Machen’s Unpardonable Sin

A tweet went out on Sunday that had quotations from a letter that J. Gresham Machen to his mother about the prospects of African-American students moving into the dormitory where he lived at Princeton Seminary. Since Machen was a Southern Democrat who believed in the separation of whites and blacks (what we call racism or white supremacy), he was not thrilled with the prospect. Here is the tweet:

Scott Clark has addressed Machen’s racism here and the way that we view the past, often times, anachronistically, here.

Without taking away from the gravity of this revelation, which I had discovered while researching Machen, which I had also known generally since racism has been so prevalent in U.S. history (why are people shocked by this when we hear constantly that most if not all white people still to this day in the United States, personally or institutionally, are racist, including orthodox believers?), it might be useful for those appalled by the news to take stock and look at the sin of racism in the light of salvation and the gospel.

Some, for instance, might say that David was a sinner whom we still regard highly as a saint. A man guilty of adultery and murder, and standing by the rape of his daughter by his son, David was no model of holiness. But he repented, so we may have reason to think he had a conscience and his spirit responded to a challenge from God (through Nathan).

Machen is different because he never repented. Had he lived until the 1970s, as some Presbyterians in the PCA have done, he might have seen the sinfulness of his ways. But in all likelihood, Machen died guilty of the sin of racism, and unrepentant to boot.

Will Machen not go to heaven for this? Does Christ’s death and resurrection not cover the penalty for sin, even heinous ones like racism? According to the Belgic Confession (Art. 24):

We believe that our salvation consists in the remission of our sins for Jesus Christ’s sake, and that therein our righteousness before God is implied: as David and Paul teach us, declaring this to be the happiness of man, that God imputes righteousness to him without works. And the same apostle says, that we are justified freely by his grace, through the redemption which is in Jesus Christ. And therefore we always hold fast this foundation, ascribing all the glory to God, humbling ourselves before him, and acknowledging ourselves to be such as we really are, without presuming to trust in any thing in ourselves, or in any merit of ours, relying and resting upon the obedience of Christ crucified alone, which becomes ours, when we believe in him. This is sufficient to cover all our iniquities, and to give us confidence in approving to God; freeing the conscience of fear, terror and dread, without following the example of our first father, Adam, who, trembling, attempted to cover himself with fig-leaves. And verily if we should appear before God, relying on ourselves, or on any other creature, though ever so little, we should, alas! be consumed. And therefore every one must pray with David: O Lord, enter not into judgment with thy servant: for in thy sight shall no man living be justified.

If the Reformation got justification right, Machen’s sin should still be covered by Christ’s righteousness imputed to him by faith. Indeed, Machen received the covering of Christ’s righteousness because of his faith (assuming he had it), not because he avoided the sin of racism (which he obviously did not avoid). And the active obedience of Christ, imputed to Machen by faith, was one of his great comforts as he lay dying — “no hope without it” was his telegram to John Murray.

Now, if Machen’s critics want to allege that he is not eligible for salvation thanks to his explicit racism, it is a free country. But that will throw a wrench into the works of salvation for most of us since in 100 years or so who among us can stand on that great day of popular perceptions of justice?

27 thoughts on “Machen’s Unpardonable Sin

  1. Very well said, Darryl. I love the last line especially:

    “Who among us can stand on that great day of popular perceptions of justice?”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Seems Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, as well as Moses were unrepentant polygamists (times were different then?). Were they savd through faith in Christ? Despite their sin, were they used of God? (rhetorical question alert)

    Were A, I, J, and M’s views on having several wives a product of their theology or the times in which they lived? (see previous alert…)

    So what to do with Machen? Racism is a sin. Is everything he taught and founded (WTS & OPC) now under a cloud? If not, then to what purpose? Some have suggested we need to examine his theology to find the roots,of his racism. Really?


  3. I’m really curious how Mr. Piper would handle this, given that (final) salvation, in his mind, is dependent on our killing of sin.

    Machen apparently did not put to death the deeds of the body in this area. He didn’t “make war” against it. He died in sin.

    Clearly wasn’t Christian Hedonist enough, and as we’ve read before, only people who desire God above all else go to heaven (1st commandment anyone?)

    Or, he was just sinful like we all are.

    But, I’ll stand with the BC on this one. I’ll let Mr. Piper keep trying to identify the invisible church.


  4. This should teach all of us a lesson. Let’s save all our impatience and mocking and slander for pacifists, because all pacifists teach that people are not sinners but really good at heart. And “decent people” still know they have to kill Muslims if it comes to that, as long as it’s not done in the name of Christ or the church. Back then everybody killed anabaptists. I mean even anabaptists killed anabaptists. With an exception or two.

