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  • Writer's pictureObbie Tyler Todd

J. Gresham Machen's Defense of Orthodoxy

As the last of the great Princeton theologians, John Gresham Machen (1881-1937) inherited a rich Presbyterian legacy bequeathed to him by the lions of orthodoxy, Charles Hodge and B.B. Warfield. Before serving as professor of New Testament from 1906 to 1929, Machen studied under Wilhelm Herrmann at the University of Gottingen in Germany. Hermann (student of the experiential theologian Albrecht Ritschl and teacher of the Neo-Orthodox theologian Karl Barth) represented well the liberal German Zeitgeist of his time. During this time young Machen endured a crisis of faith as his fundamentalist upbringing did not settle well with the liberal German theology he had imbibed. Needless to say, Machen emerged unscathed. However, it wasn’t Machen’s last battle with liberalism. In addition to New Testament professor, history also knows Machen as the founder of Westminster Theological Seminary. In fact, the school stands today as a testament to the fight against theological liberalism. During the 1920s, the liberal Northern Presbyterian Church (later the PCUSA) refused to adhere to the historical Westminster Confession (1646). What ensued was a denominational split. When the PCUSA rejected Machen’s arguments, the progressive faction decided to reorganize Princeton Seminary into a liberal school, leading Machen to found Westminster in Philadelphia, PA in 1929. It was during this fight for orthodoxy that Machen wrote his most famous work Christianity and Liberalism (1923), a standard fundamentalist text for decades to come. However, as Carl Trueman writes in the foreword, Machen was “not so much a fundamentalist as a confessional Presbyterian.” (x) And as such, Machen believed the best way to fight against theological liberalism was to maintain the truth of Christianity as an historical religion: “Christianity is an historical phenomenon…and as an historical phenomenon it must be investigated on the basis of historical evidence.” (17) That evidence was the Bible. Hence the central thesis to Machen’s book is that Christian orthodoxy and liberalism, while containing similarities, are in fact two completely different religions. Today the book remains a wonderful compass in navigating the liberal waters of the American church. In fact, the church lies in need of Machen’s biblical courage more than ever. Thankfully for us, the author communicates six ways Christians can locate liberalism in churches that profess to be Christian. Alongside Machen, it should be our prayer to see “another Reformation” in the church of Jesus Christ – one unashamed and unafraid to stand up for the truths of Scripture even as they’re assailed from within.

Modern Liberalism is Hostile to Doctrine.

Does your church treat the word “theology” or “doctrine” as a pejorative term? Machen argues that, for Paul, “doctrine was the very basis of his life.” (19) Christianity is about living for God, but not before actually knowing God the only way we can: in His Word. This is doctrine. Paul’s contention with the Galatian Judaizers wasn’t over ethics. It was over doctrine! In fact, in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he even approves of pretentious preachers as long as they deliver the correct doctrine. (Phil. 1:18) Christianity starts not with a command, but with a proclamation of an event. Therefore “the setting forth of the event with the meaning of the event was doctrine.” (25) “Christ died” – that is history; “Christ died for our sins” – that is doctrine. (23) For Machen, liberal preaching begins with exhortation and dispenses with narration. For example, a liberal pulpit will gladly preach the Sermon on the Mount without the cross. The actual message of Christ’s atoning death becomes a kind of bare morality you could easily find in any Eastern religion. In reality, the Gospel can be stripped from a sermon on the Golden Rule just as easily as it can from the Old Testament. That’s why orthodox preaching begins and ends with a story: “The liberal preacher is really rejecting the whole basis of Christianity, which is a religion founded not on aspirations but on facts. Here is found the most fundamentalist difference between liberalism and Christianity – liberalism is altogether in the imperative mood, while Christianity begins with a triumphant indicative; liberalism appeals to man’s will, while Christianity announces, first, a gracious act of God.” (39) Modern liberalism chops down the root of faith: Christian doctrine.

