Monday, September 10, 2012

Machen's Final Lesson

One of the most influential people in modern Christian history is Dr. J. Gresham Machen. His influence extends in some way or another to virtually every conservative evangelical group in America today. A short time ago, I came across his last recorded words and the power of them impressed me so much that I wanted to share a few thoughts regarding them. Just before he died (January 1, 1937), Dr. Machen had a telegram sent to his colleague and friend Dr. John Murray. The telegram was brief and to the point, it read simply, “I'm so thankful for the active obedience of Christ. No hope without it."

It might not be surprising for a Christian to express hope in Christ as they near the end of their life but this is not just a general expression of confidence in the Gospel. This is a very careful expression of his faith. He is thanking Christ and proclaiming that there is no hope apart from Him (as many Christians do), but he is doing so with purposeful theological precision. Notice that Dr. Machen gives thanks for “the active obedience of Christ.” This brief yet powerful expression of his understanding of the Gospel shows the extent that meditation upon the glories of Christ must have characterized his thinking. So much so, that even with his last words Dr. Machen offers valuable instruction to the Church about the glory of the Gospel and of our Savior Jesus Christ.

He was offering thanks for a specific aspect of the life and work of Christ as it was applied to his own life. Theologians distinguish between the passive and active obedience of Jesus but it is not something that most Christians often think about. It is an important distinction, but one that we are rarely taught to appreciate. These words by Dr. Machen are an expression not only of the precision of his theological understanding but also of a deep meditation on their personal application to sinners such as himself.

The passive obedience of Jesus is His suffering the penalties for the sins of His people. It is His perfect submission to the will of The Father in facing the holy and just wrath of God poured out upon our sin. It is all the humility and pain He suffered culminating in the Cross itself. Distinguished from this is the active obedience of Jesus that Dr. Machen mentions. Christ’s active obedience is His perfect fulfillment of the requirements of the Law and of Holiness before the Father. While His passive obedience is paying our debt to sin, His active obedience is His attainment of perfect righteousness on our behalf.

We most often hear about Christ’s passive obedience but His substitutionary atonement is made effectual by His perfect righteousness attained through His active obedience. The two cannot be separated and the hope of the Gospel depends upon them both. It is for good reason that Dr. Machen specifically calls attention to Christ’s “active” obedience in reflecting on the hope and comfort he has in Christ. If Christ had simply died to pay our debt we would still remain without any righteousness of our own. We would have simply returned to the state in which Adam was.

Dr. Machen is saying that in Christ we have obtained something that Adam did not have, namely a secured and certain inheritance in the eternal kingdom of God. Jesus did not just pay for sins and then leave us to our own devices. Dr. Machen is saying that the life of Christ and the perfections of Christ are credited to the believer so that as believers we possess the very righteousness of Christ Himself. Jesus is the complete substitute in that our punishments are transferred to Him and His rewards are given to us. Unlike Adam, we are credited as righteous because of the obedience of Jesus (Rom. 5:19). Dr. Machen was expressing his confidence before God because the life by which he would be judged was none other than the life of Jesus Christ. The hope he expressed was not just that his sins were forgiven but that he had inherited all the blessings of God in Christ.

Our savior not only pays the debts we have accrued, but also grants to us the fullness of His riches. Dr. Machen points us to an amazing savior. I pray that the hope he had is present in you as well.

*Before posting this, I wanted to verify that these were indeed Dr. Machen’s last words. During that process, I came across these two articles that give further insight into the meaning of Dr. Machen’s final statement. If you are interested in reading further, I recommend them to you.

1 comment:

  1. Amen Pastor KG. Thanks for this article. Christ is the end of the law for all those who believe.A nice reminder and bit of encouragement for the day.