Article of the Month
by J. Gresham Machen
If what we have said so far be correct, there is now living a Saviour who is worthy of our trust, even Christ Jesus the Lord, and a deadly need of our souls for which we come to Him, namely, the curse of God’s law, the terrible guilt of sin. But these things are not all that is needed in order that we may have faith. It is also necessary that there should be contact between the Saviour and our need. Christ is a sufficient Saviour; but what has He done, and what will He do, not merely for the men who were with Him in the days of His flesh, but for us? How is it that Christ touches our lives?
The answer which the Word of God gives to that question is perfectly specific and perfectly plain. Christ touches our lives, according to the New Testament, through the Cross. We deserved eternal death, in accordance with the curse of God’s law; but the Lord Jesus, because He loved us, took upon Himself the guilt of our sins and died instead of us on Calvary. And faith consists simply in our acceptance of that wondrous gift. When we accept the gift, we are clothed, entirely without merit of our own, by the righteousness of Christ; when God looks upon us, He sees not our impurity but the spotless purity of Christ, and accepts us “as righteous in His sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.” That view of the Cross, it cannot be denied, runs counter to the mind of the natural man. It is not, indeed, complicated or obscure; on the contrary it is so simple that a child can understand, and what is really obscure is the manifold modern effort to explain the Cross away in such fashion as to make it more agreeable to human pride. But certainly it is mysterious, and certainly it demands for its acceptance a tremendous sense of sin and guilt. That sense of sin and guilt, that moral awakening of a soul dead in sin, is the work of the Spirit of God; without the Spirit of God no human persuasion will ever bring men to faith. But that does not mean that we should be careless about the way in which we proclaim the gospel: because the proclamation of the message is insufficient to induce faith, it does not follow that it is unnecessary; on the contrary it is the means which the Spirit Himself graciously uses in bringing men to Christ. Every effort, therefore, should be made, with the help of God, to remove objections to this “word of the Cross” and to present it in all its gracious power.
No systematic effort can indeed here be made to deal with the objections. All that can be done is to mention one or two of them, in order that our present point, that the Cross of Christ is the special basis of Christian faith, may become plain.
In the first place, then, the view of the Cross which has just been outlined is often belittled as being merely a “theory of the atonement.” We can have the fact of the atonement, it is said, no matter what particular theory of it we hold, and indeed even without holding any particular theory of it at all. So this substitutionary view, it is said, is after all only one theory among many.
This objection is based upon a mistaken view of the distinction between fact and theory, and upon a somewhat ambiguous use of the word “theory.” What is; meant by a “theory”? Undoubtedly the word often has rather an unfavorable sound; and the use of it in the present connection might seem to imply that the view of the atonement which is designated as a “theory” is a mere effort of man to explain in his own way what God has given. But might not God have revealed the “theory” of a thing just as truly as the thing itself; might He not Himself have given the explanation when He gave the thing? In that case the explanation just as much as the thing itself comes to us with a divine authority, and it is impossible to accept one without accepting the other.
We have not yet, however, quite gotten to the heart of the matter. Men say that they accept the fact of the atonement without accepting the substitutionary theory of it, and indeed without being sure of any theory of it at all. The trouble with this attitude is that the moment we say “atonement” we have already overstepped the line that separates fact from theory; an “atonement” even in the most general and most indefinite sense that could conceivably be given to the word, cannot possibly be a mere fact, but is a fact as explained by its purpose and results. If we say that an event was an “atonement” for sin or an “atonement” in the sense of an establishment of harmony between God and man, we have done more than designate the mere external event. What we have really done is to designate the event with an explanation of its meaning. So the atonement wrought by Christ can never be a bare fact, in the sense with which we are now dealing. The bare fact is simply the death of a Jew upon a cross in the first century of our era, and that bare fact is entirely without value to anyone; what gives it its value is the explanation of it as a means by which sinful man was brought into the presence of God. It is impossible for us to obtain the slightest benefit from a mere contemplation of the death of Christ; all the benefit comes from our knowledge of the meaning of that death, or in other words (if the term be used in a high sense) from our “theory” of it. If, therefore, we speak of the bare “fact” of the atonement, as distinguished from the “theory” of it, we are indulging in a misleading use of words; the bare fact is the death, and the moment we say “atonement” we have committed ourselves to a theory. The important thing, then, is, since we must have some theory, that the particular theory that we hold shall be correct.
