The Gathering Storm in the Church

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
July 20, 2020

This article is an excerpt from Dr. Mohler’s newest book, The Gathering Storm: Secularism, Culture, and the Church. For more information, click here. To order a copy of the book, click here

By the end of the twentieth century, the impact of theological liberalism was seen in almost every denomination. The demands for an updated theology and morality—for Christianity to be redefined for a secular age—were reshaping seminaries, congregations, Christian schools, and denominations. Most of the old mainline denominations had capitulated by the 1970s. Tellingly, even as the prophets of theological liberalism had promised that liberalism would save their churches, it was actually liberal theology that led to the evacuation of those churches and denominations. Their membership and attendance plummeted. As recently as 2018, one liberal denomination in Canada predicted that by 2040 it would have “no members, no attendees, no givers.” No problem? This was even the truth in the Southern Baptist Convention until conservatives were able to redirect the denomination in the last years of the twentieth century.

As the present century dawned, secular trends in the society were well documented and a general religious decline marked many denominations of the culture. Conservative, biblically committed Christians faced a new set of challenges.

J. Gresham Machen, the great Presbyterian theologian from the early decades of the twentieth century, brilliantly assessed the state of modern Christianity and the rise of Protestant liberalism. Rather than seeing liberal theology as a variant of the Christian faith, Machen labeled it as a totally new religion that merely poses as Christianity. For Machen, nothing unified orthodox Christianity with Protestant liberalism—the former pursued theological fidelity to the God of the Bible, while the latter morphed into an entirely new religion. He titled his famous book Christianity and Liberalism, and made it clear that liberalism was an entirely new and separate religion altogether.

Liberal Protestantism and secularization have merged, creating a new and dangerous context for biblically committed Christians. This new context will reveal the true followers of Christ—and they may well be revealed by the fact that they are the last in our culture to remember what authentic Christianity is. The fusion of secularization with liberal Protestantism made liberal theology more normal in the eyes of the culture, for a secular culture does not even need a secular theology. They want no theology at all. But because of secularization’s effect, liberal theology sometimes even infiltrates churches that think themselves to be committed to theological orthodoxy. Secularism has desensitized many people sitting in the pews of faithful, gospel-preaching churches, leading them to unwittingly hold even heretical doctrines. It is frightening to realize that some people can be so effectively secularized, even when regularly attending church. How? The fact is that many Christians will be hard-pressed to define faithful Christianity or to live and define central and eternal doctrines.

I have no doubt, for example, that many churches and their members would verbally assent to the reality and existence of an eternal hell; but this does not mean that they believe it consistently. The secular spirit—treating religion as a mere hobby—redefines essential Christian beliefs in subtle ways. Sociologist Christian Smith has described this reality as “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” which is now believed by many who consider themselves faithful Christians. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism consists of believing in some god who exists and created the world; a god who wants people to be simply congenial and kind; and that the goal of life is happiness and self-fulfillment. Perhaps most devastating is the general belief that good works secure a person’s place in heaven.

The secular temptation confuses beliefs with emotions, suggesting that all that matters is feelings and fulfillment. As the society has become more secular, even faithful church members unwittingly adopt strange and unbiblical ways of thinking and believing. Furthermore, the ambient theological liberalism around us has made inroads into many churches. Secularization exerts upon the church both passive and active pressure. The pressure is passive in that as society turns away from any semblance of a biblical morality, churches sacrifice confessional conviction on the altar of cultural relevance. But the pressure is also active in that it often makes explicit demands on the church to surrender its essential theological claims. In the last century, the demand was to abandon doctrines such as the virgin birth and the bodily resurrection in order to be considered intellectually respectable. In our times, the pressure often takes the form of demands to abandon a biblical, sexual morality in order to be considered morally acceptable. That deal, by the way, never works, even socially. The secular demand is eventually for the abandonment of all doctrines and teachings that conflict with the Spirit of the Age. But where churches abandon these teachings, the larger society does not.

There is no external threat—even in a secular age—that can truly threaten the gospel of Christ, nor the eternal promises that Christ has made to his church. Indeed, Jesus’ promise to his disciples in Matthew 16:18 is this: “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Not even death will truly threaten the promises of God in the gospel of Christ. The great threat we face is not to the church’s existence, but to its faithfulness. Nothing in the cosmos, not even the gale and torrent of a secular tide will negate the promise of Christ for his church. But the church’s faithfulness is always at stake, and that is particularly true in a secular age. We must be aware, discerning, and careful in our thinking, our preaching, and how we raise our children. If people can be secularized within our churches, they can also be secularized while living in our homes—if we are not marked by conviction and faithfulness…

This article is an excerpt from Dr. Mohler’s newest book, The Gathering Storm: Secularism, Culture, and the Church. For more information, click here. To order a copy of the book, click here.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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