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So we are continuing now on to the second half of the chapter which focuses upon the application of the atonement. As we saw last week the atonement is at the heart of the doctrine of salvation. Without it we do not have hope for we do not have a gospel. But a doctrine of the atonement requires us to uphold the Biblical doctrine of sin and the wrath of God or else the atonement makes no sense. Why would Jesus die if he didn’t have to? Why is the gospel described as the “power of God unto salvation” by Paul if we really aren’t that bad and just need some divine encouragement? The reality is that humanity stands condemned before God because of sin. We cannot undo our sin, we cannot make amends for what we have done. So God in his grace takes on flesh, comes to earth and takes the punishment we deserve so that by faith in Christ we can be reconciled to God. The good news of the gospel is not just forgiveness of sin, but a change from death to life, estrangement to adoption, a rebel to a citizen of heaven. And so Machen continues now describing the effects of the atonement upon those for whom Christ died.
Christians are born again
Liberalism capitalizes on the idea that there is good in man to one degree or another. On this point we agree for we do not believe man is completely depraved, but that he has become corrupted by sin. The key difference, however, is that liberalism contends that we can overcome evil and the corruption of our nature by encouraging or building upon the good that man already possesses. Christianity holds that though there may be good in man’s nature, that this remaining goodness, is not able to deal with the problem, guilt, and disease of sin.
“Man is not merely ill, but he is dead, in trespasses and sins, and what is really needed is a new life. That life is given by the Holy Spirit in ‘regeneration’ or the new birth” (138).
The application of the work of Christ on the cross and his resurrection (atonement) is to do a work of new creation in man by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is not to work with the good already in us. Machen wrote earlier about what is needed:
“It is not an influence upon the life, but the beginning of a new life; it is not development of what we had already, but a new birth. At the very center of Christianity are the words, “Ye must be born again” (136).
To say all we need is to perform better is to misdiagnose the problem. We need a radical change both in the state of our souls as well as our relation to God. Only the atonement and new birth can give us what we need. And while the moment of regeneration where our will is renewed, our soul is revived, when we are born again, cannot always be tied down to a precise moment, it nevertheless is a necessary reality; a reality wrought by the power of God. “At the beginning of every Christian life there stands, not a process, but a definite act of God” (140).
We live by faith
But this brings up an important point about salvation. We do not believe that regeneration just happens on its own. Rather Machen writes,
“[God] deals with us as persons; salvation has a place in the conscious life of man; God uses in our salvation a conscious act of the human soul-an act which though it is itself the work of God’s Spirit, is at the same time an act of man. That act of man which God produces and employs in salvation is faith” (141).”
Machen here is speaking of the doctrine of justification by faith apart from our works. Machen’s main point is that this faith is a specific kind of faith, a faith set upon a specific object: Jesus Christ. Machen laments of the generalized, vague faith of liberalism which was celebrated in his own day (and in ours!). He has no doubt that this kind of faith can produce positive results: “Faith in the most absurd things sometimes produces the most beneficent and far-reaching results” (142). But faith, whatever kind it may be, always has an object. No one just has faith for its own sake. We have faith in something or someone. Machen argues that the idea central to faith is trust. You can just have a general trust. To have faith is believe that the object of our faith is trustworthy. So some may have faith in a cult leader. Others have faith in the basic goodness of humanity. But the faith will only continue so long as the object of that faith remains trustworthy. It all depends on the object.
The point here is that “Faith is essentially dogmatic” (142). It believes things about its object. Our faith proves true if the object of our faith can actually do what we believe it can. If the object of our faith cannot deliver then it is a false faith (142). According to Christian liberalism, faith is really us following Jesus more closely. But this is just a shaded form of works or what Machen calls “sublimated legalism” (143). It requires not grace, but works. For Christianity it is a different story:
“Faith, then, according to the Christian view, means simply receiving a gift. To have faith in Christ means to cease trying to win God’s favor by one’s own character; the man who believes in Christ simply accepts the sacrifice which Christ offered on Calvary. The result of such faith is a new life and all good works; but the salvation itself is an absolutely free gift of God” (143).
