Progressive Christianity

So often, we find our peers, our churches, and sometimes even ourselves twisting the holy words of the Bible to fit our wants, needs, and agendas. But the Bible and its teachings were created for a specific time and context, never for us to use for selfish gain or to place our interests above the Lord’s. In this article, we will be delving into what progressive Christianity is and how to distinguish it from truth. Towards the end, I will give some practical tips to avoid falling into the traps of progressive Christianity and explain what I do to check humanity’s hollow words against God’s everlasting Word. 

First, we need to establish what progressive Christianity looks like and address how it shows up in our society. According to Dr. Michael Kruger, a theologian with Reformed Theological Seminary, progressive Christianity “sells itself as a valid option for Christians that on the surface looks a lot like the Christian worldview and may seem in the eyes of many people to be more acceptable, more likable, a really more palatable version of the faith.”

Ultimately, progressive Christianity distorts God’s truth to fit human desires–– something that the Bible was never intended for. God’s Word has been crafted with extreme delicacy and intentionality, but progressive Christianity chooses to ignore the value of the words and instead twists them to fit into today’s world. Instead of being counter culture, progressive Christianity conforms directly to culture to make its members feel “comfortable.” 

Now that we know what progressive Christianity looks like, here are some of the ways it presents itself within the Christian community:

 

1. Preaching that we can somehow become equal to Christ.

Oftentimes, progressive Christianity teaches that we can learn to be “good”, righting our sins through our own actions. But the Gospel states again and again that Jesus is the only good human to ever have walked the earth. If we believe we can become good, we suddenly lose the entire need for the Gospel, and the role of Jesus in our lives becomes diminished.

The reward for humility and fear of the LORD is riches and honor and life. – Proverbs 22:4

This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. – Romans 3:22-26

2. Downplaying the reality of sin.

Similar to the first point, progressive Christianity often ignores talking about sin and instead only highlights the feel-good parts of the Bible; however, when people begin to ignore sin, they also ignore mercy. If you cheapen the price of your sin, you cheapen the glory of His grace. If you turn a blind eye to your fallenness, you are also turning a blind eye to His goodness.

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. – 1 John 1:8-10

3. The belief or practice of manifestation. 

I have seen some churches support the idea of manifestation. Manifestation is the “theory that through regular meditation and positive, constructive thought, you can make your dreams and desires a reality” (from spiritualhowto.com). Meditation and positive thinking seem like they would be constructive to the Christian faith, but manifestation completely takes out the element of God. Instead of praying to God to rely on His strength and His power and His plans, manifestation asserts that we can simply rely on our own strength to make things happen. Once again, this directly opposes the word of the Gospel and undermines the power of our God. 

Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight. – Proverbs 3:5

4. Altering or twisting the Word to fit popular beliefs or opinions

Progressive Christianity prides itself on being relatable, comfortable, and agreeable. Yet most of the time, the actual Word of God is none of these things. Many times, people who believe in progressive Christianity will only take snippets of verses or take them completely out of context. Sometimes, people will even change the Word itself to make readers more comfortable. This is a MAJOR red flag. One of the most recent examples of this is the new Passion Translation. This translation is advertised to be one for “the new generation” and melds “emotion with life-changing truth” (from thepassiontranslation.com). But the Bible is meant for EVERY generation, and God’s goodness has never been dependent on our emotions. 

Here is an example of just how much The Passion Translation alters the Word of God:

“Our Father dwelling in heavenly realms,

May the glory of Your Name

Be the center of on which our lives turn.

Manifest Your Kingdom-realm,

And cause Your every purpose to be fulfilled on earth,

Just as it is fulfilled in heaven.

We acknowledge You as our Provider

Of all we need each day, 

Forgive us the wrongs we have done as we ourselves release forgiveness to those who have wronged us.

Rescue us every time we face tribulations

And set us free from evil.

For you are the King who rules 

With power and glory forever.”

