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?

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But What About Those Tough Stains?

Maybe purgatory makes sense if sin is like routine dirt that comes with perspiration, dust, food, like going through the motions in worship:

Let’s imagine you’re dead…. But you were busy….

So we, sinful creatures all, step out of this life into eternity—and we know, more clearly than we have never known anything, that we are not worthy to be in the presence of the Almighty God. In life, we may have casually popped the Eucharist onto our tongue, drunk of the Precious Blood, then gone back to our pews to idly watch the others return to their seats, ogling the cute boys or checking out the fashion faux pax, hardly pausing to ponder the great impossibility, the unimaginable truth, that God has given Himself to us, in the flimsy gift wrap of bread and wine. Wholly. Fully.

We have ignored Him, too, when we have not bothered to pray; when we have gossiped about our neighbors; when we have shirked our responsibilities in the workplace, when we have allowed anger to govern our relationships or our driving, when we have cheated on our diets or (yikes!) cheated on our spouses.

We are earthen vessels, all of us. And we know instinctively that we cannot face the great and mighty God in our current condition. True, we have been redeemed by the Blood of Christ, and His sacrifice has made it possible for us to be with Him for all eternity. First, though, we need to wash up—get ready for the party, for the great receiving line.

That’s what Purgatory is. It’s the washroom, the hot shower, where we become like Him.

Just imagine being in a hot shower for a millennium.

But if sin is like murder or deceit, something that takes you from innocent to guilty, maybe even gets you kicked out of the Garden of Eden and forces God to position angels with fiery swords to prevent you from going back, maybe you need something stronger to remove the stain of guilt.

Something like the active obedience of Christ? No clean without it.

The Obedience Boy W-w

Tim Challies leaves out a crucial piece of Reformed Protestantism when he describes The Utter Devastation of Sin:

But is even a tornado a significant enough picture of sin? A tornado is one big system that devastates and destroys, but quickly moves on. As much damage as that F4 tornado did to Ringgold, it lasted for just a few minutes and was gone. Sin is different in that a big sin seems to spawn a thousand little sins. So maybe we need to push the metaphor to near the breaking point to say that sin is like a big tornado that tears through town while spawning off hundreds of smaller tornados, each of which goes in its own direction, causes its own trauma, and leaves behind its own trail of destruction. One big sin is so awful, so evil, so sinful, that it generates a thousand little opportunities to compound the sin, setting off all those other whirlwinds. People can sin in their response—perhaps they try to cover it up or they try to downplay it. People can sin as they process it—perhaps they gossip about the people involved or they make prideful assertions. People can sin in their actions—perhaps they over-react or under-react, displaying either needless panic or thoughtless apathy. The possibilities are endless.

The fact is that sin is awful, unbearably awful. Sin is evil, horrifyingly evil. And sin begets sin. There are endless ways that sin invites sin, that sin promotes further sin, that sin invites the opportunity to sin more, to sin deeper, to spawn off into a massive all-consuming storm. Let this be just one more reason to put sin to death—to search it out, pray it out, and, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to root it out.

O, wretched man that he is, to borrow a phrase. Wasn’t this understanding of the pervasiveness of sin what drove Luther to the alien righteousness of Christ imputed by faith alone as his only hope? And wasn’t the pervasiveness of sin in his regenerate self what drove Paul to the freedom from the law that he found only in Christ? So why bring up the Holy Spirit and the quest for holiness apart from Christ?

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 7:21-8:4 ESV)

Without Christ, doesn’t putting sin to death place you on the same treadmill as your average Roman Catholic (not really given the soteriological security we see at Old Life from the ex-Protestant Roman Catholics)?

Faith in Christ doesn’t give us a clean slate to be holy now that past sins are forgiven. The active obedience of Christ is also imputed to us in faith. It lets us looking indwelling sin in the eye before turning to look in trust at Christ. Shouldn’t someone who identifies with Calvinism (even of a recent sort) know better?

From DGH on Undervaluing Christ's Obedience Submitted on 2014/12/17 at 10:35 am

Mark,

So glad you see that Christ’s obedience is of a different character than ours.

