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John Gresham Machen: Defender of the Faith

Category Book Reviews
Date April 16, 2013


At a time when Theological Liberalism was leading millions away from the true gospel into the pit of heresy, the Head of the Church raised up several defenders of the Faith to stand in the breach and repel the enemy. Not the least among these was John Gresham Machen, who, along with such stalwarts as Herman Bavinck, Benjamin B. Warfield and John Murray, was ‘one of the leading conservative Protestants of the twentieth century’ (D. G. Hart). Uncompromising in his stance against the Liberal heresy, Machen compels those of us who live in a culturally diverse, secular society to be decisive in our loyalty to Christ, the Bible and the Reformed Faith. For this reason alone, we should remember him. In a magazine such as Peace & Truth, we must be content with a mere sketch of Machen’s notable contribution to the defence of historic Christianity.

His Life

Born in 1881, and reared on the Bible and the Shorter Catechism in a God-fearing home, Machen professed his faith in Christ in 1896. Though not yet called to the ministry, he enrolled at Princeton Seminary, at that period the home of rugged, undiluted Calvinism. A year in Europe made him keenly aware of the devastating lure of Theological Liberalism and the majesty of the Alps, which he loved to climb.

Once back in Princeton, he was appointed an instructor in New Testament studies. From 1908 on, preaching engagements came his way with increasing frequency. His little-known support of a converted drunkard, who proved to be ‘a marvellous monument of grace,’ saw him motor many miles to minister to him. Yet it was not until 1914 that he was ordained. During the First World War he served near the front in France, being responsible for the soldiers’ canteen.

Following the armistice, his next fourteen years were spent as Assistant Professor of New Testament at Princeton. But with the appointment of Dr. Stevenson, a prominent ecumenist, as Seminary President, seeds of separation were sown that were to bear momentous fruit. Fighting the cause of a full-orbed Reformed Theology, Machen was finally compelled to secede from the apostate seminary, now no longer a contender for the pure Reformed Faith.

In 1929 Machen founded Westminster Theological Seminary with the avowed purpose of maintaining the principles of Old Princeton, but freed from church control. At its opening, he spoke of its unqualified commitment to the Reformed Faith. Soon afterwards, he was suspended from the exercise of his ministry in the now apostate Presbyterian Church, which belittled the Bible, denied eternal punishment, professed to acknowledge Jesus as a Teacher but not as the Saviour, and claimed that evangelism was irrelevant.

The last six years of his life were full of engagements to teach, preach, and speak at conferences and on the radio. By 1936 he was thoroughly exhausted. A sudden fall in temperature in North Dakota brought on pleurisy, which turned to pneumonia. On New Year’s Eve he spoke ecstatically of heaven as ‘Glorious.’ The next morning his spirit entered that realm of blessedness.

His Witness

1. Biblical

John Gresham Machen’s defence of the Reformed Christian Faith is grounded thoroughly in his belief that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament are the written Word of God, the only rule of faith and practice. Standing in a world of spiritual and moral decadence, with the foundations of liberty and honesty being destroyed, the slow achievements of centuries being recklessly thrown away, and the spectre of ‘the hopeless treadmill of a collectivistic state’ looming ahead, Machen asks:

Is there anything that remains unchanged? . . . Is there anything that we can trust? . . . One point, at least, is clear – we cannot trust the Church. The visible Church, the Church as it now actually exists upon this earth, has fallen too often into error and sin.

I have a very definite answer to give to that question . . . ‘The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the Word of our God shall stand forever.’ There are many things that change, but there is one thing that does not change. It is the Word of the living and true God. The world is in decadence, the visible Church is to a considerable extent apostate; but when God speaks we can trust him, and his Word stands forever sure.

It is on this high view of the Bible that Machen based his defence of the Faith once delivered to the saints. Consequently, in his lectures, sermons, conference and radio talks, he humbly invites us all to listen with him ‘to what God has told us in his Word’.1> Indeed, his massive and scholarly studies, The Origin of Paul’s Religion and The Virgin Birth of Christ, are both grounded solidly in the faithful exposition of Holy Scripture. From this vantage point he demolishes every Liberal speculation and objection to the inspired record.

