J. Gresham Machen
Because of the fundamental nature of faith, as it has been set forth, on the basis of the New Testament teaching, in the last chapter, it is natural to find that in the New Testament faith, as the reception of a free gift, is placed in sharpest contrast with any intrusion of human merit; it is natural to find that faith is sharply contrasted with works. The contrast is really implied by the New Testament throughout, and in one book, the Epistle to the Galatians, it forms the express subject of the argument. That book from the beginning to the end is a mighty polemic in defence of the doctrine of justification by faith alone; and as such it has rightly been called the Magna Charta of Christian liberty. At the beginning of the sixteenth century the world was lying in darkness; but God then raised up a man who read this Epistle with his own eyes, and the Reformation was born. So it may be in our own day. Again, the world is sinking into bondage; the liberty of the sons of God is again giving place to the bondage of a religion of merit: but God still lives, and His Spirit again may bring the charter of our liberty to light.
Meanwhile a strange darkness covers the eyes of men; the message of the great Epistle, so startlingly clear to the man whose eyes have been opened, is hidden by a mass of misinterpretation as absurd in its way as the mediaeval rubbish of the fourfold sense of Scripture which the Reformation brushed aside. Grammatico-historical interpretation is still being favored in theory, but despite is being done to it (by preachers if not by scholars) in practice; and the Apostle is being made to say anything that men wish him to have said. A new Reformation, we think, like the Reformation of the sixteenth century, would be marked, among other things, by a return to plain common sense; and the Apostle would be allowed, despite our likes and dislikes, to say what he really meant to say.
But what did the Apostle, in the Epistle to the Galatians, really mean to say; against what was he writing in that great polemic; and what was he setting up in place of that which he was endeavoring to destroy?
The answer which many modern writers are giving to this question is that the Apostle is arguing merely against an external ceremonial religion in the interests of a religion based on great principles; that he is arguing against a piecemeal conception of morality which makes morality consist in a series of disconnected rules, in the interests of a conception that draws out human conduct naturally from a central root in love; that he is arguing, in other words, against the “letter of the law” in the interests of its “spirit.”
This interpretation, we think, involves an error which cuts away the very vitals of the Christian religion. Like other fatal errors, indeed, it does contain an element of truth; in one passage, at least, in the Epistle to the Galatians Paul does seem to point to the external character of the ceremonial law as being inferior to the higher (or to use modern terminology, more “spiritual”) stage to which religion, under the new dispensation, had come. But that passage is isolated merely, and certainly does not in itself give the key to the meaning of the Epistle. On the contrary, even in that passage, when it is taken in its context, the inferiority of the old dispensation as involving ceremonial requirements is really put merely as a sign of an inferiority that is deeper still; and it is that deeper inferiority which the Epistle as a whole is concerned to set forth. The ceremonial character of the Old Testament law, so inferior to the inwardness of the new dispensation, was intended by God to mark the inferiority of any dispensation of law as distinguished from a dispensation of grace.
Of course a word of caution should again at this point be injected. Paul never means to say that the old dispensation was merely a dispensation of law; he always admits, and indeed insists upon, the element of grace which ran through it from beginning to end, the element of grace which appeared in the Promise. But his opponents in Galatia had rejected that element of grace; and their use of the Old Testament law, as distinguished from its right use as a schoolmaster unto Christ, really made of the old dispensation a dispensation of law and nothing more.
What then, according to Paul, was the real, underlying inferiority of that dispensation of law; how was it to be contrasted with the new dispensation which Christ had ushered in? It is hard to see how the answer to this question can really be regarded as obscure: the Apostle has poured forth his very soul to make the matter plain. Most emphatically the contrast was not between a lower law and a higher law; it was not between an external, piecemeal conception of the law and a conception which reduces it to great underlying principles; but it was a contrast between any kind of law, no matter how sublimated, provided only it be conceived of as a way of obtaining merit, and the absolutely free grace of God.
This contrast is entirely missed by the interpretation that prevails popularly in the Modernist Church: the advocates of “salvation by character” have supposed that the polemic of the Apostle was turned merely against certain forgotten ceremonialists of long ago, while in reality it is turned quite as much against them. It is turned, indeed, against any man who seeks to stand in God’s sight on the basis of his own merit instead of on the basis of the sacrifice which Christ offered to satisfy divine justice upon the cross. The truth is that the prevailing Modernist interpretation of Galatians, which is in some respects apparently just the interpretation favored by the Roman Church, makes the Apostle say almost the exact opposite of what he means.
The Modernist return to mediaevalism in the interpretation of Galatians is no isolated thing, but is only one aspect of a misinterpretation of the whole Bible; in particular it is closely akin to a misinterpretation of a great sentence in one of the other Epistles of Paul. The sentence to which we refer is found in II Corinthians iii. 6: “The letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life.”
That sentence is perhaps the most frequently misused utterance in the whole Bible. It has indeed in this respect much competition: many phrases in the New Testament are being used today to mean almost their exact opposite, as for example, when the words, “God in Christ” and the like, are made to be an expression of the vague pantheism so popular just now, or as when the entire gospel of redemption is regarded as a mere symbol of an optimistic view of man against which that doctrine was in reality a stupendous protest, or as when the doctrine of the incarnation is represented as indicating the essential oneness of God and man! One is reminded constantly at the present time of the way in which the Gnostics of the second century used Biblical texts to support their thoroughly unBiblical systems. The historical method of study, in America at least, is very generally being abandoned; and the New Testament writers are being made to say almost anything that twentieth-century readers could have wished them to say.