But, it may be said, might not God really have accomplished some wonderful thing by the death of Christ without revealing to us, except in the most general terms, what it was? Might He not have told us simply that our salvation depends upon the death of Christ without at all telling us why that is so? We answer that He certainly might have done so; but the question is whether He has actually done so. There are many things which He might conceivably have done and yet has not actually done. Conceivably, for example, He might have saved us by placing us in a condition of unconsciousness and then awakening us to a new life in which sin should have no place. But it is perfectly plain that as a matter of fact He has not done so; and even we, with our poor finite intelligence, may perhaps see that His way is better than that. So it is perfectly conceivable that He might have saved us by the death of Christ without revealing to us how He did so; in that case we should have to prostrate ourselves before a crucifix with an understanding far lower than that which is found in the lowest forms of Roman Catholic piety. He might conceivably have treated us thus. But, thank God, He has not done so; thank God He has been pleased, in His infinite grace, to deal with us- not as with sticks and stones, but as with persons; thank God He has been pleased to reveal to us in the Cross of Christ a meaning that stills the despairing voice of conscience and puts in our hearts a song of joy that shall resound to His praise so long as eternity endures.
That richness of meaning is found only in the blessed doctrine that upon the Cross the Lord took our place, that He offered Himself “a sacrifice to satisfy divine justice, and reconcile us to God.” There are indeed other ways of contemplating the Cross, and they should certainly not be neglected by the Christian man. But it is a sad and fatal mistake to treat those other ways as though they lay on the same plane with this one fundamental way; in reality the other “theories” of the atonement lose all their meaning unless they are taken in connection with this one blessed “theory.” When taken with this way of looking upon the Cross, the other ways are full of helpfulness to the Christian man; but without it they lead only to confusion and despair. Thus the Cross of Christ is certainly a noble example of self-sacrifice; but if it be only a noble example of self-sacrifice, it has no comfort for burdened souls; it certainly shows how God hates sin; but if it does nothing but show how God hates sin, it only deepens our despair; it certainly exhibits the love of God, but if it does nothing but exhibit the love of God it is a mere meaningless exhibition which seems unworthy of God. Many things are taught us by the Cross; but the other things are taught us only if the really central meaning is preserved, the central meaning upon which all the rest depends. On the cross the penalty of our sins was paid; it is as though we ourselves had died in fulfillment of the just curse of the law; the handwriting of ordinances that was against us was wiped out; and henceforth we have an entirely new life in the full favor of God.
There is, however, another objection to this “word of the Cross.” The objection comes from those who place faith in a person in opposition to acceptance of a doctrine, especially a doctrine that is based upon what happened long ago. Can we not, it is said, trust Christ as a present Saviour without accepting a doctrine that explains the death that He died in the first century of our era? This question, in one form or another, is often asked, and it is often answered in the affirmative. Indeed, the doctrinal message about Christ is often represented as a barrier that needs to be done away in order that we may have Christ Himself; faith in a doctrine should be removed, it is said, in order that faith in a Person may remain.
Whatever estimate may finally be made of this way of thinking, it must at any rate be admitted at the start that it involves a complete break with the primitive Christian Church. If any one thing must be clear to the historian, it is that Christianity at the beginning was founded squarely upon an account of things that had happened, upon a piece of news, or in other words, upon a “gospel.” The matter is particularly clear in the summary which Paul in I Cor. xv. 3-7 gives of the primitive Jerusalem tradition: “How that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures; and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the Scriptures.” The earliest Christian Church in Jerusalem clearly was founded not merely upon what always was true but upon things that had happened, not merely upon eternal truths of religion but upon historical facts. The historical facts upon which it was founded were, moreover, not bare facts but facts that had a meaning; it was not only said that “Christ died” — that would be (at least if the word “Christ” were taken as a mere proper name and not in the full, lofty signification of “Messiah”) a bare fact — but it was said “Christ died for our sins,” and that was a fact with the meaning of the fact — in other words it was a doctrine.