2. Confessional

Machen’s finely-tuned, complex mind found subordinate help for his work in apologetics in the Westminster Shorter Catechism, a book he learned as a child at his godly mother’s knee. His writings are shot through with quotations from it and allusions to it. Its definitions or descriptions of God, of his Decrees, of Sin, and of the Only Redeemer of God’s Elect, to name only a few, crop up everywhere in his clarification of complex topics, or attempts to disentangle Christianity from pseudo-scientific claims and Liberal speculations. Let one example suffice: after opening up the nature of a divinely-wrought faith in God and the Lord Jesus Christ, he addresses the question of how Christ touches our lives.

Christ touches our lives, according to the New Testament, through the Cross. We deserved eternal death, in accordance with the curse of God’s Law; but the Lord Jesus, because he loved us, took upon himself the guilt of our sins and died instead of us on Calvary. And faith consists simply in our acceptance of that wondrous gift. When we accept the gift, we are clothed, entirely without merit of our own, by the righteousness of Christ; when God looks upon us, he sees not our impurity but the spotless purity of Christ, and accepts us (now comes the Catechism quote) ‘as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.’2

Because much of his ministry involved addressing ordinary people, Machen became a master of simplification, reducing the most complex subjects to plain English. In this task he was greatly helped by the Shorter Catechism, which states the fundamental truths of our Faith in the simplest terms. A powerful passage in God Transcendent bursts with energy in view of the tremendous value of our Reformed Confessions. It should encourage even the most faint-hearted of contenders for the Faith.

What a wonderful open door God has placed before the church of today. A pagan world, weary and sick, often distrusting its own modern gods. A saving gospel strangely entrusted to us unworthy messengers. A divine book with unused resources of glory and power. Ah, what a marvellous opportunity, my brethren! What a privilege to proclaim not some partial system of truth, but the full, glorious system that God has revealed in His Word, and which is summarized in the wonderful Standards of our Faith! . . . What a privilege to present our historic Standards in all their fullness in the pulpit and at the teacher’s desk and in the Christian home! What a privilege to do that for the one reason that those Standards present, not a ‘man-made creed,’ but what God has told us in His holy Word! What a privilege to proclaim that same system of divine truth to the unsaved! What a privilege to carry the message of the cross, unshackled by compromising associations, to all the world! . . . What a privilege to proclaim it to the souls of people who sit in nominally Christian churches and starve for lack of the bread of life! Oh, yes, what a privilege, and what a joy, my brethren!3


Machen’s contribution to conveying the Reformed Faith from one generation to another consisted chiefly in his exposure of Theological Liberalism. Entering the war zone in a ‘condition of low visibility’ (Francis Patton’s phrase), Machen, with the Word of God as his light, saw immediately that this counterfeit faith rejoices in the pious use of traditional Christian phraseology, regardless of its meaning, while undermining the true faith of God’s people. The conflict, therefore, is between true Christianity and ‘a totally diverse type of religious belief, which is only the more destructive of the Christian faith because it makes use of traditional Christian terminology.’

Machen saw Liberalism as a return to ‘naturalism . . . the denial of any entrance of the creative power of God’ in the salvation of men. In attempting to reconcile Christianity with modern scientism, Liberalism ‘has really relinquished everything distinctive of Christianity,’ rendering itself a totally different religion to Christianity. By so doing, it ‘represents a return to an un-Christian and sub-Christian form of the religious life.’4 All who embrace it, therefore, despite the vast material benefits of modern life, are being terribly impoverished. Socialism, Utilitarianism, Hedonism, Collectivism, Obscurantism, State Paternalism, and dangerous pseudo-scientific Psychology are their inheritance, rather than the truth as it is in Jesus.5

Neither is Machen under any illusion about the radical and comprehensive nature of Liberalism. It would demolish all Christian doctrine, the authority of the Bible, the uniqueness of Christ as Saviour, the fact of Salvation, and the very Church of the living God.6

From time to time in his writings we discover a scenario such as a trained lawyer would set up in which Machen pursues his theological enemies with ruthless logic. One such scenario envisages the proposal to let Theological Conservatives and Theological Liberals live side by side within the Church, sinking their doctrinal differences in the interests of unity and peace.