This abandonment of scientific historical method in exegesis, which is merely one manifestation of the intellectual decadence of our day, appears at countless points in contemporary religious literature; but at no point does it appear with greater clearness than in connection with the great utterance in II Corinthians to which we have referred, The words: “The letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life,” are constantly interpreted to mean that we are perfectly justified in taking the law of God with a grain of salt; they are held to indicate that Paul was no “literalist,” but a “Liberal,” who believed that the Old Testament was not true in detail and the Old Testament law was not valid in detail, but that all God requires is that we should extract the few great principles which the Bible teaches and not insist upon the rest. In short, the words are held to involve a contrast between the letter of the law and “the spirit of the law”; they are herd to mean that literalism is deadly, while attention to great principles keeps a man intellectually and spiritually alive.
Thus has one of the greatest utterances in the New Testament been reduced to comparative triviality — a triviality with a kernel of truth in it, to be sure, but triviality all the same. The triviality, indeed, is merely relative; no doubt it is important to observe that attention to the general sense of a book or a law is far better than such a reading of details as that the context in which the details are found is ignored. But all that is quite foreign to the meaning of the Apostle in this passage, and is, though quite true and quite important in its place, trivial in comparison with the tremendous thing that Paul is here endeavoring to say.
What Paul is really doing here is not contrasting the letter of the law with the spirit of the law, but contrasting the law of God with the Spirit of God. When he says, “The letter killeth,” he is making no contemptuous reference to a pedantic literalism which shrivels the soul; but he is setting forth the terrible majesty of God’s law. The letter, the “thing written,” in the law of God, says Paul, pronounces a dread sentence of death upon the transgressor; but the Holy Spirit of God, as distinguished from the law, gives life.
The law of God, Paul means, is, as law, external. It is God’s holy will to which we must conform; but it contains in itself no promise of its fulfilment; it is one thing to have the law written, and quite another thing to have it obeyed. In fact, because of the sinfulness of our hearts, because of the power of the flesh, the recognition of God’s law only makes sin take on the definite form of transgression; it only makes sin more exceeding sinful. The law of God was written on tables of stone or on the rolls of the Old Testament books, but it was quite a different thing to get it written in the hearts and lives of the people. So it is today. The text is of very wide application. The law of God, however it comes to us, is “letter”; it is a “thing written.” external to the hearts and lives of men. It is written in the Old Testament; it is written in the Sermon on the Mount; it is written in Jesus’ stupendous command of love for God and one’s neighbor; it is written in whatever way we become conscious of the commands of God. Let no one say that such an extension of the text involves that very anti-historical modernizing which we have just denounced; on the contrary it is amply justified by Paul himself. “When the Gentiles,” Paul says, “which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves.”1 The Old Testament law is just a clear, authentic presentation of a law of God under which all men stand.
And that law, according to Paul, issues a dreadful sentence of eternal death. “The soul that sinneth, it shall die”; not the hearer of the law is justified but the doer of it. And, alas, none are doers; all have sinned. The law of God is holy and just and good; it is inexorable; and we have fallen under its just condemnation.
That is at bottom what Paul means by the words, “The letter killeth.” He does not mean that attention to pedantic details shrivels and deadens the soul. No doubt that is true, at least within certain limits; it is a useful thought. But it is trivial indeed compared with what Paul means. Something far more majestic, far more terrible, is meant by the Pauline phrase. The “letter” that the Apostle means is the same as the curse of God’s law that he speaks of in Galatians; it is the dreadful handwriting of ordinances that was against us; and the death with which it kills is the eternal death of those who are forever separated from God.
But that is not all of the text. “The letter killeth,” Paul says, “but the Spirit giveth life.” There is no doubt about what be means by “the Spirit.” He does not mean the “spirit of the law” as contrasted with the letter; be certainly does not mean the lax interpretation of God’s commands which is dictated by human lust or pride; he certainly does not mean the spirit of man. No real student of Paul, whatever be his own religious views, can doubt, I think, but that the Apostle means the Spirit of God. God’s law brings death because of sin; but God’s Spirit, applying to the soul the redemption offered by Christ, brings life. The thing that is written killeth; but the Holy Spirit, in the new birth, or, as Paul says, the new creation, giveth life.
The contrast runs all through the New Testament. Hopelessness under the law is described, for example, in the seventh chapter of Romans. “Oh wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?”2 But this hopelessness is transcended by the gospel. “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.”3 The law’s just sentence of condemnation was borne for us by Christ who suffered in our stead; the handwriting of ordinances which was against us — the dreadful “letter” — was nailed to the cross, and we have a fresh start in the full favor of God. And in addition to this new and right relation to God, the Spirit of God also gives the sinner a new birth and makes him a new creature. The New Testament from beginning to end deals gloriously with this work of grace. The giving of life of which Paul speaks in this text is the new birth, the new creation; it is Christ who liveth in us. Here is the fulfillment of the great prophecy of Jeremiah: “But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the Lord, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts.”4 The law is no longer for the Christian a command which it is for him by his own strength to obey, but its requirements are fulfilled through the mighty power of the Holy Spirit. There is the glorious freedom of the gospel. The gospel does not abrogate God’s law, but it makes men love it with all their hearts.