This passage is of course not isolated in the New Testament teaching, but is merely a summary of what is really the presupposition of the whole. Certainly the grounding of Christianity upon historical facts, upon events as distinguished from mere eternal principles, cannot be regarded as a point in which the apostolic Church was in contradiction to the teaching which Jesus Himself gave in the days of His flesh, but finds it justification in the words which Jesus uttered. Of course if Jesus really, as the New Testament books all represent, came — to use the language of a certain distinguished preacher — not primarily to say something but to do something, and if that something was done by His death and resurrection, then it is natural that the full explanation of what was done could not be given until the death and resurrection had occurred. It is a great mistake, therefore, to regard the Sermon on the Mount as somehow more sacred or more necessary to the nurture of the Christian life than, for example, the eighth chapter of Romans. But although the full explanation of redemption could not be given until the redeeming event had taken place, yet our Lord did, by way of prophecy, even in the days of His flesh, point forward to what was to come. He did point forward to catastrophic events by which salvation was to be given to men; all efforts to eliminate this element in His teaching about the Kingdom of God have failed. During Jesus’ earthly ministry the redeeming work which the Old Testament prophets had predicted was still in the future; to the apostolic Church it was in the past: but both Jesus and the apostolic Church did proclaim, the one by way of prophecy, the other by way of historical testimony, an event upon which the hopes of believers were based.
Thus the notion that insistence upon the message of redemption through the death and resurrection of our Lord places a barrier between ourselves and Him was not shared by the earliest Christian Church; on the contrary, in the apostolic age that message was regarded as the source of all light and joy. And in the present instance, as in so many other instances, it can be shown that the apostles (and our Lord Himself) were right. The truth is that the whole opposition between faith in a person and acceptance of a message about the person must be given up. It is based, as we have already seen, upon a false psychology; a person cannot be trusted without acceptance of the facts about the person. But in the case of Jesus the notion is particularly false; for it is just the message about Jesus, the message that sets forth his Cross and resurrection, that brings us into contact with Him. Without that message He would be forever remote — a great Person, but one with whom we could have no communion — but through that message He comes to be our Saviour. True communion with Christ comes not when a man merely says, in contemplating the Cross, “This was a righteous man,” or “This was a son of God,” but when he says with tears of gratitude and joy, “He loved me and gave Himself for me.”
There is a wonderful clause in the Westminster Shorter Catechism which puts the true state of the case in classic form. “Faith in Jesus Christ,” says the Catechism, “is a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon Him alone for salvation, as He is offered to us in the gospel.” In that last clause, “as He is offered to us in the gospel,” we have the centre and core of the whole matter. The Lord Jesus Christ does us no good, no matter how great He may be, unless He is offered to us; and as a matter of fact He is offered to us in the good news of His redeeming work. There are other conceivable ways in which He might have been offered to us; but this has the advantage of being God’s way. And I rather think that in the long run we may •come to see that God’s way is best.
At the beginning, it is true, there may be much that we cannot understand; there are things about the way of salvation that we may at first have to take in the fullest sense “on faith.” The greatest offence of all, perhaps, is the wondrous simplicity of the gospel, which is so different from the plans which we on our part had made. Like Naaman the Syrian we are surprised when our rich fees and our letters of introduction are spurned, when all our efforts to save ourselves by our own character or our own good works are counted as not of the slightest avail. “Are not Abana and Phar-par, rivers of Damascus,” we say, “better than all the waters of Israel?” Are not our own efforts to put into operation the “principles of Jesus,” or to “make Christ Master” by our own efforts in our lives, better than this strange message of the Cross? But like Naaman we may find, if we put away our pride, if we are willing to take God at His word, if we confess that His way is best, that our flesh, so foul with sin, may come again like the flesh of a little child and we may be clean.
And then will be revealed to us the fuller wonders of salvation; then, as the years go by, we shall come to understand ever more and more the glory of the Cross. It may seem strange at first that Christ should be offered to us not in some other way, but so specifically in this way; but as we grow in knowledge and in grace we shall come to see with increasing fullness that no way could possibly be better than this. Christ is offered to us not in general, but “in the gospel”; but in the gospel there is included all that the heart of man can wish.
We ought never, therefore, to set present communion with Christ, as so many are doing, in opposition to the gospel; we ought never to say that we are interested in what Christ does for us now, but are not so much interested in what He did long ago. Do you know what soon happens when men talk in that way? The answer is only too plain. They soon lose all contact with the real Christ; what they call “Christ” in the soul soon comes to have little to do with the actual person, Jesus of Nazareth; their religion would really remain essentially the same if scientific history should prove that such a person as Jesus never lived. In other words, they soon came to substitute the imaginings of their own hearts for what God has revealed; they substitute mysticism for Christianity as the religion of their souls.