Those who speak in this way, he comments, neither understand where their Conservative opponents are coming from, nor perceive the radical dishonesty of their own proposals. He envisages someone standing up on a conference platform and saying: ‘I think, brethren, that we are all agreed about this . . .’ ‘and then proceeds to trample ruthlessly upon the things that are dearest to my heart.’ He much prefers the frankness of the man who calls him ‘a miserable, narrow-minded conservative . . . whose views he intends to ridicule and refute.’7 As the same kind of disingenuous talk is still with us, we need to be warned by Machen’s trenchant criticism.

Not least among Machen’s perceptive observations is his recognition of the bleakness of future Evangelicalism in particular and of European and American culture in general. One of his most moving reflections takes place in the record of his thoughts while sitting on the summit of the Matterhorn. With Europe spread out beneath him, he virtually predicts (without claiming the least prophetic insight) her terrible future, as she wilfully put out light after light of Gospel Truth.8 He does the same for Great Britain. For its accuracy, his diagnosis might be that of a present-day observer.9

We mention just one more sphere in which Machen’s eagle eye detects the drift from the full-bodied Reformed Faith into a diluted substitute: it is in the alteration of hymn books. Criticizing the new Presbyterian Hymnal of 1933, he quotes the counsel: ‘If you want to know the trends of religion, listen to the way religion sings.’ From this sound piece of advice, Machen observes how whole hymns of the finest quality are being omitted, corruptions in the hymn texts are cunningly introduced, doctrinally strong stanzas are omitted, and Liberal hymns are added. How, he asks for instance, can any Christian congregation sing the following, to give only two examples:

The common hopes that makes us men
Were His in Galilee;
The tasks He gives are those He gave
Beside the restless sea.

By the light of burning martyrs,
Jesus’ bleeding feet I track,
Toiling up new Calvaries ever
With the cross that turns not back.

So, he concludes with stark clarity:

Which shall it be – faith in simple manhood or faith in Christ crucified? Shall we regard the cross of Christ merely as an example for us to imitate, a cross upon which we ourselves can die, or shall we regard it as a sacrifice on which alone can satisfy divine justice and reconcile us to God?

The Remedy

For this alarming state of affairs, Machen proposes only one remedy: the full-orbed gospel of the grace of God. With ‘humanity standing over an abyss,’ nothing less than the whole counsel of God will suffice to stem the tide and turn men in the opposite direction. This is the burden of The Christian Faith in the Modern World, What is Faith? and The Christian View of Man.10

Starting with the premise that ‘the distress of the world is due clearly to an evil that is within the soul of man,’ Machen outlines a programme of doctrinal and moral education that with God’s blessing would lead men back to their Maker. This is foundational, for our ‘relation to God is the all-important thing.’ ‘It is impossible to deal successfully even with these political and social problems until we have come to be right with God.’11

It is, then, no truncated gospel that Machen offers as the remedy lor the ills of both world and church. Beginning at the beginning, with God’s revelation of himself as the only source of true knowledge, both in nature and Scripture, he weaves his way deftly through the maze of objections likely to mystify his readers, stating winsomely the doctrines of Verbal Inspiration, Absolute Truth over against Relative ‘truth,’ the Triune God as our Creator, Christ as our Divine Saviour, the Holy Spirit as the Divine Author of all spiritual life in the churches, the Majesty of God’s Law, the Sinfulness of Sin, the Fall of Man, the Decree of Predestination, the wonder of God’s Covenant of Grace, the necessity of doctrinal Truth as the basis of a godly and moral Life, the nature of Faith in God and Christ, and its relation to the Gospel of Salvation, Hope and Good Works. No modern substitute can even begin to address the problems that entangle the human race in its estrangement from God.

To implement this remedy, Machen proposes a universal programme of Theological Education, backed by Christian Scholarship. This programme must commence in the Church, spread to Society and permeate all Culture. Only through this means shall the people of God make an impact on an anti- Christian world. They can ‘hardly halt between two opinions.’ They must either ‘stand for Christ, or . . . stand against him.’

The sequence they should present to the world is Historical Facts, God’s Interpretation of the Facts, and God’s Call to Repent and Believe. The so-called ‘Modern Mind’ needs this gospel just as much as the unsophisticated folk who actually heard our Saviour and his holy apostles. For in the Bible we find three fundamentals which we cannot afford to avoid: God, Man and Redemption.

