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.