PCA pastor, Peter Lillback, invoked J. Gresham Machen the other night on the Glenn Beck show to clear up the hostâ€™s confusion about social justice and the churches. Beck, of course, thinks “social justice” is code for liberalism, big government, and Obamanian tyranny. But Lillback, who belongs to a communion where social justice in the form of “word and deed” ministry are prevalent, thinksÂ a better, kinder, gentler, orthodoxer version ofÂ such justice exists. And on the showÂ he did so by turning to, Machen, the most articulate defender of the doctrine of the spirituality of the church.Â Unfriggingbelievable!
Here is an excerpt from the interview:
BECK: OK. I wanted â€” let’s start at the beginning.
And, Peter, maybe you can help me. Just on â€” first of all, never happened â€” this is not in any founding document, social justice or any of that stuff, right?
LILLBACK: The phrase “social justice” cannot be found in Constitution or the Declaration of Independence.
BECK: OK. It also isn’t â€” it’s not found in the Bible.
Mr. Snerdling, stop the tape. God is not found in the Constitution, nor is Jesus Christ mentioned inÂ George Washingtonâ€™s deistical piety, but does that prevent folks from attributing Christianity to America’sÂ founding documents and fathers?
BECK: OK. Give me the origins of social justice.
LILLBACK: Well, let’s start in the context of Westminster Seminary. The man who started the school where I’m the president, J. Gresham Machen, wrote a book that revolutionized the 20th century. It was called “Christianity and Liberalism.”
And basically what he said is, is that liberals claim to be Christians, they use all kind of Christian vocabulary, but they give them different meanings. And that Christianity and liberalism are two different religions.
And that is the core of what you deal with now, really, a century after Dr. Machen started Westminster Seminary. The words are Christian, but they have been redefined. . . .
LILLBACK: Well, let’s put it this way: Going back into the late 1800s, there were others that were wrestling with social problems.
LILLBACK: And we think of the name Washington Gladden or Walter Rauschenbusch. These were great theologians that were trying to address problems of orphanages and lack of education.
Stop the tape again!Â Gladden and Rauschenbusch, the leaders and theorists of the Social Gospel were “great” theologians? If so, in what class does that put Warfield and Hodge?
LILLBACK: And there have always been social problems that need to be addressed and they were calling the church to do it.
But what had happened is that they begin to lose focus in the truth of the Bible. They stopped believing â€” as you called it â€” the individual character of salvation. Instead of one coming to the cross to find Jesus Christ as a crucified, buried and risen savior, the one who saved sinners, they started to turn to society. And they said salvation is when the society feeds you, when it gives you clothes, when it gives a better hospital.
LILLBACK: When it keeps your house from burning.
Now, all of those things were good, but that’s not the gospel. Those are implications of the gospel.
And what liberalism did is that it said, we no longer can believe in Jesus as God or Jesus crucified and risen and coming again. We can’t believe that. So, what we’ve done is we kept all the language and we’ve changed its meaning.
And that is social justice thinking: It’s liberalism in the cloak of Christianity. That was Dr. Machen’s fundamental insight.
This is a very confused reading of Machen, Christianity, and liberalism, and we shouldnâ€™t fault the Mormon Beck for not being able to raise the right questions. Lillback seems to be saying that liberals abandoned the notion of salvation in Jesus Christ for a salvation by society (whatever that means â€“ “nation” or “state” or “government” would be more precise since there is no Department of Society Office where I obtain my food stamps). By implication, Lillback also suggests that Machen is in line with his own and the PCAâ€™s (unofficial) understanding of word and deed Christianity. On this view, word (gospel) and deed (social activism or justice) must go together and as long as they do the church is being faithful to its calling. The error is when you abandon the word and only retain the deed.
It should go without saying that bad things always happen when you abandon the word. But Lillback doesnâ€™t seem to consider that word and deed ministry may also be the start ofÂ a process of abandoning the wordÂ that allows deed ministry to color the reading of the word. This certainly seems to be Machenâ€™s point in articulating and defending the doctrine of the Spirituality of the Church, a teaching that reflectâ€™s Calvinâ€™s own view about the spiritual nature of the kingdom of redemption, reaffirmed in chapters 25 and 31 of the Confession of Faith, developed by subsequent theologians and stated succinctly by Machen. When asked to give a talk to the American Academy of Social and Political Scientists in 1933, a time when lots of deeds were needed in the United States, Machen refused to take the social justice bait:
There are certain things which you cannot expect from such a true Christian church. In the first place, you cannot expect from it any cooperation with non-Christian religion or with a non-Christian program of ethical culture. . . .
In the second place, you cannot expect from a true Christian church any official pronouncements upon the political or social questions of the day, and you cannot expect cooperation with the state in anything involving the use of force. Important are the functions of the police, and members of the church, either individually or in such special associations as they may choose to form, should aid the police in every lawful way in the exercise of those functions. But the function of the church in its corporate capacity is of an entirely different kind. Its weapons against evil are spiritual, not carnal; and by becoming a political lobby, through the advocacy of political measures whether good or bad, the church is turning aside from its proper mission. . . .
The responsibility of the church in the new age is the same as its responsibility in every age. It is to testify that this world is lost in sin; that the span of human life — nay, all the length of human history — is an infinitesimal island in the awful depths of eternity; that there a mysterious, holy, living God, Creator of all, Upholder of all, infinitely beyond all; that He has revealed Himself to us in His Word and offered us communion with Himself through Jesus Christ the Lord; that there is no other salvation, for individuals or for nations, save this, but that this salvation is full and free, and that whosoever possesses it has for himself and for all others to whom he may be the instrument of bringing it a treasure compared with which all the kingdoms of the earth — nay, all the wonders of the starry heavens — are as the dust of the street. (“The Responsibility of the Church in the New Age,” Selected Shorter Writings, pp. 375-76)
What Lillback needed to educate Beck about was the reality that evangelicals, like Charles Erdman and Robert Speer (who were effectively New School Presbyterians), and who like Lillback regarded humanitarian good deeds as an implication of the gospel, were opposed to Machen and what he was doing at Westminster. One reason is what Machen was telling graduates of Westminster about the source of the only real justice and satisfying righteousness, namely, the kind that comes through the work of Christ and the churchâ€™s ministry of reconciling sinners to God, like when in 1931 he told WTS graduates:
Remember this, at least â€“ the things in which the world is now interested are the things that are seen; but the things that are seen are temporal, and the things that are not seen are eternal. You, as ministers of Christ, are called to deal with the unseen things. You are stewards of the mysteris of God. You alone can lead men, by the proclamation of Godâ€™s word, out of the chrash and jazz and noise and rattle and smoke of this weary age into the green pastures and beside the still waters; you alone, as ministers of reconciliation, can give what the world with all its boasting and pride can never give â€“ the infinite sweetness of the communion of the redeemed soul with the living God. (“Consolations in the Midst of Battle,” Selected Shorter Writings, p. 205)
Perhaps Westminster Philadelphia needs a refresher course on its founder? I know. Beck can include Machen in his Founders Friday segments. Watch the sales of Christianity and Liberalism soar.