– Matthew 6:9-14 (TPT)

I don’t know about you, but that certainly isn’t the version of the Lord’s Prayer that I was taught…

The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever. – Isaiah 40:8

5. Teaching that we need to become more worldly.

People who fall into progressive Christianity often emphasize the importance of worldly things–– popularity, wealth, status, etc. A common sign of progressive Christianity within churches is the constant desire to please their audiences. They might do this through huge events where people and not God are the center focus. They might flash their wealth or their status as a sign of their own glory and not God’s. But most dangerously, they often cater their messages to what their audiences want to hear and not the Biblical truth that they need to hear. For example, they might preach only of God’s love and never regard His wrath when the two must go in tandem. Or because they downplay the reality of sin, as we discussed earlier, they might imply that repentance is not an important factor of faith and undermine the covenantal relationship between God and His people.

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. – Romans 12:2

After discussing the different ways progressive Christianity may present itself, I hope you can see the dangers of this belief system. One of the reasons it is so dangerous is because it looks so good to our human hearts. Plus, it’s hiding under the name of God which makes us feel secure in thinking it cannot be bad. Yet the Bible is so clear about defining the Gospel and we need to open our eyes and hearts to see its truth and combat the deceptions of our world. Here are a couple of my tips to help combat this rising epidemic of progressive Christianity –– I hope they inspire you to stand up for God’s truth in the midst of falsehood. 

Tip #1: Use the Bible as your source for everything.

As Christians, one of the best things we can do is be rooted within the Word. Let Truth be where your opinions, feelings, and actions stem. When we become well versed in His verses, we can more easily see progressive Christianity and falsehoods. If you’re not sure about something you hear from a peer or friend or church, check it against the Bible. It is crucial to develop Biblical discernment in a world so filled with deceptions to make us stray. And the best way to develop this discernment is by simply starting to read!

He replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.” – Luke 11:28

Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path. – Psalm 119:105

Tip #2: Be vigilant & diligent in determining who you listen to.

We are constantly being influenced by people whether it’s online, at church, at school, in the grocery store, etc. And we have a choice to follow whoever we find worth listening to. But words can be tricky. They can be deceiving and lead you astray. For example, I was following an account on Instagram that talked about Jesus and I loved it,  but after digging a little deeper into the words I was reading and paying a little more attention to who I was following, I found out I wasn’t following a Christian account at all, it was a platform for Mormons! It’s a little embarrassing for me to admit that, but it serves as a great example to show how crucial it is to pay attention to who you are following.

Are their words and actions Biblically based? Does their life reflect their teachings? Are they seeking God’s glory above all else? 

Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. – Matthew 7:15

Tip #3: Do not be afraid to speak out for the Truth 

Combatting progressive Christianity and the spread of a false gospel narrative requires people to stand firm in God’s Word and not be afraid to speak for His Truth. Jesus left His people the authority to speak out for truth, and we must not forget to put that authority into action. Do not let this world discourage you, for God has equipped you with everything you need to glorify Him. 

Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses. – 1 Timothy 6:12

I hope my words and research on this topic were able to give you some clarity or understanding about what progressive Christianity is, how to spot it, and how to combat it. I also hope you understand my words come without judgment, but rather the kind of honesty that precedes genuine love. As a Christian community, we cannot forsake truth for the worldly idea of love. We cannot sugarcoat God’s truth just to make ourselves or our neighbors feel comfortable. So I encourage you all to love people in the most genuine way possible–– by telling them the truth about Jesus Christ. 

Martin Luther on Christian Friendship

Over Christmas break, I had the privilege of sitting in the lecture hall and listening to the lectures of a dead 16th century professor. The professor’s name was Dr. Martin Luther.

It was actually me just reading Dr. Luther’s lectures to his seminary students covering Paul’s letter to the Galatians. His students transcribed his lectures using Latin shorthand. Luther read over the transcripts to make sure they were accurate. 21st century translator Haroldo Comacho translated the notes in modern day English in a way that seems like you are right there with Luther’s students listening to the latest lecture.