How is it with us? The law of God stands over us; we have offended against it in thought, word and deed; its majestic “letter” pronounces a sentence of death against our sin. Shall we obtain a specious security by ignoring God’s law, and by taking refuge in an easier law of our own devising? Or shall the Lord Jesus, as He is offered to us in the gospel, wipe out the sentence of condemnation that was against us, and shall the Holy Spirit write God’s law in our heart, and make us doers of the law and not hearers only? So and only so will the great text be applied to us: “The letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life.”
The alternative that underlies this verse, then, and that becomes explicit in Galatians also, is not an alternative between an external or ceremonial religion and what men would now call (by a misuse of the New Testament word) a “spiritual” religion, important though that alternative no doubt is; but it is an alternative between a religion of merit and a religion of grace. The Epistle to the Galatians is directed just as much against the modern notion of “salvation by character” or salvation by “making Christ Master” in the life or salvation by a mere attempt to put into practice “the principles of Jesus,” as it is directed against the Jewish ceremonialists of long ago: for what the Apostle is concerned to deny is any intrusion of human merit into the work by which salvation is obtained. That work, according to the Epistle to the Galatians and according to the whole New Testament, is the work of God and of God alone.
At this point appears the full poignancy of the great Epistle with which we have been dealing. Paul is not merely arguing that a man is justified by faith — so much no doubt his opponents, the Judaizers, admitted — but he is arguing that a man is justified by faith alone. What the Judaizers said was not that a man is justified by works, but that he is justified by faith and works — exactly the thing that is being taught by the Roman Catholic Church today. No doubt they admitted that it was necessary for a man to have faith in Christ in order to be saved: but they held that it was also necessary for him to keep the law the best he could; salvation, according to them, was not by faith alone and not by works alone but by faith and works together. A man’s obedience to the law of God, they held, was not indeed, sufficient for salvation, but it was necessary; and it became sufficient when it was supplemented by Christ.
Against this compromising solution of the problem, the Apostle insists upon a sharp alternative: a man may be saved by works (if he keeps the law perfectly), or he may be saved by faith; but he cannot possibly be saved by faith and works together. Christ, according to Paul, will do everything or nothing; if righteousness is in slightest measure obtained by our obedience to the law, then Christ died in vain; if we trust in slightest measure in our own good works, then we have turned away from grace and Christ profiteth us nothing.
To the world, that may seem to be a hard saying: but it is not a hard saying to the man who has ever been at the foot of the Cross; it is not a hard saying to the man who has first known the bondage of the law, the weary effort at establishment of his own righteousness in the presence of God, and then has come to understand, as in a wondrous flash of light, that Christ has done all, and that the weary bondage was vain. What a great theologian is the Christian heart — the Christian heart that has been touched by redeeming grace! The man who has felt the burden of sin roll away at the sight of the Cross, who has said of the Lord Jesus, “He loved me and gave Himself for me,” who has sung with Toplady: “Nothing in my hand I bring, Simply to Thy cross I cling” — that man knows in his heart of hearts that the Apostle is right, that to trust Christ only for part is not to trust Him at all, that our own righteousness is insufficient even to bridge the smallest gap which might be left open between us and God, that there is no hope unless we can safely say to the Lord Jesus, without shadow of reservation, without shadow of self-trust: “Thou must save, and Thou alone.”
That is the centre of the Christian religion — the absolutely undeserved and sovereign grace of God, saving sinful men by the gift of Christ upon the cross. Condemnation comes by merit; salvation comes only by grace: condemnation is earned by man; salvation is given by God. The fact of the grace of God runs through the New Testament like a golden thread; indeed for it the New Testament exists. It is found in the words which Jesus spoke in the days of His flesh, as in the parables of the servant coming in from the field and of the laborers in the vineyard; it is found more fully set forth after the redeeming work was done, after the Lord had uttered his triumphant “It is finished” upon the cross. Everywhere the basis of the New Testament is the same — the mysterious, incalculable, wondrous, grace of God, “The wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”5
The reception of that gift is faith: faith means not doing something but receiving something; it means not the earning of a reward but the acceptance of a gift. A man can never be said to obtain a thing for himself if be obtains it by faith; indeed to say that he obtains it by faith is only another way of saying that he does not obtain it for himself but permits another to obtain it for him. Faith, in other words, is not active but passive; and to say that we are saved by faith is to say that we do not save ourselves but are saved only by the one in whom our faith is reposed; the faith of man presupposes the sovereign grace of God.
Even yet, however, we have not sounded the full depths of the New Testament teaching; we have not yet fully set forth the place in salvation which the Bible assigns to the grace of God. A sort of refuge, in what we have said so far, may seem to have been left for the pride of man. Man does not save himself, we have said; God saves him. But man accepts that salvation by faith; and faith, though a negative act, seems to be a kind of act: salvation is freely offered by God; the offer of it does not depend at all upon man; yet a man might seem to obtain a sort of merit by not resisting that offer when once it is given him by God.