Acceptance of Christianity as the only redemptive religion is crucial. Not until ‘Modern Man’ receives the Atonement and Resurrection of Christ by God’s grace will his burdens fall from his back and he will become a true modern: old things will have passed away, and all things will have become new. And once made new, men will step forth and permeate culture through their dedication to honour God in every sphere of life. The kingdom of God ‘must be advanced not merely extensively, but also intensively. The church must seek to conquer not merely every man for Christ, but also the whole of man.’ True Christianity does not destroy culture, but sanctifies it.

To accomplish this task, seminary professors, gospel ministers, truly Christian scholars and the people of God in general need to exert their combined gifts and bring the ‘unwieldy, resisting mass of human thought’ into subjection to the gospel. When the Spirit of the living God accompanies this effort with a mighty transformation of men’s hearts, we shall see the task slowly fulfilled throughout society.

The Motive

Faced with such a daunting task, we might well lose heart. ‘But not if we are truly Christians. Not if we are living in vital communion with the risen Lord. If we are really convinced of the truth of our message, then we can proclaim it before a world of enemies’, and can ‘even rejoice that God did not place us in an easy age, but in a time of doubt and perplexity and battle.’

This leads us to the only motive that will sufficiently animate and activate us into defending the Faith in our day. That motive is the love of Christ. In a sermon on 2 Corinthians 5.14f entitled ‘Constraining Love’,12 Machen assures us that when Christ’s love for us (not our love for Christ) reigns in our hearts, ‘we shall be constrained . . . not to weaken in the stand which we have taken for the sake of Christ.’ How many churches and societies have begun with such a resolve, but ‘then have been deceived by Satan . . . into belittling controversy, condemning sin and error, seeking favour from the world or from a worldly church, substituting a worldly urbanity for Christian love.’

Further, the love of Christ will preserve us from ‘seeking unworthily our own advantage or preferment, and from being jealous of the advantage or preferment of our brethren.’ Moreover, we shall be preserved by the love of Christ ‘from stifling discussion for the sake of peace, and from (as has been said) “shelving important issues in moments of silent prayer.” May Christ’s love constrain us from such a misuse of the sacred and blessed privilege of prayer!’

Ultimately, then, the problems posed by Liberal Modernism must be solved in the spiritual realm before we can take their solution to the world that lies in wickedness.

If . . . before the conflict, [the Church] would descend into the secret place of meditation, if by the clear light of the Gospel she would seek an answer not merely to the questions of the hour, but, first of all, to the eternal problems of the spiritual world, then perhaps, by God’s grace, through His good Spirit, in His good time, she might issue forth once more with power, and an age of doubt might be followed by the dawn of an era of faith.13

Is Machen’s vision impossible to him with whom all things are possible?


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      Introduction At a time when Theological Liberalism was leading millions away from the true gospel into the pit of heresy, the Head of the Church raised up several defenders of the Faith to stand in the breach and repel the enemy. Not the least among these was John Gresham Machen, who, along with such stalwarts […]

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      Introduction At a time when Theological Liberalism was leading millions away from the true gospel into the pit of heresy, the Head of the Church raised up several defenders of the Faith to stand in the breach and repel the enemy. Not the least among these was John Gresham Machen, who, along with such stalwarts […]

  1. Christianity and Liberalism (London, 1923), pp. 1-2, 7-8, 17.
  2. Present-day political correctness is only one of the tyrannizing features that Machen foresaw springing from the Liberal desire to ‘avoid giving offence.’ Clearly, it would eliminate the ‘offence of the cross’ from all life. Hence the desire of many for governments to clamp down on all gospel preaching, biblical principles and practices.
  3. See Christianity and Liberalism throughout.
  4. Selected Shorter Writings (Philipsburg, 2003), pp. 412-413.
  5. ibid., pp. 436-437.
  6. The Christian View of Manop. cit., pp. 190-192.
  7. The volume entitled God Transcendentop. cit., is a collection of sermons and addresses not specifically aimed at Liberalism, but is well worth studying for its well-reasoned setting forth of Machen’s faith.
  8. The Christian Faith in the Modern World (Grand Rapids, 1936), pp. 4, 6, 8.
  9. This sermon is on pp. 141-156 of God Transcendentop. cit.. See also Note 13 below.
  10. Selected Shorter Writingsop. cit., pp. 402-3, 405, 407, 408, 410.

Taken with permission from Peace & Truth 2013:2, the magazine of the Sovereign Grace Union (links added).

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