Modern Liberalism Elevates Man at the Expense of God.

Does your church preach on sin? According to Machen, “at the very root of the modern liberal movement is the loss of the consciousness of sin.” (55) Liberals, true to natural human tendency, have an elevated view of unregenerate humanity. Therefore many churches, whether Southern Baptist or Episcopalian, will attempt to ignore the “awful gulf” between creature and Creator – a chasm only bridged by blood. Machen identifies the fundamental attribute of God in the Bible as his “awful transcendence.” God is God and we are completely and utterly beneath Him. However, by preaching the Gospel - the explicit Gospel - men can come to know God and themselves. We’re wretched, orphaned sinners in need of an extraordinarily gracious Father. Do you hear that in your church every Sunday? If you do, then the idea of “universal brotherhood” doesn’t pass the Gospel litmus test. Scripture tells us that, without Jesus, God is not everyone’s Father and unbelievers are sadly not our brothers. (John 8:38) And this is why Machen likens liberals to pagans: “Paganism is optimistic with regard to unaided human nature, whereas Christianity is the religion of the broken heart.” (56)

Modern Liberalism will Preach, but not from God's Word.

Does your pastor preach expository sermons? Do you even know what that means? If not, perhaps your church hasn’t made a commitment to Scripture as you once thought. Not all churches are created equal. And according to Machen, not all buildings with steeples qualify as churches. Does your pastor emphasize the sufficiency, clarity, authority, and necessity of the Bible? Does he pick a text and preach from it or does he pick a topic and go with it? While topical sermons are certainly relevant from time to time, a church truly founded upon the Bible trusts that Scripture itself will be relevant enough for our everyday lives. That’s called faith. Machen calls the Bible “the very Magna Charta of Christian liberty.” (67) The only freedom we have is that which comes to us from God’s Word. That means actually hearing it preached. God is not dead. But the God of today can only change your life by taking you back to what happened 2000 years ago. On Calvary. That also means preaching the resurrection on more Sundays  than simply Easter. If you’re not hearing about the cross consistently, you’re probably not listening to the Gospel. “Salvation then, according to the Bible, is not something that was discovered, but something that happened.” (61) That’s how we “experience God,” by looking unto Jesus and Him crucified. (1 Cor. 1:23) Machen looks out upon the throngs of sentimentalist churches and remarks, “Religious experience it may be, but Christian experience it certainly is not. For Christian experience depends absolutely upon an event.” Machen emphasizes the plenary inspiration of Scripture (not “dictation theory”) as a standard for every orthodox church that values the Word of God. When a church begins to concede error in the Bible, the door to liberalism has swung wide open.

Modern Liberalism Makes Christ an Example, not a Savior.

When you go to church, do you hear more about Christ’s goodness as a person or His all-sufficiency as a divine Savior? He was certainly both. But liberal churches would rather emphasize Jesus as a model for behavior than as the One on whom our souls rest eternally. Jesus was not a Christian. He is, rather, the aim of Christianity. “According to modern liberalism, in other words, Jesus was the Founder of Christianity because He was the first Christian.” (73) But we know that the climax of Jesus’ perfect life was a propitiatory death. Many liberals in Machen’s day denied the deity of Christ. In so doing, they consequently assaulted the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. (Mark 10:45) And this is the subtle transition that takes place in so many churches today. Over time, churches continue to employ language of salvation while forfeiting the notion of guilt or debt paid. And this is spiritually deadly. Machen observes, “Christianity from the beginning was a means of getting rid of sin by trust in Jesus of Nazareth.” (78) Without knowledge of sin, the concept of salvation becomes empty. Liberalism makes Jesus an example for faith. Real Christianity makes Jesus the object of faith. We need Christ, not simply because we’ve fallen short, but because we’re inherently evil without him. “If His example means anything at all it means that a human life without the conscious presence of God – even though it be a life of humanitarian service outwardly like the ministry of Jesus – is a monstrous perversion.” (80) The liberal Jesus shows us how to be a better person by our own will. The Jesus of Scripture tells us that we’re absolutely incapable of any good without His indwelling presence. (John 15:5) This means believing in miracles: “The New Testament without the miracles would be far easier to believe. But the trouble is, it would not be worth believing.” (88) Preachers that tout 'faith' without delivering the object of faith are simply feeding their pews empty fideism. Want real faith? Believe in a Jesus who is both fully God and fully man.

