but then he begins a renewing work inside each believer. And that renewing work begins to restore the beauty of God’s image within us.
And, in that sense, we can really say that people have “potential.” And that potential should be affirmed and celebrated. But, it is potential wrought only by the saving grace of God and the death of Christ which conquered our sin. Apart from that, any affirmation of human potential quickly devolves into a version of humanistic moralism.
Put differently, we must affirm both our deep depravity and also the amazing potential we have as God’s image bearers. The two belong together.
But, this is precisely the problems with the progressive message. They are eager to accept the latter, but hesitant about the former. They have, again, separated what the Bible joins.
Rejecting the Bible’s Teaching on Sin
Now one might object that not all progressives deny the sinfulness of humanity. Some progressives, it could be argued, are quite willing to affirm both of these truths.
But, if we consider at least Philip Gulley’s book–which is the basis of Rohr’s list–then we quickly discover that he does not. In fact, he is quite adamant that the historical Christian teaching about sin is fundamentally mistaken. Consider the following:
- Gulley argues that churches that regularly teach people are sinners are guilty of “spiritual abuse” (40) and “mistreatment” of their people (p.30).
- Gulley states, plainly, “I had grown up in a tradition that emphasized sin and the need for salvation, hadn’t found it helpful, and had resolved to leave it behind” (33).
- Gulley denies original sin on the grounds Adam and Eve were not real people, the stories are just religious “myths” (37-38, 40). Moreover, the creation stories cannot be trusted anyway because they’re contradictory and inconsistent (39-40).
- Gulley argues that we should stop “viewing ourselves as wretched sinners, deserving of damnation” (44). He even laments hymns like Amazing Grace that speak of God saving sinners (43).
Rejecting the Saving Work of Christ
Rejecting the biblical teaching on sin is one thing. But lurking behind it is the rejection of an even more fundamental Christian truth, namely that the purpose of Jesus’ death was to save us from our sins.
If one rejects the doctrine of sin, and downplays it seriousness, then one must find a different reason for why Christ died. For progressives (at least those like Gulley), Jesus couldn’t be dying on the cross to pay for sins because that would imply sin is a big deal. No, Christ must be dying for some other reason.
Thus, we come to another major tenet of progressive Christianity: the rejection of the substitutionary atonement.
The church has typically understood salvation as being rescued from sin and going to heaven when we die. But what if we believed salvation was our lifelong journey toward maturity, love, and wholeness? Were that the case, Jesus would not be the one who saves humanity by his sacrifice of blood, but the one who exemplifies this maturity, love and wholeness, the one to whom Christian can look and say…’we can be like him!'” (44, emphasis mine).
In other words, this version of progressive Christianity does not just reject the doctrine of sin. It also rejects the saving work of Christ on the cross. And thus (like we saw in my prior post in this series) Christianity is once again reduced to moralism.
Progressive Christianity (or at least this version) is Not Christianity
After one has jettisoned the doctrine of original sin, and also rejected the idea that we are therefore sinners in need of salvation, and also denied that Jesus died on the cross for sins, then what is left of historical, biblical Christianity?
Not much. Indeed, Machen would argue that we are left with something that is not Christianity. It is something else altogether.
We would do better to trust the simple and clear message of the apostle Paul: “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1Tim 1:15).