But even this last refuge of human pride is searched out and destroyed by the teaching of God’s Word; for the Bible represents even faith itself — little merit as it could in any case involve — as the work of the Spirit of God. The Spirit, according to a true summary of the New Testament, works faith in us and thereby unites us to Christ in our effectual calling; sovereign and resistless is God’s grace; and our faith is merely the means which the Spirit uses to apply to us the benefits of Christ’s redeeming work.
The means was of God’s choosing, not ours; and it is not for us to say, “What doest Thou?” Yet even we, weak and ignorant though we are, can see, I think, why this particular means was chosen to unite us to Christ; why faith was chosen instead of love, for example, as the channel by which salvation could enter into our lives. Love is active; faith is passive; hence faith not love was chosen. If the Bible had said that we are saved by love, then even though our love was altogether the gift of the Spirit, we might have thought that it was our own, and so we might have claimed salvation as our right. But as it is, not only were we saved by grace, but because of the peculiar means which God used to save us, we knew that we were saved by grace; it was of the very nature of faith to make us know that we were not saving ourselves. Even before we could love as we ought to love, even before we could do anything or feel anything aright, we were saved by faith; we were saved by abandoning all confidence in our own thoughts or feelings or actions and by simply allowing ourselves to be saved by God.
In one sense, indeed, we were saved by love; that indeed is an even profounder fact than that we were saved by faith. Yes, we were saved by love, but it was by a greater love than the love in our cold and sinful hearts; we were saved by love, but it was not our love for God but God’s love for us, God’s love for us by which he gave the Lord Jesus to die for us upon the cross. “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” That love alone is the love that saves. And the means by which it saves is faith.
Thus the beginning of the Christian life is not an achievement but an experience; the soul of the man who is saved is not, at the moment of salvation, active, but passive; salvation is the work of God and God alone. That does not mean that the Christian is unconscious when salvation enters his life; it does not mean that he is placed in a trance, or that his ordinary faculties are in abeyance; on the contrary the great transition often seems to be a very simple thing; overpowering emotional stress is by no means always present; and faith is always a conscious condition of the soul. There is, moreover, a volitional aspect of faith, in which it appears to the man who believes to be induced by a conscious effort of his will, a conscious effort of his will by which he resolves to cease trying to save himself and resolves to accept, instead, the salvation offered by Christ. The preacher of the gospel ought to appeal, we think, in every way in his power, to the conscious life of the man whom he is trying to win; he ought to remove intellectual objections against the truth of Christianity, and adduce positive arguments; he ought to appeal to the emotions; he ought to seek, by exhortation, to move the will. All these means may be used, and have been used countless times, by the Spirit of God; and certainly, we have not intended to disparage them by anything that we have just said. But what we do maintain is that though necessary they are not sufficient; they will never bring a man to faith in Christ unless there is with them the mysterious, regenerating power of the Spirit of God. We are not presuming to treat here the psychology of faith; and certainly we do not think that such a psychology of faith is at all necessary to the man who believes; indeed the less he thinks about his own states of consciousness and the more be thinks about Christ the better it will often be for his soul. But this much at least can be said: even conscious states can be induced in supernatural fashion by the Spirit of God, and such a conscious state is the faith by which a man first accepts Christ as his Saviour from sin.
But if the beginning of the Christian life is thus not an achievement but an experience, if a man is not really active, but passive, when be is saved, if faith is to be placed in sharp contrast with works, what becomes of the ethical character of the Christian religion, what becomes of the stimulus which it has always given to human individuality and to the sense of human worth, what becomes of the vigorous activity which, in marked contrast with some of the other great religions of the world, it has always encouraged in its adherents? Such questions are perfectly legitimate; and they show that we are very far from having given, up to the present point, any adequate account of the relation, in the Christian religion, between faith and works, or between doctrine and life.
That relation must therefore now be examined, though still briefly, a little more in detail.
The examination may best be begun by a consideration of what has been regarded by some devout readers of the Bible as a serious difficulty, namely the apparent contradiction between the second chapter of Galatians and the second chapter of the Epistle of James. “A man is not justified by the works of the law, but only through faith in Christ Jesus,” says Paul;7 “Ye see then how that by works a man is justified and not by faith only,” says James.8 These two verses in their juxtaposition constitute an ancient Biblical difficulty. In the verse from Galatians a man is said to become right with God by faith alone apart from works; in the verse from James he is said to become right with God not by faith alone but by faith and works. If the verses are taken out of their wider context and placed side by side, a contradiction could scarcely seem to be more complete.
The Pauline doctrine of justification by faith alone, which we have just treated at considerable length, is, as we have seen, the very foundation of Christian liberty. It makes our standing with God dependent not at all upon what we have done, but altogether upon what God has done. If our salvation depended upon what we had done, then, according to Paul, we should still be bondslaves; we should still be endeavoring feverishly to keep God’s law so well that at the end we might possibly win His favor. It would be a hopeless endeavor because of the deadly guilt of sin; we should be like debtors endeavoring to pay, but in the very effort getting deeper and deeper into debt. But as it is, in accordance with the gospel, God has granted us His favor as an absolutely free gift; He has brought us into right relation to Himself not on the basis of any merit of ours, but altogether on the basis of the merit of Christ. Great is the guilt of our sins; but Christ took it all upon Himself when He died for us on Calvary. We do not need, then, to make ourselves good before we become God’s children; but we can come to God just as we are, all laden with our sins, and be quite certain that the guilt of sin will be removed and that we shall be received. When God looks upon us, to receive us or to cast us off, it is not us that He regards but our great Advocate, Christ Jesus the Lord.