Modern Liberalism Offers Salvation for Those who will Finish what Christ Began.

Does your church preach salvation by faith alone? By grace alone? When churches teach their people that Christ’s atoning death is contingent upon their obedience to any kind of law, Machen says “the whole achievement of the Reformation has been given up, and there has been a return to the religion of the Middle Ages.” (121) Modern liberalism rejects the notion that Christ's perfect obedience and substitutionary payment on the cross were completely sufficient for salvation. Thus liberalism must redefine grace. Often times modern liberal teachers will engineer new systems of salvation that include new moral laws to obey in order to be saved. But this is simply a return to the Galatian Judaizers. After closer inspection, liberal 'freedom' doesn’t mean free. This is why Machen boasts, “At the beginning of every Christian life there stands, not a process, but a definite act of God…At the centre of Christianity is the doctrine of ‘justification by faith.’” (119) Does your church preach on the doctrine of justification? Has your preacher ever said the word 'justification'? Salvation begins and ends with a declarative act of God, not an act of man. And this is why justification is so important. It’s also why Machen claims, “At the very centre of Christianity are the words, ‘Ye must be born again.’” (115) This is not just a line from a Billy Graham revival. Sinners are not simply diseased with sin. Paul says that we’re dead in our sins. (Eph. 2:5) Christ says that we’re slaves to sin. (John 8:34) The idea is that God must unilaterally and completely save sinners if they are to see salvation. It's all God. We do nothing to contribute to our own salvation but offer the sin that damns us. This kind of love Jesus offers is called “Amazing Grace.” Christ is our life. This is why Machen, with Bengel, claims that Galatians 2:20 (“For I am crucified with Christ…Christ lives in me”) is “the marrow of Christianity.” Liberalism rejects the notion that God is in absolute control of his creation. After all, “According to the Christian belief, man exists for the sake of God; according to the liberal Church, in practice if not in theory, God exists for the sake of man.” (129)

Modern Liberalism Believes the Church is Primarily for Social Change.

There can be no blessed society among men who are still under the curse of sin. This is why Machen believed that “The Church is the highest Christian answer to the social needs of man.” (135) Lasting change, if it comes from the state, is not to replace that of the church. However, this isn't the primary role of the Church itself. Evangelism and doctrinal teaching are needed for any eternal cure for men’s weary souls: “Christian education is the chief business of the hour for every earnest Christian man.” (149) Sinners need the Gospel first and foremost. In a postmodern age where truth is relativized, the church is called now more than ever to stand tall for God’s final revelation in Christ. And that means vigilance inside the denomination.

J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism (1923), though close to a century old, is more relevant now than perhaps ever before in the American theological landscape. In the introduction to the book, Machen asks a provocative question to his own generation and to ours: “one may well ask the question whether in gaining the whole world we have not lost our own soul. Are we forever condemned to live the sordid life of utilitarianism? Or is there some lost secret which if rediscovered will restore to mankind something of the glories of the past?” (13) The author points to Christ as that ‘secret.’ And it's still that simple. Have “conservative” churches succumbed to liberalism by telling their members that doctrine is unnecessary? Is knowing and worshipping our God now impractical? In an age when almost every Christian can tell you that we need to ‘apply’ our faith, very few can articulate how. John Gresham Machen offers a poignant reminder that “applied Christianity” is the kind that continually circles back to the event of the Gospel and never loses sight of the cross.

Machen, John Gresham. Christianity and Liberalism. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 2009. (1923)

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