Of First Importance

Christianity begins with a triumphant indicative,” wrote Dr. J. Gresham Machen in his line-in-the-sand book Christianity and Liberalism. Writing in the early 20th century, Machen clearly saw the difference between liberalism (liberal church) and Christianity when he said “Liberalism begins by telling the sinner what he must do; Christianity begins by telling the sinner what God has done.” That is what Machen meant by “triumphant indicative”—an indicative being a statement of fact. And the Gospel is a triumphant statement of fact: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day…” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).

In Machen’s day, the liberal church talked a lot about the social Gospel (feeding the poor, housing people, social injustice and the like). They got away from what God had done and started talking a great deal about what man must do. Pretty soon, it became all they talked about—Jesus’ accomplished work became an afterthought. Ironically, the fundamental branch of the church in the early 20th century headed down a different path but ended up in the same place. Slowly, various renditions of “don’t drink, dance or chew or go with girls who do” snuck into their Gospel proclamation. In its worst cases, it became difficult to know who was doing the saving: “Is it my behavior or is it Jesus’ accomplished work?”

Now there is another movement within the church that may be in the early stages of crowding out the “triumphant indicative” of the Gospel. It goes by a variety of names but the one used most is “missional.” They talk a great deal about “serving the community” and not being a “come and see” church but being a “go and be” church instead—laudable aspirations. But we must remember our history. Liberalism and fundamentalism started out well-intended, too. Sadly, the church has a long record of muddying the Gospel; not intending to do so but it inevitably happens when we start thinking we can improve upon the church’s chief message.

Christianity,” observed Machen, “is a religion founded not on aspirations, but on facts.” And it is those facts that are our privilege and honor to proclaim; as the Apostle Paul says, it is “of first importance” we do so.

Pastor Rich Hamlin
October 6, 2011

J. Gresham Machen. Christianity and Liberalism (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1946)


  1. Amen!
    Sounds like the liberals and fundamentalists lost the ability to rightly divide God’s word into law / gospel(imperative / indicative).

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