Such is the glorious certainty of the gospel. The salvation of the Christian is certain because it depends altogether upon God; if it depended in slightest measure upon us, the certainty of it would be gone. Hence appears the vital importance of the great Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone; that doctrine is at the very centre of Christianity. It means that acceptance with God is not something that we earn; it is not something that is subject to the wretched uncertainties of human endeavor; but it is a free gift of God. It may seem strange that we should be received by the holy God as His children; but God has chosen to receive us; it has been done on His responsibility not ours; He has a right to receive whom He will into His presence; and in the mystery of His grace He has chosen to receive us.
That central doctrine of the Christian faith is really presupposed in the whole New Testament; but it is made particularly plain in the Epistles of Paul. It is such passages as the eighth chapter of Romans, the second and third chapters of Galatians, and the fifth chapter of II Corinthians, which set forth in plainest fashion the very centre of the gospel.
But in the Epistle of James there seems at first sight to be a discordant note in this great New Testament chorus. “Ye see then,” says James, “how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.” If that means that a man is pronounced righteous before God partly because of the merit of his own works and only partly because of the sacrifice of Christ accepted by faith, then James holds exactly the position of the bitter opponents of Paul who are combated in the Epistle to the Galatians. Those opponents, the “Judaizers” as they are called, held, as we have seen, that faith in Christ is necessary to salvation (in that they agreed with Paul), but they held that the merit of one’s own observance of the law of God is also necessary. A man is saved, not by faith alone and not by works alone, but by faith and works together — that was apparently the formula of the Judaizing opponents of Paul. The Apostle rightly saw that that formula meant a return to bondage. If Christ saves us only part way, and leaves a gap to be filled up by our own good works, then we can never be certain that we are saved. The awakened conscience sees clearly that our own obedience to God’s law is not the kind of obedience that is really required; it is not that purity of the heart which is demanded by the teaching and example of our Lord. Our obedience to the law is insufficient to bridge even the smallest gap; we are unprofitable servants, and if we ever enter into an account with our Judge we are undone. Christ has done nothing for us or He has done everything; to depend even in smallest measure upon our own merit is the very essence of unbelief; we must trust Christ for nothing or we must trust Him for all. Such is the teaching of the Epistle to the Galatians.
But in the Epistle of James we seem at first sight to be in a different circle of ideas. “Justified by faith alone,” says Paul; “Justified not by faith alone,” says James. It has been a difficulty to many readers of the Bible. But like other apparent contradictions in the Bible, it proves to be a contradiction merely of form and not of content; and it serves only to lead the devout reader into a deeper and fuller understanding of the truth.
The solution of the difficulty appears in the definition of the word “faith.” The apparent contradiction is due simply to the fact that when James in this chapter says that “faith” alone is insufficient, he means a different thing by the word “faith” from that which Paul means by it when he says that faith is all-sufficient. The kind of faith which James is pronouncing insufficient is made clear in the nineteenth verse of the same chapter: “Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.” The kind of faith which James pronounces insufficient is the faith which the devils also have; it is a mere intellectual apprehension of the facts about God or Christ, and it involves no acceptance of those facts as a gift of God to one’s own soul. But it is not that kind of faith which Paul means when he says that a man is saved by faith alone. Faith is indeed intellectual; it involves an apprehension of certain things as facts; and vain is the modern effort to divorce faith from knowledge. But although faith is intellectual, it is not only intellectual. You cannot have faith without having knowledge; but you will not have faith if you have only knowledge. Faith is the acceptance of a gift at the hands of Christ. We cannot accept the gift without knowing certain things about the gift and about the giver. But we might know all those things and still not accept the gift. We might know what the gift is and still not accept it. Knowledge is thus absolutely necessary to faith, but it is not all that is necessary. Christ comes offering us that right relation to God which He wrought for us on the cross. Shall we accept the gift or shall we hold it in disdain? The acceptance of the gift is called faith, It is a very wonderful thing; it involves a change of the whole nature of man; it involves a new hatred of sin and a new hunger and thirst after righteousness. Such a wonderful change is not the work of man; faith itself is given us by the Spirit of God. Christians never make themselves Christians; but they are made Christians by God.
All that is clear from what has already been said. But it is quite inconceivable that a man should be given this faith in Christ, that he should accept this gift which Christ offers, and still go on contentedly in sin. For the very thing which Christ offers us is salvation from sin — not only salvation from the guilt of sin, but also salvation from the power of sin. The very first thing that the Christian does, therefore, is to keep the law of God: he keeps it no longer as a way of earning his salvation — for salvation has been given him freely by God — but he keeps it joyously as a central part of salvation itself. The faith of which Paul speaks is, as Paul himself says, a faith that works through love; and love is the fulfilling of the whole law. Paul would have agreed fully with James that the faith of which James speaks in our passage is quite insufficient for salvation. The faith that Paul means when he speaks of justification by faith alone is a faith that works.
But if the faith regarded insufficient by James is different from the faith commended by Paul, so also the works commended by James are different from the works regarded inefficacious by Paul. Paul is speaking of works of the law, he is speaking of works that are intended to acquire merit in order that God’s favor may be earned; James on the other hand is speaking of works like Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac that are the result of faith and show that faith is real faith.
