Book Club: Christianity & Liberalism – Ch.5 “Christ”

Machen(Earlier posts in this series: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4)

If you ever want to get to the heart of where someone stands with respect to Christianity all you need to do is ask them who Jesus is. I was speaking with a Jehovah’s Witness once and I noted that we agreed on many political and social issues. She nodded. And then I said, “I think the main thing we disagree on is Jesus.” Again she nodded. She looked more surprised when I added, “But I don’t think that disagreement is insignificant.” As Machen has argued Christianity is not just a set of propositions or moral rules. At the center of Christianity stands a person and his name is Jesus. But who is Jesus and how do we relate to him? Is Jesus divine, human, both? Is he some kind of Jewish Gandhi? These are questions of profound importance for us if we insist on calling ourselves Christians. For the very name of our religion is derived from Jesus’ title as the promised Messiah sent from heaven to earth to bring salvation and judgment. Thus what we believe about Jesus is truly indicative of whether or not we hold to the historic orthodox Christian faith.

Is Jesus the example of our faith or the object of our faith?

Liberalism has distanced itself from the idea of Jesus being the object of our faith with a focus upon his exemplary life. We should be like Jesus. We should act like him. We should care for the poor and the downcast. Jesus came to give us an example to follow. In response, Machen agrees that Jesus indeed does provide an example for us, but that is not our primary relation to him. The primary relation we have with Jesus is that he is the object of our faith. This was true of Paul and the whole early church. It has been attempted by certain scholars to say that Paul didn’t really receive the Christian faith as Jesus taught it, but some distortion of it in Antioch. There are variants of this idea as well which claim Paul invented Christianity. But once the New Testament evidence is weighed it requires us to accept that Jesus wasn’t just a moral example, but the object of the faith of the early church. But did Jesus hold himself up as the object of faith?

Is Jesus our teacher or savior?

At this point, Machen introduces the search for the “historical Jesus” which is a search for a Jesus who has been stripped of the supernatural and reduced down to a moral teacher. But as Machen argues, Jesus did not come saying that following God wasn’t that hard or that God doesn’t really care about sin that much. He didn’t lower the divine standard of the law. Rather Jesus spoke of hell and the wrath of God. He taught men such a standard that they must despair of their ability to save themselves. Further, he presented himself not merely as the moral example but as the solution to their despair. Machen writes,

“The Jesus spoken of in the New Testament was no mere teacher of righteousness, no mere pioneer in a new type of religious life, but One who was regarded, and regarded Himself, as the Savior whom men could trust” (84).

Thus the key difference is that theological liberalism teaches men to believe in God like Jesus while Christianity teaches men to believe in Jesus because he is God and savior.

Was Jesus a Christian?

It is argued that Jesus was the founder of Christianity, the first Christian whose example we are to follow because he was the best of us. But was Jesus really the first Christian? Machen argues against this idea. First, Jesus was aware that he was not just the best of men, but the Messiah of those he came to save as well as the judge of the world. If Jesus was a mere man, a holy teacher, then he was a delusional one for he makes claims of authority over the eternal destinies of men (86). It is argued by liberalism that Jesus’ messianic consciousness was really just Jesus becoming increasingly aware of his privilege of sonship which was something everyone could share in if they would only follow his example. Thus Jesus only adopted the title of Messiah because he had to in order to help men understand what they needed to do.

Against this conception of Jesus Machen argues that “there is no real evidence that the reconstructed Jesus is historical” (87). Even if it were true, it doesn’t solve the problem because Jesus is still claiming to be the judge of all the earth (87)! Further, there is in Jesus an absence of any sense of his sinfulness or imperfection. If Jesus sinned we have no record of it and if he did not then he cannot be just an imperfect being like the rest of us (Sorry Joan Osbourne). To reconcile this it is said that Jesus was so much better than the rest of the people around him that it is as if he was sinless by comparison. Machen argues that this is to try to affirm and deny the sinlessness of Jesus at the same time which doesn’t work because the scriptures in no way support the idea. Instead, the scriptures portray Jesus as the one who has come to deal with the problem of sin, to relieve the burden of sin from sinners. The implication then is that Christianity is at the very least about the removal of sin. And if that is the case then Jesus cannot be a Christian for he has no sin to remove. Jesus did have a religion, but it is different from (though connected with) Christianity. Machen writes,

”The religion of Jesus was a religion of untroubled sonship; Christianity is a religion of the attainment of sonship by the redeeming work of Christ” (92).