    Calvin–Though Christ afterwards adds that the field is the world, yet he undoubtedly intended to apply this designation, in a peculiar manner, to the Church… This passage has been most improperly abused by the anabaptists and similar dreamers.” to take from the Church the power of the sword. But it is easy to refute them; for since they approve of excommunication, which cuts off, at least for a time, the bad and reprobate, why may not godly magistrates, when necessity calls for it, use the sword against wicked men?”

    Mencken–“I am strongly in favor of common decency. This makes me forever ineligible to any public office. Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance”


  5. Deuteronomy 21: 15 “If a man has two wives, one loved and the other unloved, and both the loved and the unloved bear him sons, and if the unloved wife has the firstborn son, 16 when that man gives what he has to his sons as an inheritance, he is not to show favoritism to the son of the loved wife as his firstborn over the firstborn of the unloved wife. 17 He must acknowledge the firstborn, the son of the unloved wife, by giving him two shares of his estate, for he is the firstfruits of his virility; he has the rights of the firstborn.

    Eye for eye was not given by way of permission, but as God’s command to His Covenant People. On the other hand, polygamy was regulated but only by way of permission. Back in that day, it may have looked like race, because all of Abraham’s sons and slaves were in the covenant. But TODAY now that God has cut off the Jews and their children and left the covenant to us and our children, we can see that not all the children of Abraham are the children of Abraham, which just goes to show us that there was never but the one covenant and that covenant was never about race (ethnic genealogy), which shows us also that it was always true that not both of Abraham’s children were Abraham’s children.

    Luther–“Here Paul speaks about the law of Moses proper, not about the Decalogue, since the latter pertained to all nations. For the nations did not hate the Jews because of the Decalogue, but because the Jews separated themselves from the remaining nations by way of unique worship and cer­emonies, and called themselves alone the people of God, all the others they called atheists and unbelievers. The quarrel was about the temple and the ceremonies. Yet finally Christ came and destroyed this obstruction.”

    Galatians 3: 16 Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say “and to seeds,” as though referring to many, but referring to one, and to your seed, who is Christ
    3: 28 There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, because you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, heirs according to the promise.


  6. “Now, if Machen’s critics want to allege that he is not eligible for salvation thanks to his explicit racism, it is a free country. But that will throw a wrench into the works of salvation for most of us since in 100 years or so who among us can stand on that great day of popular perceptions of justice? “,

    This is not a good argument Darryl.

    Or before I say why, could I ask that you please clarify a bit? When you say “popular perceptions of justice? “, are you referring to God’s justice? Honest question. I’m pretty sure you are, but what to be certain.


  7. I guess it’s that stress on Christ’s vicarious keeping of the Mosaic law in addition to Christ’s death which makes it a sure thing that the OPC would never fall for the errors of two-stage (now and not yet) justification.

    James K Smith—“As Marilynne Robinson recounts again and again in different chapters, Flavel entertained the idea of a two-stage judgment– he considers the thought that we might all be judged twice, once when we die and again when the full consequences of our lives have played themselves out.” The notion depends on a unique intersection of eternity and history. Appointed once to die, we face the judgment, but the judgment in eternity TAKES ACCOUNT OF TIME’S ARROW IN HISTORY. It’s like your soul gets a callback when the repercussions of your life have played themselves out across subsequent generations. The end of your life is not the end of your responsibility.”

    Mastricht—We received once before the right unto eternal life through the merit of Christ alone. But God does not want to grant the possession of eternal life, unless there are, next to faith, also good works which precede this possession,

    Like Gaffin and Murray, Mastricht uses Romans 2 as a proof-text. Is there some kind of difference between Reformed and Lutheran theologians?


  8. Greg, popular means the people. 10 years ago, even President Obama opposed gay marriage. 50 years ago, racism was wrong but not the unpardonable sin. I doubt many of us will be on the right side of history in 100 years.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I don’t know who Cho is, but I’m concerned that he decided to do this on twitter.

    If he believed that the general attitudes/beliefs surrounding Machen were incomplete, why not write up an article for the _Journal of Presbyterian History_? Twitter just seems like an inappropriate place to do scholarship- no PEER REVIEW

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I shudder at the thought that, because there are (not ‘might be’) sins I have not repented of and won’t have when I kick the bucket, I am not not justified and will therefore not be glorified. Machen (and Dabney) are/were no different that I am.


  11. Those who say that we must repent of all of our sins to be saved are living by the law. And those who live by the law either suffer from delusions of grandeur or overwhelming guilt and dread.