We must be careful not to speak flippantly about Christ’s obedience. The nature, quality, and difficulty of what he actually went through in order to save us will always be beyond our abilities to fully grasp in this life; but that does not mean we should not try to understand something of what it meant for him to obey under the most extreme difficulties. Statements, such as “Jesus was under a covenant of works for us,” can become a form of vain repetition if we are not careful. . . . Christ’s obedience for us was no stroll in the park. It was rather agony in the Garden before the greatest indignity on the cross.

So why did you draw so many analogies between Christ and us before? And did you notice that for all of Christ’s work, he didn’t make it into Hebrews 11’s Hall of Faith?

Seriously?

Of course, Old Life is a place where you don’t mess with Machen. So it will come as no surprise that Peter Leithart’s recent objections to Machen’s dying words will receive some vinegary blow back.

It is said that as J. Gresham Machen died, he spoke of the comfort he took in the imputation of Christ’s active obedience, which ensured his standing before God.

I don’t know if that was actually Machen’s dying thought. But leave that to the side. I can see the point, but I can’t help but find this disturbing on two grounds. First, nowhere in the Bible is comfort linked with imputation. The closest analogy is Psalm 32:2, which pronounces a blessing on the one to whom God does not reckon sin. Otherwise, imputation in the full theological sense never plays that role.

Second, when the Bible does talk about comfort, the comfort comes from persons. Sometimes from other humans (e.g., Genesis 24:67), often from God. His faithfulness in the past, His word, His promises for the future, but especially God Himself, the God of all comfort, comforts.

“I am comforted by the imputation of Christ’s active obedience” is doubtless often a circumlocution for “I am comforted by my faithful Lord Jesus who is with me by His Spirit.” But the way we say things matters, and de-personalizing and doctrinalizing comfort can, contrary to the best intentions, distance the suffering from the God who comforts.

Aside from a certain amount of reverence for Machen, can Leithart really be that tone deaf? This has nothing to do with kicking a man when he’s on his death bed. It does have to do with trying to obfuscate a relatively simple Reformed belief (which is what those of us who observed Federal Vision always thought their MO was — to raise enough questions, debate enough definitions, cite enough biblical texts to wear out their opponents).

If you take seriously the guilt of sin and its ongoing influence in the life of the believer, you would be inclined to take great comfort in the active obedience of Christ. As Machen explained (can you believe it, he’s not talking about w-w?):

That covenant of works was a probation. If Adam kept the law of God for a certain period, he was to have eternal life. If he disobeyed he was to have death. Well, he disobeyed and the penalty of death was inflicted on him and his posterity. Then Christ by His death on the cross paid that penalty for those whom God had chosen.

Well and good. But if that were all that Christ did for us, do you not see that we should be back in just the situation in which Adam was before he sinned? The penalty of his sinning would have been removed from us because it had all been paid by Christ. But for the future the attainment of eternal life would have been dependent upon our perfect obedience to the law of God. We should simply have been back in the probation again.

Here we begin to understand why Jesus’ passive obedience is not enough – if divorced from his active obedience. The passive sufferings of Christ discharged the enormous debt we owe, due to our sins and the sin of Adam. In effect, Jesus’ passive obedience alone would bring our account from hopelessly overdrawn back to a zero balance – our debt would be retired. But having our debt retired and our sins forgiven does not get us into heaven; it simply returns us to the starting point. More must be done if we are to gain heaven. Righteousness must be completely fulfilled, either by us or by a representative acting on our behalf.

Moreover, we should have been back in that probation in a very much less hopeful way than that in which Adam was originally placed in it. Everything was in Adam’s favour when he was placed in the probation. He had been created in knowledge, righteousness and holiness. He had been created positively good. Yet despite all that, he fell. How much more likely would we be to fall – nay, how certain to fall – if all that Christ had done for us were merely to remove from us the guilt of past sin, leaving it then to our own efforts to win the reward which God has pronounced upon perfect obedience.

But if you think of faith as faithfulness, baptism as regenerational, and salvation as familial, then the forensic character of Christ’s work might seem like an abstraction.

At the same time, why Leithart thinks Machen de-personalized Christ’s work is beyond me. How much more personal could doctrines be that described what Christ actually endured and did in his bodily existence and death on the cross? “My faithful Lord Jesus who is with me by His Spirit” sure seems to abstract from the Christian what Christ actually did. Then again, figuring out Peter Leithart even if intellectually invigorating has never been easy.