It is objected that in believing this we are not doing justice to Jesus’ humanity and we are distancing Jesus from us such that he is no longer our brother and example (91-92). We argue that we can affirm the sinless nature and life of Jesus while affirming his full humanity. Jesus really prayed, ate, slept and had faith. One does not need to be a sinner to do such things. Also, Machen points out that “likeness is not always necessary to nearness” (92). Actually, it is the reality that Jesus is different than us that makes him nearer than if he were just a sinful human brother. Also, Jesus is the example for believers in our relation to people and to God. Jesus does give us an exemplary life to imitate. In affirming Jesus as the object of our faith, as our savior, we also acknowledge him as our supreme example we are to follow. Thus, Jesus is not the first Christian. He is the savior upon whom the faith of Christians rests.

Do you believe in miracles?

Machen spends the rest of the chapter dealing with the debate over the supernatural. If Jesus is the object of our faith then he must not be “a mere man, but a supernatural person, and indeed a Person who was God” (97). He broadens this out into a basic question over whether a person believes in the supernatural or miraculous events. A supernatural event is one which occurs by the immediate power of God (he doesn’t use secondary causes). An example of this would be miraculous healing without the use of the processes of the body or modern medicine. Machen argues that if we believe in miracles then this does two things. First, it presupposes a personal God who acts in creation. Second, it denies both deism and pantheism. Deism believes God is not actively involved with creation. He is the disinterested clockmaker. He sets it and forgets it. Pantheism believes that God and creation are the same. Both deny the supernatural because in the case of Deism God doesn’t care and in Pantheism God is already there and cannot do more than he already has done. But in Christianity God acts miraculously when he suspends secondary causes and immediately causes something to happen. Thus a miracle is not an arbitrary or uncaused event, “but an event that is caused by the very source of all the order that is in the world” (102).

Machen’s point in arguing along these lines is not to say that miracles are commonplace, but to say that the miraculous is at the heart of Christianity because Jesus, if he is our savior, must be a supernatural person. Thus Machen says,

”The New Testament without the miracles would be far easier to believe. But the trouble is, it would not be worth believing…Without the miracles we should have a teacher; with the miracles we have a savior” (103-104).

Indeed the miraculous assumes the presence of sin or else why would God act in this way? Jesus is himself not just a worker of wonders as a prophet, but he is God in the flesh as the scriptures attest. We need the supernatural man because a natural one will not meet our need (106). Further, the miracle of the resurrection is at the center of the gospel itself. But how can we accept the resurrection and deny the other miracles? If we accept one, we must accept them all. Machen brings the argument to a crucial choice we must make:

Reject the miracles and you have in Jesus the fairest flower of humanity who made such an impression upon His followers that after His death they could not believe that He had perished but experienced hallucinations in which they thought they saw Him risen from the dead; accept the miracles, and you have a Savior who came voluntarily into this world for our salvation, suffered for our sins upon the Cross, rose again from the dead by the power of God, and ever lives to make intercession for us” (109).

Machen’s point here is that if we say we follow Jesus then we need to be honest about the Jesus we are following. Is he the Jesus of the New Testament or is he the Jesus of the imagination? The benefit of the former is that he is real and we can trust him.

Personal Reflections

This was certainly a lengthy chapter and difficult to summarize. But as we have seen in previous posts, if we reject sin and the Bible as the inspired authority over God’s people then we will end up with a false gospel that says, “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross” (H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America, 1934).

What we believe about Jesus is central to our faith. This is true whether we accept or reject the biblical accounts of his life and ministry. Just because we call him Jesus doesn’t mean that he is the Jesus of the scriptures. There are many Jesus’ of people’s own minds. Thankfully we do have the biblical accounts which present to us a savior who is both God and man, a friend of sinners, who by his cross and resurrection brings his people into a glorious state of forgiveness and eternal life. He reconciles us to God. And he works this in us by his Spirit through faith.

Jesus is the reason I am alive. He is the reason I am a pastor. He is at the center of my life as a husband and father. He delivered me from a hopeless future. He showed me that I am not alone and have immense value. He loved me and gave his life for my sins. He loves me still. He only does that because he is my Savior, my Teacher, my Example, my Brother and my Friend. He does that because he is fully man and fully God. He is Jesus Christ, my Lord and my God. Who is the Jesus you are following?


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