A Low View of the Law Brings Legalism (Machen)

I really appreciate J. G. Machen’s discussion of the law in chapter four of What is Faith?  The first line is especially insightful:

“So it always is: a low view of law always brings legalism in religion; a high view of law makes a man a seeker after grace.  Pray [to] God that the high view may again prevail; that Mount Sinai may again overhang the path and shoot forth flames, in order that the men of our time may, like Christian in the allegory, meet some true Evangelist, who shall point them out the old, old way, through the little wicket gate, to the place somewhat ascending where they shall really see the Cross and the figure of Him that did hang thereon, that at that sight the burden of the guilt of sin, which no human hand could remove, may fall from their back into a sepulchre beside the way, and that then, with wondrous lightness and freedom and joy, they may walk the Christian path, through the Valley of Humiliation and the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and up over the Delectable Mountains, until at last they pass triumphant across the river into the City of God.”

J. G. Machen, What is Faith, p. 142.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Imitating Christ: Good, but not Gospel

God’s people should seek to be like Christ.  As Paul said, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1, NIV).  But our imitating Christ is not the gospel.  J. G. Machen explained this well:

“It seems never to have occurred to the adherents of this religion [an imitation of Jesus religion] that there is such a thing as sin, and that sin places an awful gulf between man and God.  But those convictions, though they are unpopular at the present time, are certainly quite central in the Christian religion.  From the beginning Christianity was the religion of the broken heart; it is based upon the conviction that there is an awful gulf between man and God which none but God can bridge.  The Bible tells us how this gulf was bridged; and that means the Bible is a record of facts.”

Of what avail, without the redeeming acts of God, are all the lofty ideals of Psalmists and Prophets, all the teaching and example of Jesus?  In themselves they can bring us nothing but despair.  We Christians are not interested merely in what God commands, but also in what God did; in a triumphant indicative; our salvation depends squarely upon history; the Bible contains that history, and unless that history is true the authority of the Bible is gone and we who have put our trust in the Bible are without hope”  (J. Gresham Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ [New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1932], 385).

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Saved by Love (Machen)

What is Faith? Here are some great words from a great book:

“Even before we could love as we ought to love, even before we could do 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.”

J. Gresham Machen, What is Faith, p. 196-7.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Jesus Was Not A Christian

What is Faith? Funny thing: when we read the phrase, “Jesus was not a Christian,” some might pause and at first be inclined to disagree.  But biblically speaking, it’s true.  Jesus was not a Christian!  J. Gresham Machen explained this quite well around 90 years ago:

“According to a very widespread way of thinking Jesus was the Founder of the Christian religion because He was the first to live the Christian life, in other words because He was Himself the first Christian.  According to our view, on the other hand, Jesus stands in a far more fundamental and intimate relation to Christianity than that; He was, we hold, the Founder of our religion not because He was the first Christian, but because He made Christianity possibly by His redeeming work.”

“…Many persons hold up their hands in amazement at our assertion that Jesus was not a Christian, while we in turn regard it as the very height of blasphemy to say that He was a Christian.  ‘Christianity,’ to us, is a way of getting rid of sin; and therefore to say that Jesus was a Christian would be to deny His holiness.”

“‘But,’ it is said, ‘do you mean to tell us that if a man lives a life like the life of Jesus but rejects the doctrine of the redeeming work in Christ in His death and resurrection, he is not a Christian?’  The question, in one form or another, is often asked; but the answer is very simple.  Of course if a man really lives a life like the life of Jesus, all is well; such a man is indeed not a Christian, but he is something better than a Christian – he is a being who has never lost his high estate of sonship with God.”

“But our trouble is that our lives, to say nothing of the lives of these who confidently appeal to their own similarity to Jesus, do not seem to be like the life of Jesus.  Unlike Jesus, we are sinners, and hence, unlike Him, we become Christians; we are sinners, and hence we accept with thankfulness the redeeming love of the Lord Jesus Christ, who had pity on us and made us right with God, through no merit of our own, by His atoning death.”

J. Gresham Machen, What is Faith (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2008), 110-111.

shane lems

War Hymns? Ambiguous Hymns?

J. Gresham Machen: Selected Shorter Writings In 1933 the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A published a completely new hymnal.  It was a significant event in the history of the PCUSA as it opened the door even further for liberalism and modernism.  J. Gresham Machen wrote a critical review of the hymnal in the December issue of “Christianity Today” that same year.  Here are two excerpts from it that I thought were interesting and helpful.

“…We are glad that the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’ …is absent from the new book.  Opinions may differ about the political views out of which that poem was born.  Some of us may agree with them; some of us may disagree.  But one things is clear – a fiery war song like that one has no place in the worship of a Christian congregation.”