Luther’s lectures make you bathe in the Gospel of God’s free grace. If you wonder what it means to be “Gospel-centered” read Luther’s commentary on Galatians. For Luther, the Gospel is central to every aspect of the life of the believer—even friendship. Luther writes,

When the mind is overwhelmed with terror and feelings of sin, it cannot conceive there is hope. But hope is that God is merciful and will forgive sins on account of Christ. The mind only judges that God is angered toward sinners and that He accuses and condemns them. At this point, faith must lift up once again this afflicted and anguished conscience, as Christ said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name” (Matthew 18:20).

However, if there are no faithful brotherly hands to comfort such a depressed and defeated soul with and through God’s word, then hopelessness and death will follow. It is a dangerous thing for someone to be alone. “Woe to him who is alone when he falls,” says the Preacher, “and has not another to lift him up” (Ecclesiastes 4:10). Therefore, those who put together the regulations for those monks who live in solitude have been the occasion for many to fall into hopelessness…

For if man separates from the companionship of others for a day or two to exercise in prayer (as we read about Christ, who sometimes would go alone into the mountain and was in prayer all night) (Luke 5:15-16), there is no danger in that. But when a person is compelled continually to live a solitary life, that’s the devil’s own device, for when someone is tempted and is found alone, that person is not able to get up on his own, no, not even at the slightest temptation. – Martin Luther

Luther’s insight is important because in every age, there is the danger of losing the Gospel—even in friendship. Think about those weekly meetings you have with close Christian friends. You call the session “Accountability.” There is absolutely nothing wrong with accountability. You will be held accountable for your sins on the Last Day (2 Corinthians 5:10). But your account before God will be dripping with the blood of Jesus. Perhaps, we should call those sessions “Absolution” since we will be gloriously reminded once again that all of our sins have been forgiven by Christ’s sake in the presence of all the redeemed. In this article, we are going to explore Luther’s idea of Christian friendship in order to reform how we think community should be.

The Danger of Being Alone

For Luther, being alone should not be the norm for a Christian. Though it is permissible to be alone in prayer or meditation for a couple of days, excessive time away from others is dangerous for one’s soul. Excessive seclusion is dangerous for two reasons according to Luther. First, the heart and mind of the believer is fallen. Due to indwelling sin, the heart and the mind fails to perfectly embrace the Gospel’s promise of eternal life through Christ. Nobody perfectly believes the Gospel. Our hearts tend to run back to the Law to justify ourselves before God. God wrote the Law on our hearts when He created us (Romans 2:14-15) unlike other creatures in order that we would glorify Him and enjoy Him forever. But after we sinned in Adam, we don’t have the ability to do that which is original sin). But our sin makes us think we can. The mind recognizes we fail and sin against God in thought, word, and deed. Then the heart falls into hopelessness and despair since we are resistant to the grace of God. The fallen heart can not conceive of a God who describes Himself as “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6).

The second danger of being alone is the temptation of Satan.

Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. – 1 Peter 5:8

In Zechariah 3:1, Satan tries to accuse Zechariah before the throne of God. James 4:7 tells us to resist the devil in the context of how God is merciful to forgive our sins. Perhaps he tries to tempt us to think that God does not give grace to the humble (James 4:6). How Satan comes to tempt us is a mystery. But we know he wants to devour us by getting us to think God is not merciful and gracious and abounding in steadfast love for us. He wants us to think God is not good, wise, or loving in His sovereignty over our suffering. He wants us to think suffering is God’s wrath against our sins. He wants us to think our sins exceed Christ’s mercy and that no one would stay by our side if we confess our sins. We are not powerful enough on our own to defeat our sin and Satan. Depression and hopelessness will reign.

The Failure of Moralism

Luther calls out the unbiblical spiritual discipline of living in a monastery as a monk as insufficient for regaining our assurance of salvation. Luther, above all people, knew the malnourishment the monastery was to his soul. There is not enough praying, confessing, fasting, or physical punishment he could do to know he was righteous before God.

Good works can never satisfy God. There is not enough forsaking of sin we can do in order to be righteous before Him (Romans 3:20). This is why mere accountability is not enough. True friends call out each other’s sins, but they do not leave each other there lest they become “overwhelmed with excessive sorrow” (2 Corinthians 2:7).