That danger should be avoided by the Christian man with all his might and main. God has given us an anchor for our souls; He has anchored us to Himself by the message of the Cross. Let us never cast that anchor off; let us never weaken our connection with the events upon which our faith is based. Such dependence upon the past will never prevent us from having present communion with Christ; our communion with Him will be as inward, as intimate, as untrammelled by any barriers of sense, as the communion of which the mystics boast; but unlike the communion of the mystics it will be communion not with the imaginings of our own hearts, but with the real Saviour Jesus Christ. The gospel of redemption through the Cross and resurrection of Christ is not a barrier between us and Christ, but it is the blessed tie, by which, with the cords of His love. He has bound us forever to Him.
Acceptance of the Lord Jesus Christ, as He is offered to us in the gospel of His redeeming work, is saving faith. Despairing of any salvation to be obtained by our own efforts, we simply trust in Him to save us; we say no longer, as we contemplate the Cross, merely “He saved others” or “He saved the world” or “He saved the Church”; but we say, every one of us, by the strange individualizing power of faith, “He loved me and gave Himself for me.” When a man once says that, in his heart and not merely with his lips, then no matter what his guilt may be, no matter how far he is beyond any human pale, no matter how little opportunity he has for making good the evil that he has done, he is a ransomed soul, a child of God forever.
At this point, a question may perhaps be asked. We have said that saving faith is acceptance of Christ, not merely in general, but as He is offered to us in the gospel. How much, then, of the gospel, it may be asked, does a man need to accept in order that he may be saved; what, to put it baldly, are the minimum doctrinal requirements in order that a man may be a Christian? That is a question which, in one form or another, I am often asked; but it is also a question which I have never answered, and which I have not the slightest intention of answering now. Indeed it is a question which I think no human being can answer. Who can presume to say for certain what is the condition of another man’s soul; who can presume to say whether the other man’s attitude toward Christ, which he can express but badly in words, is an attitude of saving faith or not? This is one of the things which must surely be left to God.
There is indeed a certain reason why it is natural to ask the question to which we have just referred; it is natural because of the existence of a visible Church. The visible Church should strive to receive, into a communion for prayer and fellowship and labor, as many as possible of those who are united to Christ in saving faith, and it should strive to exclude as many as possible of those who are not so united to Him. If it does not practise exclusion as well as inclusion, it will soon come to stand for nothing at all, but will be merged in the life of the world; it will soon become like salt that has lost its savour, fit only to be cast out and to be trodden under foot of men.
In order, therefore, that the purity of the Church may be preserved, a confession of faith in Christ must be required of all those who would become Church members. But what kind of confession must it be? I for my part think that it ought to be not merely a verbal confession, but a credible confession. One of the very greatest evils of present-day religious life, it seems to me, is the reception into the Church of persons who merely repeat a form of words such as “I accept Christ as my personal Saviour,” without giving the slightest evidence to show that they know what such words mean. As a consequence of this practice, hosts of persons are being received into the Church on the basis, as has been well said, of nothing more than a vague admiration for the moral character of Jesus, or else on the basis of a vague purpose of engaging in humanitarian work. One such person within the Church does more harm to the cause of Christ, I for my part believe, than ten such persons outside; and the whole practice ought to be radically changed. The truth is that the ecclesiastical currency in our day has been sadly debased; Church membership, as well as Church office, no longer means what it ought to mean. In view of such a situation, we ought, I think, to have reality at least; instead of comforting ourselves with columns of church statistics, we ought to face the facts; we ought to recall this paper currency and get back to a standard of gold.
To that end, it should, I think, be made much harder than it now is to enter the Church: the confession of faith that is required should be a credible confession; and if it becomes evident upon examination that a candidate has no notion of what he is doing, he should be advised to enter upon a course of instruction before he becomes a member of the Church. Such a course of instruction, moreover, should be conducted not by comparatively untrained laymen, but ordinarily by the ministers; the excellent institution of the catechetical class should be generally revived. Those churches, like the Lutheran bodies in America, which have maintained that institution, have profited enormously by its employment; and their example deserves to be generally followed.