The difference, then, between Paul and James is a difference of terminology, not of meaning. That difference of terminology shows that the Epistle of James was written at a very early time, before the controversy with the Judaizers had arisen and before the terminology had become fixed. If James had been writing after the terminology had become fixed, what he would have said is that although a man is justified by faith alone and not at all by works, yet one must be sure that the faith is real faith and not a mere intellectual assent like that of the demons who believe and tremble. What he actually does is to say just that in different words. James is not correcting Paul, then; he is not even correcting a misinterpretation of Paul; but he is unconsciously preparing for Paul; he is preparing well for the clearer and more glorious teaching of the great Epistles.
The Epistle of James ought to be given its due place in the nurture of the Christian life. It has sometimes been regarded as the Epistle of works. But that does not mean that this Epistle ignores the deeper and more meditative elements in the Christian life. James is no advocate of a mere “gospel of street-cleaning”; he is no advocate of what is falsely called today a “practical,” as distinguished from a doctrinal, Christianity; he is not a man who seeks to drown an inward disquiet by a bustling philanthropy. On the contrary he is a great believer in the power of prayer; he exalts faith and denounces doubt; he humbles man and glorifies God: “Go to now, ye that say, To day or to morrow we will go into such a city, and continue there a year, and buy and sell, and get gain; whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away. For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that.”9 The man who wrote these words was no mere advocate of a “practical” religion of this world; he was no mere advocate of what is called today “the social gospel”; but he was a man who viewed this world, as the whole New Testament views it, in the light of eternity.
So the lesson of James may be learned without violence being done to the deepest things of the Christian faith — certainly without violence being done to the gospel which Paul proclaims. It was as clear to Paul as it was to James that men who had been saved by faith could not continue to live unholy lives. “Be not deceived,” says Paul: “neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers . . . nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.”10 It is difficult to see how anything could be much plainer than that. Paul just as earnestly as James insists upon the ethical or practical character of Christianity; Paul as well as James insists upon purity and unselfishness in conduct as an absolutely necessary mark of the Christian life. A Christian, according to Paul (as also really according to James), is saved not by himself but by God; but be is saved by God not in order that he may continue in sin, but in order that he may conquer sin and attain unto holiness.
Indeed so earnest is Paul about this matter that at times it looks almost as though he believed Christians even in this life to be altogether sinless, as though he believed that if they were not sinless they were not Christians at all. Such an interpretation of the Epistles would indeed be incorrect; it is contradicted, in particular, by the loving care with which the Apostle exhorted and encouraged those members of his congregations who had been overtaken in a fault. As a pastor of souls, Paul recognized the presence of sin even in those who were within the household of faith; and dealt with it not only with severity but also with patience and love. Nevertheless, the fact is profoundly significant that in the great doctrinal passages of the Epistles Paul makes very little reference (though such reference is not altogether absent) to the presence of sin in Christian men. How is that fact to be explained? I think it is to be explained by the profound conviction of the Apostle that although sin is actually found in Christians it does not belong there; it is never to be acquiesced in for one single moment, but is to be treated as a terrible anomaly that simply ought not to be.
Thus according to Paul the beginning of the new life is followed by a battle — a battle against sin. In that battle, as is not the case with the beginning of it, the Christian does cooperate with God; he is helped by God’s Spirit, but he himself, and not only God’s Spirit in him, is active in the fight.
At the beginning of the Christian life there is an act of God and of God alone. It is called in the New Testament the new birth or (as Paul calls it) the new creation. In that act, no part whatever is contributed by the man who is born again. And no wonder I A man who is dead — either dead in physical death or “dead in trespasses and sins” — can do nothing whatever, at least in the sphere in which he is dead. If he could do anything in that sphere, he would not be dead. Such a man who is dead in trespasses and sins is raised to new life in the new birth or the new creation. To that new birth, he himself cannot contribute at all, any more than he contributed to his physical birth. But birth is followed by life; and though a man is not active in his birth he is active in the life that follows. So it is also in the spiritual realm. We did not contribute at all to our new birth; that was an act of God alone. But that new birth is followed by a new life, and in the new life we have been given by Him who begat us anew the power of action; it is that power of action that is involved in birth. Thus the Christian life is begun by an act of God alone; but it is continued by cooperation between God and man. The possibility of such cooperation is due indeed only to God; it has not been achieved in slightest measure by us; it is the supreme wonder of God’s grace. But once given by God it is not withdrawn.
Thus the Christian life in this world is not passive but active; it consists in a mighty battle against sin. That battle is a winning battle, because the man that engages in it has been made alive in the first place by God, and because he has a great Companion to help him in every turn of the fight. But, though a winning battle, it is a battle all the same; and it is not only God’s battle but ours. The faith of which we have been speaking consists not in doing something but in receiving something; but it is followed every time by a life in which great things are done.
This aspect of faith is put in classic fashion by the Apostle Paul in a wonderful phrase in the Epistle to the Galatians. “Neither circumcision availeth any thing,” says Paul, “nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love.”11 In that phrase, “faith which worketh by love,” or, more literally, “faith working through love,” a whole world of experience is compressed within the compass of four words.