Thus the Christian life is entered into in a great act of mercy by God: born again by the Holy Spirit, justified by faith apart from works because of the work of Jesus’ atonement. A person becomes a Christian by this act of divine grace, but he is also entering into a life, a process whereby God is sanctifying him, making holy and preparing him for eternity. Thus the Christian life is one that comes by faith and is lived by faith always with the same object, Jesus Christ and always upheld every moment by the power of the Holy Spirit.
The dangerous utility of religion
Machen dwells a bit on the great problem when people see faith or religion, in a general sense, as useful. It becomes the tool of politicians and societies to accomplish unbiblical goals. He bemoans the abuses of Christianity as it is called in to smooth out issues with immigrant assimilation and conflicts between employers and employees. He talks about how bad Europe is following the great war (this was written in 1923!) and how it continues to deteriorate. The problem he argues is that the gospel disappears as missionaries are sent no longer to proclaim light in the darkness, but to herald democracy against other political ideologies. It is not that Machen believes there is to be no engagement between the church and society. He does object to Christianity being used to achieve the goals of the state. He objects to it because it degrades and replaces the gospel of grace with a gospel of social order. Christianity does not exist for the sake of the state (152).
Christianity is a communion of individuals
Finally, Machen addresses an objection that liberalism makes which is that Christianity is too individualistic focusing too much on the salvation of the individual while liberalism seeks to transform the whole of society. Isn’t that nobler, better and more effective? The problem, Machen argues, is that liberalism in its efforts to transform society loses its sight upon the relation between God and man. It elevates man such that God now exists for the sake of his people rather than the reverse (154).
In truth, the church is a communion of individuals. The gospel saves individual people. The gospel also unites those people together in the person of Christ, their common confession and their worship. But we are not only united with one another, we are united to God by the gospel. We have a new relation to him as adopted children to a father. This communion is seen in the church largely through family units, something which liberalism wants to reduce and pushed more into the arena of state control and influence. If we are seeking to apply Christianity to society then it will come about as Christians live faithfully in obedience to God. But that assumes there is something of Christianity to actually apply. The difference, Machen concludes, is seen most prominently on the mission field:
“The missionary of liberalism seeks to spread the blessings of Christian civilization (whatever that may be), and is not particularly interested in leading individuals to relinquish their pagan beliefs. The Christian missionary, on the other hand, regards satisfaction with a mere influence of Christian civilization as a hindrance rather than a help; his chief business, he believes, is the saving of souls, and souls are saved not by the mere ethical principles of Jesus but by His redemptive work” (156).
Part of the problem is how commonplace the phrase “born again” has become. It has been redefined often to focus upon the action of a person walking an aisle or praying a prayer. But to be born again is to have something happen to you. It is the language of regeneration where the Holy Spirit enlivens our hearts enabling us to believe. As corny or hacky a lot of “born again” talk can be, it remains a true and necessary aspect of salvation. Jesus told Nicodemus it was the only way to enter into the kingdom of heaven. Shall we reject Jesus’ teaching because some people, later on, made his teaching lame?
False faith and cheap grace are all too common in the church. The idea that we just say some words once or that our name is on the rolls of a church somewhere means we are good to go… I have exhorted, cautioned, and pled with people that such an approach will only result in a devastating loss when they meet the Lord. For to live by faith in Jesus is not to simply walk an aisle, raise a hand or get on a roster (or whatever); it is to live our lives by the grace and power of the Holy Spirit as we walk in obedience to the commands of our savior. It is persevering through struggle, putting sin to death, repenting of our sins daily, making use of the ordinary means of grace (prayer, scripture, sacraments). And while we rightly keep a wary eye on how society tries to use religion for its own ends, we need to consider if we are doing the same. Are we using our religion, our Christianity, our savior to gain some earthly end? Or is our hope and life set upon the eternal Son of God? Let us ponder this week the words of the apostle Paul,
“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” – Galatians 2:20