Moreover, individual spiritual disciplines cannot bring us out of hopelessness. A practice does not have that power. But Jesus does! But unfortunately, we tend to put our trust in our practices rather than Jesus because they are about our performance and not Christ’s finished work.

These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. – Colossians‬ ‭2:23‬

The Triumph of Absolution

As Luther says, our greatest hope is that “God is merciful and will forgive sins on account of Christ.” We cannot know the grace of God by nature. The only thing we can know individually by nature and reason is His Law. Then, when we look into the mirror of the Law, we see God’s righteousness and our sin. Reason can only testify to God’s judgement against our sins. The only way humankind can know the grace of God in Christ is by His special revelation in the Scriptures. How did you become a Christian? Someone preached to you (Romans 10:14).

Your Christian life began by someone preaching to you the forgiveness of sins that Christ offers and it continues that way. You should have Christian friends around constantly telling you how your sins are forgiven and that you should lift up your downcast soul. This is the practice of absolution.

The Biblical Basis of Absolution

Luther mentions how God blesses this practice when he quotes Matthew 18:20.

For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them. – Matthew 18:20

While this passage is about church discipline, absolution is in view since the purpose of church discipline is to restore the brother or sister to fellowship. Moreover, what precedes this passage is the parable of the lost sheep. God desires to find and restore our wayward heart, not cast it away. He desires us to be reconciled to Him. This is why He calls us to be ambassadors of Christ and make God’s appeal to the world on His behalf (2 Corinthians 5:18-20).

Jesus commissioned his disciples by saying, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (John 20:23). As Protestants, we get uneasy about someone absolving another of their sins because of how Romanism abused this practice. The abuse is that Romanists require more than repentance and faith in Christ in order to be absolved. This is contrary to Scripture since it commissions us as ambassadors. A good ambassador proclaims the exact word of the king. An enemy of the king proclaims a message contrary to the king. That double agent commits treason and is worthy of death. It’s a fearful thing to abuse the practice of absolution.

The Character of the Absolver

The character of the one who absolves is this:

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. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. – 1 Timothy 1:15-16

The only one worthy to absolve sin is the one who considers him or herself the chief of sinners. Moreover, it is the one who recognizes that we are all equal at the cross. He or she should not be scandalized by another’s sins since he knows that he has thought, spoken, or done worse. This person recognizes that we have all been loved by the same Love, covered with the same Blood, clothed with the same Righteousness, and have an equal inheritance with the Father.

The Message of Absolution

The medicine that the one who absolves to the wounded soul is this: “Christ came into the world to save sinners.” No matter how dark and deep your sin is and how broken you are, Jesus came to fix you. He came to overwhelm our sins by His blood and righteousness. Your sin cannot outrun the grace of God just as you cannot out run the east and the west (Psalm 103:12). Jesus cares about His glory so much that He will not allow your sin to thwart His mission:

All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. – John‬ ‭6:37-40‬

Christ will not fail you; He will save you since He has intimately bound His life with yours. Your suffering is not God’s wrath but what He ultimately means to produce hope in us since “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1-5). Satan can no longer accuse us since God has forgiven us all our trespasses, “by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (Colossians‬ ‭2:14-15‬).

This is the message that Christians should proclaim to their Christian friends. Friends do not let friends go without Christ.

Play (Or Plod) To Win: Faith That Takes the Long View

I grew up with two brothers and down the street from three more boys, so I learned right away that I’d never score a touchdown if I didn’t know how to juke. I was fast, but so were they. Without a quick stop, pump, and twist, I’d never make it to the bushes. And, if I did, Trent and Justin became referees who scrutinized an invisible line to make sure I’d crossed into the end zone. We usually walked back to the house with scratches down our arms from crashing into the shrubs. To win, you had to fight. And to fight, you had to snag passes, juke out the boys, and sprint barefoot down the grass.

Football wasn’t the only backyard competition. There was our annual fall Wiffleball classic, March Madness in the driveway, and even a game for the swingset, where we jumped out midair and grabbed onto one of the chains. I think it was called See-Who-Can-Look-Most-Like-Tarzan.

