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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