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Faith in Christ

Category Book Excerpts
Date January 4, 2024

The following is an excerpt from J. Gresham Machen’s classic work, What Is Faith?, which has recently been reprinted by the Banner with a new, modern typeset and an updated cover.

It is impossible to trust God in the Christian sense without holding that he is a free and living person, Creator and Ruler of the world; but it is also impossible to trust him without convictions that go far beyond that. Indeed the Christian doctrine of God in itself, far from leading to faith, would lead only to despair; for the clearer be our view of God’s righteousness, the deeper becomes our consciousness of guilt. God has done all things well; we are his creatures upon whom he has showered his bounty; but a mighty barrier has been placed between us and him by the fact of sin.

That fact is recognized in the Bible from beginning to end; and it is recognized with particular clearness in the teaching of Jesus. Jesus does indeed speak much of the Fatherhood of God, and his words are full of comfort for those who are God’s children. But never does he speak of God as being the Father of all men; in the Sermon on the Mount those who can say, ‘Our Father which art in heaven,’ are distinguished in the sharpest possible way from the world outside. Our Lord came not to teach men that they were already sons of God, but to make them sons of God by his redeeming work. The Fatherhood of God as it is taught in the New Testament designates not a relationship in which God stands to all men, but a relationship in which he stands to those who have been redeemed.

That assertion may be surprising to men who have never turned from what is said about the New Testament to what the New Testament says itself; but it is unquestionably true. It needs, however, to be guarded against two misunderstandings.

In the first place, it does not mean that the New Testament ignores those features in the relationship of God to all men which are analogous to the relationship in which an earthly father stands to his children. God is the Author of the being of all men, whether Christians or not; he cares for all; he showers his bounty upon all; and apparently the New Testament does here and there even use the term ‘Father’ to designate this broader relationship. But what we are insisting upon is that such a use of the term is to say the least highly exceptional, and that it does not enter into the heart of what the New Testament means by the Fatherhood of God. It is not that the doctrine of the universal fatherly relationship in which God stands to his creatures is unimportant . . . but our point is that the New Testament ordinarily reserves the tender words, ‘Father’ and ‘Son,’ to describe a far more intimate relationship. Everything in the Bible is concerned with the fact of sin; the relationship in which man as man stood to God has been broken by transgression, and only when that barrier is removed is there sonship worthy of the name. Thus we are not saying that the doctrine of the universal Fatherhood of God is untrue: but what we are saying is that far from being the essence of Christianity, it is only the presupposition of Christianity; it is only the starting-point which the New Testament finds in ‘natural religion’ for the proclamation of the gospel of divine grace.

The second misunderstanding which needs to be guarded against is the common impression that there is something narrow about what we have designated as the New Testament doctrine of the Fatherhood of God. How narrow a thing it is, the modern man exclaims, to hold that God is the Father of some and not of all! This objection ignores the central thing in the New Testament teaching, and the central thing in Christianity; it ignores the cross of Christ. It is true that men are separated from God by the awful fact of sin; it is true that sonship worthy of the name is possessed only by those who are within the household of faith; but what men do not seem to understand is that the door of the household of faith is open wide for all men to come in. Christ died to open that door, and the pity is that we try to close it by our failure to spread the invitation throughout all the world. As Christians we ought certainly to love all our fellow-men everywhere, including those who have not yet come to Christ; but if we really love them, we shall show our love not by trying to make them content with a cold natural religion, but by bringing them in, through the proclamation of the gospel, into the warmth and joy of the household of faith.

In the Bible, then, it is not merely God as Creator who is the object of faith, but also, and primarily, God as Redeemer from sin. We fear God because of our guilt; but we trust him because of his grace. We trust him because he has brought us by the cross of Christ, despite all our sin, into his holy presence. Faith in God depends altogether upon his redeeming work.

That fact explains an important feature of the New Testament teaching about faith—the feature, namely, that the New Testament ordinarily designates as the object of faith not God the Father but the Lord Jesus Christ. The New Testament does indeed speak of faith in God, but it speaks more frequently of faith in Christ.

The importance of this observation must indeed not be exaggerated; no man can have faith in Christ without also having faith in God the Father and in the Holy Spirit. All three persons of the blessed Trinity are according to the New Testament active in redemption; and all three therefore may be the object of faith when redemption is accepted by sinful men.

Redemption was accomplished, however, according to the New Testament, by an event in the external world, at a definite time in the world’s history, when the Lord Jesus died upon the cross and rose again. In Christ the redeeming work of God became visible; it is Christ, therefore, very naturally, who is ordinarily represented as the object of faith.

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