And so I learned to love winning (and even train for it). I learned to pitch a strike and shoot a free throw and launch out of the swing. Why play with the boys if you couldn’t beat them now and then? Why juke and run without bushes for an end zone and the glory of walking back to the house a winner?

I think Paul agreed:

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it… So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control. – 1 Cor. 9:24, 26-27

As brothers and sisters in Jesus, Hebrews 12 tells us we have “a race set before us” that we’re commanded to “run with endurance.” But there’s something else, too. There’s an end zone. A ninth inning. A finish line.

There’s a game to play in front of us, yes, but there’s also a joy.

And we’ll need faith in that prize because, in the meantime, we’ll be juking and running and sweating our way down the field.

Play the Game (Or Plant the Garden)

Just before Hebrews 12 calls us to race, Hebrews 11 lets us stand in the bleachers and watch other men and women empowered by God run well.

Not fast, but well.

Focus your binoculars on Moses, who chose “rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin… for he endured as seeing him who is invisible” (Heb. 11:25). The only way to “see” what’s “invisible” is by faith. 

The assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. – Hebrews 11:1

Maybe Hebrews 11 sounds like an Olympic track and field event, but to me, it seems more like a garden: a place where people work quietly and wait for a harvest they can’t see yet.

My own garden has reshaped my idea of endurance. There’s more to it than the grit and grind of running. Sometimes for me, it looks more like faithful plodding, waiting for things to sprout, and working against the weeds while I wait. Endurance rooted in faith takes the long view. In the wonderful words of Eugene Peterson, it’s “a long obedience in the same direction.”

See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it until it receives the early and late rains. You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. – James 5:7-8

Faithful endurance plants and waters and tends and weeds and prunes and waters again. It runs, yes, but only on legs that have been carefully exercised, day after day.

“Strengthen your weak knees,” Hebrews 12 calls, “and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed” (Heb. 12:12-13).

Don’t run a race you haven’t trained for. Don’t speed through life looking “cool” and “Christian”, but on knees that are watery.

No – buckle down. Work until you get callouses. Serve (difficult) people. Disciple younger Christians and be discipled yourself (Heb. 12:5-11). Like Abel, give God the first and best of everything you have. Store His Word in your heart like a farmer tucks his wheat away before the storm.

Learn how to juke so you can keep running toward the end zone.

Faith For the Win

But how can we run well when the field is long and littered with linesmen? How could Abel and Abraham and Sarah and Moses press through the pain of waiting? How could Jesus bear all the black weight of the cross?

The Greek origin of “endurance” in Hebrews 12 surprised me. Hupomone means “cheerful or hopeful endurance.”[i]

It’s running with an end zone ahead and faith that you’ll make it.

We endure by “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross” (Heb. 12:2).

There’s no point learning how to juke and shoot and swing if there’s no goal to the game. The good, good news is that there is an end, and it’s better than any walk-off home run or overtime goal. Linesmen and outfielders and goalies play “to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable” (1 Cor. 9:25, emphasis added).

In a crescendo of all Hebrews, the author lets us taste that win:

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem… and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. – Hebrews 12:22, 24

Here’s the beautiful thing about looking to Jesus: He hasn’t just beat out a path for us as the founder, but He is still running beside us as the perfector of our weak and wobbly faith. His joy is our joy. His win is our win.

So we can learn how to juke out sin and faithfully run – or plod – toward the end zone and the unbeatable win of getting crowned by King Jesus.

Because you have kept my word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world. I am coming soon. Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown. – Revelation 3:10-11

 

Author Bio:

Bethany J. Melton writes from her home on a road called Edgewood, where she takes long walks, reads Wendell Berry novels, and tries to garden like Beatrix Potter. She journals on her blog about truth, hope, and home, and also works on staff for the (really wonderful) Young Writer’s Workshop.

 

[i] Zodhiates, Spiros. The Complete Word Study New Testament (AMG Publishers: Chattanooga, TN, 1991), Greek Testament, 74