After all, however, such inquiries into the state of the souls of men and women and children who desire to enter into the Church must be regarded as at the best very rough and altogether provisional. Certainly requirements for Church membership should be distinguished in the sharpest possible way from requirements for the ministry. The confusion of these two things in the ecclesiastical discussions of the past few years has resulted in great injustice to us who are called conservatives in the Church. We have been represented sometimes as though we were requiring an acceptance of the infallibility of Scripture or of the confession of faith of our Church from those who desire to become Church members, whereas in point of fact we have been requiring these things only from candidates for ordination. Surely there is a very important distinction here. Many persons — to take a secular example — can be admitted to an educational institution as students who yet are not qualified for a position in the faculty. Similarly many persons can be admitted to Church membership who yet ought not to be admitted to the ministry; they are qualified to learn, but not qualified to teach; they should not be allowed to stand forth as accredited teachers with the official endorsement of the Church. This analogy, it is true, does not by any means altogether hold: the Church is not, we think, merely an educational institution, but the visible representative in the world of the body of Christ; and its members are not merely seekers after God, but those who have already found; they are not merely interested in Christ, but are united to Christ by the regenerating act of the Spirit of God. Nevertheless, although the analogy does not fully hold, it does hold far enough to illustrate what we mean. There is a wide margin of difference between qualifications for Church membership and qualifications for office — especially the teaching office that we call the ministry. Many a man, with feeble, struggling belief, torn by many doubts, may be admitted into the fellowship of the Church and of the sacraments; it would be heartless to deprive him of the comfort which such fellowship affords; to such persons the Church freely extends its nurture to the end that they may be led into ever fuller knowledge and ever firmer faith. But to admit such persons to the ministry would be a crime against Christ’s little ones, who look to the ministry for an assured word as to the way by which they shall be saved. It is not, however, even such persons to whom chiefly we have reference when we advocate today a greater care in admitting men to the ministry. It is not men who are struggling with doubts and difficulties about the gospel to whose admission we chiefly object, but men who are perfectly satisfied with another gospel; it is not men of ill-assured faith, but men of assured unbelief.
Even with regard to Church membership, as distinguished from the ministry, there is, as we have seen, a limit beyond which exclusion must certainly be practised; not only a desire to enter the Church should be required but also some knowledge of what entering the Church means, not only a confession of faith but a reasonably credible confession. But the point that we are now making is that such requirements ought clearly to be recognized as provisional; they do not determine a man’s standing before God, but they only determine, with the best judgment that God has given to feeble and ignorant men, a man’s standing in the visible Church. That is one reason why we must refuse to answer, in any definite and formal way, the question as to the minimum doctrinal requirements that are necessary in order that a man may be a Christian.
There is, however, also another reason. The other reason is that the very asking of the question often betokens an unfortunate attitude with regard to Christian truth. For our part we have not much sympathy with the present widespread desire of finding some greatest common denominator which shall unite men of different Christian bodies; for such a greatest common denominator is often found to be very small indeed. Some men seem to devote most of their energies to the task of seeing just how little of Christian truth they can get along with. For our part, we regard it as a perilous business; we prefer, instead of seeing how little of Christian truth we can get along with, to see just how much of Christian truth we can obtain. We ought to search the Scriptures reverently and thoughtfully and pray God that he may lead us into an ever fuller understanding of the truth that can make us wise unto salvation. There is no virtue whatever in ignorance, but much virtue in a knowledge of what God has revealed.
John Gresham Machen (1881-1937), was an American Presbyterian scholar and apologist. Born in Baltimore, he was educated at Johns Hopkins, Princeton University and Theological Seminary, Marburg, and Gottingen. He was ordained in 1914. He taught NT at Princeton Seminary from 1906 to 1929, apart from a brief period of YMCA service in France. As a defender of the classic Reformed position, he was influenced by his teacher B.B. Warfield. When Warfield died in 1921, the mantle of leadership for the “Princeton Theology” fell upon Machen. He resigned in 1929 due to the Liberal realignment of the seminary. Machen was a principal founder of Westminster Theological Seminary (1929) and what is now the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (1936). He served as president and professor of NT at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA from 1929 to 1937.
In 1935 he was tried and found guilty of insubordination by a presbytery convened at Trenton, New Jersey, on charges brought by the general assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the USA. It condemned him for activities in connection with an independent mission board. He was forbidden to defend himself and was suspended from the Presbyterian (PCUSA) ministry. Machen is regarded by friend and foe as a leading conservative apologist in the modernist-fundamentalist era. Among his most significant publications are The Origin of Paul's Religion (1927); Christianity and Liberalism (1923): most definitive of his thought; New Testament for Beginners (1923); The Virgin Birth of Christ (1930) and What is Faith? (1925).
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