Surely that is a text for a practical age; the world may perhaps again become interested in faith if it sees that faith is a thing that works. And certainly our practical age cannot afford to reject assistance wherever it can be found; for the truth is that this practical age seems just now to be signally failing to accomplish results even on its own ground; it seems to be signally failing to “make things go.”
Strangely enough the present failure of the world to make things go is due just to that emphasis upon efficiency which might seem to make failure impossible; it is the paradox of efficiency that it can be attained only `by those who do not make it the express object of their desires. The modern one-sided emphasis upon the practical has hindered the progress of humanity, we think, in at least two ways.
The first way has already been treated in what precedes. Men are so eager about the work, we observed, that they have neglected a proper choice of means to accomplish it; they think that they can make use of religion, as a means to an end, without settling the question of the truth of any particular religion; they think that they can make use of faith as a beneficent psychological phenomenon without determining whether the thing that is believed is true or false. The whole effort, as we observed, is vain; such a pragmatist use of faith really destroys the thing that is being used. If therefore the work is to proceed, we cannot in this pragmatist fashion avoid, but must first face and settle, the question of the means.
In the second place, men are so eager today about the work that they are sometimes indifferent to the question what particular kind of work it shall be. The efficient, energetic man is often being admired by the world at large, and particularly by himself, quite irrespective of the character of his achievements. It often seems to make little difference whether a man engages in the accumulation of material wealth or in the quest of political power or in the management of schools and hospitals and charities. Whether he engages in robbery or in missions, he is sure of recognition, provided only be succeeds, provided only he is “a man who does things.” But however stimulating such a prizing of work for its own sake may be to the individual, it is obviously not conducive to any great advance for humanity as a whole. If my labor is going to be opposed to the work of my neighbor, we might both of us enjoy a good, old-fashioned, comfortable rest, so far as any general progress is concerned. Our efforts simply cancel each other. Consequently, although a great deal of energy is being displayed in the world today, one cannot help having the feeling that a vast deal of it is being wasted. The truth is that if we are to be truly practical men, we must first be theorizers. We must first settle upon some one great task and some one great force for its accomplishment.
The Pauline text makes proposals in both directions. It proposes both a task and a force to accomplish it. “Faith working itself out through love” — love is the work, faith the means.
It should be noticed in the first place that this work and this means are open to everyone. In Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth anything nor uncircumcision; there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is no male and female; nothing is required except what is common to all men. If we like the work we cannot say that it is beyond our reach.
The work is love, and what that is Paul explains in the last division of the same Epistle. It is not a mere emotion, it is not even a mere benevolent desire; it is a practical thing. We sometimes say of a rather unprincipled and dissipated man: “He is weak, but he has a good heart.” Such mere good-heartedness is not Christian love. Christian love includes not merely the wish for the welfare of one’s fellow men, not merely even the willingness to help, but also the power. In order to love in the Christian sense, a man must be not only benevolent, but also strong and good; he must love his fellow men enough to build up his own strength in order to use it for their benefit.
Such a task is very different from much of the work that is actually being done in the world. In the first place, it is a spiritual not a material work. It is really astonishing how many men are almost wholly absorbed in purely material things. Very many men seem to have no higher conception of work than that of making the dirt fly: the greatest nation is thought to be the nation that has the largest income and the biggest battleships; the greatest university, even, to be the one that has the finest laboratories. Such practical materialism need not be altogether selfish; the production of material goods may be desired for others as well as for one’s self. Socialism may be taken as an example. It is not altogether selfish. But — at least in its most consistent forms — it errs in supposing that the proper distribution of material wealth will be a panacea. Indeed, such a habit of thought has not been altogether absent from the Church itself. Wherever the notion is cherished that the relief of physical suffering is somehow more important — more practical — than the welfare of the human spirit, there material things are being made the chief object of pursuit. And that is not Christian love. Christian love does not, indeed, neglect men’s physical welfare; it does not give a man a sermon when he needs bread. It relieves distress; it delights in affording even the simplest pleasure to a child. But it always does these things with the consciousness of the one inestimable gift that it has in reserve.
In the second place, Christian love is not merely intellectual or emotional, but also moral. It involves nothing less than the keeping of the whole moral law. “For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”12 Christianity may provide a satisfactory worldview, it may give men comfort and happiness, it may deprive death of its terrors, it may produce the exaltation of religious emotion; but it is not Christianity unless it makes men better. Furthermore, love is a peculiar kind of observance of the moral law. It is not a mere performance of a set of external acts. That may be hypocrisy or expediency. Nor is it a mere devotion to duty for duty’s sake. That is admirable and praiseworthy, but it is the childhood stage of morality. The Christian is no longer under the schoolmaster; his performance of the law springs not from obedience to a stern voice of duty but from an overpowering impulse; he loves the law of the Lord; he does right because he cannot help it.
In the third place, love involves, I think, a peculiar conception of the content of the law. It regards morality primarily as unselfishness. And what a vast deal of the culture of the world, with all its pomp and glitter, is selfish to the core! Genius exploits the plain men; Christ died for them: and His disciples must follow in the footsteps of their Lord.
