I am so thankful for the active obedience of Christ. No hope without it.
These are some of the final words of one of the great reformers and theologians of themodern era, J. Gresham Machen. Their simplicity, truth, and earnestness summarize his life and ministry quite well. Refusing to heed the warnings of his friends, Machen added a trip to North Dakota in December, 1936, to his already harried calendar. He wanted to help a struggling new church plant – a relatively small group of Christians – and while there he contracted pneumonia and died on New Year’s Day, 1937. 76 years ago, this month.
He sent this final expression of assurance in Christ in a telegram to his friend and compatriot, John Murray, from the hospital that was his final residence in this life. Machen’s hope as he died was the simple truth of the Gospel that he had lived to defend and died to spread.
Machen is a hero that I first acquired in seminary, and I believe he should be one of your heroes, too (see Heb 13:7). He was both a great theologian and a great popularizer of biblical theology, which is a combination that does not come very often. And during the early twentieth century, when the specter of liberalism seemed to overshadow everything and there was no end to the moderates who were willing to compromise on matters that are not up for discussion, Machen saw the issues at hand clearly. He understood over what and exactly why Christians must fight. Eventually leading a departure from Princeton Seminary, after it had been reorganized under the auspices of moderate and liberal influences, Machen founded Westminster Theological Seminary alongside other notable figures – such as John Murray and Cornelius Van Til.
On contending for the faith (Jude 3), he perceptively remarked:
The type of religion which rejoices in the pious sound of traditional phrases, regardless of their meanings, or shrinks from ‘controversial’ matters, will never stand amid the shocks of life. In the sphere of religion, as in other spheres, the things about which men are agreed are apt to be the things that are least worth holding; the really important things are the things about which men will fight (Christianity and Liberalism).
Trust me, Christianity and Liberalism remains a must read, it is a true modern classic. If you read it and replace every occurrence of “scientific” with “post-modern” and “liberal” with “contemporary evangelical” you will see why it is still in print.
You may find it and other works by and about Machen at Monergism. John Piper also covered his life in a biographic message. For a well-written treatment of his life and thought, see Stephen Nichols’ Machen: A Guided Tour. D.G. Hart wrote a definitive and illuminating biography, Defending the Faith. Personally, I spent New Year’s Day dipping into his Selected Shorter Writings.
J. Gresham Machen stood amid the shocks of life and faced the grave with the simple truth that is our entire hope – Jesus Christ, God Himself, became a man for us and for our salvation. However you start the New Year, spend some time rejoicing in that simple truth yourself. There is no hope without it.