    The only thing that Machen’s racism should affect is the size of the pedestal on which we put him. He certainly made significant contributions to the Church, but he also had significant faults. So we should learn what we can from his words only after weighing his words carefully rather than to take what he has said without question.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Job didn’t agree with what his friends said about mother church
    election is secret—they said—but the law is not secret
    God has put you in the church
    so sit in your chair and stay there
    shut your mouth and take your deserved punishment
    no more questions
    no faith and no salvation outside ordinary church
    there is only the one mother and she is not Mary but the church
    any water not her water is fake repetition not baptism

    Exodus 4: 4 On the trip, at an overnight campsite, it happened that the Lord attempted to put Moses to death. 25 So Zipporah his wife took a flint, cut off her son’s foreskin, and threw the foreskin at Moses’ genitals Then his wife said, “You are a bridegroom of blood to me!” 26 So the LORD let Moses alone.

    Hart–So accustomed are Protestants in North America to remembering the anti-papist sentiments of the Reformation that they forget how many of the practices and beliefs of Christendom were perpetuated in Calvinistic and Lutheran churches, chief among them a respect for ritual, formality, and holy office. The Protestant Reformation, after all, was just that, a reformation of forms and structures, not a repudiation of ritual or legitimate ecclesiastical authority… The early creeds of the Presbyterian and Reformed churches assume a high regard for the ordained ministry of the Church, from the function of pastors to the means of grace–Of course, to guard against sacerdotalism, the Reformed tradition has understood the efficacy of the Sacraments to depend solely upon the blessing of Christ, the work of the Holy Spirit, and the faith of the recipient. In other words, the Supper does not automatically confer grace, though something always happens, either in the form of blessing or curse.

    mcmark–Maybe Adam did not sin against grace, but when anybody after Adam sins, they sin not merely against law but also against mother church and its offer of grace. Even if the grace kills you, you must not question that it was grace….


  13. “Some have suggested we need to examine his theology to find the roots, of his racism. Really?”

    No, that is incorrect. Certain hustlers have advocated that we examine his family fortune so they can somehow get paid for being offended. I’m quite certain that someone, somewhere, somehow overheard Machen disparaging the Irish. Once I confirm it, I’m going to file my grievance (which can only be pacified with lots of cash).


  14. Dr. Hart says: “Greg, popular means the people. 10 years ago, even President Obama opposed gay marriage. 50 years ago, racism was wrong but not the unpardonable sin. I doubt many of us will be on the right side of history in 100 years.”

    Oh, then I pretty much agree with you.


  15. Great article. Much of this arises as the social justice/Critical race theory camp is busy insisting that we rewrite history and do group repentence fir the sins of of forefathers. If we don’t start thinking clearly we can expect statues to be turn down and buildings to be renamed.

    What sinners we all are. Shall we through out Martin Luther for his comments and writings on Jews or for his foul mouth? The lust would become endless. And in the process of cleansing history we would be surely guilty if sinning, ourselves, as we brought division and schisms into the Body if Christ.

    What we are seeing is the elevation of racism to the status of a mortal sin and the subsequent low view of sin, in general, that invariably follows. We allow man to qualify and quantify sin and not God.

    Thank you for sound words of reason.


  16. I think there are two takeaways from all this:

    (1) I think the bottom line with all this is that we cannot fall into the trap of celebrity/hero worship. This is a lesson we can never learn enough. Just look at Christian biography. All too often we sing about the greatness of these folks without mentioning areas that are less than great. Like the Bible, we ought to mention the good and the bad – rejoice in the good, but soberly not forget the bad.

    (2) We must be willing to acknowledge that our heroes have problems and at times these are quite serious. Why? Because of (1) and also so that we can avoid their error. Some of these folks of times past were far more sanctified and had far better character than we will ever have and yet still were “blind” to certain sins – just take a look at the marriage and family lives of people like George Whitefield or David Livingston. Who are we to think that we cannot fall?

    “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” ~ 1 Cor, 10:12


  17. I got a real problem with using the sins of man to undermine the truths of the gospel… That’s exactly what SJWs seek to accomplish. Political agendas have no place here.


  18. Hello. I am trying to figure out if WTS was integrated at its founding. Were the dorms integrated? If so, was this Machen’s doing? You suggest that there is no evidence of repentance, so just trying to explore if those items are relevant.


  19. Umm.. is the majority of those who find the quote to be a problem, or the tweeter, actually arguing that Machen wasn’t saved? 9th commandment much? Red herring or straw man?


  20. We don’t know that Machen never repented. Perhaps not in writing, but that doesn’t mean his heart was not changed.


  21. Brian, I believe the point would be that Machen never repented of a sin defined as sin in roughly 1970. It is not even clear that Warfield, who opposed segregation, would call racism as used today a sin because we now use the word differently.


  22. Except that the term ‘racism’ didn’t exist until the end of the 1890s and did not come from the Bible but was popularized in 1960s secular New Left movements. The question is why people are applying secular standards to the faithful and then blasting them for not meeting those secular standards. The term has also changed in meaning from its first usage. This is secular hysteria.


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