Tabletalk Subscription
You have {{ remainingArticles }} free {{ counterWords }} remaining.You've accessed all your free articles.
Unlock the Archives for Free

Request your free, three-month trial to Tabletalk magazine. You’ll receive the print issue monthly and gain immediate digital access to decades of archives. This trial is risk-free. No credit card required.

Try Tabletalk Now

Already receive Tabletalk magazine every month?

Verify your email address to gain unlimited access.

{{ error }}Need help?

World War I turned Europe on its head, brought crashing down the optimism of the Enlightenment, and ushered in post-Enlightenment Europe. In America, however, young people undeterred by the war set about attempting to bring to earth the kingdom of God through social action. They called their message “the social gospel,” and its principal preacher was Walter Rauschenbusch (1861–1918), who endeavored to address the poverty he found in Hell’s Kitchen (in New York) by preaching a “gospel” of social improvement and working toward bringing about the kingdom of God on the earth through social action. This was their definition of salvation.

J. Gresham Machen (1881–1936), however, also survived World War I and defended a different doctrine, which held that the visible church represents Christ’s spiritual kingdom on the earth and that Christians exist in what John Calvin had called a “twofold kingdom” (Institutes 3.19.15). For Machen, salvation was too grand an idea to be brought utterly to earth. He recognized that Christianity was “certainly a life,” but how was it produced? The social gospellers thought that they could bring about that life “by exhortation,” Machen wrote, but such an approach always proves “powerless.” “The strange thing about Christianity was,” he explained, “that it adopted an entirely different method. It transformed the lives of men not by appealing to the human will, but by telling a story; not by exhortation, but by the narration of an event.” He recognized that such an approach seems “impractical.” It is what Paul called “ ‘the foolishness of the message.’ . . . It seemed foolish to the ancient world, and it seems foolish to liberal teachers today.” Nevertheless, the “effects of it appear even in this world. Where the most eloquent exhortation fails, the simple story of an event succeeds; the lives of men are transformed by a piece of news.”

The biblical (and Augustinian) doctrine of depravity is that we are so corrupted by sin and its effects that we are quite unable to save ourselves. We are completely dependent upon God’s free, sovereign grace.

The social gospel reduced the human problem to material poverty. For Machen, a student of Paul and an Augustinian, our problem is much more profound. In his 1935 radio addresses, he explained that sin is much more than “antisocial conduct,” as the progressives and the social gospellers had it. The true definition of sin is “disobedience to a command of God.” It is, as the Westminster Shorter Catechism so wonderfully says, “any want of conformity unto or transgression of the law of God” (Q&A 14). For the social gospellers, the wages of sin is merely poverty, but for Machen, as for Paul and Augustine, “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23), and death of a very particular kind: eternal punishment. Just as Christ’s righteousness is imputed to all who are “in Christ,” by grace alone through faith alone, so too Adam’s sin is imputed to all who are in him, and the curse was “in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:17). The guilt of sin “deserves eternal punishment.”

In this light, then, we must understand Machen’s doctrine of salvation—that is, the deliverance from divine wrath into a state of blessedness and favor. Those whom God saves are condemned sinners, and they are saved by grace alone through faith alone. Machen spent a good bit of time in his radio talks explaining about the ancient heretic Pelagius (died c. AD 410), who rejected Augustine’s view of sin and grace and whose views were condemned by the Council of Ephesus (AD 431). Pelagius taught that we are all born good, like Adam, and that each of us has the potential to reach perfection without the help of grace if only we will imitate Jesus rather than Satan. Machen was doubtless driven to Pelagius by his contest with the modernists, who sounded so very much like Pelagius. The Pelagians, Machen complained, have a “shallow” view of sin. The biblical (and Augustinian) doctrine of depravity is that we are so corrupted by sin and its effects that we are quite unable to save ourselves. We are completely dependent upon God’s free, sovereign grace. Machen’s doctrine of salvation is wonderfully clear:

What [Jesus] did was not to make it possible for them to save themselves. No, he did far more than that. He saved them. He saved them with completely resistless power. Every step leading to the salvation of God’s elect has been carried out in accordance with his eternal plan. That is the central thing that we want to make clear in our whole treatment of the biblical doctrine of salvation. Let me repeat, and if by mere repetition I could impress it forever on your minds and hearts, I should love to repeat it a hundred times. God, I say, by his saving work, did not make it possible for sinners to save themselves; he saved them.

He had already said the same thing in virtually the same words in Christianity and Liberalism in 1923.

The social gospellers taught that we may and must “save” ourselves “through love.” For Machen, however, such a doctrine was just “semi-Pelagianism.” For the social gospellers, the hope of the world is to “apply the principles of Jesus” to it, as though He were a mere teacher or prophet. For Machen, however, the “redeeming work of Christ which is at the center of the Bible is applied to the individual soul . . . by the Holy Spirit.” Therefore, we “find no permanent hope for society in the mere ‘principles of Jesus’ or the like, but we find it in the new birth of individual souls.”

The world that Machen knew as a boy died on the battlefields of France during World War I, but for Machen, unlike the social gospellers, the gospel did not die with it. Nations and empires crumble, but Christ reigns, His gospel continues, and His church endures because though cultures collapse, God never changes, and it is from His wrath, above all, that sinners must be saved.


The Church

Keep Reading Christianity and Liberalism

From the February 2023 Issue
Feb 2023 Issue