In the fourth place, Christian love is not merely love for man; it is also, and even primarily, love for God. We have observed that love for God is not the means by which we are saved: the New Testament does not say “Thy love hath saved thee,” but “Thy faith hath saved thee”; it does not say, “Love the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved,” but “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.” But that does not mean that the New Testament depreciates love; it does not mean that if a man did love, and always had loved, God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ and his fellow-men, as he ought to love them, he would not be a saved man; it only means that because of sin no unregenerate man who has ever lived has actually done that. Love, according to the New Testament, is not the means of salvation, but it is the finest fruit of it; a man is saved by faith, not by love; but he is saved by faith in order that he may love.
Such, then, is the work. How may it be accomplished? “Simply by accomplishing it,” says the “practical” man; “no appeal need be made except to the sovereign will; any time a man desires to stop his evil ways and begin to serve God and his fellow-men, the way is perfectly open for him to do it.” Yet here is the remarkable thing: the way is always perfectly open, and yet the man never enters upon it; he always can, but never does. Some of us feel the logical necessity of seeking a common cause for such a uniform effect. And the common cause that we find is sin.
Of course if there is no such thing as sin, then nothing is needed to overcome it, and nothing stands in the way of Christian love. The existence of sin, as we observed, is quite generally denied in the modern world. It is denied in at least two ways. In the first place, men sometimes say in effect that there is no sin, but only imperfection; what we call “sin” is just one form of imperfection. If so, it may perhaps well be argued that the human will is sufficient for human tasks. We have obviously made at least some progress, it is said; we have advanced beyond the “stone age”; a continuation of the same efforts will no doubt bring us still further on our way; and as for perfection — that is as impossible for us in the very nature of things as infinity. In the second place, it is said, there is no sin but only sins. It is admitted that moral evil is different in kind from imperfection, but it is thought to possess no unity; every individual choice is thought to be independent of every other; a man is thought to be free every time to choose either good or evil; no one else can help him, it is said, and no one need help him.
Paul’s view of sin is opposed to both of these. In the first place, sin, according to Paul, is deadly guilt, and in the second place, it is not inherent merely in the individual acts. It is a mighty power, in the presence of which man is helpless. “It is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.”13 “But,” it may be objected, “what a dangerous form of expression that 1st If it is no more I that do it, my responsibility is gone; how can I still feel guilt? If I am to be guilty, then sin must be a property simply and solely of my conscious acts.” Yet experience curiously reverses such a priori reasoning; history teaches that the men who have actually felt most deeply the guilt of sin have been just the men who regarded it as a great force lying far beneath the individual acts. And a closer examination reveals the reason. If each act stands by itself, then a wrong choice at any particular time is, comparatively speaking, a trifling thing; it may easily be rectified next time. Such a philosophy can hardly produce any great horror and dread of sin. But if sin is regarded as a unitary power, irreconcilably opposed to what is good, then acts of sin, apparently trifling in themselves, show that we are under the dominion of such a power; the single wrong action can no longer be regarded by itself, but involves assent to a Satanic power, which then leads logically, irresistibly to the destruction of every right feeling, of every movement of love, of pity, of sympathy. When we come to see that what Paul calls the flesh is a mighty power, which is dragging us resistlessly down into an abyss of evil that has no bottom, then we feel our guilt and misery, then we look about for something stronger to help us than our own weak will.
Such a power is found by the Apostle Paul in faith; it is faith, he says, that produces, or works itself out in, the life of love. But what does Paul mean when he says that “faith works”? Certainly he does not mean what the modern pragmatist skeptic means when be uses the same words; certainly he does not mean that it is merely faith, considered as a psychological phenomenon and independent of the truth or falsehood of its object, that does the work. What he does mean14 is made abundantly clear in the last section of this same Epistle to the Galatians, where the life of love is presented in some detail, In that section nothing whatever is said about faith; it is not faith that is there represented as producing the life of love but the Spirit of God; the Spirit is there represented as doing exactly what, in the phrase “faith working through love,” is ascribed to faith. The apparent contradiction leads us on to the right conception of faith, True faith, strictly speaking, does not do anything; it does not give, but receives. So when one says that we do something by faith that is just another way of saying that we do nothing — at least that we do nothing of ourselves. It is of the very nature of faith, strictly speaking, to do nothing. So when it is said that faith works through love, that means that through faith, instead of doing something for ourselves we allow some one else to help us. That force which enters our life at the beginning through faith, before we could do anything at all to please God, and which then strengthens and supports us in the battle that it has enabled us to begin, is the power of the Spirit of God.
So in the midst of a practical world, the Christian exhibits a practical life of love — a busy life of helpfulness, feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, receiving the strangers, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and the prisoners. And all that accomplished not by his own unaided efforts, not even merely by his own faith, but by the great object of his faith, the all-powerful God.
The Christian preacher, then, comes before the world with a great alternative. Shall we continue to depend upon our own efforts, or shall we receive by faith the power of God? Shall we content ourselves with the materials which this world affords, seeking by endlessly new combinations to produce a building that shall endure; or shall we build with the materials that have no flaw? Shall we give men new motives, or ask God to give them a new power? Shall we improve the world, or pray God to create a new world? The former alternatives have been tried and found wanting: the best of architects can produce no enduring building when all the materials are faulty; good motives are powerless when the heart is evil. Struggle as we may, we remain just a part of this evil world until, by faith, we cry: “Not by might, nor by power, but by Thy Spirit. O Lord of Hosts.”
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), from which this article was taken..
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