“…What characterizes the new hymns above anything else is their deadly vagueness.  Such vagueness cannot, of course, be exhibited in any review; it can be appreciated only when a man reads the new hymns through for himself.  This vagueness is altogether attractive to the nondoctrinal Modernism that now dominates the visible church, but to the Christian heart it is almost as depressing as definitely and clearly unscriptural teaching would be.  Let it be clearly understood, therefore, that what we shall now say in criticism of individual hymns is only supplementary to the central indictment that they ignore the great central verities [truths] of the faith and particularly the heart and core of the Bible which is found in the shed blood of Christ our sacrifice.”

Ambiguous hymns weren’t confined to the 1933 hymnal; they are alive and well today on Christian radio, overhead church projectors, and worship band playlists.  I agree with Machen: ambiguous hymns are “almost as depressing as definitely and clearly unscriptural teaching” is.

(Note: You can find the rest of Machen’s helpful article in his Shorter Writings.)

shane lems
hammond, wi

Preaching, Emotions, Experiences, and the Gospel

 As a pastor, I have to preach the gospel week in and week out through the ups and downs of my own Christian life.  That’s one of many things that makes the ministry of the word a difficult calling. But I can stand behind the pulpit and preach the gospel even through the “downs” in my spiritual life because the gospel doesn’t depend upon my emotions, feelings, or experience.  These comments by J. Gresham Machen have been a source of comfort and motivation for me in the ministry.  I trust all our readers will benefit from these words, though pastors will especially want to take note.

“I know that it is hard to live on the heights of Christian experience.  We have had flashes of the true meaning of the cross of Christ, but then comes long dull days.  What shall we do in those dull times?  Shall we cease to witness for Christ?  Shall we make common cause in those dull days, with those who would destroy the corporate witness of the church?  Perhaps we may be tempted to do so.  When there are such enemies in our own souls, we may be tempted to say, ‘What time have we for the opponents without?’  Such reasoning is plausible.”

“But all the same it is false.  We are not saved by keeping ourselves constantly in the proper frame of mind, but we were saved by Christ once for all when we were born again by God’s Spirit and were enabled by him to put our trust in the Savior.  And the gospel message does not cease to be true because we for the moment have lost sight of the full glory of it.”

“Sad will it be for those to whom we minister if we let our changing moods be determinative of the message that at any moment we proclaim, or if we let our changing moods determine the question whether we shall or shall not stand against the rampant forces of unbelief in the church.  We ought to look, not within, but without, for the content of what we are to preach, and for the determination of our witness-bearing; not our changing feelings and experiences, but to the Bible as the Word of God.  Then, and only then, shall we preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord” (p. 137-138).

To be moved and brought to joyful tears by the gospel is a blessed thing, but neither my preaching nor my salvation depends upon my emotions, experiences, or feelings.  My preaching and salvation depend upon the historical and biblical truth that Jesus died on the cross and rose again to save sinners.  The gospel is true no matter where we are in the Christian life; thus it is truly good news.  And so we pastors can confidently preach “in and out of season.”

By the way this book, God Transcendent, is worth every cent of the $8.00 it costs.  If you don’t have it, I highly recommend getting it:  J. Gresham Machen, God Transcendent (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2002).

rev shane lems

Machen: Thank God for the Christmas Season

In a sermon preached soon before his death in 1936, J. G. Machen explained how the Bible puts an “enormous emphasis” on the death of Christ.  He also noted how the Christian church places a great emphasis on Christ’s death – we “chiefly commemorate” the death of Christ because it is God’s wisdom and our salvation.  He continues,

“I do not mean that it is wrong for us to commemorate the birth of Jesus.  We have just celebrated Christmas, and it is right for us to do so.  Happy at this Christmas season through which we have just passed have been those to whom it has not been just a time of worldly festivity but a time of commemoration of the coming of our blessed Savior into the world.  Happy have been those men and women and little children who have heard, underlying all their Christmas joys, and have heard in simple and childlike faith, the sweet story that is told us in Matthew and Luke.  Happy have been those celebrants of Christmas to whom the angels have brought again, in the reading of the Word of God, their good tidings of great joy.”

“Yes, I say, thank God for the Christmas season; thank God for the softening it brings to stony hearts; thank God for the recognition that it brings for the little children whom Jesus took into His arms; thank God even for the strange, sweet sadness that it brings to us together with its joys, as we think of the loved ones who are gone.  Yes, it is well that we should celebrate the Christmas season, and may God ever give us a childlike heart that we may celebrate it aright” (p. 203).

Machen goes on to note once again that the Bible emphasizes Christ’s death, and that we commemorate and celebrate that event not just once a year, but every time we share the Lord’s Table.  “The birth of Jesus was important not in itself but because it made possible His death.  Jesus came into this world to die, and it is to His death that the sinner turns when He seeks salvation for his soul” (p. 204).  As the saying goes, the cross follows the cradle.  May we rejoice in both this Christmas season.

J. G. Machen, God Transcendent (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2002).

shane lems